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A New Red Lake Pigment

Wm. Johnston

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Here is a photo of a little violin that I recently re-varnished. I

finished this with a new lake pigment that I've been experimenting

with. When this pigment is mixed into varnish it has some

interesting properties. A thin coat of the varnish is a light to

pale yellow, a thicker coat is orange and then a thicker coat is

red. The violin in these pictures was varnished to the full red

color except on the back of the neck. On this area I shaded the

finish to show how the color changes with thickness. Even the deep

red varnish is thin compared to many oil varnishes.

As most of you are aware most red varnishes are a pink color when

applied in a light coat and only darken to red with the application

of more layers of varnish. This pigment achieves red in a different

more pleasing way.

I have a pigment from a different dye source that has a more

pronounced color changing effect. It starts as a stronger

yellow color, turns orange in a heavier coat, and then with a full

coating of varnish has a nice red-brown color. I don't have any

good pictures of this pigment in varnish at the moment so I'll post

on the dye source for it later.

Anyways back to the pigment in this picture. I'll tell you what the

dye source for this is in a day or two. I've been making some

pigments from relatively odd sources so I'll let you look at the

color first, then I'll tell you what it is because its more fun for

me that way. By the way in person the violin is a nicer shade of

red but I hate to fiddle with the colors of pictures too much.

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I have never heard of this being used as a dye source for lake pigments. It is a pigment that I made myself with alum and potash. The pigment is not commercially available but the dye source is readily available. Actually the dye source for the red-brown pigment is much more interesting from a violin making point of view but I didn't have enough of that when I varnished this violino piccolo.

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Garnet shellac has to be applied very thickly in order to achieve a

red colored varnish. In a normal thickness varnish film appropriate

for violin use, garnet shellac is yellow. Actually this violino

piccolo was originally varnished entirely with garnet shellac, I'm

including a picture below so everyone can see the color of garnet


I felt that this instrument would look better with orange varnish

so I stripped all of the garnet shellac off and then applied the

red varnish. I meant to stop applying varnish when it was an orange

shade but then I decided to use up all of the varnish that I had

prepared so I applied it and ended up with a red piccolo.

No, this piccolo is not varnished with anything containing shellac.

All traces of shellac were scraped off before re-varnishing.

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Thanks, I like this little violin. Too bad I only know how to play

the guitar well.

Ok, I'll give you a rough outline of how to make this pigment.

First you need to mix up a potash and water solution. I never use

measured amounts of chemicals, I just eyeball this part. Use the

same amount of potash that you would use for making madder

root pigment. I mix up about a gallon's worth of solution.

Next find a one or two gallon jug.

Now get a small board of cherry wood containing as much of the pink

heartwood as possible. Get your plane out, I highly recommend using

an electric hand plane for this to speed up the process, and turn

your cherry into very fine shavings. Stuff the gallon jug full

of cherry shavings, pack it in firmly. Now pour the potash/water

solution into the cherry shavings until they are just covered. Set

this mixture in the sunlight for a few days to steep. Get another

clean jar and filter the red liquid into the clean jar.

Next mix up a saturated solution of alum. Pour the alum into the

filtered red water slowly. Add just a little at a time. The pigment

that forms will begin settling from the water after a few minutes.

You will see the un-reacted red cherry colored water at the top of

the jar above the pigment. I continue adding alum solution until

all of the red liquid has turned into pigment. You know this has

happened when the water above the pigment turns almost clear. Now

you have to wash your pigment and dry it just like you would madder

lake if you intend to use this in oil varnish.

Now there are a couple tricks that I've found when making lake

pigments of any kind that you may want to try some time.

1. After I have mixed my alum and potash solutions I stick the jar

in the freezer and let it freeze solid (be careful if your

container is glass). Then after it is completely frozen, thaw it

out. When the water freezes it forms the tiny pigment particles

into larger pieces that settle out of suspension very quickly, this

makes the washing process go pretty quickly and saves a lot of


2. Once I have a thick pigment paste I don't like drying it because

it's hard to grind into oil without leaving gritty particles.

Instead you can take your thickened pigment paste and add about 25%

linseed oil to it and mix thoroughly. Then let this set for 15

minutes or so, then stir again. Continue stirring and letting the

mixture stand until it thickens, then you may need to add more oil.

After some time all of the water will have evaporated from the

mixture and will have been replaced with oil, leaving behind a

smooth oil paint without any tedious grinding.

3. I'm tired of oil varnish and on this red piccolo I cheated. I

didn't use oil varnish or spirit varnish. Instead I mixed the

cherry lake pigment paste directly (I never dried the pigment out)

into waterborne polyurethane and airbrushed it onto the instrument.

The entire varnishing process took less than two hours not

including the ground. This varnish was probably 20% pigment (about

50% pigment paste which contains lots of water) so this reduced the

hardness of the varnish film quite a bit. I would rate it's

hardness and chip resistance as the same as some spirit varnishes.

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Emulsion varnishes are easily made since the introduction of water misible linseed oil that can be incorporated in spirit varnishes. You can mix wet pigment into this.Turkey red oil can be used similarly .

One thing to mention is that water doesnt leave the varnish film too easily though depending on what resins ,etc.. you,ve used.

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Originally posted by:
Wm. Johnston

If you stir the oil/water/pigment paste then let it set and repeat over and over, eventually the water evaporates and you have a smooth oil paint paste. I'm not suggesting that you apply the emulsion paste to a violin and then let the water evaporate.

I know that.............. you will find that other varnish forumulations will not permit your method.

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I'm allways trying new things related to varnish and colours too, but I think we have to analise the results of our efforts.

In the case of the varnish in your violin, it does not fit my taste in relation to colour, texture and transparency, at least on the current state of your research. But that's my personal opinion, and I may be wrong.

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Manfio, this pigment is a little more transparent in oil than in

waterborne finishes like was used on this violin. In person the

varnish has a little more of an orange color to it. I don't polish

my varnish so that is why the finish isn't smooth, but that has

more to do with my building practices than the properties of the

varnish or pigment.

I know that the color of the piccolo in the picture above isn't the

most desirable violin color. The reason I listed the source for the

pigment colorant was because of how the varnish's color changes due

to film thickness. Most red pigments make varnishes that are pink

in thin coats and then turn red with the application of additional

varnish. My pigment on the other hand is yellow or orange in thin

coats and then turns red when more is applied. There aren't any

commercially available pigments that do this, that I am aware of.

This is a property seen in many old varnishes plus it causes many

other interesting affects. The color of this varnish can also

change depending on viewing angle and lighting intensity.

Oded, I have one sample of this pigment in linseed oil. The color

is more orange-red in oil than dark red as in my picture above.

Also for the first few weeks there is some fading while the

oil dries and hardens. After the first few weeks the color seems

stable. In waterborne polyurethane I have noticed no fading of this


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Originally posted by:
Wm. Johnston

My pigment on the other hand is yellow or orange in thin

coats and then turns red when more is applied. There aren't any

commercially available pigments that do this, that I am aware of.

Sorry... I seem to be doing this alot today, but: Huh??

What do you mean by "commercially available"?

Most semi-transparent yellows build to orange or red.

A side note: There is a color, made of several resins and dye stuffs, called "tutti gialli" (Manfio, please correct my Italian if I'm off) that translates to "all yellows". It's a bit fugitive, in my opinion, but it's a classic in the sense of building to red through several coats. Works in spirit varnish only...

Concerning your cherry lake; If you like the color, you may want to give it a good "sunning" to see how it fares in UV...

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The classic method for testing permanence is to apply the pigment on a card, then cut the card in half (or cover half with aluminum foil) put one half in a drawer the other half in the window and wait for a week or two. Simply observing the color will not reveal how or if it's fugitive.

You need to compare the original unfaded color with the one that's faded, to get a sense of what part (if any) of the color is changing.

Interesting color, I'll have to try it.


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Yes Jeffrey, "tutti gialli", Sacconi mentioned it quite a lot, I think

Yes, colours can progress from yellow to orange, to red and, eventually, in thick coats, to black. I think varnish colouring has evoluted a lot in the last decades, we have many many good alternatives to use today.

I've tried recently to colour linseed oil with aloes, boiling them together, as mentioned in an Italian forum I participate... what I've got was a muddy oil with no transparency...

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you can color oil with madder root by leaving the powdered or cut root steep in linseed oil for a long time, just keeping it warm in sunlight. You will get a golden yellow color (depending on the acidity of the oil)

A curious property of cherry is to turn DARK with age. So it's possible that this lake color may also turn darker with age.


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