According to "Martin Guitars: A Technical
Reference": "Most pre-1900 Martin guitars have a French Polish
finish... Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Martin began
to use a varnish finish. Since this was French polished in the
final stages of buffing, it often did not look much different than the
earlier finish, although the varnish often developed a fine pattern of
checking or crazing. The finishes on higher models is usually
thicker and has a higher gloss than what is found on the less expensive
Tinted Finishes on Early C. F.
Various tinted guitars...
...including 1897 and 1898 Martins with dark tint & pumpkin tint
options, Southern California Music spruce top sample,
light tint Ditson Style 22, Ditson Style 11 with $1 dark tint option,
Olcott-Bickford 0-44, and Wm. Lange Paramount.
Note that every tint is slightly different.
Comparing the 1897 Martin with dark tint with the Ditson Style 11 with
dark tint option.
The 1897 martin has a darker tint.
Light tint Ditson Style 22, Spruce top sample Southern California Music,
Pumpkin top 1898 Martin:
Spruce top sample Southern California Music, Pumpkin top 1898 Martin:
The 1898 Martin Catalogue lists the "stained face" as standard on the
Style 28 and the larger sizes of the Style 21.
Spruce top sample Southern California Music, Olcott-Bickford Style 0-44,
Pumpkin top 1898 Martin:
or Over-Spray on C. F. Martin Guitars
A few words about
"over-finish" or "overspray", refinished
Martins, and values:
In the early days of French polish finishes, it was natural for Martin to
add a bit of extra polish to spiff up a guitar when it came back to the
factory. When Martin moved to lacquer, they continued the practice. This
tended to happen most often to their best guitars, and the ones built for
show, which means more pearl Martins than any others received this
treatment. In the days of Martin's best work, the company often considered
a guitar with over-finish to be superior to the guitar with the original
finish, and swore that they sounded just as good, if not better.
Martin also routinely refinished guitars if they had a problem when they
reached the dealer, and sold them as new, and refinished almost new
guitars if they had a problem covered by the warrantee. No one ever
thought of these refinished guitars as inferior, and your guitar might
just be one of them without you even knowing it! I have one old
Martin with a replaced back that I never would have known about from a
Refinishing usually involves sanding, which can thin the wood of the top,
often making a guitar louder, but without the full sound and balance of
the original guitar. Martin has always been expert in refinishing
guitars, and routinely does so with minimal noticeable thinning and little
detrimental effect to the guitars.
Some folks automatically value any Martin without untampered original
finish as being worth only 50%. I believe that following this "50%
rule" is painting with a very wide brush. Or refinishing with a very
wide brush, perhaps. Old Martin factory finish work doesn't bother
me at all, and to lump these in the same category as crude, amateur refins
with thick globs of finish and thinned tops, makes little sense.
Fred Oster of Vintage Instruments in Philadelphia told me the best
sounding Dreadnaught he had heard in decades was a 1944 D-18 with an old,
light factory overspray.
If it takes endless inspection and debate to decide if a guitar is indeed
refinished or oversprayed or not, could it really be that big a deal?
As people understand the history and context better, I don't think these
guitars will be devalued by more than 15% or 20% or so. They can be some
of the best guitars out there. Once we learn more abut the culture
at Martin at the time the work was done, I think attitudes will change
While I don't believe in heavily discounting for quality, factory
overfinishes, I would pay a premium for a totally untouched original
How to tell if a Martin has an "over-finish"
There's no substitute for experience, but I'll try to give you some of the
benefit of my experience along with what I've learned from others.
Almost all vintage Martins have at least some tiny dings and
scratches. If you look carefully with a magnifier, the edges
should show some definition. Early Martins tend to exhibit very fine
micro-crazing. If the imperfections looked smoothed over or filled
in, this is a sign of some form of touch up to the finish.
One of the easiest ways to spot an overspray on a Martin with a stamp on
the back of the headstock is to see what the finish does to the stamp.
In my experience, the stamp is often the first place where the overfinish
adds a blobby look, and reduces definition.
Headstock stamps can vary and take on many different looks, especially in
different eras with different types of finishes, but the letters generally
have a refined look to them.
A very light spray can hold definition, but the letters all tend to lose
character and three dimensionality.
It is very common with Martin stamps for some letters to have a deeper
imprint than others.
This should not be confused with overspray.
Martin finishes varied through the years, as materials and techniques
evolved, so the best way to spot an overfinish is often by knowing how a
finish from a particular year typically looks, and how a given example
compares. We also know that Martin finishes had a tendency to look
milky, for instance, in 1944, so many Martins from this year have been
Overspray on lacquer finishes have a tendency to create a wide crazing
that has a characteristic look.
Overspray also has a tendency to dissolve celluloid binding and cause dark
cracks in the binding.
When Martin finishes guitars with lacquer, the neck is sprayed before
being attached to the guitar, and finish is only applied to the 12th or
14th fret, depending on where the neck joins the body. You will see
that there is no finish on the side of the fingerboard where the
fingerboard extension is adjacent to the top of the guitar. Any
Martin with finish on the side of the fingerboard extension can be
determined to have overspray.
and Polishing Finishes
on C. F. Martin Guitars
The patina of the finish can be one of the true delights of an old
Martin guitar. Unfortunately, a new owner polishing an old guitar
can destroy the original patina forever. This may not reduce the
value by a dime, but once these guitars have all been polished, we will
never again know what an original Martin finish from a given period
actually looked like. This to me is just as harmful as an overspray
from the Martin factory that many people believe to reduce the guitar's
value by 50%.
Dealing with dirt, sweat, and nicotine residue is one thing.
Dirt and residue can can be eliminated with a soft cotton cloth, a gentle
dishwashing soap, and a light touch. I've learned by mistake from
doing too much at once how easy it is to damage an original finish.
It's best to do a little amount at a time, to make sure you're not
eliminating any finish.
Altering the texture of the finish itself is something else entirely.
Polish, by definition, is like sanding, rubbing the surface with a small
grit to take away from the top layer of finish to eliminate the rough
spots and leave a smooth surface. Martin guitars of different ages
and finish types have varying signature textures to the finish that
differentiate them. A Style 45 has been polished to a high gloss, while a
Style 15 has a matte finish. A 1920's shellac based finish will have
a different look than an early French Polish, or the distinctive
transitional finish of 1930, or a glossy lacquer finish of the
1960's. And finishes naturally develop micro-crazing with age.
Once these finishes are polished, both the original look of the finish,
and the patina it has developed over time, will be gone forever.
There is also the issue of polishes with silicone leaving a residue that
can make it extremely difficult to work on the guitar in the future.
I strongly suggest that you clean the crud, but avoid altering the finish
itself unless it has already been irreparably altered.
Some serious collectors of vintage guitars have a regular routine to
"improve" the finishes on the instruments in their collection.
Scratches and dings in the dark areas of sunburst or shaded guitars, as
well as mahogany backs and sides, often stand out as bright white against
a dark finish. An instrument from a noted collection with
scratches that are always dark, and never white, is as likely as not to
have been restored.
Restorers use several methods to darken light scratches.
Some use a toothpick to drop lacquer thinner into the crack and clean out
any "crud", and then finish with a highly diluted amount of either shellac
or lacquer. Some use Butyl Cellulose applied with a toothpick, to
soften the adjacent lacquer, followed by the application of lacquer
thinner or thinned lacquer.
Some dip a Q-tip in a solution of lacquer thinner or retarder, shake off
excess solution, and then touch the ding lightly with the Q-tip. The
whitish look will disappear, while the ding will remain but look less
obvious. Care is needed to avoid rubbing the Q-tip on the finish, as it
will smear the finish, and to avoid applying so much solution as to make
"Rustins" dark scratch polish, a wax based polish that is said not to harm
a finish is also sometimes applied and then polished off with a soft cloth
to make light scratches disappear.
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