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Best way to "take down" an exisiting finish?


Allan Speers
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I have several violins which have (IMO) a too thick" finish.

One was made that way, the other clearly had a coat

(badly) added to it by the previous owner.

In both cases, I'd like to end up with a thinner, and less glossy,

result.  You all know the look I mean.  I am not

concerned with filling-in worn spots or old repairs, though that

would be an interesting topic as well.

I'm almost positive these are both done in oil varnish.

I assume there are techniques for this that are better than what

I'd use on a guitar done in nitrocellulose laquer.

I will naturally remove the fingerboard, but then what?  I

need to remove some material before final buffing, but obviously

just a tiny bit. Should I use a mixture of pumice &

something?  Should I take a chance and lightly sand it a bit,

then add a final clear coat?  

I'd be grateful for any suggestions at all, simple or complex.

Also: Are there any good books or dvd's that cover

this?

Last:  Do you think this is something I can do myself?

 The first violin I would practice on is cheap, cheap, cheap,

so if I mess it up I don't care.  The second violin is

not, not,  not.  I really do want to

learn this.  One step closer to becoming an actual, for real

violin luthier.

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quote:


Originally posted by:
Allan Speers

  One was made that way, the other clearly had a coat

(badly) added to it by the previous owner.


These are two very different situations... altering an original finish on a decent instrument (that you didn't make) is really defacing the work of the maker... I'd be hard pressed to give you advice about how to do that... especially so since we don't know which one is cheap, cheap, cheap and which is not, not, not...

If it's an overcoat or poilish that requires removal, it's best left to someone who knows what they're doing (and has experience with this sort of thing). Usually, it requires a combination of solvents and manual removal... and some time. Actually taking down the thickness of a finish with the abrasive idea (micro-mesh, tripoli, etc.) that seems to have popped up can deliver pretty lousy results (it will give you a dull finish with pretty much all the texture of the varnish removed from the surface... making it look like you dipped the instrument in semi gloss plastic coating).

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quote:  "Actually taking down the thickness of a finish with

the abrasive idea (micro-mesh, tripoli, etc.) ...can ... give you a

dull finish with pretty much all the texture of the varnish removed

from the surface... making it look like you dipped the instrument

in semi gloss plastic coating."

Jeffrey,

I assumed that would be the case, but that there would then be one

more step. Isn't it possible to either

1:  Buff this dull finish with some kind of compound & a

buffing wheel, as you can do with laquer?

or

2:  Hand-buff it with Argon's tripoli & oil method?

or

3:  Add one final, very thin coat of clear varnish (or perhaps

shellac) and dry that as usual?

----------------------

The better violin has the added finish (it actually ran in spots)

 It's a very nice bench-made violin.  (No, not the

Carlisle, thankfully) If I were to take it to a pro,

what price-range might I expect?  

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Keeping in mind that once you've taken away the surface texture of something, it's gone... I'd bet you can guess my answers to your first three questions.

I'll respectuflly decline from offering even a ballpark concerning cost for the work by someone qualified... except, to borrow from your description earlier, to say it's not, not, not, not....

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Hey, you added a not.  

-Or maybe you added a knot.

So that's it? It can't be done?  I've seen others

post here of taking down the shine on instruments they made.

What am I missing?

Jeffery, what "surface texture" do you refer to in your first post?

I wouldn't be penetrating the actual wood grain with the tripoli,

would I?  Even if I did, couldn't I then do a light

french-polish?  I have lightly sanded several antique desks,

then french-polished, and the results looked fabulous.  Why is

a violin different?

(yes, I scraped on the large flat surfaces, I understand sanding

should be a last resort,  but all curved surfaces were sanded,

and they still looked fine. Any surely tripoli in oil is much less

abrasive than even 600 grit paper)

I'm not trying to be obstinate, I was just born that way.

 (g)

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Hi Allan,

It is not so much the wood texture, as the development of the wood texture through layers of correctly applied varnish, that is worth preserving and appreciating. Many older violins that have survived the last 100 years have been polished and scraped and repolished by various owners or even by repair shops.

The french polishing of even the very best violins was quite a common practise through this time period, since performers were increasingly aware of how shiny some other player's fiddle looked and tried, or asked their luthiers to get the same gleam from their own.

In removing the uppermost shine from new varnish using pumice (or tripoli) and almond oil if directional, longitudonal wipes are used with a brush or by hand, then minimal texture is lost and the desired surface reflection can be achieved. This then ages and settles into the best kind of appearance in my opinion.

I currently have two violins that have had a "recoat" on the top, one has no texture left and the other I brought into a better appearance by using the above technique. The oil is best used as a lubricant and a carrier for the abrasive, you don't really want a setting oil to add to the mess!

My advise would be don't rush in and if in doubt just leave them as they are.

Remember that "untampered" violins are getting rarer and rarer as time goes by.

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Scratchy pretty much has it. It's the varnish texture that I'm referring to. It's a combination of the way the varnish ages (settles), the surface texture (gloss or lack of it, porous appearance or slick, etc.), the natural wear (pits, chips, crackle) and the character produced by the original application of the finish.

I did add a "not" to represent the level of cost for a good restorer doing the job correctly.

As I mentioned before, I find that removing an overcoat or heavy polish (and leaving what is left of the original finish under it) usually involves both solvent and manual manipulation. I don't use abrasives (at least not in the form that most here would think of them) for this job in most cases... and if I do use an abrasive for a portion of the job, it's a very limited portion. I'll stop there, however... even though I may get a little flack about not offering specifics.

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Jeffrey said,

quote:


Actually taking down the thickness of a finish with the abrasive idea (micro-mesh, tripoli, etc.) that seems to have popped up can deliver pretty lousy results (it will give you a dull finish with pretty much all the texture of the varnish removed from the surface... making it look like you dipped the instrument in semi gloss plastic coating).

I know exactly what kind of "semi-gloss plastic coating" to which Jeffrey refered, having seen it after cleaning rosin off a violin with micromesh. And, it was ugly. A lesson learned the hard way.

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Allan - I do have some experience in this. Not because I think it's ever a good idea for an original varnish finish, but because I've done a lot of what I would humbly call 'restorations' on some lesser quality violins and some better guitars and mandolins. I've learned this through experimentation on junkers. Before I knew better, I 'polished' some decent violins with abrasives. I've learned not to do that any more. The other caveat I'd make is to say, with apologies to Jeffrey if I'm out of line, that he works on very fine violins. I'm talking about low end trade violins, for the most part, that have already been mutilated--either over coated with some inappropriate substance or already revarnished badly.

I've never tried to reduce the thickness of an oil varnish. Because the resins in most oil varnishes are soluble in things like turpentine and dissolve slowly at room temperature, I'd guess that it would take a lot of time and patience to dissolve ~some~ of the varnish layer without affecting all of it, and I'd also think that the chances of the results looking very good are slim. Alcohol may immediately affect many oil varnishes, since many of the same resins are used with oils that are used with spirit varnishes.

I have had some success removing things like old gummy shellac coatings from oil varnish coatings just using alcohol on a cloth. The outer layers will dissolve quickly and at some point the oil layers will start to dissolve also. The trick is to realize when that starts to happen and stop wiping with the alcohol soaked cloth.

I've removed some kind of synthetic coating from an oil varnished violin using xylene on a cloth. Those results were pretty good because the xylene did not attack the oil layer, although it will if given enough time and rubbing with the cloth. Xylene can remove a layer of dirty rosin build up, but again, if you get too aggressive it will begin to dissolve the varnish.

I once removed a nitrocellulose lacquer finish from a J. B. Martinelli violin (a Roth trade name). It was a decent trade fiddle that someone had sprayed lacquer on. They had even sprayed over the fingerboard. It was so ugly it had to come off, and I rationalized that I was not the real offender in this case of varnish mutilation. That one had to be stripped completely and I revarnished it with oil.

Old (1900-1930 0r so) Gibson mandolins were spirit varnished and then French polished. Many were later sent back to Gibson or repaired elsewhere and given a nitro lacquer over coat of varying thickness. These finishes are often very ugly compared to the delicate original finishes. Often they display the wide, deep, spider webbed finish checking that is never seen with the original finishes. I've had some good results removing the overcoat with lacquer thinner on a cloth, again paying close attention to when the later layers begin to be affected. I usually apply a very light French polish after the lacquer is gone. But trying to manipulate varnish layers is a very imprecise thing. The advantage with these old mandolins is that the color is applied beneath the varnish, not in it. So if you can do remove a bit of the original layers, you still can preserve the color.

With a violin, the color is, for the most part, in the varnish layers, so if you remove any part of them you begin to lose color.

What I understand Jeffrey and Scratchy to be referring to as surface texture is the kind of very fine finish checking that occurs with old varnishes, combined with how the varnish layer shrinks 'into' the wood over the years. This shrinkage results in the telegraphing of the wood grain though the varnish, which is a very nice effect that is necessarily destroyed by abrasive polishing, as well as by the application of additional finish, including a French polish.

So it comes down to a judgement call. But to have much experience with this kind of thing, you have to have made some mistakes, as I have. Fortunately, I was smart enough not to try this on any kind of important or valuable instrument, although it's certainly been done way too much over the years.

One thing to understand is the difference between what most people think of as a beautiful professional finish and what most knowledgeable violin people like to see. Stradivari violins don't look like they just came of the C.F. Martin or Gibson assembly line. Except for the Messiah, they look old, well used, with bare spots, some repairs maybe, etc. We like to see that in a new instrument if it's well done. But what most people want to see, especially in a new instrument, is a perfectly clear, 'wood under glass' look. And many people who inherit old instruments want the same thing. And there are people, even knowledgeable professionals, who will try to give it to them thinking that they are preserving an instrument when they are really only devaluing it.

So, in my humble opinion, if you really don't like the varnish on these violin(s), and they don't represent anything of great value, then they are your possessions and you can do what you like to them. But if you asked 10 professionals, in particular people like Jeffrey who do great work on great instruments, 9 or maybe all 10 of them would probably tell you to leave them alone. Because, while you may like the results, others may not, and it's very unlikely that, after all your efforts, you will have done anything to preserve or increase the value of your instruments.

Personally I think that varnishing, and retouching or varnish conservation, is maybe the most difficult part of violin making and repair to master. It's very hard to match an existing finish, and to get the color and texture you want in a new finish, not to mention understanding all the available resins, solvents, and colorants.

But good luck whatever you do.

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I too have a cheapy-cheap-cheap fiddle with a "potted" finish. Takes me back to the old days of Decoupage. All it needs is a magazine picture of a chubby child with flowers and birds embedded in the finish for the illusion to be complete!

I bought it as my first fiddle and it has served me well. It has a fairly nice tone, good woods but a very thick finish. Thick enough to level the trough over the purfling. Ever since I got it, I've been eyeing the finish, thinking about how I would thin it down to something more respectable.

One way I thought I would go about it would be a sort of reverse French polish idea I got from a website about the traditional procedure. Controlling the mixture of oil, alcohol and shellac allows the control of the layering on of final finish. If the applicator has abundant shellac, it will deposit some on the fiddle. If it's starved for shellac, it will dissolve some and remove it.

This of course only relates to actual French polish finishes which are many times thinner than the glop that is heaped on my first fiddle. Application of alcohol mixed with oil might soften the glop all the way to the surface of the wood, making it slip off like a slimy skin. In other words, it might not be as controlled as hoped and could make a mess.

Someday, I'll get the nerve to go inside and work over this fiddle by hand. It could probably use a different bass bar, maybe some regraduation and other touchups to make it a little more responsive and give it a better bottom end. That would be a good time to shuck off as much of the finish as necessary to get it right.

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quote:


Originally posted by:
jackc

1) The other caveat I'd make is to say, with apologies to Jeffrey if I'm out of line, that he works on very fine violins. I'm talking about low end trade violins, for the most part, that have already been mutilated--either over coated with some inappropriate substance or already revarnished badly.

2) What I understand Jeffrey and Scratchy to be referring to as surface texture is the kind of very fine finish checking that occurs with old varnishes, combined with how the varnish layer shrinks 'into' the wood over the years. This shrinkage results in the telegraphing of the wood grain though the varnish, which is a very nice effect that is necessarily destroyed by abrasive polishing, as well as by the application of additional finish, including a French polish.

3) So, in my humble opinion, if you really don't like the varnish on these violin(s), and they don't represent anything of great value, then they are your possessions and you can do what you like to them. But if you asked 10 professionals, in particular people like Jeffrey who do great work on great instruments, 9 or maybe all 10 of them would probably tell you to leave them alone. Because, while you may like the results, others may not, and it's very unlikely that, after all your efforts, you will have done anything to preserve or increase the value of your instruments.


Hi Jack; I'll respond to a few details in your (excellent) post. I've numbered your statements so I can respond to them:

1) You are correct, of course. No apologies required. I will say, however, that it is my belief that if one desires to work, or own, better instruments that there is only one level of work or care that they should consider... no matter what the origin of the piece in question is. The rule is, first do no harm. It isn't "First do no harm unless someone else has already done something to it". If the item isn't "worth" proper attention, no attention may be better for it in the long run than compromised attention... but that's just my viewpoint... I always desired to work on better fiddles.

2) That's part of it... as mentioned, there is more to surface texture than just this aspect... but we're on the same page, so to speak.

3) Again, you are technically correct about the ownership issue, but (IMHO) one who would "improve" an instrument that (they themselves say) they care about in a way that a professional would tell them isn't appropriate is someone I hope never gets their hands on a really nice instrument....

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Fanstastic information, all.

Jeffery, I understand now what you meant by "surface texture."

 THis is not something typically worried about, or even

desired, with furniture, nor with guitars, so I was a bit

puzzled.

A point of terminology clarification-  Is this what you folks

mean when you use the word "corduroy?"

------

Regarding the "never do it" issue:  Obviously never on a fine

instrument in reasonable good shape.  However, On a mid-level

or workshop fiddle, or on a better fiddle that has be coated by

some idiot, as with my #2, one has to weigh the negatives against

the fact that all that finish is probably hurting the HF a little

bit.  What's worse- compromised looks or compromised tone?

 

What if you had a fine violin that someone literally coated with

poly?  I guess at that point one has to consider a full refin,

using only chemicals to remove the old glub.   I imagine this

will become a more and more difficult decision as more and more

EBay idiots destroy nice violins.

---------

I am going to take my #2 to a few experts next week for

estimates & opinions, since it's benchmade. It will be

interesting to hear what they say.  I do want to experiment

with the cheapo, though. It's just a stiff, dead Josef Lorenz (cost

a whole $75 on Ebay - my first ever violin)  Like Krug so

perfectly put it:  " Takes me back to the old days of

Decoupage."  They should have put some butterflies

and coins underneath, or maybe some pub menus.

There's no texture to begin with, so what the heck.

Maybe I'll even take it down completely, and use it to

begin learning how to oil varnish.  I'm dying to try it.

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quote:


Originally posted by:
Allan Speers

A point of terminology clarification-  Is this what you folks

mean when you use the word "corduroy?"


It's part of it...

quote:


Regarding the "never do it" issue:  Obviously never on a fine

instrument in reasonable good shape.  However, On a mid-level

or workshop fiddle, or on a better fiddle that has be coated by

some idiot, as with my #2, one has to weigh the negatives against

the fact that all that finish is probably hurting the HF a little

bit.  What's worse- compromised looks or compromised tone?


I guess I wasn't clear enough... What I was saying is that if the instrument isn't "worth" restoring correctly, it might be better to leave it alone. If it's a nice instrument, it's probably worth restoring properly (by paying someone who actually knows how to do it).

 

quote:


What if you had a fine violin that someone literally coated with

poly?  I guess at that point one has to consider a full refin,

using only chemicals to remove the old glub.   I imagine this

will become a more and more difficult decision as more and more

EBay idiots destroy nice violins.


I'm not with you... don't understand your statement... If there's original finish under the poly, the right way to deal with it is to remove the poly and not the original finish.

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quote: " If there's original finish under the poly, the right way

to deal with it is to remove the poly and not the original

finish."

Can an expert really do that, using chemical, not abrasives?

 

If so, then that's obviously the answer, but I'm surprised that it

would be possible. Time to make those calls.

Thanks to all for the very clear information.

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quote:


Originally posted by:
Allan Speers

Can an expert really do that, using chemical, not abrasives?

If so, then that's obviously the answer, but I'm surprised that it would be possible.


Allan;

I'm a patient person, but I'll only repeat myself three times for anyone except a deaf relative. I think that you at least removed the word "only" when you edited. My imagination?

As I mentioned twice before, I find that removing an overcoat or heavy polish (and leaving what is left of the original finish under it) usually involves both solvent and manual manipulation.

I think you keep missing the manual manipulation part... Abrasives are one method of manual manipulation.. but there are certainly others. Keep in mind that even water can be considered a solvent. What one uses (solvent and manipulation) depends on what one is removing and the make-up of the stuff one doesn't want to remove... and the bond between them. I'll be stopping here.

Feel free to make those calls... but as I tried to warn you, someone who really knows how to do this sort of thing isn't going to be cheap to hire.

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Get your hands on a copy of "Furniture Conservation" by Rivers and

Ulmney.  Lists for $160, but your library may have it.

 It's pretty recent, and has a pretty comprehensive section on

selection of solvents and techniques for removing layers of finish.

 Also has a wonderful bibliography.

I have done this on several violins lately, ones with very bad

touchups, or that had been coated over with poly or lacquer.

 As Jeffrey Holmes points out, both solvent and

manual manipulation may be required, but most of all you need

 patience and an informed, methodical approach.  The

trick is to soften and remove layers of finish without attacking

the layers underneath.  This generally means working quickly

on small sections at a time with solvents and small swabs.

 I've found sanding  too hard to control, but sometimes

scraping with a very small scraper can be useful in spots with a

lot of buildup.

As for dulling an existing finish, all you want to do is to change

the surface scratch pattern without removing any appreciable amount

of finish. There are lots of different grades of rubbing compounds

that will do the trick, from pumice, tripoli and rottenstone

through 3M and Meguiars products.  A light touch and some

technique are required to get uniform results without removing any

more finish than you would in polishing.

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