Violin Varnish Workshop


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As promised I will start posting photos of Joe Robson's Violin Varnish Workshop held at the Emerson Umbrella in Concord, MA. This is where co-host Marilyn Wallin has her shop. I hope to add posts and photos over the next few days. So stay tuned.

Joe Robson is demonstrating the application of varnish.

"Prof. Varnish" Joe Robson is explaining the theory of the ground system.

Chris Reuning brought three classical Italian violins for us to study.

This is a close-up of Reuning's violins. Top to bottom: a Ruggieri that was a copy of Maggini (Cremonese example), a Gasparo da Salo (Brescian), and a Seraphin (Venice).

Claire Curtis and Marilyn dreamed up this cheap and effective way to give everyone their own uv light "box" Here are my three violins. Two have a ground and the darker one is with varnish. I retrieved this violin from my shop garbage can. I cleaned it up so well that my wife said I should throw all my violins in the garbage can. :huh: Well, here it's back in one, but looking much better.

Here is a closeup of my "garbage-can violin" getting ready for rub down polishing.

On clear days we hung the violins in the bright sun to accelerate drying. This "violin tree" became quite an attraction at the school.

Joe is testing a varnish color sample on a ground surface.

This violin is getting rubbed down.

And this is Jay Vande Kopple's killer violin. Hanging in the sun, it was blinding. B)

Joe demonstrated several concepts on different violins such as the way to control the depth appearance of the wood. This depends primarily on the color of the isolation layer.

More to follow with details.

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Bruce, We need to use what we have. The latest work on the Stradivari varnish has used carefully chosen samples. It is true that we cannot rely solely on the scientific analysis. Eleme

The basis for these conclusions? Have you been unable to make a varnish incorporating linseed oil which you like? What is your experience with making, manipulating, and changing the properties o

One big problem is that most of the Cremonese instruments have lost their original varnish, at least according to Dai-Ting Chung, the violin curator of Chi-Mei Museum. As far as I can tell, he and his

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Now let me add some commentary.

The workshop was much, much more than learning Robson's methods: we analyzed WHY he did these things. Robson did his historical homework seeking to understand what the Cremonese makers did. Keep in mind that he is a professional woodworker and varnish maker (recall his business, Tried & True). He also read extensively the old chemical literature which he shared with us. I had fun reading some of those books.

Robson claims that European varnishing methods changed when Stradivari started making instruments. Stradivari kept to the old Amati method while furniture makers, woodworkers, and other luthiers switched to modern self-leveling varnishes to save time and money.

Robson showed us his collection of high-resolution photos of Cremonese instruments. In particular he took us through what he found from the Bergonzi cello that has a pristine varnish. Also, we learned how the latest findings by researchers such as Brigitte Brandmair support Robson's findings and methods.

Chris Reuning and David Bonsey brought in antique instruments for us to examine ground and varnish. Reuning presented a Ruggieri that was a copy of Maggini (Cremonese example), a Gasparo da Salo (Brescian), and a Seraphin (Venice). These three are shown in my first post. (I lost my notes on Bonsey's instruments.)

As I started to post in another thread, here are the salient points about Cremonese ground:

The ground is a wood fiber sealer, but not a pore-filler. There is no evidence for shellac.

The ground optically matches the wood which points to being related to the original wood resins. It is very transparent.

It does not have a protein layer nor a mineral ground EXCEPT for incidental contaminants.

The ground is not yellow, but has a golden color that makes wood look natural.

The ground does not mask wood surface features such as pores and channels.

Robson's ground system mimics the aging process of lignin and other wood components. The first sealer coat stops the fibrous wood from soaking up wood dyes made from wood (plant) products. The ground staining brings out the wood features and flames. The ground system builds layers that optically couple the wood to the varnish. The ground is transparent and does not mask fine wood features.

As for the Cremonese varnish:

The varnish is incredibly transparent.

The varnish contains the color; that is, the varnish is dyed.

There is a minor contribution from pigments suspended in the top layer.

The varnish is not self-leveling, but adheres aggressively to the fine wood surface features

Robson's varnish system uses three components: a clear varnish, colored varnish, and 3 pigments found in Cremonese instruments.

In making his colored varnishes, Robson attaches the alizarin molecule to the linseed oil. Thus, the colored varnish is dyed rather than pigmented. He can adjust the alizarin colored oil to make colors ranging from clear amber (no alizarin) to orange, rose, and deep red. The maker can tweak the final outcome with pigments in the top colored layer. I was amazed at how a tiny amount of boneblack warms colors.

His latest findings use a Greek Pitch formulation - a super lean varnish that has a thick viscosity and ultra slow drying time - features that fit historical evidence. This rather pasty/sticky varnish is dabbed on with a stiff brush, but is smoothed and manipulated manually - literally by hand. Finger tips spread varnish at the edges. The palm spreads the varnish over wide areas. The beauty of this varnish is that there are no brush marks, no drips, and no runs. It is very slow curing, needing bright sun or a light box - in our case 30 gallon galvanized steel garbage cans fitted with 3 or four black light lamps. You can leave for a quick lunch and come back to finish applying the varnish.(This harks back to stories about Stradivari remarking on the slowness of drying his instruments in the light of the sun.) I left some Greek Pitch varnish overnight in an open dish and it was still good to apply the next morning.

I think we all learned some new tricks about varnishing and polishing. Marilyn Wallin showed us her methods that incorporate some of Robson's materials and methods. For one instrument she showed how to kill the pink color that haunted one violin. We were also treated to an unbelievably open and honest discussion by master maker Benjamin Ruth who brought along a violin he was varnishing.

I want to also acknowledge the important suggestions we got from Roman Barnas who shared much with us.

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Hi Michael

thanks for the pictures and descriptions. I have a few questions and or observations maybe you could comment. How is it determined that there is no shellac? How would that be determined? Excuse me asking this since I asked it in another thread some where but I loose track.

I was also wondering about the self leveling thing. Correct me if I'm wrong but it seems like I read somewhere that on the old Cremona instruments that they would take a fingerprint and then after some time it would be gone which would indicate that it is self leveling.

And a question on color. In this thread:

http://www.maestronet.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=323084

see post number 13 where there is mention of a pink or pastel orange color in some old instruments that doesn't show well in the photos but in the workshop it seems that that is not desireable?

"For one instrument she showed how to kill the pink color that haunted one violin"

I'm new to all this and sometimes things I read seem contradictory.

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I think the self-leveling is in reference to when the varnish is still wet and it flows out into a smooth, level surface before it cures. The finger prints disappearing, I gather to be cold flow, where a material is in a constant state of creeping slowly long after the varnish film is cured. It would be interesting to watch a time lapse series of photos of such an event.

Great pictures Mike; thanks for making these available for viewing! I really like the coloration Joe is obtaining. If I understand correctly, the majority of the coloration is achieved only by the colored oil?

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That's not what the drips on the inside of the Del Gesu Cannone suggest, rather a thin liquid.

Oded

You are correct, Oded. The varnishing methods (for musical instruments) adopted in Italy and elsewhere in Europe (mostly after late 1700) had no ancestral relationship to the original methods used by the Cremonese. Anyone (possessing real knowlege of what true musical instrument varnish is made of) can easily see this.

No man can (or ever will be able to)charge an ultra-thin layer of linseed oil with enough color of any kind such that it would remotely resemble the Cremonese or any old Italian varnishes, or their so called "ground coats".

As long as any luthier (or any self proclaimed master varnish maker / master varnisher) uses linseed oil to make any varnish for a musical instrument in the hope of replicating in any way, shape, form or fashion any form of original Italian musical instrument varnish, that luthier's effort will forever remain a dismal failure. Scientific 'analyses' of experimental testings of the original Cremonese varnishes may always be "interpreted" as being made of linseed oil, but that is a totally incorrect assumption. Old habits are hard to break.

jmann

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Now let me add some commentary.

The workshop was much, much more than learning Robson's methods: we analyzed WHY he did these things. Robson did his historical homework seeking to understand what the Cremonese makers did. Keep in mind that he is a professional woodworker and varnish maker (recall his business, Tried & True). He also read extensively the old chemical literature which he shared with us. I had fun reading some of those books.

Robson claims that European varnishing methods changed when Stradivari started making instruments. Stradivari kept to the old Amati method while furniture makers, woodworkers, and other luthiers switched to modern self-leveling varnishes to save time and money.

Robson showed us his collection of high-resolution photos of Cremonese instruments. In particular he took us through what he found from the Bergonzi cello that has a pristine varnish. Also, we learned how the latest findings by researchers such as Brigitte Brandmair support Robson's findings and methods.

Chris Reuning and David Bonsey brought in antique instruments for us to examine ground and varnish. Reuning presented a Ruggieri that was a copy of Maggini (Cremonese example), a Gasparo da Salo (Brescian), and a Seraphin (Venice). These three are shown in my first post. (I lost my notes on Bonsey's instruments.)

As I started to post in another thread, here are the salient points about Cremonese ground:

The ground is a wood fiber sealer, but not a pore-filler. There is no evidence for shellac.

The ground optically matches the wood which points to being related to the original wood resins. It is very transparent.

It does not have a protein layer nor a mineral ground EXCEPT for incidental contaminants.

The ground is not yellow, but has a golden color that makes wood look natural.

The ground does not mask wood surface features such as pores and channels.

Robson's ground system mimics the aging process of lignin and other wood components. The first sealer coat stops the fibrous wood from soaking up wood dyes made from wood (plant) products. The ground staining brings out the wood features and flames. The ground system builds layers that optically couple the wood to the varnish. The ground is transparent and does not mask fine wood features.

As for the Cremonese varnish:

The varnish is incredibly transparent.

The varnish contains the color; that is, the varnish is dyed.

There is a minor contribution from pigments suspended in the top layer.

The varnish is not self-leveling, but adheres aggressively to the fine wood surface features

Robson's varnish system uses three components: a clear varnish, colored varnish, and 3 pigments found in Cremonese instruments.

In making his colored varnishes, Robson attaches the alizarin molecule to the linseed oil. Thus, the colored varnish is dyed rather than pigmented. He can adjust the alizarin colored oil to make colors ranging from clear amber (no alizarin) to orange, rose, and deep red. The maker can tweak the final outcome with pigments in the top colored layer. I was amazed at how a tiny amount of boneblack warms colors.

His latest findings use a Greek Pitch formulation - a super lean varnish that has a thick viscosity and ultra slow drying time - features that fit historical evidence. This rather pasty/sticky varnish is dabbed on with a stiff brush, but is smoothed and manipulated manually - literally by hand. Finger tips spread varnish at the edges. The palm spreads the varnish over wide areas. The beauty of this varnish is that there are no brush marks, no drips, and no runs. It is very slow curing, needing bright sun or a light box - in our case 30 gallon galvanized steel garbage cans fitted with 3 or four black light lamps. You can leave for a quick lunch and come back to finish applying the varnish.(This harks back to stories about Stradivari remarking on the slowness of drying his instruments in the light of the sun.) I left some Greek Pitch varnish overnight in an open dish and it was still good to apply the next morning.

I think we all learned some new tricks about varnishing and polishing. Marilyn Wallin showed us her methods that incorporate some of Robson's materials and methods. For one instrument she showed how to kill the pink color that haunted one violin. We were also treated to an unbelievably open and honest discussion by master maker Benjamin Ruth who brought along a violin he was varnishing.

I want to also acknowledge the important suggestions we got from Roman Barnas who shared much with us.

Michael,

It was a pleasure working with you! Obviously you took great notes or have a better than average "old man's memory"...just kidding...

One correction though: I believe the varnish that created the contact surface between the ground and the upper [usually colored] varnish is very lean. The upper varnish a bit more oily. This contrast is part of the wear pattern we are familiar with.

Oded,

As we know there are "many roads to Rome [roam?] and no one way to varnish a violin. However I think there is increasing evidence that a thick varnish was applied in a very thin film.

on we go,

Joe

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jmann,

"As long as any luthier (or any self proclaimed master varnish maker / master varnisher) uses linseed oil to make any varnish for a musical instrument in the hope of replicating in any way, shape, form or fashion any form of original Italian musical instrument varnish, that luthier's effort will forever remain a dismal failure. Scientific 'analyses' of experimental testings of the original Cremonese varnishes may always be "interpreted" as being made of linseed oil, but that is a totally incorrect assumption. Old habits are hard to break."

So...no linseed oil....ok....

then what?

Joe

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Mike,

" 'thick varnish applied in a thin film" you mean a varnish that has high viscosity? "

That is the way I see it and use it...there is a group of makers that have lots of experience in this...I learned it.

Joe

Hello all,

Here we have a close up of the f hole on the Bergonzi cello showing the varnish and giving us a sense of the balance between the viscosity of the varnish and the thickness of the film.

on we go,

Joe

post-6284-0-46726700-1298987688_thumb.jpg

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Hello all,

Here we have a close up of the f hole on the Bergonzi cello showing the varnish and giving us a sense of the balance between the viscosity of the varnish and the thickness of the film.

on we go,

Joe

What i like here is it clearly shows the lack of dark or black varnish on the inside of the f hole edges. Just the same varnish as the outside with some obvious pooling at the edge.Ive never been a fan of this modern way of painting the f holes black or dark brown,the same goes for the inside of the pegbox. Most black pegboxes in my opinion were simply painted later to hide a graft.

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... a close up of the f hole on the Bergonzi cello showing the varnish and giving us a sense of the balance between the viscosity of the varnish and the thickness of the film.

That's interesting. The 'choice' not to finish the ff's inner edge.

Jim

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You are correct, Oded. The varnishing methods (for musical instruments) adopted in Italy and elsewhere in Europe (mostly after late 1700) had no ancestral relationship to the original methods used by the Cremonese. Anyone (possessing real knowlege of what true musical instrument varnish is made of) can easily see this.

No man can (or ever will be able to)charge an ultra-thin layer of linseed oil with enough color of any kind such that it would remotely resemble the Cremonese or any old Italian varnishes, or their so called "ground coats".

As long as any luthier (or any self proclaimed master varnish maker / master varnisher) uses linseed oil to make any varnish for a musical instrument in the hope of replicating in any way, shape, form or fashion any form of original Italian musical instrument varnish, that luthier's effort will forever remain a dismal failure. Scientific 'analyses' of experimental testings of the original Cremonese varnishes may always be "interpreted" as being made of linseed oil, but that is a totally incorrect assumption. Old habits are hard to break.

jmann

Wow, that's a pretty strong claim.

I can't say either way - I certainly don't know the truth of the matter.

And you're right, old habits are hard to break.

I would like to meet and talk with one of these people though, who have "real knowledge of what true instrument varnish is made of". Perhaps you'd like to comment on exactly what was used, if you know?

(The only people who have made this claim to me personally,(and there have been a couple) it was either a big secret or, a revelation "from on high")

if possible, I'd like to see an example of this varnish on a modern violin - are there any around?

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No man can (or ever will be able to)charge an ultra-thin layer of linseed oil with enough color of any kind such that it would remotely resemble the Cremonese or any old Italian varnishes, or their so called "ground coats".

As long as any luthier (or any self proclaimed master varnish maker / master varnisher) uses linseed oil to make any varnish for a musical instrument in the hope of replicating in any way, shape, form or fashion any form of original Italian musical instrument varnish, that luthier's effort will forever remain a dismal failure. Scientific 'analyses' of experimental testings of the original Cremonese varnishes may always be "interpreted" as being made of linseed oil, but that is a totally incorrect assumption.

The basis for these conclusions? Have you been unable to make a varnish incorporating linseed oil which you like? What is your experience with making, manipulating, and changing the properties of many different kinds of varnishes?

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You are correct, Oded. The varnishing methods (for musical instruments) adopted in Italy and elsewhere in Europe (mostly after late 1700) had no ancestral relationship to the original methods used by the Cremonese. Anyone (possessing real knowlege of what true musical instrument varnish is made of) can easily see this.

No man can (or ever will be able to)charge an ultra-thin layer of linseed oil with enough color of any kind such that it would remotely resemble the Cremonese or any old Italian varnishes, or their so called "ground coats".

As long as any luthier (or any self proclaimed master varnish maker / master varnisher) uses linseed oil to make any varnish for a musical instrument in the hope of replicating in any way, shape, form or fashion any form of original Italian musical instrument varnish, that luthier's effort will forever remain a dismal failure. Scientific 'analyses' of experimental testings of the original Cremonese varnishes may always be "interpreted" as being made of linseed oil, but that is a totally incorrect assumption. Old habits are hard to break.

jmann

Hey everyone! J Mann's back!

Terrrrific. :rolleyes:

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No man can (or ever will be able to)charge an ultra-thin layer of linseed oil with enough color of any kind such that it would remotely resemble the Cremonese or any old Italian varnishes, or their so called "ground coats".

jmann

What would you suggest the Cremonese used? It's no easy task to condemn all the researchers that working independently concluded with the same findings.

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... .

No man can (or ever will be able to)charge an ultra-thin layer of linseed oil with enough color of any kind such that it would remotely resemble the Cremonese or any old Italian varnishes, or their so called "ground coats".

...

jmann

Sounds like religion. Have you seen Robson's varnishes?

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I think the self-leveling is in reference to when the varnish is still wet and it flows out into a smooth, level surface before it cures. The finger prints disappearing, I gather to be cold flow, where a material is in a constant state of creeping slowly long after the varnish film is cured. It would be interesting to watch a time lapse series of photos of such an event.

Great pictures Mike; thanks for making these available for viewing! I really like the coloration Joe is obtaining. If I understand correctly, the majority of the coloration is achieved only by the colored oil?

Bill,

Just to clarify.

A self-leveling varnish will fill a depression...like a puddle...with a surface which seeks a flat top parallel to the earth [level].

A non self-leveling varnish will seek to maintain a film parallel to the surface to which it was applied.

on we go,

Joe

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