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Hello Frets.net,I'm new here and just wanted to say thank you to everyone who's contributed, I've found some very invaluable information on this site that has helped me tremendously along the way.

With that being said, I'd like to get people's opinion: Which finish is more durable, TruOil (Birchwood Casey) or Wipe-On Poly (e.g. Minwax)? Every tech sheet I've read says that TruOil is not really durable at all, and is more on the oil category such as lemon and linseed. Whereas, wipe-on poly is known for durability. However, people on some forums have claimed that they won't use anything else besides TruOil due to it's protection and feel.

Some I'm stumped, but looking for a more durable finish against dings, bumps, as well as humidity. Can you help? Thanks!

Tags: durability, finish, truoil, wipe-on-poly

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Hi Joe & welcome.

Warmoth will not warranty their necks if they're finished in any type of oil finish, including TruOil. That gives you the point of view of a MAJOR supplier of necks to the industry.

Although many folks use it, I don't consider it a viable finish especially if the guitar belongs to a regularly working player. It just doesn't protect the wood...especially against humidity.

If you're finishing an unfinished neck, nitro lacquer is the ONLY way to go. It's the easiest finish to repair and provides excellent humidity protection.

The best way to deal with dings & bumps is to protect your guitar and avoid them to begin with. ALWAYS keep it in the case when it's not being played and on gig breaks. Guitar stands are an accident waiting to happen.

Other will chime-in with more advice, I'm sure.

Best of luck and again: welcome :)

Paul

Hi Joeguam.

I first began to get interested in such Finishes, many years when a colleague of mine was talking to me about how he finished Gun Stocks, and said used Oils applied multiple times over an extended period to seep deep into the wood, rather than have a thin layer of Hard Surface Gloss.

He maintained that when the Gun Stocks got the inevitable bumps and dents, they did not show up at all as the Finish had penetrated, far beyond the Surface, whereas with a Thin Hard Finish, such dents simply broke through that and the Gun Stock would need Work to Restore it. It was difficult for me to decide whether his reasoning was based upon Factual Truth or rather a simple Justification for his Chosen method.

I have seen Tru-Oil Finishes where the Finish had been Repeatedly Built Up, over a very Extended Time Period that in "Looks" could rival almost any Gloss Finish. But overwhelmingly, most of the Finishes I have encountered of this type, have been applied by Companies or Individuals involved in a quick, quite simple fashion and then simply left like that. So they are Not really at all properly Glossy, but not completely Unfinished Wood either. They are in a kind of "Netherworld" that is betwixt and between Two States. And that can be a quite unsettling, and problematic place to be.

As I wrote that, the memory sprang into my mind of a couple of Authors that lived close by when I was growing up. Both of which were Distinguished Professors and amongst the World's Most Authoritative Experts in Historic, Medieval, Renaissance and Anglo Saxon Literature and who were thoroughly intrigued by the "Netherworlds" betwixt and between. One was C.S. Lewis who wrote the Famous "Narnia" Stories, (and whose Lectures were so Massively Over Attended the Huge Lecture Halls here, simply could not accommodate the Great Crowds that Thronged to Hear Him Speak) and the other was J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote the "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of The Rings" (and whose Life Story, Hollywood Film Producers are about to make a Film of).  

So perhaps you can appreciate that I think of this Tru Oil Finish, as a kind of "Middle Earth" Finish Solution, best kept for those "Fantasists" enamoured with such a place.

It is Cheap, Easy to Apply, and started to become attractive as an Alternative Finish to certain Manufacturing Operations, when Tightening Government Legislation concerning Environmental Controls, meant that Heavy Investment in Facilities and Increasing Difficulty in obtain certain Materials in particular parts of the World were sudden problems. But like Linseed Oil, it has its Dangers as it can Spontaneously Combust, so it's good to be aware of that. The Wipe-On Poly you mention works in a very similar fashion, I would say it's more Satin from what I've seen of it. These and many other types of Alternative Finishes all appeared in a time frame where "Environment Concerns" were Top of the News and Political Agendas and most importantly, Shifts in Existing Materials to Water Based, Environmental Friendly Substitutes involving Capital Expenditure on Factory Plant Equipment were changing the nature of the Industry Finishes that were being used. So Small Manufacturers started to seek Cost Effective Alternatives.

 

Beyond that, there is a Legitimate Argument.

Hotly Debated for instance, amongst Top String Players. Where some find they greatly prefer the Traditional Glossy Finish on the back of their Instrument. Whilst others have come to prefer a Lightly Sanded more Natural Wood Finish and Feel that they say makes the hand Perspire, rather less.

At a time of heightened awareness and concern throughout the World's Populations, of diminishing Global Resources, the wide spread appreciation of the Natural Texture and Feel of Wood is entirely understandable. But the argument I describe above is a Current and Live Debate amongst the World's Top Orchestral Players. So my attitude towards this "Finish Issue" is that the Optimal Course, is for Players themselves to try a Wide Variety of Different Instruments, and decide and dictate for themselves, precisely what they prefer.

Note that for an Instrument Manufacturer who Fabricates a Guitar Body and a Neck separately, there may be great cost cutting advantages to Finishing the Neck and Body as entirely Separate Units and Quite Differently, before bringing them together to Complete Construction of the Instrument. This is as true for a Manufacturer that Glues their Neck to the Body as it us for one that Bolts the Neck to the Body. This Fact doesn't appear to click in the consciousness of a great many people. Just be aware that changes to Traditional Finishes may well be made for Straight Forward Economical or Convenience of Production Process reasons, rather than providing an "Ideal Solution" for a Quality Product or what is best for a "Player".

Some Manufacturers use a "Flattening Agent" to provide a Satin Finish in their Necks. Others use anything from Bare Wood, through Wax Finishes, Tru- Oil and Wipe On Poly, and there are of course a Range of Spray On Stain Finishes of that Type that can be utilised by Manufacturers, and indeed, are.

 

Personally, most of my experience with Tru-Oil Finishes have been with Ernie Ball Music Man Basses. Although they also use this Type of Finish on their Guitars as well.

I admire and like Sterling Ball very much indeed, love their Products, and have a bunch of Music Man Basses myself. Their Customer Service is First Class and the Users of their Instruments are Quite Fanatical about their Products. (One enthusiast has over fifty Guitars of just One Model).

Having written that Clear Disclaimer however, I found Tru-Oil and the Bare Finished Maple Fingerboards to raise something of a Disturbing Dilemma for myself and I have noted many other users. The Necks and Fingerboards Look and Feel Great. It's just that people don't know how to keep them that way, over an long period of the Life of the Instrument or find it Too Much Work to Maintain.

Perhaps a good analogy would be, that I have been a Grow Grower for many years, with a marvelous Rose Garden, they are the Queen of Flowers, but they are really hard work in comparison to many other Flowers. I think if you have this type of Finish, (particularly with a Bare Wood Maple Fretboard) you will have to learn to Wash your Hands before Playing. Try and Use all types of preventative  and unusual cleaning methods, and basically take more all round care of your Instrument, to keep it in an Equivalent Good Condition over a Long Time Period.

I think that is a fair summary of my observations, of the "Average Users" of such Instruments, including my Own Experience of them. Do I love the Instruments? Yes!

Do I wish they all were Finished in High Gloss? Yes!

  

Here are the Music Man Manufacturer's Instructions for Tru-Oil.

"Since the neck is unfinished, it can be more susceptible to humidity changes. An annual (or so) dose of gunstock oil will help to keep the neck maintained; we use and recommend Birchwood-Casey Tru-oil, but any good quality gunstock oil will work.

Clean the neck first. Use a small amount of Tru-oil, leave it on for 5 minutes, then wipe it off with a paper towel. After that, apply Birchwood-Casey Gunstock Wax. Be sure to douse the paper towel with water before disposing of it! Read the wax and oil manufacturer's instructions regarding disposal of these used paper towels.

Birchwood-Casey products are available at most sporting goods or gun stores, or now you can order them direct. Their web address is http://www.birchwoodcasey.com.

 

Rosewood fingerboards should not be treated with the gunstock oil; instead they should be treated with a high grade of lemon oil, or even better, with Ernie Ball Wonder Wipes Fretboard Conditioner. These wipes really work.

For cleaning, try using the same high grade of lemon oil to clean the entire neck, both maple and rosewood fretboards, and again our Wopnder Wipes Fretboard Conditioner. If the neck is very dirty, you can use a small amount of Murphy's Oil Soap, diluted 3:1, to clean it.

Keep in mind that if the dirt has gotten into the wood, it cannot be removed except by sanding it down, which we do not recommend a lot of. It is better to keep it clean in the first place. Washing your hands first helps!

On an maple neck, some discoloration after many hours of playing is normal."

 

So (remembering I am a big fan of Music Man Basses and admire Sterling and all his people at the Factory) what they are telling you here in their Frequently Asked Questions (that should be a another big clue) is that you will need to work some, as an Instrument Owner, at Maintaining this Type of Finish.

I use Carnauba Wax (which is Extremely Hard) on the Back of their Necks to Glossy them up and provide a Harder, More Protective Finish, and use Music Mans own Orange Based Fret Board wipes to Condition and Clean the Fretboard. Orange is a Great Cleaner, you can use these as often as you like no problem, (they even are ok to clean the Strings with) and seem to work better than anything else on the Market for these Instruments. Believe me I have a Big Box with just about everything that was available, at the time I did my testing.

 

Here's an Historical Fact for you.

Many years ago, when Leo Fender started out, there eventually came a point when for the first time, he saw his Maple Fingerboard Guitar performed with on T.V.

In those days, the T.V. pictures that were Broadcast were pretty grainy it has to be said. And the Image that the Viewer saw in Black and White, was one of quite High Contrast indeed.

Leo sat in his Living Room, nearly had a Fit! The Maple Neck looked shabby and dirty to him, he couldn't believe how bad it looked, especially in comparison to the Rosewood and Ebony of Gibson's and Martins.

So strongly did he feel about this, (he was very upset about it as he felt it tarnished his Brand Image) he STOPPED All Production of Maple Fingerboard Guitars. And that's how and why Rosewood Fingerboards first became introduced to Fender Guitars.

It took a couple of years of pressure from Professional Musicians. Some of which distinctly preferred the Glossy Feel and Transparently Clear Sound of Maple to persuade Leo to re-introduce Maple Fingerboards as an Option. History, like Humour, is a very funny thing, but that's how it happened.

If you are looking for the Best, Most Durable Finish.

Go for a Sprayed Lacquer, one that is Easily Repairable is best.

Like the Time Tested and Proven Nitro-Cellulose, Paul Recommended.

There are lots of Great Finishes out there, but Many, Cannot be Easily Repaired.

And the others are Less Durable, and this is the real point to grasp, Far Harder to Maintain.

 

But use it if you will.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxRndnPEDic

P

To answer you question, wipe-on poly is more durable than Tru-Oil. Miniwax wipe-on poly is like other polyurethanes but with an additive that reduces brush or rag marks, probably by extending its open time.  Like any other finish, durability is related to the number of coats.

Peter and Paul mentioned that nitro lacquer is easiest to repair. This is because when nitro is sprayed on top of nitro the new layer melts into the previous one. Consequently, there is no adhesion problem and no witness lines. This is especially helpful for touch-ups. Not so with poly - the old layer must be sanded and, even so, witness lines will be a problem unless you're covering the entire object.

Tru-oil is actually a varnish. I bought a Warmoth neck this summer, and when specifically asked they said Tru-Oil was a perfectly acceptable finish and they would honor the warranty.  You must apply 10-15 coats-I think more would be better.  It builds like lacquer or shellac and can be lightly sanded and polished.  I've never had any concern that it wouldn't seal the wood as long as it was applied thick enough. 

I honestly think it's a pain to get a nice gloss finish with it, and it's a real bear on maple fingerboards.  The last guitar I did, I used lacquer on the fingerboard and Tru-oil on the back as I do like the feel of it.  That said, the next one will be all lacquer.

I have no experience with wipe on poly.

I like Tru-Oil, the finish is softer and less 'plastic' than wipe on poly. I would seal surfaces with button polish or shellac then a light sand before applying the Tru Oil. I find it goes on better in warmer conditions and each coat takes about 3 hours to dry before another coat can be applied. After every 5 or so coats I lightly sand with  very fine, 320 or so grit or 000 steel wool. Keep going the more coats the better and the final polish is with Micro Mesh moving from 1500 to 12000 and  buff with a lambs wool wheel. The shine is glossy and the finish will take a knock with out damage. It is a slow process and jobs need to be stored in a warm dust free environment. 

Josh,

Thank you for the update on Warmoth's current view.

Much appreciated.

I'm still firmly entrenched in the lacquer camp. :)

I also want to reinforce that my comments concern working guitars. The difference between the upkeep of a 'living room guitar' vs. a 'stage guitar' is like the difference between a 10 minute workout on a treadmill to running a marathon :)

Thanks again, Josh :)

I would think poly would trump lacquer in terms of durability.  The guitar that got the Tru-oil/lacquer neck also got a sparkle body finished in automotive two-part urethane, so I guess I'll get a first hand chance to test the ding resistance.  This is my "bar guitar" which I gig with in some, "ahem", unsavory places, so it's no trailer queen.  It would have taken a whole lot of lacquer to level those sparkles.

I still think overall that lacquer's repairability makes it my #1, tho.

Josh,

You have the correct approach. Leave the good stuff at home and take a stage guitar to the gig.

My electric stage guitars are setup as well as my "nobody touches this" guitars. However, having a stage instrument that you know may get some combat pay (I've actually played in the chicken wire cages [like in the Blues Bros. movie], back in the late 60's), a ding here or a bump there is expected.

My Taylor stays home while I gig with Tanglewood or Blueridge acoustic/electrics. BTW: both sound and play as good as $4k American guitars but I don't think they'll stand the test of time. Also, being assembled with AMG makes them economically unrepairable if major damage occurs. But, they can be replaced for under $500 @.

Sorry for the windy comment.;)

In summary: You're doing it the right way, man :)

First, a caveat: I am not set up to spray finishes of any sort so I need to use either brushes or pads.  I used to use oil varnish and, given plenty of time and (thinned) coats, it looked good, could be made fairly glossy, and (if the curly maple resonator of my 15 year old banjo is any indication) is durable.  I have used spray can lacquers to repair my old Martin,  and its blending and adhesion virtues are obvious --- but, using cans, I'll never gain enough experience to do a good job.

So when I found a detailed set of instructions for Tru-Oil on the LMII website, I gave it a try.  Since then I have done a dozen steel string guitars with it.  None of them is more than two years old, so I can't speak to durability.  It is easy to repair, though, with no witness lines or other telltales, as long as you don't infringe on the color layer.  (I don't use colors anymore, so that's not an issue for me.)

I follow the LMII guidelines carefully.  First I seal with shellac, sprayed, two very light coats.  Then I use grey and then white Scotchbright pads with a cork block backer.   Surface preparation is crucial, as is wiping up the excess very quickly.  Actually, "wiping up the excess" is where the rubbing comes in.  A couple of coats a day over three or four days is enough for me, but I like a satin-ish finish and I like to be aware of the wood.  And then,  you really do need to let it harden for two weeks.

Josh Fuller is right that Tru-Oil is a varnish and, given care and time to cure, it behaves very much like varnish.  And it certainly is easy.

I have used true oil on my classical guitars- the thing is that the thinner or lighter the finish is - the better the sound.

Also-- a guitar should be treated with the utmost respect and handled with care...

Just my two cents...

peace, Donald 

An additional two cents: Ive noticed an appreciable difference in the tone of electrics with oil finishes - they seemed to have a more 'open' sound/feel. Obviously this is very subjective..

And a note about oil finishes... Drying oils, such as linseed and tung oil, can indeed be applied to build a film that is over the wood, not just absorbed into it. It simply takes many applications and a lot of waiting. Polymerized tung oil, boiled linseed oil etc speed this process up quite a bit with heat treatment and/or the additon of metallic driers that allow you to build a film more quickly, in addition to a higher gloss. I wouldnt be surprised if Tru Oil fell into this category and also had wiping varnish added to it.

Also, we should be careful using the term varnish, as its a pretty broad term and doesnt tell you anything about what the resins solids of a given finish may be, just that they form a build and a degree of gloss. Therefore tru oil may well be part wipe on polyurethane, or something comparable. Youd have to research the msds etc to find out. I dont use it so I dont know. I just know there are a lot of misnomers out there concerning finishes, particularly those that are easily available to the general public.

Regarding wipe on polyurethane in general, Ive never used it. But some casual reading Ive done leads me to believe you can build a nice film with it. I cant remember much about how it rubs out though, it may be better to stick with a satin sheen and save the effort.

In the interest of objectivity I will state that I only use nitrocellulose on guitars thus far. However drying oils have some attractive qualities, the most significant to me being the way oils really pop the grain/figure of wood in a very rich/deep natural appearance. I use polymerized tung oil on quicky projects around the shop, gifts Ive made etc. and had deep figure appear where previously there appeared to be little or none at the final sanding/scrape. Of course there are also disadvantages to oil finishes. Getting into the pros and cons in detail would be going on tangents.

Just some general points I thought would serve the thread.

Thank you everyone for the replies.

Peter, I appreciate the time to write such a informative response. I actually read your entire post and enjoyed it.

As much as I understand the repair benefits of nitro, I don't have the setup to achieve an acceptable level of quality that a sprayed finish provides. Because of this, I'm limited to wipe/brush on finishes. In addition, I live in Guam USA where high humidity is a constant battle and definitely a factor in lacquer checking. I just recently refinished one of my ukuleles by stripping the nitro then pore-filling with z-poxy and finishing with wipe-on poly. I found great success and learned a lot in the process. If you're interested, I documented the process with pictures on the AGF: Refinishing Thread: Curly Koa Ukulele (Z-Poxy/Minwax Wipe-On Poly). You can read in that thread that I had some real bad checking which only occurred when I moved back to Guam after living in the states for 12 years.

I feel like I need to disclose that I take extreme care of my instruments. I have 7 guitars and 6 ukuleles, keep them all in a climate controlled room at 72 degrees with 45-55% RH. I'm also a stickler about who is allowed to touch my guitars and ukes. I also make a special trip to soap and wash my hands before I pull it off the rack to play it. So in the area of care and maintenance, I'm pretty strict. But, like some have said, in the world of the gigging musician, things happen and that is why I'm looking for a more durable finish. To put things into better perspective, if I were to rank the qualities of an instrument that are affected by it's finish, here is my opinions:

1. Wood Protection: This is first before Sound because if it were second to Sound, then I would play the instrument as raw wood with no finish. I've never heard the ukulele I refinished (in the AGF thread linked above) sound more amazing than when I striped the instrument completely of lacquer down to raw wood. I threw on the tuners and some new strings just to see how it would sound and I was blown away. So, because raw wood is not an option, then sound actually becomes 2nd in by priority once any type of finish is applied.

2. Sound: Very close behind Wood Protection is Sound. This means that I will apply as thin a finish as possible to maintain the beauty of the sound of raw wood as best as possible. I will try to apply as little/thin of finish as possible.

3. Aesthetics: This is the absolute last thing on my priority list. My instruments are instruments, not wall decorations or ornament pieces. I know others may have different opinions, however, I, myself, would never apply a finish for beauty over sound. For example, I'll never build up a thick finish just to get a high-gloss if I know it's going to affect the sound. I'm one of those who actually prefer the feel of satin finishes and would be perfectly okay if I didn't have one instrument in high-gloss.

So I guess I'm still trying to decide. I will be refinishing another one of my ukes and stripping the nitro, just trying to figure out if I want to use TruOil or the wipe-on poly. As of right now, it seems that the wipe-on poly is the leading choice as I was successful in getting a very durable finish with a  very thin coating.

Thank you all once again for your input, can't express that enough.

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