Finishing Sequence: Part Three

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The Final Varnishing Steps:

Color Coats Application; Shading, etc.


There are as many individual styles for violin-family instrument finish as there are makers, it seems, but most makers still face the same sorts of decisions:

  • What kind of varnish? There are so many variants on this one that I am not even going to try…
    • The biggest division, though, is the choice between “Spirit Varnish” or “Oil Varnish.”
  • Basic color scheme: Red, Brown, Amber, or Orange? Or somewhere in between?
    • And, how do you achieve those colors? With synthetic dyes, natural pigments, or something else? Some people induce color in their varnishes by the making or cooking processes. Some add color afterward.
  • Thick or thin varnish: one can go too far in either direction.
    • Too little varnish, and it has a “dry”, thin look.
    • Too much, and it can look as though it has been dipped in marmalade, and it will deaden the sound, as well.
  • “Straight” varnish (sometimes called “Full” varnish) or “Antiqued?”
    • If Antiquing is chosen, how far will you take it?
      • Just a gentle shading, emulating minimal wear, from careful use? or
      • Real damage, carefully repaired, “distressing” the instrument, to look as though it has survived several wars and a flood?
      • Or somewhere in between?

My Choices on This Viola are as Follows:

  • Spirit Varnish
  • Golden brown, leaning toward reddish brown
  • Thick enough varnish to stop looking “dry” or “thin”…just enough to give a sense of “depth” as one looks at the grain of the wood.
  • Gentle shading on the “antiquing,” adding darker color in the “no wear” areas, and leaving the “worn” areas a little thinner. I doubt it really looks like an old violin, but it has some of the general look and charm…I hope. 🙂 I have done straight varnish a few times, and, while it looks nice, I prefer the minimal antiquing.

So…when I last posted, I showed you the viola with the first four coats of varnish:

Viola back and side with four coats of spirit varnish
Viola back and side with four coats of spirit varnish.


Here is the Viola with Six Coats of Varnish:


Viola front with six coats of spirit varnish.
Viola front with six coats of spirit varnish. You can see that some touch-up will be needed to even out the color.


Viola side with six coats of spirit varnish.
Viola side with six coats of spirit varnish.


Viola back with six coats of spirit varnish.
Viola back with six coats of spirit varnish.


More Color Needed! Here it is with Eight Coats:

It looks pretty good in the above photos, but the camera does some odd things to the color, and it needed a little more, yet. So, here it is with eight coats:

Viola front with eight coats of spirit varnish.
Viola front with eight coats of spirit varnish. It isn’t really this red. It is still in the brown range. I don’t know why the camera affects the color appearance this way…maybe it is the lighting.


Viola side with eight coats of spirit varnish.
Viola side with eight coats of spirit varnish.


Viola back with eight coats of spirit varnish.
Viola back with eight coats of spirit varnish. Still some more work needed.


Final Sanding before Final Coat of Varnish

A careful rubdown with very fine, worn abrasives precedes the final coat of varnish, so that brush-marks, irregularities of any other sort, and rough areas can be reduced as much as possible.

Rubbed smooth, and ready for a final coat of yellow varnish.
Rubbed smooth, and ready for a final coat of yellow varnish.

By the way, that tiny brown dot in the middle of the lower front plate is a tiny knot in the spruce. It is in the wood, not the varnish. It doesn’t hurt a thing, and adds a bit of character, I think. (Real Spruce wood! It had branches originally! 🙂 ) I regularly use wood with “character.” Several of my early instruments have ribs with a pattern of tiny “pin-knots” in them. Those ribs were all cut from the same billet, and doled out one instrument at a time. I still have a few from that billet, and will use them eventually, as I really like them. Here is the side and back:


Side of viola, ready for final varnish coat.
Side of viola, ready for final varnish coat.


back of viola ready for final coat of varnish
On this side it is easy to see the dull, freshly sanded surface.


Here is the Final Look Before Adding the Fittings:

This is the final coat of yellow varnish…very thin…to achieve the look I wanted. There will still be a final rubdown and polishing, later on, but this is the last of the varnishing.

viola front with final coat of varnish
Front of 14-inch viola with ninth and final coat of varnish.


viola side with final coat of varnish
Side with final coat of varnish.


viola back with final coat of varnish
Back of 14-inch viola with ninth (final) coat of varnish.


What is left to do?

I will add the saddle and end-pin next, then re-install the fingerboard, fit the nut and tuning pegs, re-touch whatever damage is done to the varnish in the above-mentioned work, then set up the viola, with sound-post, bridge, tailpiece and strings. I’ll add the chin-rest when everything else is in its final state, and, as a very last step, seal and polish the “handle” portion of the neck.

Thanks for looking.

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Finishing Sequence Part Two

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Part Two: Beginning Varnish.


When we last posted, I had just applied the sealer coat, and it was pretty fresh, still.

Back with freshly applied sealer
Back with freshly applied sealer.


The sealer does lighten a little bit as the turpentine evaporates…and, of course, the smell changes a lot. I happen to like the smell of turpentine, but it is pretty overpowering when the sealer is still fresh. Once the sealer was dry, I took a few more photos, then did some varnishing. I think you can see the difference, here:

Dry Sealer

Dry sealer on the front plate.
Dry sealer on the front plate.


dry sealer, side view
…and the side view…


dry sealer, back view
…and the back.


Beginning Varnish

But then I began the varnish. I usually try to lay down a golden base-color, and then add whatever other color I am working toward. I have ranged all over the board, trying different colors, but usually I end up in the browns or red-browns. I tried a really red violin with a student who demanded it, and he was thrilled with it…I was not. 🙂

So here is the viola after two coats of yellow-gold varnish.

fist two coats of yellow varnish
This is the first two coats… Not a lot of change, initially. Varnish takes a while to build up a good film.


Side view with two coats of yellow-gold varnish.
Side view with two coats of yellow-gold varnish.


viola with two coats of varnish
Back of viola with two coats of yellow-gold varnish.


I let it dry for a few days (partly because I had a great deal of other responsibilities that week), and then sanded it gently with worn 400-grit abrasive, rubbed it clean with a dry rag, and added another two coats of varnish:

Subsequent Base Coats


Viola with four coats of yellow-gold varnish.
Viola front and side, with four coats of yellow-gold varnish.


Viola back with four coats of yellow-gold varnish.
Viola side and back with four coats of yellow-gold varnish.


The appearance changed a lot more dramatically with those coats, didn’t it? The colors are getting richer, and the finish is much more glossy. I used the flash on these last two photos, so, to stay consistent, I will try to use it (and the same background) on all the remaining photos of the varnish.

Color Varnish and (Maybe) Antiquing

The next step will be to decide just how far down the “antiquing trail” I want to go, this time. I will unquestionably do at least a little…but I really like the look it is developing right now, so I want to be careful to not lose it. (The neck stain and seal is the very last thing to go on, just in case anyone is wondering. I will explain that later.)

At the very least, I will begin adding some red-brown varnish, to darken things up a little. I will most likely do at least a gentle shading toward “antiqued,” but I am leaning toward minimalism this time. Nothing drastic.

We’ll see. 🙂

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Varnishing Sequence; Part Three

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Varnish Procedure; Part Three


Well– as I said in an earlier post, one of the decisions that has to be made is whether to “antique” a new instrument. As a rule, I try to go easy on this, doing minimal shading and light wear patterns; but it really does pay to do something to satisfactorily darken the bare wood before beginning varnishing. Otherwise, I will regret it later on, when I can see the bright wood through the dark varnish, and there isn’t much I can do to make it look right.

As you may recall from the first post on varnishing this violin, I was not very happy with that first coat of varnish–it was too light in color. I should have stripped it off and started over, but I kept thinking “just a little more varnish!” Well…it wasn’t working. Especially under bright light, the light wood just grinned at me from behind the varnish.

So, not really wanting to strip it and start over, I used a different ploy: I coated the entire instrument (except the handle area of the neck) with a very dark pigment, allowed it all to dry, and then sanded it back off, knowing that I would damage my lovely varnish in the process, but also knowing that the dark pigment would only remain in the low areas of the grain, and that, if I was careful, there would still be a fair amount of the varnish left, but with bits of the dark pigment remaining, looking like the accumulated dirt and skin-oils from hands, ground into the wood over the years….hopefully.

And, it seems to have worked. That foundation looked a little better…more believable, I suppose; so I went with it, and here are the results:

Antiqued side view.
Antiqued side view.


Front view, antiqued, and saddle installed.
Front view, antiqued, and saddle installed.


Back side antiqued.
Back side antiqued.

I am not showing the intermediate steps…they really put the “ugh” in ugly, for about a day or two, there. But after the pigment was sanded back off, and the varnish cleaned up; using a rag, I rubbed a seal-coat of very light spirit varnish into the whole fiddle, to lock down the pigment and clean off any loose stuff left from the sanding off of the pigment. Then I began re-varnishing with the dark red-brown varnish, thinning with alcohol as needed, to get it to flow well. It took a couple of days to get it to a point I felt happy with, but I am much more satisfied with it now than before. I’m sure some will disagree and hate it, but: sorry, that is the way this one had to go. Perhaps the next one I will try something a bit different, and get it right the first time.

Rationale Behind “Antiquing”

Meanwhile, here is something to consider, regarding “antiquing”: I had a professional violinist (Adam LaMotte) tell me, “Chet, we players all want an old master violin. If we can’t afford one, then we want our violin to  look like an old violin.”  A famous violin-shop owner in England (Charles Beare) put it this way: “An unattractive violin simply does not get played…it gets no attention from customers. There is absolutely no reason you should consider ‘antiquing’ your instruments, unless, of course, you actually want them to sell!” That is fairly succinct. Evidently even the “big boys” recognize this odd little fluke in the violin market. I have never understood the market trends that drive people to buy pre-distressed (worn-out) blue-jeans, either, but someone has made a lot of money doing just that.

Ah, well…at least the “wear” on the violins usually does not hurt them at all. (Although I have known of people deliberately cracking and re-gluing instruments, and it is fairly common to bush and re-drill peg-holes on a brand new fiddle, to make it look old. And some go as far as a scroll-graft, knowing that virtually all pre-1850 violins have had a neck-graft, and a genuine neck graft is usually a sign of a genuine old violin. Sigh… not anymore. I have done neck-grafts, but only when there was a cause, and it was a needed repair. Same for peg-bushing. I have done lots of them, but only in repairing old instruments.)

So– the bottom line, to me, is that I really like them to look at least a little like an old, gently worn violin. And sometimes even, a very old, heavily worn violin. (This one fits into the latter category, except no cracks, and no bushed peg-holes.) There are certainly people who won’t like it…but there will definitely be those who fall in love with it, too, so I’m not too worried. There are better ways to darken the wood without hurting it, though, and next time I will try to do so. (Some people have tried certain chemical treatments which looked remarkably good, but, as it turned out, destroyed the structural integrity of the wood.)



You will also notice that the saddle has been installed. This is another thing I do a little differently: I round the corners of the saddle, thus eliminating the stress-risers built into square mortises.

 Saddle, installed
Here is the saddle, installed…still could use more polishing. Notice the round corners.


side profile of saddle
The saddle still needs a little more scraping and polishing to get it looking right, but this is how it looks from the side.


Why Rounded Corners?

Ever notice the shape of the windows in airliners? Ever wonder why they haven’t any square corners? (See Comet Disaster)  Here’s a partial quote: “In addition, it was discovered that the stresses around pressure cabin apertures were considerably higher than had been anticipated, especially around sharp-cornered cut-outs, such as windows. As a result, future jet airliners would feature windows with rounded corners, the curve eliminating a stress concentration. This was a noticeable distinguishing feature of all later models of the Comet

At any rate… the intent of the rounded corners is to prevent saddle cracks.

Saddle crack in a cheap fiddle.
Saddle crack in a cheap fiddle. Notice that it emanated directly from the square corner of the saddle mortise.

So far, my practice of rounded saddle corners has proven quite successful. Also, though you can’t tell it from the photos, there is a tiny gap at the ends, to allow for plate expansion and/or contraction. It isn’t much, but it is there.


The saddle is ebony, as will be the fingerboard, nut and tuning pegs on this violin. I haven’t decided yet whether to use an ebony tailpiece and chin-rest, but I probably will do so. (Tradition, you know….) 🙂

The next post will complete the set-up procedure.

Thanks for looking.

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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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