Cleaning unfinished Italian tops: The first issue when cleaning a musical instrument, is to decide what kind of finish it has. In the case of Italian mandolins from the 1890s to the 1920s typically no finish was applied to the top, except perhaps a light sealer coat of shellac, therefore you should NOT attempt to clean with a damp cloth. The rest of the instrument was most likely finished with French polish. After this period, many Italian instruments will have been varnished with some form of nitro-cellulose lacquer.
| In these two photos of the
same instrument, it is possible to see the extent of dirt, grease, smoke,
etc that can accumulate on the untreated classical mandolin top.
Once clean, I treat these tops with a wipe of Lem-oil, which tends to inhibit the adherence of grease. This oil is most often used on fingerboards, which are also untreated.
|On the tops of Neapolitan mandolins, which are not finished, I use a scraper, and I tend to work with the grain. Working directly across the grain seems to 'raise' the grain and leave the surface very uneven.||After scraping, I sand lightly with 240, 360, 600 paper, to regain the original smooth surface, with minimal loss of wood. This process should take off very little of the original thickness of the instrument. The difference is visible here where I have completed only half. It is inadvisable to do this very often, as tops are generally only about 2.5-3.5 mm thick.||A final buffing with net curtain fabric or linen 'burnishes' the wood to a 'shine'.|
|For the French polished part of the instrument, usually the bowl, neck and head, it can be touched up quite successfully with more French polish. Failing that, it is possible to use a good quality car polish to bring up the finish. I often use McGuiars Deep Crystal system, which works the same way with the French polish as it does with a car finish. It takes off a micro-layer of finish, as it polishes to a shine. Beware though........ you can only do this so many times before you begin to cut through the finish. Once done on a mandolin, it should then be sufficient to use a good furniture polish to bring it back to a good shine.|
Cleaning German instruments
|With German instruments, nitro-cellulose was the norm, until the advent of polyurethane varnishes. Both can be cleaned easily with a damp cloth, moistened with warm water, as neither of these types of finish is particularly susceptible to water. Once the dirt is cleaned off, the finish can be polished up in the same manner as with French polished finishes. If you use the McGuiars system, one of the steps is a surface cleaner, so there is no real need to clean first.|