Influence of varnishes on guitar sound

Dec 15, 2022

Varnishes and sound

The period in which my father, José Ramírez III, dedicated the most time to experimentation was between the 50s and the 70s. And, of course, the period to investigate with the varnishes arrived.

At that time, the finish that was used on guitars, traditionally, was shellac. So the first thing he did was to take a guitar built just in wood, that is, not yet varnished, and try it out. The sound was poor and not at all pleasant. Then he applied shellac to it, and from that very guitar came a beautiful, rich sound.

What would be the result of using varnish that crystallizes large areas?

The point was that my father thought that if shellac, which produces small crystallizations, and even so, favored the sound, what would happen when using a finish that crystallizes in large areas, as happened with the oily varnishes of violins, but which have the drawback that they need a long drying time, usually a year or more.

However, as was to be expected, he did the experiment and told Andrés Segovia that, from that moment on, he was impatient to try it, and called my father quite frequently asking when that guitar would be ready, but, although he had it under a lamp of infrared rays to speed up drying, the varnish was still sticky. When, after about a year, he verified that the varnish was already dry, he took the guitar to Segovia. A short time later he returned it to him with all the hairs on his arm stuck to the varnish, complaining that it stuck everywhere (well, the exact phrase was: “it is very painful to play this guitar”)

Discovering the ideal guitar varnish

So my father kept looking elsewhere, not really knowing where to direct his investigations, until one day an umbrella salesman showed up at the store.

In that moment, he looked at the handle of one of those umbrellas, which had a varnish that caught his attention, and inquiring about its origin, he reached the manufacturer of that varnish, which was urea. After several tests, the ideal combination was reached and it was the one that he began to use from then on, with great success, since it favored not only the richness of the sound but also its projection, since it produced precisely the wide crystallizations that he was looking for.

Pioneer in the use of polyurethane varnish on guitars

In the early 90s the use of this type of varnish was prohibited, and then my father began to use a polyurethane varnish with characteristics very similar to those of urea. As far as I know, he was the first to use this type of finish on Spanish guitars, which now, with different qualities depending on the builder or manufacturer, is commonly used to finish this type of guitar.

He abandoned his romantic idea of ​​rich, oily varnishes, much to his regret. And a few years ago, my nephew José Enrique, talking about this matter with his master violin maker, told him that my father had received bad advice, that if that varnish did not dry it was because the formula was not well made. Well, now it is a pending subject that my nephew already has the project to resume. Let see what happens.

Article by Amalia Ramírez.

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