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Question about soft oil varnish


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I have recently bought a new violin and I'm very pleased with it, but I am a little concern about the varnish. It has a soft oil varnish and I am kind of surprised how easily the varnish comes off. For example, the area on the back, under the endpin where it sits on the collar bone has no longer got any varnish, and the violin is only two months old. I noticed the bit that touched my skin started changing color i.e. it got darker, it probably because absorbed sweat into it and eventually the varnish came off. I showed this to the maker and his reaction was 'oh that's wonderful'. He argues that anybody can make a hard varnish but making a soft varnish that it's not sticky is the challenge and by virtue of it being soft it tends to come off easily. To be honest I don't really mind this, I don't like the look of new violins and this tear and wear albeit rather quickly gives the violin a bit of character.

I'll be interested in views of anyone who has worked on/with soft varnishes as to whether this is normal or not.

Thanks.

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I have a violin by J. Morris that is nicely wearing in all the right places. It can be dented with a fingernail, but the dent seems to dissapear in a day or so. It has not changed color anywhere from contact with my skin.

how long did it actually take to wear the varnish off of your violin? I am not sure how soft "too soft" would be.

george

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Sounds exactly like what I say. The consensus is that the 80% missing varnish on the best old Cremonese instruments might have got that way within the first 20 years or so of their lives. Even today that holy grail of varnish makers is extremely fragile and vulnerable to skin oils, etc.

My attitude about it is that if you're trying to recreate the magic of those ancient instruments you have to do everything the way they did it, as much as possible. Generally, in the history of violin making, the replacement of those vulnerable old varnishes with modern durable ones coincides almost exactly with the fall of classical violinmaking, so in the long run a maker has to ask himself does he want to do what worked, as done by the guys who were doing it right, or does he want to do what is the most obvious characteristic of the makers who did what didn't work, whose instruments we look on as inferior. There's no question in my mind which to do.

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Thanks Michael, I have a lot of respect for this makers, he was the principle restorer at Bears for 20 years and during that time he must have handled/worked on many fine instruments. He's been making violins for the last 15 years and has a decent list of players who play/own one of his violins. Like yourself, he also believe most of varnish on the cremones instruments came off within first 10/20 years. In fact jokingly he suggested I should play without the shoulder rest so more varnish would come off.

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Well your right Michael butit's never quite that simple, there is another side. I know some makers who are sincerely trying to recreate old varnishing methods and produce very tender, fragile varnishes but I've found that these varnishes can sometimes mute the sound of an instrument. So certainly a soft varnish doesn't guarantee that the fiddle will be great. Besides, the stuff under the varnish of Cremonese instruments is tough as nails, doesn't rub off, is chemically inert to alcohol, terp, xylene etc.

I don't like to see bare, raw wood when the varnish wears away. I prefer that when the varnish wears a durable undercoat becomes evident.

Oded Kishony

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You're right, of course. The other aspect of Cremonese varnish is that it's usually tissue thin, and there's always the question of whether those instruments would sound as good if they had a full coat. . . .but if "Maestro" likes the sound, then there's no problem with mucky varnish doing the wrong thing.

[Playing devil's advocate, because Oded and I have talked privately a lot about the issue] Maybe the magical mystery layer is just a coat of orange shellac--that would meet the description you give, and it certainly resembles a certain period of tough yellow Amati varnish. :-)

[This message has been edited by Michael Darnton (edited 03-29-2001).]

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I know about varnishes from furniture and floors, but not from violins. The purpose of a varnish in my areas of expertise is to protect the wood. If the varnish wears off, it may no longer be protective, and that is a problem. Why, in violins, is this not a concern?

Obviously, the way a violin sounds (and looks) is very important. But shouldn't protection of the instrument also be important? If the varnish wears off, shouldn't the wood be re-coated with something to protect it?

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Because you don't walk on violins, nor do you put food and drinks on them? :-)

I guess I'd ask what you are protecting things from, and what bad things will happen without that protection? If a car doesn't have a layer on it, it rusts, but that doesn't happen to a violin. There's a tradition with violins that the wear is interesting and attractive, and therefore desirable, and that a full coat of shiny varnish looks cheap, and therefore is undesirable. Bare wood is in itself not necessarily a problem--for the most part, the wood can take care of itself (and certainly there are many feet of flooring that don't have varnish--they don't look bad--they just look different), though often violins get a thin coat of a clear varnish to keep the dirt out of the pores of the wood.

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Many violin makers subscribe to the idea that violins sound the best with no varnish at all, and that any varnish makes the instrument sound worse. Others view it as a filter that can remove undesirable tonal components. All agree, I think, that it removes something, but doesn't add anything to the total quantity of the sound, and that too much is harmful to the tone and volume, both.

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I am not a maker, only a player, but I have spoken to enough makers to confirm their views on varnish, and it's line with what Michael said above, that varnish doesn't add any sound quality to the violin, in fact it hinders the sound if anything. But now there's a stong view that the grounding layer (the hard layer between the wood and varnish, influences the sound by quite a lot and yet there are makers (rightly or wrongly) slap the varnish straigh onto the bare wood.

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Oil varnish does get a little thinner with time but the interesting thing is that it also gains wieght the older it gets. It doesn't get just a little heavier it gains a lot by percentage. I don't remember exactly how much heavier it gets. Look around the internet at websites about oil painting. One of them should have the number.

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Interesting thread and timely in my case. I was examining a Vasile Gliga violin on ebay. Most of the gliga's found on ebay are from Christain Glisa "violinslover" web site but this one is from "cleffhead". My question would be one more of personal aesthetics but I am interested on peoples view regarding quality. "CleffHead" shows the violin before and after polishing. The polish appears heavy and gives that high-gloss look of heavy varnish. Assuming it is just polish, what would your take be on the visual quality and the impact on tone. My current violin looks much more like the unpolished version. I like this very much and am very pleased with the tone. I tend to care less for the high-gloss polished version. URL is below. Thoughts?

http://cgi.ebay.com/aw-cgi/eBayISAPI.dll?V...indexURL=0&rd=1

[This message has been edited by ShadowHawk (edited 03-30-2001).]

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