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My Uke's Finish

Q: I meant to ask you if I can wax my uke or do something to improve its appearance. I’m not crazy about the appearance of the flat finish and I wonder if it’s going to just absorb sweat into spots that get a lot of handling. If so, can you recommend some product to use?

A: The flat finish on your uke is the same non-porous, bullet proof urethane as a shiny finish. Sweat can't get through it.  Making an instrument shine with sanders and buffers is one of the larger production expenses. The thinner the urethane is, the less it impairs the sound of the instrument. But, the thinner the finish, the more likely you are to buff through to bare wood and have to start all over again. Cheap instruments fight this problem by laying the finish on very thick. A "flat" finish has some chemicals in it to make it cloudy and to make it flow on smoothly without a lot of "orange peel." You spray it on, let it dry, and  you're done. No messy buffing needed. 
        Flat finishes first appeared on Martin necks in the late sixties. Necks, with all their curves and edges, are especially difficult to buff.  The concept grew in popularity and now the lowest priced instruments in any brand have flat finishes. It is possible to buff a flat finish to a shine. You will notice that the spots where you rub the uke will start to shine. But, if in the process, you buff through to bare wood, you are in a world of hurt. A small spot can be sealed with super glue, but a perfect color and refraction match is unlikely. A big spot may occasion refinishing the whole instrument. You could replace your uke many times for the cost of refinishing it properly.
        Traditional nitrocellulose and shellac finishes are made up of solids floating around in thinner. As they dry the solids clump together to make a hard finish. The finish can always be repaired by soaking it with thinner and refloating the solids. Urethanes, now used on almost all factory made instruments, have resins and hardeners floating in the thinner. As the thinner evaporates the resins and hardeners bond together to form an epoxy finish. No amount of thinner will can break those bonds.  
        So, nix on waxes and polishes. Clean off grunge made of polar molecules with water and grunge made of non-polar molecules with mineral spirits. The bad, and good, news is that there is nothing that you can do to effect your ukes looks.
Steve Mason

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