Oil Varnish Glazing Procedure

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Glaze Procedure for Oil Varnish, Using Artist’s Oil Colors

Procedure for shading or antiquing oil-finish violins:

Water-based Stain procedure

1.      Using a clean brush, and very strong coffee or tea (with instant, you can make it as strong as you want), stain the instrument a nice tan color all over, including the “handle” area of the neck. This will probably take more than one application, but let it dry completely before repeating.

2.      The application of the (water/coffee) stain raises the grain as well, so, between applications of coffee, let the instrument dry completely, then lightly sand it with VERY fine micromesh, to get rid of any major irregularities but NOT diminish the texture (provided you like texture– I do; if you want less texture, sand more.). Sand the handle area mirror smooth between applications of stain. Warning: if you are using coffee or tea, absolutely do NOT use steel wool for smoothing. Iron reacts with the tannins in the wood and especially the tea and turns jet black…so if  tiny fragments of steel end up snagged in the fibers of the wood, they will leave black stains that will not come out. Some of us learn the hard way…

Seal the wood

3.      Once it is ALL the color of tan you want, and ALL the texture you want, and ALL dry, seal the instrument, using a mixture of oil varnish, yellow oil-soluble dye, and turpentine to thin the mix. (How much yellow? Depends on what you want to accomplish…I would say keep it very light.) The oil varnish is usually fairly thin to start with, so you won’t need a great deal of turpentine. It may take more than one coat to seal it–if so, make sure the WHOLE body gets the same number of coats, to avoid creating heavy areas. Allow the instrument to dry completely. I only apply this to the body and the scroll– not the handle portion of the neck. Incidentally, you want to seal the surface, not soak it all the way through. Go easy with this stuff. It is a good idea to sand (lightly, using 400-600 grit) before moving on, and wipe it down with a turpentine-dampened rag. This removes any unwanted particles, and leaves the surface clean and ready to coat again.

Color application

4.      Using Brown Madder Alizarin (Windsor-Newton) oil paint (get artist’s grade, not student grade; the artist’s grade has more pigment), thinned with a little oil varnish and a tiny amount of linseed oil in a small jar, get a mix that is soupy, but not water-thin. (You need the linseed oil to keep it from drying too rapidly) Incidentally, if you want a redder-brown, add a little Purple Madder Alizarin—it only takes a little.

5.      Apply the mixture using a fairly stiff brush, over the entire instrument except the neck (handle area). You might try just one area at a time, until you see what it will do. Get the color into every little crevice. Set the brush aside, and rub across the grain with your fingers. You want the mixture to be starting to set up a little, just as you get the glaze to the color you want. Remember that you will probably be applying two or more coats of glaze, so feel free to rub most of the coat off that you just applied. Rub harder in areas you want lighter, simulating wear. The reason you rub cross-grain is to encourage pigment to hang up in the deeper reeds, and stay there. I use the heel of my hand to get the look I want.

As the mixture begins to set up, you will feel it stiffening– at that point, you can rapidly pat it with your fingers, over and over, leaving hundreds of fingerprints, but removing all streaks. The “fingerprints” all blend together, making perfectly smooth color transitions, and if there are areas that are too dark, you can rub them a little (cross-grain) with a rag. At this point the dark reeds should be pretty visible, and the light areas are the only thing you are blending colors on.

6.      Once you have the whole instrument the color you want (but lighter than final planned color), and no bad spots, let it dry until it is hard to the touch. You can use your fingernail or the tip of a knife to carefully remove or press flat any “zits” that are sticking up.

Varnish between color coats

7.      Give it another coat of the yellow varnish, still pretty thin. When it is COMPLETELY dry, go over it with fine micromesh, to get any little “zits”, hairs, etc. off. Be careful not to rub through into the color coat.

8.      Subsequent glaze coats as needed. (The thinner the glaze coats, the more transparent the final effect—plan on several very thin coats, instead of fewer heavier coats.) Don’t go too far with this–you don’t want to obscure the wood. Check for any areas needing touch-up. Let it dry completely.

9.      Another coat of yellow varnish, or brown, if you want it darker. Allow it to dry, and lightly sand it, with extremely fine micromesh .

Final varnish procedure

10.  A last coat or two (or more, if you wish) of varnish, and final rubdown.

Neck Stain

11.  After the varnish is completely dry I used to use the neck stain from International Luthier’s Supply, in Tulsa (no longer available, as that company no longer exists). Six to eight coats, rubbed in vigorously, with a 4/0 steel wool rubdown between coats, seemed to work pretty well. Don’t apply this stuff before you are finished varnishing—the varnish doesn’t like it at all. (There are other ways to stain necks–take your pick…. Wish I knew what had been in the stuff I got from ILS, but they are gone for good. Too bad.)

12.  Note: I originally used tung-oil varnish for this process, but the process does not require the use of tung-oil varnish—any oil varnish would work; tung-oil varnish dries very rapidly, and just makes the process a lot easier to complete.

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6 Replies to “Oil Varnish Glazing Procedure”

  1. Hello Chet, I recently used the described technique for coloring three violins that I am finishing. The application went very well and the results were excellent. during the application of a coat of varnish over the pigment, the pigment began to immediately lift! I had to strip the top and start again. I have two more waiting in the wings and need find out what the problem was. Any ideas. The varnish was amber old wood balsam varnish. could it be drying time was insufficient? Thanks for your comments in advance

    1. Well…I guess, I need more information:

      Several questions come to mind: my first guess is that somehow the color coat did not bond to the sealer (or previous varnish coat)…but it usually bonds so well, that I would want next want to know what solvent is in the next varnish coat, that might be dissolving it.

      Is it “lifting” off, as you describe, or is it dissolving? If it is really lifting, I am suspicious that it did not bond well to the previous coat (sealer or whatever was under it.) If it is not bonding, then we have a problem to start with, and need to find out why it is not adhering. If it is simply not well dried, then yes, allowing further dry-time would be appropriate.

      You did not say what the previous coat was…no chance it was a shellac of some sort? Some have wax in them that floats to the surface (I am told) and would have to be removed before the oil-based glaze coat would stick.

      Sorry I can’t be more helpful. That would really be a frustrating situation. Did you sand lightly before adding the glaze coat? That removes the hairs, dust-particles, and “zits” (technical term, I am sure), so that the glaze goes on smoothly. It also would leave a prepared surface to which the glaze should adhere very well. I would say 400-600 grit, and then rub it down with a turpentine-dampened rag, to get any residues off. The oil-glaze should adhere pretty well, I would expect.

      I do hope this helps.



  2. Hello Chet, The three violins have been handled slightly differently in preparation for the glaze. two of them have a ground of diatomaceous earth followed by a thin coat of oil varnish (Howard Core Italian Balsamic oil (amber)) no way of knowing what the ingredients are except likely balsamic turpentine. The ground was followed by two coats of unthinned amber balsamic oil. Between coats, the surfaces were lightly sanded and cleaned with naphtha. The glaze was then applied. the same balsamic oil varnish was used to apply over the glaze coat.

    The third violin used a diatomaceous earth treatment followed by an extremely thin coat of Behlen’s violin spirit varnish. This layer was also followed by the balsamic oil varnish after being lightly sanded. There is good adherence of the oil varnish, no adherence problems were noted, and I have used this approach before. following two coats of oil varnish, sanding, and cleaning, the glaze was applied. The problem occurred when I applied the oil varnish over the glaze.

    I think my problem may have been the short drying time I allowed the glaze. About four days. It felt dry but experience with oil painting in my youth was that it was notoriously slow to dry. (that’s why I stopped oil painting!) How long do you typically let the glaze cure before you apply varnish over it?

    As I applied the oil varnish, the texture of the glaze appeared to change almost immediately. A second pass of the brush if necessary actually lifted small particles of the glaze. I really hope I can solve this problem because the glaze produced an amazing color and appearance. I have prepared a separate board using the same grounds and varnishes which I glazed as a test board for anything I decide to try. Its been drying for couple of days. I plan to wait a week, try it again, then a second week, etc for a month or so. I may try a different varnish as well.

    Any other thoughts? I really hate to remove the glaze from these three amazing instruments and I really like the technique.

    Thanks, Bob

    1. Actually, I had been using such a fast-drying varnish that I could re-coat it after one day, but it was hard dry when I applied the next coat. It sounds to me as though your technique is fine but you may want to put a very thin coat of varnish (no re-stroking) over the glaze to lock it down before a heavier coat of varnish.

      (BTW, it is possible with a tiny brush to “re-touch” spots that lifted off without completely stripping the fiddle. Additionally, it is best to make two very thin coats, as opposed to one heavier coat, for this very reason; the second coat covers discontinuities in the first coat.)

      Send pictures, if you are willing. I have been pretty discouraged about making, for a while and it has been encouraging to hear from you. I work full time, and also co-pastor a couple of small churches, so it has been hard to make time for lutherie lately, and I have had very few sales in the last few years…all of which contribute to the feeling of discouragemnt. I do hope to complete another five-string fiddle soon, and exhibit at the annual show at Marylhurst University in April…that should help.

      Thanks for writing.


      Chet Bishop

  3. Hi,
    I was wondering if this process would work to make rainbow-colored violins? I have a friend who wants a green violin, but I’ve heard painted violins lack in sound quality. Is it possible to use green instead of brown for this?

    PS: I’m a student violinist, I’ve never made a violin before, or finished one, and was just planning to help my friend find an unfinished violin to color. His little sister’s interested in learning and I figured, if it worked for green, I could make myself a purple one later on.

    1. Well…I expect it could work…I have never tried it. 🙂

      In fact there are varnish colors available from “transtint” that might allow you to tint the varnish the color you want, too. But certainly, I would imagine that the glazing would work.

      I have a tough time imagining why you would want it that way, but I am 60, so that might explain why I don’t get it. 🙂

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