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Dwight Brown

Cremona Varnish - How To?

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First:  What kind of varnish did our heroes in Cremona use in

the 18th century? (Stradivari, Guarneri)  I have read lots on

varnish and I am much more confused than I was in the first

place.....

Second:  Is there a good recipe and practice That can be

followed by a new maker to get good results with a minimum of heart

attacks.  There seem to be many varnish types, formulas,

grounds, number of coats,etc.  Is there a good place to start,

or do you just have to play roulette and hope.

Dwight

(The more  learn the less I know!)

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Which lots did you read? This is all well summarized here in past threads.

Cremonese varnish is linseed oil and pine resin (at least sometimes at least partly larch), see Ferbose's paper for details.

As to a minimum of heart attacks, I don't think you can really make your own varnish without putting in a lot of testing and a certain amount of worry--even the simplicity of Michael Darnton's mastic varnish recipe doesn't always work for people, and the complexity (and danger) rapidly rises from there.

As has often been said, it's not so much what you use as how you use it, so for avoidance of anxiety it might be wise to choose a ready made varnish and start experimenting with the application to learn how to make it do what you want it to do.

I think you have to develop your own procedure through practice runs. Even if you're following someone else's directions you don't really know it's going to work for you, through your interpretation of what you're reading, until you try it.

If you want a suggestion for a low-stress procedure, I'd say a shellac sealer/ground, and then one of the commercial violin oil varnishes, if someone recommends a store-bought non-poly varnish and a way to use it that would be fine. I'm not familiar with what's on offer lately. Experiment until you can nail the color and look you want in a way that's easily brushed out and not too fussy.

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Fellow   

A friend of mine who works in Home Depot. Once I asked him something about varnish.

He said" You have to know what you want" "exterior or interior", "fast drying or slow"

"Brand name or store name" etc. ....

I only wanted to re-varnish my door. I used Marine varnish, one coat. I do not know

anything about 18 century Cremonese violins. Your question is much tougher.

PS. To my surprise, some parts of my old door absorbed the varnish. It resulted

uneven shades. "Seal the wood first" is a necessary step.

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My suspicion is that Stradivari went to Home Depot to buy his

vernice

Only that it was called the apothecary in those days and it was not

a chain.

And he did not really care what was in there but his master just

told him not to get it not from the bottom of the

barrel. 

He takes it home and mix it with a lot of other things, color

pigments, inert pigments and oil.  

Then he proceeded to cover his violin with a fine

oil painting.

And when Home Depot stopped selling it, since everyone else

switched to alcohol varnishes and the supplier bailed out, no

one in Cremona could figure out how to make a good oil varnish

anymore.  

And when Count Cozio talked to Home Depot, the guys there just said

"sorry, we don't carry that anymore."

Seriously this is what I think happened  but since i can't

proof it you won't read about it in my paper.  

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Ferbose,

Thanks,

I have printed out your paper and put it in a 3 ring binder to

save.  I'm sorry if I am asking the sam dumb question as a

million others.  I just re-read the chapter in the Hill book,

and I can't make much sense of it.  I have been having a hard

time concentrating as school is starting again and I don't think

I'm ready.  25 years as a teacher and I still feel like I'm

starting from scratch every year.  My favorite student I ever

had (he became a botanist not a musician) a very bright, funny,

engaging kid.  To make a long story short, he took his own

life about 2 weeks ago and I'm still in shock.  So if I seem

dumber than usual (pretty hard) that's probably why.  I am

hoping some how or another to start a second career making

instruments.  It's Pie-In-The-Sky right now, but if I don't

try I'll never know.  I would like to go to school, but I am

afraid I am too old (47) and too stupid.  Anyway, I am trying

to read everything I can find and maybe start to get some tools and

wood together.  I really like this site, and I am very

impressed with all of the people here

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I recently read Zemitis' "http://melvyl.cdlib.org/F/C61Q8HML8HIKB7H65V11USUJMIIDVD26LNIBSJER41X96BEHM8-23191?func=full-set-set&set_number=007376&set_entry=000007&format=999">

book, Violin Varnish and Coloration.  The author is highly

knowledgeable, and takes a no-bogus approach toward his study of

varnish.  If he had met Sacconi and sat down to write a

varnish book together, it would have been very interesting.

 I am not sure if his insistence on using amber is

correct, but he is probably mostly correct when it comes to

refuting various exotic claims made by others.  I have to

agree that this is the best monograph ever written on Cremonese

varnishes.  His understanding was pretty much

state-of-the-art at around 30 years ago.  He would have been

pleasantly surprised by how much progress chemical analysis has

made in the last 30 years.  

If there is a good place to start reading about varnishes and

not get confused, I would recommend this book.

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quote:


Originally posted by:
Interlochen1978
Ferbose,

Thanks, I have printed out your paper and put it in a 3 ring binder

to save.  I'm sorry if I am asking the sam dumb question as a

million others.  I just re-read the chapter in the Hill book,

and I can't make much sense of it.  I have been having a hard

time concentrating as school is starting again and I don't think

I'm ready.  25 years as a teacher and I still feel like I'm

starting from scratch every year.  My favorite student I ever

had (he became a botanist not a musician) a very bright, funny,

engaging kid.  To make a long story short, he took his own

life about 2 weeks ago and I'm still in shock.  So if I seem

dumber than usual (pretty hard) that's probably why.  I am

hoping some how or another to start a second career making

instruments.  It's Pie-In-The-Sky right now, but if I don't

try I'll never know.  I would like to go to school, but I am

afraid I am too old (47) and too stupid.  Anyway, I am trying

to read everything I can find and maybe start to get some tools and

wood together.  I really like this site, and I am very

impressed with all of the people here

I am sorry to hear about the tragedy of your friend.  Nothing

is more fragile than life itself.

I have been asking myself "what is Stradivari's varnish made of?"

almost daily for the last year and I am still rather clueless.

 The PDF version of the paper I posted in June should be read

with a grain of salt.  SInce then more information have been

made available to me, and I am doing a major revision.  Only

this time it will be published in a journal.  There is nothing

really wrong with my first version except for a few serious typos,

but some information is definitely missing.  At any rate, my

understanding of the Cremonese varnish is very much incomplete, and

even things I think I know will not necessarily stand the test

of time.  Our analytical tools really are not advanced

enough to deconstruct something so complex.  On the other

hand, there are many people here who have years of hands-on

experience, and learning from them directly is much more

useful than reading all the stuff ever published, if you really

want to varnish a violin.  

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Jacob   

Hi Dwight,

My condolences - that's a tough one about your student.

Some of the most high-profile professional makers contributing to this forum have admitted that varnishing is the toughest part of making an instrument. The advice Andres cannot be improved upon - at least for starters. The commercial oil varnish which International Violin offers is pretty fool-proof, and there is absolutely no reason not to start off with that - I did. You really need to start with something which is easy to apply and predictable in the outcome. While you are developing as a maker you can start fooling around with other recipes, making them and working with them. Don't put that frustration at the top of your list if you want to start making instruments.

I was a music teacher as well (for the latter part of my career I was teaching Musicology at University) until the age of 43. I went into the instrument business then and started making at the age of 49 without formal training (I hesitate to use the term "self-taught", because with books, Strad posters, and the help of others such as here on Maestronet, that is a bit of a far-fetched claim). This is now my career.

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Fellow   

From the looks of my own violins I think there are many kinds of varnishes. For example,

looks hard, soft, thick or thin, light, dark, shinny, dull , changing colors under different lighting

conditions, no change...looks expensive,look cheap...looks Italian, red, orange, brown, etc. I would speculate that 18 century Cremona violins also had many kind of varnishes.

Why anyone put their lives on line for the glory of making violins?

If you make a good violin, so be happy. If not, you are still special. Why feel so sad?

PS. I am sorry for being insensitive to your loss and overlooked the part of

your honorable character that you remember your student. Still important i think to let bygone be bygone.

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Yuen, I have read many of your posts – I
think you are a great philosopher as well as an admirer of fine
violins and all that goes into making them. I think you should have
a go at making one yourself



Dwight, I know how you feel about going back
to school after being on holiday. I’m in the same position
also. I have 2 weeks left and then school starts and I always dread
the arrival of pupils at the start of the new term because I wonder
if I’m ready and have done enough preparation. So sorry to
hear about one of your students and I know that attachments to
students can get very strong so that you feel they are one of the
family. Life seems so crooked and unfair at times.



Jacob, I was interested to know that you
started your path into violin making later in life. This offers me
some hope as I am now 55 and I may manage to get a couple made
before I officially retire from teaching and then a lot more made
after retirement.

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Ray Lee   

What's a tough question!

I would prefer to  answer for  " How the earth are

made?" or "Why are we here?"

As far as i Studied the Cremonese  varnish systems,the more

hard for me to said "This is the "Secret"!"

The Cremonese varnish vary a lot in texture and colour.(the

thickness of ground and composition of it also).That made the case

more complicated.

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I have a varnish formula that colours just like and has all the

qualities, like elasticity and thermoplasticity, of Original

Italian varnish

Take 60 parts by volume Dammar Copal 40 parts wwRosin(PINE RESIn)

 Treat outdoors by very slowly adding

90% nitric acid over a low heat, until the resin is deeply coloured

and partly burned which gives the authentic brown element to the

yellow, orange or red varnish, just like Stradivari, keep heating

till all the nitric acid is boiled off, cool then dissolve in a

water bath, outside 200 parts Turpentine, or Rosemary oil etc

then simply add 20-30 part boiled Linseed oil, let cool

and settle and youre ready to go, of course for the ground coat you

use untreated with nitric acid clear varnish and also for the top

coat, clear.  Good 5-8 coats of coloured and 2-3 of clear and

youre done easily getting a deep orange red brown colour Identical

to some Strad and other Italian violins, because the dammar has

such a low melting point you get the thermoplastic nature that

almost all modern formulas are missing, after drying completely it

will still take a fingerprint if you hold youre finger down long

enough and then this will slowly dissapear over a few days, all the

books talk about Strad varnish being like this, Saconi, Hill etc,

but practically no modern formulas do this because the melting

point of the resins used is too high, Of course this varnish

practically wont dry indoors, even over weeks,1 day in the sun and

its completely dry, just like Stradivari said, Ok IVe put it out

there, time to tear it apart maestronetters, sincerely Lyndon J

Taylor

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Fellow   

Hi Mr. Taylor,

I don't think you have the same varnish like my German factory (not kidding). It changes colors.

In day time, in natural sun light it looks red. In night time, artificial light it looks yellow. Like an

attractive model (young lady), puts on different dresses. Why anyone wants 18 century varnish?

(ground is yellow, pigment is red, pigment does not show at night)

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Nitric acid varnish compared to pigmented varnish, is spectacularly

more radiant in strong light especially sunlight, colours sparkle

like a sunset kind like youre describing youre violin Yuen, the

superiority of nitric coloured varnish is it has no suspended

pigment; Pigment causes the varnish to be partly opaque, not

transperent, because the nitric acid actually changes the molecular

nature of the resins so the resins themselves are all coloured not

just a pigment suspended in resin, from my limited experience with

old Italians about 50% appear to be coloured with acid and are

incredibly transperent and about 50% use conventional pigments

and are more opaque, even the deep reds can be got with nitric if

you use 10-15 coats, also my theory is the Nitric acid degrades the

strength of the varnish enough that the coloured wears a lot

quicker than the clear under and over coat, just like the

Originals, haven't tested that theory, though, sincerely Lyndon

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quote:


Originally posted by:
David Burgess
Ferboses Home

Depot metaphor is no less compelling than than anything else I've

read, and probably better than most.

...................................

Yes I am attracted to that notion too......sometimes I even wonder

 if the classic makers actually varnished their own

instruments at all ......Take del Gesu for instance .He was very

disinclined to make his own scrolls...and all the evidence I see of

his varnish is that it is very even and careful....in contrast

perhaps to what his woodwork reveals of his persona...just

speculation of course but maybe the greats took their violins to a

paint shop somewhere to be varnished and the guy from the paint

shop(s) bought varnish from the Cremona Home Depot....

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I have made

 the Darnton Varnish( mastic varnish),It is simple enough,

but  still the varnish world is confusing, every maker must

use their own formula.

I will now  try the Lyndon J Taylor Varnish. But it too is

confusing!!!

Mr Taylor some Questions,

IS your varnish 60 parts Dammar Copal + 40 parts pine resin (which

one?, Larch, White pine,??) +200 parts turpentine +20-30 parts

Linseed oil (or any drying oil)

This is  your basic clear varnish and also your ground and

clear top coat.

 Your nitric acid color coat is boiled then cooled then you

put it in water? I don't follow the water bath,  can you

clarify

 carl

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Youve got the formula right I use pine rosin but Larch should be

fine unless it liquid and then it explodes, not kidding, The nitric

treatment; you melt the resins just barely over low heat

outdoors(this is 250-300' Farenheit with fire extinguishers

handy, drip in 90% nitric acid which makes an almost explosive

chemical reaction bubbling and fizzing then you keep lightly

heating, till the bubbling and fizzing has completely stopped

that's how you know all the acid and water has been boiled off, you

don't want to leave any acid or water in the varnish it could stain

the wood, then degrade it over time, Then you simply let the 6040

dammar rosin cool and solidify, powder it with a mortar add it to a

peanut butter jar no more than One third full with the 200 parts

turpentine  then slowly heating and stirring the varnish in

the peanut jar and placing it in a pot of boiling water, be

very careful not to splash anything over the side of the jar, it

will ignite very easily, if it lights up you ll have time to jump

away and use the extinguishers, not too risky if you do it outdoors

like a I say to;, finally when the resin is all dissolved add the

20-30parts boiled linseed let the undisolvable elements of the

varnish precipitate out to the bottom of the jar and the varnish is

ready to use. For the clear ground coat you simply skip the initial

heating and  nitric treating of the raw resin, powder the raw

resin dissolve in turps in the water bath(peanut butter jar 1/3

full) placed in a pot of boiling water to heat it, add the linseed,

let settle and youre ready to go, you don't really need to filter

it as it will all settle out, and form a sticky hard mass at the

bottom of the jar of unusable varnish, if you really are going to

try it contact me over the phone(at the link below) and ill guide

you through it much more thoroughly than I can do in writing, I

know it sounds fairly difficult but believe me the colours are

spectacular, exactly duplicating the colours and characteristics of

the best historical Italian and some German varnishes, call me in a

few days when Ive got some better sleep, and Ill be happy to help

you if Im not busy, sincerely Lyndon

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Dwight,

I think we should chat sometime. I appear to be in a very similar position in my life re learning about violins/varnish etc. as well as considering a second career.

But I am way older (48)! I am gathering articles and am happy to share. Last night re re-read Karl Roy's summary of varnishes in his new book for the third time and the picture became a little bit more clear...but still resembles a spirit varnish applied in too high a humidityJ.

Have you read about etheric oil varnishes?

Cheers, John Hungerpiller

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duane88   

At this point in the varnish conversation, I feel compelled to mention that Nitric Acid is dangerous, even if you know what you are doing, and those contemplating using it really need to educate themselves first. I really suggest the use of a hood, and consider that using it outside is a weak second choice. That white "smoke" coming off is something that will burn your lungs if the wind changes direction. And I mean burn in the chemical sense, not just a burning sensation.

Yes, I use it. No, not on a regular basis.

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I just finished making the first batch of nitro-resin using Lyndon Taylor's advice. This process took about 2.5 hours from setup to cleanup.

I poured the nitro-varnish into an aluminum pie tray and it cracked up into manageable pieces.

No neighbors complained. They were probably in their air conditioned houses.

The dangerous thing is that there is a sucker punch waiting for you. Dribbling the acid produces some hissing - no big deal. The lurking menace is the creamy tan crud that forms and thickens the brew. I notice that the temperature drops as this mass develops. You have to increase the temperature to reduce the viscosity. Then, that's when all hell can break loose. It starts bubbling like the proverbial witch's brew. I kept the temperature below 180 C or else I think it could have run away. After that initial surge I was able to manage each of these bubbling events. After the surge the brew is quite liquid and gets successively darker. Each surge gets less violent.

I quit when the acid addition seemed to get less results and the brew was very black. I could see, however, that this is a very deep red by the looks of the stuff on the thermometer bulb. It looks like the old red photography darkroom lens - very black until a very bright light shines through.

I used my thermometer to stir the mass. (I know purist chemist say that is a no-no, but hell, it is simple.) The temperature was kept around 170 C which gave good results. I stirred constantly which may have prevented any unexpected eruptions.

There are at least two major reactions: the acid addition, and this sneaky bubbling event which is reminiscent of the Fulton terpene runaway reaction. In the first runaway, I only had to remove the pot from the electric heater and placed it on a wood bench. Things stabilized quickly only because I was watching this like a hawk.

I used less than 40 ml of 70% acid. A pipette proved perfect for the job. The brew is 60% dammar, 40% resin. I wore a face shield and a face air filter that pulled out the smell and acid vapors. I had no discomfort at all with this protection. I also had on a welder's apron and glove. A water hose was nearby, just in case.

I really would not recommend this process to anyone else. It is fraught with potential injury. No wonder it was abandoned in favor of other processes.

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pbelin   

I also sometimes use nitric acid in the varnish, but I don' t like boiling it, and I don't want my varnish to be too acid. So what I do is pour a bit of acid over the colophony in a jar, close it, and wait a few hours for it to look very dark. Then I rinse the whole lot in fresh water, let it dry a bit, and back in the jar for a while with a bit of ammonia. Rince it again, then cook it till the water is off, and cook the varnish with it. It works well and seems a bit less hazardous.

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Quote: "It is fraught with potential injury".

Indeed it is. This talk of heating and pouring nitric acid makes me very nervous. I've seen very small nitric acid splashes and it burns through the full thickness of skin faster than you can wash it off. It leads to scarring and is very painful - it causes instant blindness if it gets in your eyes.

If you have strong nerves, look at these case reports (fortunately in black and white only)

http://www.medbc.com/annals/re.../text/vol16n3p155.asp

then decide to make your varnish some other way!

Ed

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quote:


Originally posted by:
pbelin

I also sometimes use nitric acid in the varnish, but I don' t like boiling it, and I don't want my varnish to be too acid. So what I do is pour a bit of acid over the colophony in a jar, close it, and wait a few hours for it to look very dark. Then I rinse the whole lot in fresh water, let it dry a bit, and back in the jar for a while with a bit of ammonia. Rince it again, then cook it till the water is off, and cook the varnish with it. It works well and seems a bit less hazardous.

Well, I am pretty sure that according to Fry, you are making an explosive!

Check the book (again.)

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