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A contractor friend of my brother, who lives in New Hampshire, found a banjo in the wall of a house he was restoring (or so I am told ... I wish I had more details). My brother has an inflated sense of my luthier abilities and assured the contractor that I could get the neck into shape. Bob Smakula was very generous with advice and provided hardware, and now I have the neck on my bench here in Colorado. It's marked "electric" and looks like the "A.C. Fairbanks “Electric No. 1” 5-string banjo Circa 1896" pictured on the billsbanjos.com site, more or less.  The inlay after the 18th fret is missing but I can replace it, and the peghead veneer has a big splinter missing but that's fairly easy.  My question is: what is the finish likely to be?  There are some scratches I'd like to minimize and a lot of dirt on the back of the peghead I'd like to remove. The dirt has responded to mild rubbing with a cloth dampened in alcohol but I'm afraid to be too vigorous.  Is the finish perhaps shellac based?  Should I learn to do french polish?  Any tips would be welcome.  Thanks....  Jonathan

Tags: Fairbanks, finish

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Stop with the alcohol. Besides not doing a very good job of emulsifying greasy dirt, it may soften the finish and amalgamate the dirt into it, making removal more difficult. In cleaning any antique, standard procedure is to start with the most benign solvents and work up. I would start with plain water, then mild soap on a damp cloth. I use a pink gel cleaner called "Sterling's Magic" but I would expect a little Dawn dishsoap would do the job. If that doesn't get it, either naphtha or mineral spirits are both harmless to just about any finish.

Can you post some pictures of the marks you want to address? In most cases a scratched original finish is preferable to one that has been messed with, even expertly.

Thanks very much.  So far I have been so cautious that I've done no damage, or maybe I was just lucky.  I'll do the Dawn and water treatment and move on (if necessary) to naphtha.  Any ideas on what the likely finish is? Based only on when it was applied?  That's how I came to then shellac supposition.      Oh yes: I won't mess with the scratches if there's any ambiguity, and they aren't bad anyway.   Jonathan

To reiterate Greg's comment above, an instrument from the late 1800s should have finish crazing. Creating a smooth, glossy, perfect surface is not going to add and will likely reduce value.

The only way to know for sure the makeup of the finish is to find a small section of finish hidden from view...where the neck goes inside the ring, under a tuner, under the nut, etc...and scrape a little finish off. Separate the scrapings into 2 small jars (baby food jars are what I would use), Add denatured alcohol to one and lacquer thinner to the other. Set them aside for 24 hrs in a warm place. If the scrapings are dissolved in the alcohol and lacquer thinner it's most likely shellac (lacquer thinner contains alcohol). If they are dissolved in the lacquer thinner and not alcohol it's lacquer. If neither have dissolved it's probably varnish.

What a clever test, Mark.  I'll do it tomorrow, after I finish with the peghead.  I am assured that preserving value is not the primary concern.  If it were I wouldn't have agreed to undertake the job.  Playable is the stated objective so I've been asked to install modern tuners.  The scratches are not crazing, unfortunately, but simply signs of rough use.  The keel of the neck heel has stain rubbed away, for example, and that's the way it will stay.   

Pictures please!! I'm doing a restoration and collecting every picture I can find for support. 

The original finish would have been shellac, and French polishing with shellac is a great way to rejuvenate the look and feel.  You do need to clean the old finish before adding shellac, and a very light scuff sanding is conventional as well.

Shellac is an interesting material, and its only solvent is alcohol.  That said, there is one important thing to consider if you're testing an old finish like this.  Given enough time, shellac can oxidize and change enough to lose its solubility in alcohol.  It's not terribly uncommon to find old instruments like this where the finish appears to be completely insoluble in acetone, lacquer thinner, alcohol, and everything else we might have on hand.

Thanks Frank.  This is very helpful.  Now of course I have to learn to French polish (finally, after putting it off for years --- it's high time).

Mark and Kerry ---  I'll work on the pictures, but none of my issues seems to me to be illustrative of anything especially instructive.  Still, you're right, and I'll do my best.     Jonathan

 Thanks Bucko...

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