Varnishing Sequence; Part Two

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Varnishing Procedure; Part Two

Leveling the early coats of Varnish

In the last post, we were looking at the third coat of varnish. It looked pretty raw, still. You can imagine how much brighter the white wood might have looked under the varnish, without having stained it first. Some people hang their newly made instruments out in the sun, so that the ultraviolet light oxidizes the wood somewhat, and darkens it quite a bit. (Especially those who live where the sun actually shines: I, on the other hand, am in western Oregon, where the sun is a novelty… I do have a U.V. cabinet, but have not been very impressed with the results, so I haven’t been using it.)

Violin back with three coats of varnish.
Violin back with three coats of varnish.

Something I have occasionally done is to apply a few coats of varnish, then strip it all back off, down to the wood. It does not affect the mineral ground, nor the sealer, but it does affect the foundation color of the wood, much improving the finished look. But it is a lot of extra work…so I have only done it a few times.

Regardless of how I accomplish the color I want, the next step is to level the varnish.

I use fine abrasive paper (400-grit), to gently remove any bumps, and to leave a matte-finish all over the violin. I am very careful to not fully remove the texture of the raised grain, left from the coffee stain, but only to scuff-up and smooth the varnish itself. The wood should have been the way I wanted it before I began varnishing. I prefer that my violins still have some “wood-texture”. Some people like the mirror-bright plastic look, but I don’t. On a guitar, that is one thing. These are supposed to be concert violins… another thing entirely.

The things I am especially vigilant about are sags, drips, runs of any sort, and brush-hairs, etc. If there is an actual flaw in the varnish, I want to remove it before I move on. But, many times, I will deliberately (later) fill any “texture” with a darker substance, again emulating the “wear and dirt” of old instruments. I limit this to pretty minor stuff, usually. I have known fellows who took “antiquing” much further; as in, breaking wood off corners, etc, and abrading away varnish right into bare wood, then rubbing dirt into the wood. Sorry…I am not going to do that. 🙂

The important thing is to realize that any anomalies in texture will be highlighted by the varnish, not hidden. Something as small as a brush hair or a speck of sanding dust will become terribly obvious if one continues to varnish over it. (I learned this the hard way….) The varnish piles up around it and literally makes a mountain of a molehill. It pays to take the trouble to get things smooth before you move on.

Completing the Varnishing Sequence

I try to make sure that each layer of varnish actually contributes what I want; building toward the whole effect. So, I have to decide when to do any shading or antiquing. I have to decide how much extra color to apply in the darker areas, and what the overall color impression is to be when a person first sees the violin: Dark? (How dark?) Antiqued? (How much?). So, there usually comes a point where I decide the violin is dark enough, and I add two or more additional coats of yellow or clear varnish to increase the feeling of depth, and to shift the overall color impression back toward golden. Sometimes that works well; sometimes it does not. Occasionally I have had to give it up, strip the fiddle, and start over. 🙂

So, here is the rest of the varnishing, in the order it actually happened:

I neglected to take a picture of the fourth coat of varnish, but it wasn’t all that different from the third…same varnish, etc. So, here is the

Fifth Coat:

Fifth coat of varnish...side view of new violin.
Fifth coat of varnish…side view of new violin.


fifth coat varnish front of violin
You can see the areas where I have left thin varnish, to imitate the look of an area where varnish is worn off. I will sand them, later, to add realism.


fifth coat varnish back of violin
And, the back! Again, you can see the “wear” areas. The varnish is taking on some of the depth of color and clarity that I enjoy.


After the varnish dried overnight, I gently sanded it again, then added a sixth and seventh coat. Here are the photos:

Sixth Coat:

This one was mostly a case of adding strong color in the areas I wanted darker, and virtually none in the areas I want lighter. There was a tendency to streak, so I would feather the transitions out, using a fine sable brush, moistened (not wet) with alcohol. It worked well, but, if you look closely, you can still see streaks. These will be smoothed before the seventh coat, either by the alcohol method or by sanding. It is important to realize that, on the flamed maple, your brush-strokes should follow the flame, and on the spruce, follow the grain. In both cases, the natural lines in the wood tend to disguise any leftover brush-marks.

Sixth coat of varnish: adding dolor in selected areas.
Sixth coat of varnish: adding color in selected areas.


Sixth coat of varnish on back
Sixth coat of varnish on back; adding color in selected areas.


I allowed the sixth coat to thoroughly dry, then sanded it with 400-grit, well-worn abrasive paper, and applied a final “color-coat”: after this one, I will only add yellow or clear varnish, to accentuate depth or shift the color range toward gold.


Seventh Coat:

Seventh coat (final
Seventh coat (final “color-coat”. ) It doesn’t look very different from the sixth coat, but, in person, the thin areas are less “dry-looking.”


Seventh coat of varnish on the back of the violin.
Seventh coat of varnish on the back of the violin. The neck shows the original color of the wood. It will be stained and sealed at the very last step before set-up.


Eighth Coat:

I doubt you would really see a great deal of difference in this coat. The photographs are not very accurate in terms of color– I guess the flash does that. They are too red, and too bright-colored. It is not really that bright, but the color is shifting back toward gold, as I apply the last two or three coats in yellow varnish.

Eighth coat (yellow varnish)
Eighth coat (yellow varnish): This is nearing completion. There will be some minor retouch after everything else is done, but this is pretty much the way it will look.


eighth coat back
Again, the colors are not very accurate…but it does look nice. Just not this bright.


So: I think that is about as far as I will take the color, for right now. I will very likely decide later that I want it darker, and, if I do, I can always add more color. But I think I will go ahead with the saddle, fingerboard, nut, etc. and see how I feel about it. If I decide it is fine the way it is, then I will go forward with set-up. If I want it darker, I can add color at that point, and another yellow or clear coat, and then do set-up.

So, that is as far as it is going tonight.

Thanks for looking.



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