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New Hand-Rubbed Finishes for Gallatins and Bitterroots

By Michael Eck

Dalton Bell is always thinking about your Weber mandolin.

It would be easy enough for him to saunter into the finish booth, don his mask and spray away, but Bell, who in his rare spare time paints and draws, is an artist.

He’s constantly examining the process of finishing Weber mandolins and finding new ways of perfecting tradition.

Take Gallatins, for example. The humblest of the Weber line, they are remarkable music machines, and each luthier takes the same care building one that they would a Fern. But the materials and appointments are simpler.

Bitterroots are the next step, a performer’s choice that’s ready for the stage or the studio, and adorned only with top binding.

Both, until recently, boasted un-sanded satin finishes, stable and pretty, but without the glimmering sheen of a full gloss Yellowstone.

Bell, Ryan Fish and other Weber builders will tell you that the very thinness of that satin finish is one element that makes Gallatins and Bitterroots sound so good, with a shimmery chime on the highs and a nice foundational bark on the bottom.

But Bell, who frequently brings new ideas to the weekly Weber table meetings, lit upon a way to take things one step further.

He is now—with the assistance of new team member Brad Streit—hand rubbing finishes on all Gallatins and Bitterroots, achieving a semi-gloss that is even more transparent and which allows the Amber and Faded Amber colors to glow like a Cascades mountain sunset.

Most of the steps, the disciplined preparations that ensure the magic combination of protection and tone production, remain the same, but the final stage literally requires elbow grease—and actual wax—rather than additional lacquer or sealcoat.

Bell, as exacting about his tools as everyone on the Weber line, specifically prefers Wizards’ Mist-N-Shine for the wax. Why? Again, for that optimum blend of durability, handsome looks and great sound.

“It’s more intimate,” Bell says of the work, his voice almost a conspiratorial whisper.

“It’s obviously more involved, but I think it’s worth the effort. What you’re seeing was done entirely by one person at a bench, rather than at a buffing wheel.”

The process demands “dramatically less material,” meaning fewer coats, meaning the wood breathes, meaning the instruments sound fantastic.

One aspect of the physicality of hand rubbing the finish is that Bell—and Streit—must be extremely careful to work in straight lines along with the grain. This is where Bell’s talents as an artist come into play, his understanding that deep attention to method brings forth the best results.

“I’m sanding straight with the grain,” he says. “If you were to sand in circles, which is much easier to do, you would see a series of pigtails swirls all over the surface. I’m sanding it up to high grits, even up to 3,000 sometimes. The motion is parallel and it makes the finish sleek. It’s almost got kind of a silky look to it, like a pearlescent shine. I think it’s beautiful.”

From a player’s perspective, Bell loves that the end result leaves Gallatins and Bitterroots with a very smooth feel. The neck, he surmises, handles almost like a stripped-down “speed neck.” Beyond that, he likes the way the back of the instrument skims against a picker’s shirt, allowing for full freedom of movement, and therefore full freedom of expression.

“It feels great when you’re playing, it has a fast, easy feel,” he says, adding with a laidback chuckle, “It’s glide-y.”

A hand-rubbed semi-gloss is also one of the easiest finishes to maintain, and a little more forgiving to what pickers like to call “honest playwear.”

Bell and Streit are also applying the Zen patience of hand rubbing to the new Limited Edition Metolius (named for a beloved Oregon river), which is made from Pacific Northwest tonewoods—Port Orford cedar and myrtlewood—rather than the more common spruce over maple configuration.

“The Metolius probably has the fewest coats of any instrument that we’ve done,” Bell says. “That’s really going to sing!”