Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Varnish sequence, for these two instruments.

I took this photo a couple days ago.  The sun was coming in through my south-facing windows, striking on a coat of freshly laid-on clear varnish.  I thought it was a pretty image, and to my surprise, others thought so as well.  I've gotten more comments on this image than any I can recall previously.

Folks are asking about my varnish procedure, so I thought I'd just go ahead and write out what I've done here.  I am indebted to others, probably too many to mention, but I would point out that many of my starting points are due to Michael Darnton, and the workshop he leads in Claremont, California, each summer.  If you are interested in violin-making, you should consider his workshop.

  Southern California Violin Markers Workshop

I have purchased varnish of various sorts from commercial outlets such as International Violin and from small makers, such as Joe Robson.  Joe leads a workshop in varnishing.  I haven't attended that one, but have heard of, and seen, good results from it.

I've made varnish from scratch with my fellow violinmaker, Ruston Ruwe.  It's a lot of work, and not always successful.  Ruston has far more talent for it than I do, and is more willing to experiment with it.

Geoff Richings, my friend on Flickr, turned me onto the oil-paint-slurry method, which requires some experimentation.

In my earlier days, I was intrigued by the idea of duplicating the ancient Cremonese varnish.  I have since decided I won't live long enough to do that.  And I have plenty of other issues to deal with.

Secondly, I got interested in 'weird' instruments, such as pochettes, 5-string fiddles, and Hardanger fiddles.  Getting away from conventional violins somehow gave me the freedom, the permission, to just get some sort of varnish protection on the instruments, string them up, see what they sound like, and adjust from there.

Warning 1: I seldom like the results of my varnish.  My current goal with varnishing is to have something I find inoffensive.

Warning 2: The method that follows here is the first time I have done it exactly this way.  It's based on previous things that sort of worked, and yet I wanted to try something different, to get a better result.  I'm not unhappy with this one yet.  But next time I'll probably do something slightly different, or maybe completely different.

These are two instruments not of my making, but whites made in Bulgaria.  The violin in the sunlight is a master-grade instrument, relatively expensive, that I bought through Ned Nikolov in Colorado, who imports them.  I could not find a web-link for Ned, but a Google search under 'Ned Nikolov violin' will get you to him.  I use the phone to contact him.

My process here is slow, because I have repair work, my own making, fiddle lessons to teach, gigs to play, and time spent writing the occasional blog post.  I won't mention time wasted on Facebook or searching for useless information of various sorts.  On the other hand, allowing more time for each layer to dry has actually contributed to better results.  Don't be in a hurry.

November 2018 -- remove the fingeboards.  Not necessary, but I find it easier to work the varnish process that way.  Clean up the wood with horsetail.  As they come, these whites are full of buffer marks, swirls, cuts, and glue stains that you can see with glancing incident light.  Time spent here is important.  The smoother the wood is, the better reflectivity one will have.  Tough on the spruce, because I like the corduroy effect in my own instruments, but on these whites, that has been scrubbed out mechanically.  Many customers like very smooth tops, so it works.  I suppose it reminds them of factory instruments, or corpse-like old instruments that have been polish many, many times.  A lively corduroy in the spruce appeals to some.  Myself, for example, and other eccentrics.

13 November -- seal the spruce with Knox gelatin, very dilute.  You can find this in your grocery store.  I don't want the end-grains of the spruce to soak up the stain I am going to add.

14 November -- A coat of Hammerl JOHA Water Stain 421 at 11:30 am.  A coating of JOHA 2210 Primer, colorless, at 5:30 pm.

19 November -- A second coat of the 2210 primer, 9:30 am.

28 November -- A layer of garnet shellac.  I got this shellac in flake form from Highland Woodworker.  I made a 1-lb cut, which for my uses is 1 oz of shellac flakes to 1 cup of alcohol, Everclear, food grade.  One can do just as well using Bullseye Amber from the hardware store.  As it comes, it needs to be diluted down quite a bit.  And I can never use up a full can before it goes bad.  After it opens, you only have a couple months before it degrades.  After that, it won't quite dry properly.  You can use it to coat the chicken coop, but don't use it on a fiddle.

Followed this with 4 more shellac coats, 1 each on November 29 & 30, and December 4 & 5.

04 December --  a coat of shellac to which I have added cochineal tea and blue dye.  I don't have precise measurements, but do it by eye.  It is very easy to add too much of either, but particularly the blue.  The blue is TransTint Blue #6022.  I got it from the local Woodcraft store; it is readily available elsewhere as well.

The cochineal tea is my invention, though I'm sure others do it.  I haven't heard of it elsewhere.  So far, it seems to work.  My wife is interested in fabrics, and one day, while hanging out in yet another yarn store as she looked around, I happened to notice a jar of Cochineal fabric dye.  I bought the 30-gram jar several years ago and now have less than half a jar left.

To make the tea, I put some of the ground Cochineal dye into alcohol and let it dissolve for a few days.  I can then pour some of this directly into the dissolved shellac.  Depending on how much shellac I have, I then add a drop, maybe two, of the blue TransTint.

And it's good to mention at this point, that I always have a couple scraps of maple that I have been varnishing along with my instruments.  I can experiment on these as I go, just to make sure things don't look too weird.

05 December -- In a dinner plate or similar surface, mix burnt umber oil paint with mineral spirits, to make a slurry.  Rub this over all of the varnished surface (not the neck) until it looks like it has been dipped in raw sewage, then wipe most of it off.  You will note a color change.

10 December -- a second coat of the shellac/cochineal/blue, mostly to protect the rather fragile dried oil-paint coat.

11 December -- A coat of International Violin Dark Brown #1010DB oil varnish.  Not a true oil varnish, but seems to work.  I apply the varnish with a Wooster 1-inch (25-cm) brush that I bought at the hardware store.  After varnishing, I put the brush into a jar of mineral spirits while I tend to other things, then wash it out with warm water and soap in the kitchen sink.

Two more coats of the dark brown IV varnish, December 12 and 17.

08 January 2019.  I scrape the chamfers down to the wood, and apply India ink with a brush.

09 January -- touch up the blackened chamfers with India ink, to make the black more uniform.

12 January -- Clear oil varnish, International Violin 1011c.  Second coat on 14 January.  Third coat this morning, 16 January.

I think that will be it.  Now to let them sit for 2-4 weeks, then a final polish and set them up to playability.

Between all of the coats of all the products, I go over the instrument in good, bright light, and in glancing light, looking for dust specks, brush marks or hairs, any weirdness.  Rub that out at the time.  Smooth is of interest here.

And I use multiple thin coats, rather than fewer, thicker coats.  I wish I could do it in fewer coats, but I can't control them when they get thick.

My process here is not the way Stradivari did it, so if you want to have an argument about that, I would direct you to one of the several violinmaking forums online.  I have other work to do.


  1. Ken, my friend, I certainly enjoy your writing style! I hope to see you at the NW Musical Instrument Show in May.
    Chet Bishop

    1. Chet, thank you and good to hear from you. I am really sad that I'm unable to come to Portland this year. It's always a highlight of my year. But a time problem in May right now. I've told Cyndy and asked to be kept on the list for next year.