This is a guest post by double bassist Jean-Yves Bénichou on how to correctly polish ebony fingerboards. Benjy is bi-national, being a citizen of both the United States and France. He has lived in France for the past 30 years and has been a member of the Strasbourg Philharmonic since 1985. He studied double bass at Temple University with Edward Arian and at Yale University with Homer Mensch, as well as additional studies with Roger Scott and François Rabbath.
I really appreciate the opportunity to post this excellent and informative article. Feel free to leave your thoughts and questions for Benjy in the comments to this post.
Musical instruments are extensions of the human voice. If we wish to project our inspiration into them, we must rely on our hands to do so and in the case of wind players, our mouths as well. A lifetime of practicing involves constant physical contact with these artistic means of producing sound, resulting in unknowingly forging a different and powerful extension of our own body. Someone once told me that musicians are “transparent beings”; that we can be seen through our instruments as one looks through a window.
String players spend hundreds of hours touching part a highly refined wooden case. Our hands collaborate and act as a link between a composer and our brain, allow us to perform whatever we desire. If so much time is spent trying to achieve the rigorous demands of tone quality and intonation that we pursue, why should we then deprive our left fingers the sensual aspect of letting them feel comfortable as they “glide” up and down a piece of maple and ebony wood?
I have seen many basses, old and new, expensive and cheap, that have necks comparable to vertical lollipops with fingerboards that still feel rough. As shiny and as pleasing to the eye as they can be, they are unfortunately not aesthetically natural to touch. Obviously, it is important to varnish untreated wood to protect it from humidity and finger oil. When it comes time to applying a coat of protection to the finished instrument, luthiers never neglect the back part of the neck, and fill the minute grain and pores. Ebony by comparison, is a very dense exotic wood that actually gets harder as time goes by and does not require the same kind of protection. It is not surprising that no other substance can replace it for what string makers intentionally designed it for; that function being a fingerboard. The French call it “la touche”, an area that can be touched again and again. However, I feel that there is one finishing touch that is ultimately overlooked when the instrument is completed.
This polishing technique is a simple 3-step procedure that calls for ordinary household items. Do not hesitate to follow my instructions even though they may not sound plausible at first. I have tried this method on roughly10 basses, and have received favourable comments (the nice and WOW! kind) as to its end result. No, there will be no need to take your bass to the local shop, nor spend a week’s salary in the process. You can polish your neck at home, and the cost will be probably under 10$, but you’ll need lots of elbow grease. The best part is that you will have done it by yourself.
For best results when doing the job and to facilitate your work, I recommend removing all of the strings off if you can (maybe the next time you change them?).You can also take off two strings at a time, when working on the fingerboard.
1) Sandpaper: Lay the bass on its side. The back of the neck should be dealt with first .Use a medium fine quality to start with, or even a coarser type depending upon the amount of varnish that has been applied to the wood. The idea is to rub from coarse to fine.
Do not be afraid to scrape off as much varnish as you can. DON’T overdo it on the saddle (the place where the neck is glued to the body). This part should be primarily left alone. You can however, sand it and create a gradient of light to dark, from the front to the back if you so desire, but it is best to simply concentrate on the area where your thumb moves about. When sanding the sides of the fingerboard, it is preferable to make one large movement going from the nut to the end. If you use a wooden block covered with sandpaper in this step, be careful so as not to alter the original slope of the ebony. I prefer using my fingers. Turn the bass around on its other side and repeat the process.
Now lay the bass on its back. Use the same grade of sandpaper when sanding the fingerboard. The idea here is to polish the ebony and not remove varnish. Rub vigorously in a long stroke from the nut to the end, in one continuous motion. If you start at the middle going towards each end, you could affect the shape. Again, the pressure of the fingers will do a much better job than a block of wood. Sand until you feel that you have smoothed out all of the imperfections. Your powdery neck now may seem strange to touch, but don’t worry, it’s not going to stay this way.
2) Fine Steel Wool For this next step, don’t think that I’m going to ask you to go to your kitchen sink and get a fresh new Brillo pad. Instead, go to your nearest hardware store, or a place that sells furniture restoration supplies, and ask for professional type 000 Fine Steel Wool. The amount zeros may vary, but choose one that is fine enough so that you don’t have to use gloves; any coarser grain will cut your fingers. This may be the most expensive thing that I’m asking you to buy, and you’ll have enough to polish10 other necks.
Rip or cut off a generous piece with scissors, so that you can snugly fit 4 fingers into it. Lay the instrument on its side. Start by rubbing the back of the neck, and try to avoid touching the ebony if you can, so as not to dirty the white wood with black ebony dust. Use long strokes as I mentioned before. You will immediately begin to feel and see the difference. Now work on the sides of the fingerboard in the same manner, but don’t go back to the maple, as you may stain it with ebony powder.
When you have finished concentrating on these areas and the saddle, lay the bass on its back and work on the fingerboard. Without being stingy; use another piece of steel wool for this job. Start from the nut and go to the end, and apply lots of elbow grease. If you work correctly, you will see the powder coming off onto the wool. (Now you know why I asked you to remove 2 strings at a time, or even all of them). Wipe off all of the powder when you are done with a wet Handy-Wipe or sponge, and then immediately use a rag to wipe off the excess water. You are now ready to tackle the 3rd and final step.
3) Toothpaste That’s right; toothpaste! I learned this trick from some guy about 30 years ago and it has never failed me since. I like to use Colgate which is known for its less abrasive qualities, but any kind should do. I should mention that this final step requires lots of muscle power and clean rags, so go and rip up an old bed sheet while you eat your bowl of Wheaties. The toothpaste is going to finish the job by “micro-sanding” everything you have sanded so far. This is the secret ingredient that works wonders. A violin maker told me that he was taught a different way of finishing off his varnishes, fingerboards, etc., but that he would definitely use this method from now on since the result was far superior. Not only will your neck and fingerboard feel ultra-smooth and look attractive in the end, you’ll no longer need to take your bass to the family dentist!
Put the bass on its side. Take a clean cotton rag and wrap it around your index finger. Apply a very small amount to the covered finger and start rubbing the back of the neck. It is important to rub with great pressure, so as to almost burn your finger and make the toothpaste disappear. I repeat, rub, create heat, and make the toothpaste disappear! If you are too tired after a while, relax; and continue later. The longer your strokes are, the better the results will turn out especially on the side of the fingerboard.
Lay the bass on its back so as to work on the fingerboard. At this point, you may wonder how easier this all could have been had you been a violinist, violist or cellist. Here you may want to spread a bit more toothpaste directly with your finger, but remember- the more you apply, the more you’ll have to rub in order to make it disappear. You may in fact, use 2 or 3 fingers for weight and to highly polish the wood. Make a visual check by looking at the fingerboard in perspective up and down towards a source of light. The reflection in perspective will turn out to be intense, and you will be able to clearly see your finger at an inch or so distance. If it is visible, then the polishing procedure will have succeeded. My goal is not to transform the bass community into a narcissistic musical minority, nor to turn your fingerboard into a mirror, (there are mirrors for that). I simply want to help you feel a difference in your playing.
With this method, one can obtain a well seasoned, aged, “patina” look, comparable to the ones found on 100 year old church benches or wooden railings in Europe. Even an ordinary plywood bass will become more satisfying to touch and play. Your left hand will thank you for your efforts, and I guarantee you that you’ll be putting in more hours of practicing than ever before.
As a true finishing touch and to maintain the high lustre of your work, you may want to apply some professional quality furniture beeswax on the ebony from time to time, without overdoing it. It is also wise to use a small piece of wool from an old sweater to keep the fingerboard shiny.
Personally, I use silk which also has the advantage of removing rosin off the strings. There is nothing better than silk. It is the best fabric to use for cleaning your strings. No other fabric, not even cotton will do the job as well. Go to any fabric store any buy a meter’s worth, and cut it up into small squares and you’ll have enough until you retire. Don’t forget to wash it once in a while with soap and water, to give it a soft texture when scraping that rosin off. Rub your strings up and down so as to make a high screeching noise and then when you’ve just thought that you’ve gone deaf and the noise no longer persists, all of the rosin will be gone. So what if you make holes in your silk rag when doing so? It’s serving its purpose!
Any comments on the results obtained from this article would be highly appreciated.
Good luck and happy polishing!