Body Sessions

Assuming that the pumicing and grain filling went well and has been completed, we now begin our French polishing "sessions". We use the term sessions rather than "coats" such as a furniture finisher would use. We will be applying literally hundreds of microscopic layers of shellac to the instrument resulting in one single amalgamated layer of shellac. As you can see, in the case of French polishing, the term "coats" does not apply. During each session we will apply dozens of layers of shellac and will complete as many sessions as it takes to "body" the guitar (which is usually 6 to 8). Before proceeding, you may wish to examine the entire guitar very closely for any defects or unfilled grain that may have been overlooked previously. A little pumice and alcohol will take care of the unfilled grain. Remember, it is never too late to pumice. If the defects can be taken care of by a light sanding, use only 400 grit wet and dry sandpaper with oil as a lubricant. At this stage of finishing, in areas where there are "sink-outs", nicks and dents will tend to show where they previously were not apparent. This is the time to take care of and remedy any trouble spots that are visible. Any sink-outs, pin holes, or nicks can be filled using SuperGlue. First clean the area with naphtha, apply the glue and sand with 400 grit wet or dry sandpaper using oil as a lubricant. Now remove any excess pumice that may be left on the surfaces of the guitar using alcohol and a new muneca cover. The new muneca cover, along with alcohol, will tend to collect excess pumice. Now that we're satisfied with our inspection, lets begin "bodying" the guitar with shellac.


Bodying is the process of applying shellac in many thin applications until a sufficient thickness is achieved. The body is sufficient when it can be sanded level with very fine sandpaper without burning-through to wood. Hundreds of passes of the muneca will be required, though individual layers are not the result. All the passes merge into one amorphous "sheet". Downward pressure of the muneca is critical for achieving a good degree of hardness of the final finish. We will be using a full 2-pound cut for the first 6 to 8 (body) sessions. Since we will not be too concerned about how smooth the body sessions go on, our efforts will be to build up the base finish as rapidly as we can. Later we will "level" the body coats to a perfectly smooth surface. Remember that we have already mixed a 2 pound cut of shellac and should be ready to proceed. The object of bodying is to build up enough finish on the instrument to allow it to be sanded level with fine sandpaper.
Glide the muneca onto the surface and move it in circular or oval patterns that overlap

Lets start by first installing a new muneca cover. As a matter of fact, you should cut a number of 4" x 4" squares of t-shirt material for muneca covers to have on hand as we proceed If at all possible find some well worn and laundered t-shirts. They tend to be softer than new material. Now add about 8 drops of 2 pound cut shellac. To this, add about 6 drops of alcohol. After a while you will be able to accurately estimate the amounts without counting drops. Finally add a drop of olive oil. Just wet the tip of your finger with oil and rub onto the bottom of the muneca. Smack the now loaded muneca against the back of your hand (several times) to distribute the shellac. Why the back of the hand? You will want to have a clean left palm to hold the guitar tightly while you work. The most difficult part of French polishing to master is in knowing when you have the muneca properly loaded. A good gauge is to use a piece of folded typing paper placed next to your work. When you load the muneca, smack against your hand several times and then blot against the paper. If you have added too much mix, the muneca will be too wet and the blot will also appear wet. If the mix is too little, no blot will show. If you have the correct amount, the blot will appear as many individual, separated spots on the paper. Another positive indicator of a properly loaded muneca is the famous "cloud" that is left behind the muneca as it lays on the shellac. This cloud is much like the cloud that your windshield wipers leave when there is oil on the windshield- appearing and disappearing as the wipers work back and forth.
"Pulling-over" the surface using long, straight strokes. Note that the finish is building nicely. Also not the small amount of oil on the surface- indicated by the arrow.

When the blot test shows that you have the right amount of mix, glide the muneca onto the surface of the guitar, using circular strokes, starting with the back (why the back? It is the easiest surface of the instrument to start with. It is relatively flat and has no obstructions or corners) Watch for the cloud or film of shellac left behind the muneca. Always glide onto and off of the surface of the instrument to prevent the muneca from sticking. NEVER STOP MOVING THE MUNECA WHEN IT IS IN CONTACT WITH THE INSTRUMENT. If you stop the muneca on the surface it will stick and damage the finish where you stop. Press firmly and use circular (or oval) and overlapping strokes as you cover about 1\3 of the back of the guitar. Move the muneca in patterns that will insure coverage of the entire surface. Be very methodical as you work. Be certain that you are getting even coverage over the area that you are working on.
Always blot the newly charged muneca on paper prior to contacting the instrument. This will help prevent damage due to an overly wet muneca.
Edges often get too little attention. Pay particular attention to all edges and "difficult" areas like the neck/body joint and the edge of the fingerboard. The cloud, or vapor trail of shellac left behind the muneca, will appear only if the shellac is going on properly. It will appear and disappear behind the muneca as you work. With a little practice, loading the muneca and applying shellac will become fairly routine. The loaded muneca should do about 1\3 of the back of the guitar. Reload your muneca as you complete each half. Early on you will need to reload more often- you will notice as you go along that each loading will cover more area. When you complete both halves, reload and work the back edges of the guitar. While working the edges hold the muneca at a 45 degree angle against the corners of the guitar and follow the contour of the guitar. When you have covered the entire back of the guitar, recharge your muneca, and use straight passes from one end of the guitar to the other. When you use these straight firm strokes it will help keep your work even. When you have completed the straight line passes, change back to the circular patterns and continue bodying. These straight strokes followed by circular strokes are called "pulling over". The straight line pattern tends to flatten out the marks left by the muneca during the circular passes and if your pressure is firm enough will result in a harder smoother body. Do not use too much oil. A single drop is all that is necessary when you load the muneca. Add additional oil, though, if you note the muneca sticking. Remember, the edges are often over looked and should be treated with special attention. Give the edges additional attention by reloading your muneca and carefully bodying the last 2 inches around the edges of the guitar. If everything is going well, you should be able to see a building of the shellac at this point. You should body the back at least twice before this first session is complete.
No, this is not the result of consuming too much ethanol during polishing. This represents a method of changing directions without stopping or lifting the muneca.
After completing the first session on the back, we will "stiff" off the shellac that we have just applied. This is done after each bodying session to remove oil and to reduce ridging from the muneca. "Stiffing" is done only with alcohol and maybe a drop or two of shellac added to the muneca. Add a few drops of alcohol to the bottom of the muneca and glide onto the guitar starting in the center. Again, watch for the tell-tale cloud! Press firmly and stroke in one direction from the heel of the guitar to the tail. Work your way systematically from the center of the guitar to the outside edges of the guitar gradually adding a little more pressure as the muneca runs dry. You can tell by observing the trail behind the muneca as the muneca get dryer. Load the muneca only with alcohol and one or two drops of shellac each time the muneca runs dry. You may not have to add oil during stiffing. There should be enough oil already in the muneca to complete the stiffing process. You can also use circular or oval strokes for stiffing. Do this if there are particular trouble spots or areas that need more attention. Use less pressure when the muneca is wetter and more pressure as it runs dry. During stiffing you will want to really exert pressure as the muneca is somewhat dry (but not totally dry). A lot gets done during bodying and stiffing during that critical point where the muneca has just the right amount of wetness to allow you to really push. Keep in mind, though that the guitar is fragile and don't push so hard as to cause damage. It is very important that the muneca be blotted each time it is loaded. Do not contact the guitar with the muneca unless you have blotted it and are certain it is not too wet. Now that the guitar has been stiffed off, the first session on the back of the guitar is complete. Turn the guitar on its side and reload the muneca with shellac, alcohol, and another drop of oil. With small circular motions, starting at the tail, work all the way to the heel of the guitar. When you get to the heel, squeeze the muneca so that it has a sharp edge and press firmly into the joint with each circular pass. Switch to a flat folded cloth and load with shellac, alcohol, and a drop of oil just as you would the muneca. With small circular motions rub the folded pad (from now on, just called a "pad") along the guitar side right into the neck joint. Repeat the process from the neck side of the joint. Use the blot test for the folded cloth the same as you would with the muneca. If the cloth is too wet it will not lay on shellac. Instead, it will actually tend to remove any previously applied shellac. Remember, look for the telltale cloud! Now, with a recharged muneca, go from circular motions to straight line passes from the heel toward the tail systematically, assuring even coverage. You should cover the sides of the guitar at least twice before stiffing. Start on the outer edge and at the tail of the guitar. Move the muneca in a straight line to the heel. When you get to the heel, do not stop the muneca. Return to the tail by looping around to the other edge of the guitar and then going to the tail. Repeat until you get to the middle of the side. Never stop the muneca. Always use a pattern that will allow you to change directions without stopping. Next, stiff off the side of the guitar just as we did on the back. Use only alcohol and straight strokes. Reload when you lose the cloud and add more pressure as the muneca starts to run dryer. Repeat this over and over until the side is entirely covered. You will probably want to do the top next so you can avoid turning the guitar onto the newly done side. This will give it some time to harden a bit and avoid damage to your new work. The top plate or soundboard is finished exactly the same way as the back and sides of the guitar except that it is not pumiced. The muneca is charged with shellac, alcohol, and a drop of oil, and with circular motions press firmly applying the shellac. If the bridge is installed, the top will be a more difficult to French polish. Many luthiers prefer to install the bridge after the guitar is finished in favor of an easier and better finish. Some luthiers like to install the bridge and string the instrument before the guitar is finished in order to provide any additional modifications to the thickness of the soundboard if necessary. If you prefer to install the bridge first, you may treat the bridge area the same as the neck joint. Use small circular motions up to the bridge and then, with your loaded and folded cloth pad, press firmly into the joint and wipe with a straight line along the full length of the bridge being certain that the joint is well covered. This takes practice, but after a few attempts, it should become easier. You will also use this same technique at the finger board/sound board joints. The neck is bodied exactly the same way as the back and sides. Go over it at least two times using small circular patterns, then in a straight line. Then as always, stiff off in a straight line.
The arrows indicate how the fingerboard or other obstruction is dealt with. Overlapping ovals are made that run up against the edge of the fingerboard.
The string slots of the classical guitar headpiece can be painted with shellac using a small camel-hair painters brush. The head slots can also be finished using a folded cloth, loaded with shellac, alcohol, and a very small drop of oil the same way as you would finish the heel joint. After a few sessions, the slots can be sanded smooth and a final finish layer applied. Another way is the "shoe-shine" method. Fold a piece of t-shirt material into a long, folded piece about 5 inches long and 1 inch wide. It should contain about 4 layers. Load all but the last inch of each end and blot it. Now use "shoe-shine" strokes to body the slots and crest of the head. This may leave a tiny ridge of shellac on the flat surfaces and these will need to be removed by leveling prior to continuing. Eugene Clark always admonishes his students to learn to form the muneca to the shape of the corner to access these difficult areas. This takes practice but once learned becomes second nature. Again, use circular patterns and then stiff off using straight passes. This will help keep the bodying even. The very nature of the small area of the head cap can make it very difficult to French polish. If your head piece is intricate with "V" cuts and complex shapes you will want to use your folded cloth in these areas. Do the machine slots first with the folded cloth then switch to the muneca for the flat areas. Any spillovers from the machine slots will be smoothed out when you change to the muneca. Running the muneca a bit dryer seems to help build the finish a bit faster. Be certain to press firmly in order to amalgamate each layer of shellac. The muneca can be obstructed by the machine slots and the nut slot and can cause the muneca to remove as much shellac as it puts on, so do not dwell on a single small area. Keep moving the muneca over and over the head piece until you see the shellac starting to build evenly on the entire surface. You may want to make a smaller muneca and use smaller circular patterns for the head piece. You can also try short deliberate strokes in much the same way as you would shine your shoes. Glide on and off many times until you see a buildup of finish. This should finish our first bodying session. The guitar should be left to "gas out" for several hours between each session.