The most common
wood finish for a stringed instrument has to be lacquer. It’s been used for centuries, and it produces a durable, beautiful finish that’s elegant and smooth to the touch. It’s very protective and is flexible enough for a stringed instrument’s requirements.
Glossy lacquer has been the preferred type. The old fashioned lacquer we’re most familiar with is nitrocellulose lacquer. It is a marvelous finish to work with, I love it- and I use it all the time. it gives an absolutely beautiful luster to the wood and is durable and smooth.
Modern day factory based instrument manufacturers often use a newer, UV-cured polyurethane finish that is very tough and looks beautiful. It has the added advantage to the builders for being a very fast cure using ultra violet lamps. The boutique, and custom hand-made instrument makers don’t use this, but stick to nitrocellulose lacquers which are fairly fast air-dry to touch, but still require a lengthy settling in period to prevent what we call “printing”, or leaving your fingerprints pressed into the finish if you’re not patient with it. I like to give it two weeks.
There are players however who prefer something different, and that is to have absolutely no finish at all, on the instrument’s neck. Commonly called a “speed neck”. Banjos, guitars, fiddles and other stringed instruments are now (rather commonly today) offered as either standard or a custom feature on a new instrument. But if it’s not manufactured with it, any instrument can be modified this way; If your instrument has a finish already on the neck, you can simply remove the finish and sand to a smooth bare wood surface. That’s it, you’re done.
Why would someone want to do this? After all, a very smooth, glossy “wet look” lacquer finish is more attractive, and it protects the wood from oils and moisture as well as wear. The problem is, it tends to be a bit “grabby” on the hands. It’s like a kid trying to slide down a dry pool slide.. they get stuck to the slide! The smooth surface has so much direct, flat contact with the skin, it actually adds friction- and friction is what slows your hands down. Friction is how the brakes on your car work. The surface of the brake pads pressed against the steel brake rotor has incredible stopping power. So reducing the friction between your hand and the back of the neck will allow the player to more quickly and easily move his/her hand up and down to reach the frets to play.
I have heard some people say they don’t notice a difference and others say that it makes a huge difference. It is definitely a personal choice. I have given my personal banjo a speed neck job that I really like. For me, it does noticeably reduce friction. On my banjo it started as a solution to a problem. The early 1990s era finish was failing and coming off. Applying new finish over it would only add to the problem. So I did a “speed neck” job on it and it eliminated all of the problems!
Since then I’ve perfected my favorite method of doing a speed neck modification, and it doesn’t matter what type of wood. I like the smoothness of playing a speed neck, but leaving the wood completely bare also has the problem of irregular staining and darkening of the wood and it has a certain roughness, especially with the open grain structure of mahogany. I found a middle ground that for me, is absolutely perfect. And you can do it too- (or pay money for me to do it for you).. either way I think you’ll like it.
I wanted a minimalist finish that is not like lacquer, and I found it in Tung oil, or China wood oil. This is a very old natural wood treatment, a special oil extracted from the nut of the Tung tree. It’s a volatile oil, which means it will evaporate, unlike mineral oil for instance that will sit there as a liquid nearly forever. When it dries, it leaves a very beautiful, fairly durable, and completely natural conditioning on the wood. It does not smell or react like (horrible) Linseed oil, it will not darken with age. It seemed like the way to go for me. I’m glad I did.
Below I have a photograph I took just today from the work bench. My special, vintage Rich and Taylor JD Crowe prototype banjo is on the right. A nearly identical, rare vintage Rich and Taylor JD Crowe #1 production banjo is on the left. This neck on the left is a great example right now because I’m refinishing it, and at this moment in time the old finish is GONE.. bare to the world- so you can really see the contrast of bare wood vs. Tung oil finished!
Observe the neck on the right, the remaining lacquer finish is barely visible at the bottom margin of the picture, and is also seen where it was left at the top, at a line just below the headstock. This is the line between “bare” and lacquered wood. The lacquered finish has an orange-ish color, and the entire mid section of the neck is treated with the marvelous Tung oil. Right now I’m giving it a couple of Tung oil coats after about 7 years with the first treatment. It does require a little touch up like this now and then, but it lasts pretty well. 7 years in my case when I began feeling the grain again.
The Rich and Taylor neck on the left is being restored. I purchased this banjo as it has an interesting history, it was once owned by a pretty famous guy in the banjo world, and I’m checking with him on this story before I post his name. But let’s just say this banjo was well used. The finish had pretty much given up the ghost. It was badly chipped and cracked and the frets were worn out- It had all the signs of being on the road on tour- but the wood is excellent, and it just needed some help. So right now, you’re essentially looking at a standard “speed neck”, that is, completely bare naked to the world mahogany. For me, I actually don’t like the feel of that bare wood. It always feels too dry for me and it bugs me.
You can see that the Tung oil has added some color, some sheen and some protection to the neck. It also feels very slick. My hands slide over it much faster than the industry standard lacquered finish. And I love it this way. I would recommend this treatment every time!
The drawbacks to Tung oil: It is very slow to dry. You must let each coat sit on the wood wet for about 20 minutes, and wipe off any remaining oil. I usually like to add several coats, at least five or six. Each coat must dry for 24 hours before adding another, in just the same way as the first. So 6 coats of Tung oil takes a minimum of 6 days! And that’s just the application of the product. Add time for removing the old finish (if you’re starting from scratch) There’s the clean up and the space you need to let it dry in peace. After the last application, I like to wait at least a week, preferably two weeks before playing that banjo again. So you must be patient. It is not for anyone wanting instant gratification!
The advantages: It is rather thick, it wipes on very easily without a lot of dripping, it does drip a little. It is not hard on the skin if you touch it. It has a very pleasing odor, it smells very organic. The smell reminds me of cut hay or something nutty or leathery. It is after all extracted from tree nuts. It adds beauty to the wood naturally, darkening it to a very pleasing tone. It prevents the intrusion of skin oil and moisture from your hands. It’s not as durable as lacquer, as you can see I’m re-coating mine after about 7 years- but 7 years to me is still pretty darned good for a finish that has all the advantages it does. It is not a heavy coating. It still feels largely like bare wood, only better.
My plan for the neck on the left: to restore it to the original lacquered finish, using good old fashioned nitrocellulose lacquer, over the orange-like colored stain originally used by Rich and Taylor. Hey I like tradition. But with a speed neck you never say never- I can always change my mind later- You can do it at any time. Just remove the finish and you’re done- But for me, It’s the Tung oil finish all the way! Okay gotta go now.. back into the shop to mix some stain..