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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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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How I Varnish a Cello (Part two)

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Continuing the Varnishing Process

Sand between varnish coats?

As a general rule, I sand between varnish coats, especially after the seal coat and first varnish coat. They tend to leave the surface very rough, possibly because each fiber of the wood surface that is not a firm part of the surface tends to stand up, completely surrounded by varnish. Once the varnish dries, all those little splinters, or whatever they are, are left sticking up everywhere, with the result being a very rough surface, literally like coarse sandpaper.

The phenomenon does not seem to repeat itself, so I think I am pretty close to correct, as far as explanation. If not, I would be happy to be corrected. But subsequent coats generally need very little sanding, provided the first one was really carefully smoothed before continuing. So…that is what I did, here. I very carefully sanded the entire instrument, which took a long time. Then I carefully wiped the instrument down with a soft rag, to remove all the dust, and used a cheap stiff brush to remove any dust in corners.

Adding Color Coats, then Clear Coats

One of the things I wanted was to add color in certain areas–shading, if you want to call it that. I added color especially in corners,  on the ribs near the miters, and near the neck, etc.  Also in the undercut portion of the scroll, and in the fluting on the back of the scroll. I am not going to “antique” the instrument, but I do like some gentle shading.

After the first color coat dried, I added another, not sanding between coats. Each color coat was very thin, only adding a tiny bit of reddish brown. I gently rubbed the whole instrument down with a foam-backed, well-worn, 320-grit pad, and then added my first full clear coat. That pretty much took up the whole day, so the following photos are what the cello looks like after four total varnish coats.

Cello front with four coats of varnish.
Cello front with four coats of varnish.
Cello front quarter with four coats of varnish.
Cello front quarter with four coats of varnish.
Cello back quarter with four coats of varnish.
Back quarter
Cello back with four coats of varnish.
back view
Cello scroll with four coats of varnish.
Cello f-hole and corners.
Sound hole and corner–you can see the gentle shading around the corners.

The varnish really needs to harden up before I continue– and, except for some small corrections of color, repair of varnish flaws, etc. the next thing will really be final assembly– it still needs a nut, a saddle, an end-pin assembly, a bridge, four tuning-pegs, and a sound-post.  Besides, the fingerboard still needs dressing. It does not have the correct camber, as yet.  So the next post may just be about final assembly. I might show more varnish pictures, but the changes you will be able to see in photos will be minimal. In person, yes, it makes a great deal of difference.

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