Finishing My Newest Violin
For every violin, viola, five-string fiddle, cello or double bass I build, the finishing process is nearly the same. After completing the last of the purfling, the order is as follows:
- Channel (the concave curve in which the purfling is nearly centered, but which must fair smoothly into all the other surfaces, concave or convex.)
- Final edgework (making the outer edge (and inside of the plate) curve together into the channel and arching)
- Varnish prep (final fairing-in of all curves and elimination of all bumps and unwanted ridges)
- Water-based stain (usually two or three applications)
- Mineral ground (one application)
- Seal-coat (one application)
- Varnish (numerous coats)
- All set-up issues: saddle, fingerboard, nut, pegs, soundpost, bridge, endpin, strings, tailpiece and (on the smaller instruments) chinrest.
The Channel, and Final Edgework:
I scribe a margin around the entire outer edge, usually about 1.6mm in from the outer edge. This will serve as the “limit” for the channel. I cut the channel to the desired depth, using gouges first, then small planes and scrapers, bringing the smooth curve up to match the scribed limit. Then I file the outer edge so that it curves in from the center of the edge of the plate up to meet the scribed margin of the channel. The other margin of the channels are scraped so that they fair into the curve of the plates themselves. I true-up all my lines using scrapers, files, and very fine abrasives, and then I am ready for final varnish preparations.
On my last post, I had just completed the back purfling. That seemed a good place to “call it a night”.
Then I began preparations for cutting the channel, by scribing in the boundary line:
I have a particular spot on my basement stairs, where I can get a very low-angle, not-too-bright light source, which casts shadows across the face of the instrument, and makes is easy to see irregularities. So, the last thing I do is stand there, holding the fiddle and rocking it very gradually, to see any shadows that indicate a rough spot or an irregular shape. When I find one, I gently scrape it away with a very sharp scraper. I want to move as little wood as possible at this point in the build: I already have the arching and graduation just about exactly where I want them to be. This is strictly fine-touch finish-scraping.
Some people are very particular about not using ANY abrasives. Sorry– I do use them, in a very limited way, but only at the very last part of the build. The edges of the spruce plate, for instance, are so soft that a scraper is simply too aggresive for final shaping, especially after I raise the grain with my water-based stain (strong coffee, in my case…yes, and I drink the leftover “stain.”) So I use a very fine (worn 400-grit) abrasive paper to make the edges smooth and pretty. I also use it later, between coats of varnish, to make sure that no bits of dust, splinters, etc. can spoil the next successive coat(s) of varnish.
I use a coffee stain because it imparts a gentle yellowish look to the wood, without doing any damage to the wood. Many people use strong tea, and I have done so. Some have a particular tea they use, for the color they want. That is fine. Some have alcohol-based, color-fast dyes to accomplish a similar result. That is OK too. I’m just telling you what I do. People have sometimes asked whether I use de-caf or regular. I love that question: I say, “Oh I always use regular, to wake up the tone!” 🙂 (Riiiight…)
This is something I got from Roger Hargraves. He is a master luthier living in Germany, and he wrote an online book as he built a magnificent double bass. In it he explained why he uses a mineral ground, and what it is (it is effectively exceedingly fine gypsum dust, introduced into the wood pores in a liquid suspension. He used a very thin varnish as I recall…I used coffee, again. It dries slowly, is easily applied, and cleans up with water.) So, I apply the mixture with a brush, one area at a time, rub it in with my fingers, and immediately rub back off as much as I possibly can, using a rag. I do NOT want a thick layer of stuff on top of the wood– I want the pores themselves to be filled with the particles. I coat all areas except the “handle”portion of the neck in this manner. Supposedly it leeps the varnish from saturating the wood, thus avoiding overloading the wood with varnish and deadening the sound. Does it help? He says it does, and I know for a fact that he did it…and I saw the bass in person, last year at the International Bassists Society convention, in Ft. Collins, CO.
The ground dries chalk-white, in spite of the fact that I used coffee for the liquid. I sand it gently to remove any excess gypsum (there always is a fair amount that comes off the surface at this point). Sorry, I didn’t take a picture at this point. You’ll have to take my word for the fact that it simply looked like a chalk-white violin, with the grain and purfling quite obsecured by the dry mineral ground.
Then I seal the violin, all except the “handle” portion of the neck. There are many things people use for sealer: Some use special commercially available preparations (I have done that, too), and some use very thin varnish, or shellac. For now, my sealer is a combination of Pine sap (yes, that sticky gunk that flows out of a cut in a pine-tree) and turpentine. The turpentine penetrates the wood very readily, taking the pine pitch with it. I allow the turpentine to evaporate off, leaving the pitch in the wood. I am of the opinion that the pitch is an OK thing in the wood, and that it seals the wood against further penetration by varnish. That’s my theory, anyway. 🙂 The mineral ground turns completely transparent under the saturation of the turpentine and pine pitch, and remains that way after the turpentine evaporates. Here is a photo of the violin with the mineral ground rendered transparent by the sealer. It will probably take a few days to get absolutely dry, (turpentine evaporates slowly) so this is the last photo for this post:
I have used a wide variety of varnishes, but currently I am using a spirit varnish concoction. If I need more color, I use the “Transtint” dyes available in woodworking stores and online. It does not take a great deal of dye…you want to go easy on this stuff. I have considered extracting dyes from plants, etc. Never have gotten around to it. 🙂
I’ll show the varnishing process in the next post.
Thanks for looking.