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French Polishing Using 151 Proof Alcohol

EverclearLiquor Laws in many states do not permit the sale of rocket fuel (151 proof Everclear), which is the prevalent recommended substitute for the toxic mineral spirits often used as the cutting agent in French Polishing. When I stumbled across this substitute, I lived in New York state where Everclear is not available. As I was not inclined to drive down to Pennsylvania to pick-up a bottle, I opted to experiment with 130 proof potato-based Vodka. The results were very impressive. I have no trouble recommending this substitute. One might find that it takes a bit longer to dissolve shellac flakes but it sure beat driving all the way down to Pennsylvania.  I have since moved down to North Carolina, where Everclear is readily available in the local ABC stores. However there has been some talk of banning it. I can certainly live with the 130 proof Vodka if they pull Everclear off the shelves.

In addition to its excellent performance, using any of these natural alcohols affords a health benefit as well. I’m certain most of us do not have adequate air-handling systems to properly ventilate denatured alcohol fumes. Do your lungs, liver, and brain a favor and make the switch; I don’t think you will be disappointed! A word of caution, Everclear and other similar alcohols are extremely flammable, so treat them with the same care you would denatured alcohol or other cutting agents.

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2 comments

  1. Pierre330

    I experimented heavily with vodka in my younger days as well! And similarly the results were also impressive! 🙂

    Seriously though, regarding french polish in general – I understand the whole concept of having a lighter finish to allow the top to move more freely, thus more volume. However, from the reading I’ve done in how much more care is required with the finish, I have to wonder if it’s actually worth it? Granted I’m sure there are many who exaggerate the additional care needed, but there must be some truth to it.

    Are there ways to have a lacquer based finish applied lightly enough were the benefits would approach that of FP? I’ve seen where on some guitars only the top will be FP then the rest of the guitar is treated differently. Seems like this would be a decent compromise?

    In any case, I’m just letting my fingers ramble since it’s easier for me than talking after multiple teeth extractions on Friday. Now where’s that vodka?

  2. Chuck

    Trust me…you would not want experiment with this stuff without serious dilution…it’s pretty volatile. But all kidding aside, using these grain and potato based alcohols is much better for your luthier’s health than mineral sprits which give off toxic fumes.

    French polish as a finish is indeed delicate, but not as delicate as one might think. It dries hard and if you are kind to your instrument which is the assumption I make when anyone is willing to spend thousands of dollars to have one built, then I’m betting they are going to handle it with care. However, some folks sweat more than others, and those who sweat profusely might want to consider a more durable finish. On the upside, it’s not that hard to learn how to french polish (especially the final coats which don’t involve all of the prep work or the need to use pumice or other fillers). With that in mind, an owner could learn how to apply shellac to repair a damaged finish, as unlike lacquer or varnish it is very easy to build up a finish to the point where the touch-up is invisible…that’s one of the real beauties of this type of finish.

    There is no doubt to the superiority of a french polish finish over lacquer or varnish, is does offer tonewoods the opportunity to freely vibrate and bring out the best sonic qualities an instrument has to offer. The compromise as you have mentioned is to lacquer or varnish all but the top (which would be french polished). However for me personally, I opt to french polish as I like the old world look and feel as well as the performance the finish provides.

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