And like that… summer is coming to a close. Wow, that was fast! Schools here in Hawaii are starting back up, and so I felt it was apropos to post something that will hopefully educate us ukulele lovers (I had to look up how to spell apropos, haha!)
As ukulele players, we're seemingly pre-wired to sweat the smallest details. Often details that seem absolutely trivial to everyone else are the subject of much debate for us, but hey, that's part of the fun. From our side of the equation as a local ukulele brand we find ourselves in almost constant conversation about a great number of ukulele related topics. Sound awesome? It absolutely is! No matter the specific topic, we learn a lot about what’s going on in the community and what’s trending. But more importantly, we learn about what matters most to players. Honestly in many cases there's not a definitive right or wrong answer, as each player is so different.
“Different strokes for different folks!” As the old saying goes
Over the years what I’ve found works best is to present as much information as possible on the subject and leave it up to the individual player to decide. Which I know can be daunting since their are already many voices filling up the space… including mine (haha!). I find more times than not that players already know what they want, and are just double checking. We’ve all been there before, impulsed buy an item only to realize later that there was a better option!
So this brings us to our topic on ukulele finishes. Yeah, what’s the deal with finishes anyway? Well as your about the find out… a lot! For starters this is a great example of a "no right/wrong" situation. There are quite a few different options for finishes and each type of finish is going to offer advantages as well as shortcomings. In this post, I thought it would be useful to look at a few of the popular options for ukulele finishes and examine the strengths and weaknesses of each. But before we go there I need to cover the purpose why ukulele need to finished in the first place.
What really is the purpose of a finish?
When you look at the vast array of finishes found on ukulele it is hard not to think that the sole purpose of the finish is to make the instrument beautiful. No matter what some of the more elitist players may say, the aesthetics of an instrument are important to most players. I mean, just look at the bombshell ukulele they are playing. It's impossible to deny that the finish does add to the visual appeal of a ukulele, however its primary purpose is to protect the material underneath. Wood, which still is at the heart of every great instrument, is a great building material. BUT wood has one major downfall. Moisture, or lack thereof, is wood's "Achilles's heel”.
If you want to take a deep dive into humidity and it’s effect on ukulele check out my post about it here.
Too much moisture will cause wood to swell and often distort from it's shape. This can absolutely reek havoc on a ukulele where many parts are assembled with exact tolerances. On the other hand, a climate that's too dry can cause wood to become brittle and ultimately crack. Either way, your screwed! If you want to know how to protect your ukulele from “death by humidity” just out my post about it here! (Haha, last shameless plug.)
The age-old way that craftsmen have been addressing this problem is by stabilizing the level of humidity. The best way to do this is to seal the wood under a finish in order to control the amount of moisture that can enter or leave the wood. Finishing “paint” is actually a very clever invention when you think about it. Finishes can be engineered to optimize a number of performance attributes for their given applications. These newer finishes are not only easier and cheaper to apply, but are also considerably more durable than some of the older ones. With this in mind it is not surprising that a lot of ukulele builder's have ditched the lacquer finishes of yesteryear in favor of some of the newer finishes. Though as we see with most fandoms, there are gatekeepers. And in the ukulele world those gatekeepers are well battle worn warriors of a bygone era. Whether its of historical significance or unique characteristics, many players still want the finishes that are traditional, aka “Old School”. This has spawned quite a debate over time and honestly each side has some pretty solid points.
Lacquer Finishes (Nitro)
Lacquer is a pretty general term that actually describes a few different finishes. Typically, when it comes to ukulele, the type of lacquer used is either nitrocellulose or acrylic.
Nitro lacquer is made from mostly plant-based substances. Most luthiers will attest that the thinner layer created by a nitro finish will allow the wood to breathe better, giving the ukulele increased projection and greater sustain. This is a huge benefit to having a nitro finish. Also, a nitro finish is done over a period of a few days which each layer essentially melting into the previous one, creating a nice gloss layer over the wood. This gives the ukulele a beautiful “wet” look.
Now there are a several issues when owning a ukulele with a lacquer finish. Having a thin finish means that the ukulele is more susceptible to cosmetic damage. So if you are a klutz, your ukulele will show it’s injuries. Another issue is that nitro finishes degrade over time. This means it will need to be coated again eventually if you want to keep the glossy, protective layer. Many though like this degradation as it gives the ukulele a vintage patina. Call it superstition, but some vintage models just have a glow to them that you just don't get with modern finishes. Another problem is Nitro doesn’t cope well with regular temperature changes. It tends to crack over time, especially if the ukulele travels between areas of different humidity. If you want to dive deeper into humidity and its… nah, just kidding!
Polyurethane and Polyester Finishes
For modern ukulele, polyurethane and polyester ukulele are considered the standard. After the ’90s, poly ukulele finishes began to replace nitro ones, and things have basically stayed that way since then.
The decision to switch came from Nitrocellulose’s effect on the environment. In the 1960’s Nitrocellulose became a strictly regulated substance, forcing wood workers to look for an alternative. Hence the use of “Poly” finishes.
No...not that “poly”! 😆
Polyurethane and polyester finishes are safer and better for the environment than nitro. They also do not require the time-consuming process of applying multiple layers. Instead, a single layer is more than enough to get a thick coat on the ukulele. This means that polyester and polyurethane finishes are much stronger than nitro finishes. Not only do they do a better job of protecting the wood underneath but they are safer and easier to apply, not to mention cheaper. Unlike Nitro finishes they won’t crack easily over time and can take a few bumps without damaging the ukulele. So if you are clumsy, this may be the finish for you!
A drawback to poly finishes is that sometimes they are sprayed on the ukulele too thick. This will dampen the acoustics of the ukulele. Factories that have a ‘quantity over quality’ approach experience this issue since they aren’t as careful to limit the amount of finish used. Also, if polyurethane isn‘t allowed to dry properly, white and cloudy blemishes will appear in the finish.
A UV finish, mostly found on modern wood floors, is now also used on some ukulele. A UV cured coating is created by using an ultra-violet light that dries the coating. The coating is pre-applied before being placed in the oven, where it dries immediately. This process is similar to what you’d find in the dental offices, when they use UV light to harden fillings. It’s quick!
This finish looks similar to a nitro finish but is more durable and faster to manufacture. It is also VOC free, unlike nitrocellulose. This may be the finish of the future since it offers the best of both worlds, looks and protection!
Well there you have it! If you are purchasing a new ukulele, it will most likely have some form of poly coating on it. However, if you are shopping secondhand, you might be able to find a vintage ukulele that still has it’s original nitro finish on it (like every Kamaka ukulele locked away in our grandparents closets). But those won’t come cheap!
In my next post I’m gonna go over the differences between matte, satin, and gloss finishes. Even the mysterious Tuxedo finish! Please stay tuned!
Keep jamming and aloha!