Jump to content
Maestronet Forums

Carl Becker Varnish


GlennYorkPA

Recommended Posts

  • Replies 82
  • Created
  • Last Reply

Top Posters In This Topic

His wife, Juliet Barker, recommended as very light rub with almond oil, but this was followed by a clear varnish coat to act as a ground before coloured varnish was applied.

I wonder how many violin makers would agree with almond (or similar) oil as a preparation layer on bare wood. Over the years, the posters on Maestronet have convinced me that you don't want non-drying oils like olive or nut oils getting onto the bare wood of the fiddle.

From what I've seen of oil getting onto lumber quality wood and making it more pliant permanently, I'd worry about non-drying oils on bare wood. But maybe that's not the same as in violin making.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I wonder how many violin makers would agree with almond (or similar) oil as a preparation layer on bare wood. Over the years, the posters on Maestronet have convinced me that you don't want non-drying oils like olive or nut oils getting onto the bare wood of the fiddle.

From Wiki:

Almond Oil

Almonds contain approximately 49% oils, of which 62% is monounsaturated oleic acid (an omega-9 fatty acid), 24% is linoleic acid (a polyunsaturated omega-6 essential fatty acid), and 6% is palmitic acid (a saturated fatty acid).[24]

...

Almond oil is also used as a wood conditioner of certain woodwind instruments, such as the oboe and clarinet.[citation needed]

Linseed oil

Linseed oil is a triglyceride, like other fats. Linseed oil is distinctive in terms of fatty acid constituents of the triglyceride, which contain an unusually large amount of α-linolenic acid, which has a distinctive reaction toward oxygen in air. Specifically, the constituent fatty acids in a typical linseed oil are of the following types:[3]

The triply unsaturated α-linolenic acid (51.9-55.2%),

The saturated acids palmitic acid (about 7%) and stearic acid (3.4-4.6%),

The monounsaturated oleic acid (18.5-22.6%),

The doubly unsaturated linoleic acid (14.2-17%).

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

Not hugely different in content of unsaturated lipids.

--------

In any case, she would insist on the minimal amount of oil that would just leave a sheen on the fingers.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

My sense of the varnish was that it would quickly turn to powder rather than flakes when bumped or rubbed.

I have a violin with varnish that does this. My assumption was that it was high in resin and very lean in oil content.

Are there other possible reasons for this sort of powdering?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

That's a simple view of it, I think it may be dangerous to get carried away with that idea. If you think of oil more as a moderator, then it might, for instance, make a brittle, harsh resin into the type of crumbly thing we're discussing. Oil takes varnish in a certain direction, but the results depend on where you started.

It's not precisely a parallel comparison, but if you took sandarac, a notoriouly hard material that scratches too easily into white powder and add castor oil, it turns into something more like we are talking about. Add too much castor oil and it turns into sticky muck.

Since we don't know what Beckers start with, we don't necessarily know what's going on. Maybe the varnish is 5% pure diamond dissolved in 95% linseed oil. Sometimes narrowing down the options too early in the experiment excludes desirable results.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I would agree with that characterization. Chippy in the sense of sizable flakes falling away is probably wrong, although the end results might look the same. My sense of the varnish was that it would quickly turn to powder rather than flakes when bumped or rubbed.

I wouldn't use the word 'chippy' in any sense connected with this varnish.

Years ago, when Sacconi's waterglass and propolis system was in vogue, I used it on several violins.

The result was an excessively soft coating which didn't harden properly for several years. Of course, one can't wait for years before playing the instrument but the result is complete removal of the varnish where it comes into repeated contact with warm, perspiring hands.

Not only does the varnish appear to melt away leaving bare wood but it forms a dirty area between the bare wood patch and the fully varnished area. So the varnish layer easily absorbs dirt and perspiration.

I don't have a Becker but I have a Halvarson and was struck by exactly the same appearance of the worn varnish. It also mirrored the wear type of the Becker in the Christie sale. So I would describe the varnish as soft and leathery.

My reason for posting the question was that similar comments have been made historically about Strad's varnish - that it remains soft and pliant and mostly wore away during the maker's lifetime. Becker varnish seems to follow the same pattern.

I'm not suggesting it uses propolis but it must contain some sort of sticky resin that doesn't harden quickly. I thought it might be easier to solve this riddle given that the maker is still alive but...........apparently not.

Thanks for all the comments, anyway.

Glenn

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Could there be a connection of some kind ( cultural/geographic) between the Becker varnishes and some of the Hamerl 'Italian etheric oil varnish' oil varnish formulas which seem to use a fair amount of esential oils? Essential oils like rosmary do tend to appear a lot in books of old Italian recepies. A late friend of mine in Italy used a Hammerl essential oil varnish to a very fine effect and it had similar characteristics to the Becker including the required hasty application and long drying plus the texture, It had a very high transparency and a lingering fragrant smell especially if disturbed with alcohol.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Could there be a connection of some kind ( cultural/geographic) between the Becker varnishes and some of the Hamerl 'Italian etheric oil varnish' oil varnish formulas which seem to use a fair amount of esential oils? Essential oils like rosmary do tend to appear a lot in books of old Italian recepies. A late friend of mine in Italy used a Hammerl essential oil varnish to a very fine effect and it had similar characteristics to the Becker including the required hasty application and long drying plus the texture, It had a very high transparency and a lingering fragrant smell especially if disturbed with alcohol.

I saw a viola by Renato Scrollavezza, made for his daughter Elisa, when she was very young. The varnish was spectacular. A deep complex red, nicely transparent, with worn, polished edges that were nearly translucent. The varnish is dragon's blood, red sandalwood, and oil of rosemary. He said it took a long time to dry but was then quite stable. The wear was normal and there was no evidence of chippiness. There was no odor on or from the interior of the instrument.

The relationship among wood, non-drying oils, and ethereal oil varnish is complex. The oil on the surface is not only going into the wood, but also being drawn out of the wood [if the oil is also soluble in the varnish]. A great understanding of the interplay of the materials is necessary to successfully execute application...the light touch and speed of application sited about the Becker varnish are examples of this understanding.

We know that a beautiful varnish can come from this method. For those of you who are thinking [and I KNOW you are out there...] about experimenting with these kind of varnishes....just remember they are fragile and, if not done well, will result in a sticky mess which is a dust magnet and is easily stripped off by normal perspiration.......

on we go,

Joe

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Melvin and Glenn,

The descriptions you offer suggest a varnish that still remains, to some degree, fluid, perhaps after warming, or is not completely cured. That's not what I saw on my 1956 Becker which I owned in the 1960s or on the 3 or 4 Beckers I saw in the Becker shop about a dozen years ago which dated from the 1930s, as I remember. The varnish was absolutely dry with no shine at all, even in the 1956 violin, which at that time was just 10 years old. On the 1956 violin at least, there was no sense that the varnish was going to undergo further changes, except to fall from the fiddle if disturbed forcefully enough, and for that to happen didn't require a lot of force. If "leathery" means elastic, I'd say, the Becker varnish on the 1956 violin was the very opposite of that, completely dry and not going anywhere that required any stretching or re-flowing of the existing varnish.

For what my opinion is worth, I think that the elastic quality that's been attributed to classic Italian varnishes has more to do with the results of modern French polishing than traits of the original varnish.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

You mean like this, as seen on the far right photo? This is characteristic of a rotting oil varnish, for one, and develops on quite a few violins of good and bad birth. I often have to clean quite a bit of this off of old violins that I've made, though I wouldn't claim that the varnish is particularly exotic:

delgesu-scroll-untouched.jpg

Michael,

I had in mind similar dirt stained varnish but in the more conventional position as in the attached.

But your DG pic raises a couple of interesting questions:

a. How was that wear on the scroll caused? That isn't a natural place for handling.

b. More interestingly, what are the ethics of cleaning it? Do you see any problem in removing what time and use have placed there or should it be left for future generations to ponder?

Glenn

post-5422-0-89289600-1318861618_thumb.jpg

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I don't know how many instruments Paul or Jennifer Becker make per year if any, but don't forget the other member of the family who is actively making. Eric Benning is the only other maker that I know who shares the knowledge of Becker instruments. He went on making trips with Carl to the Wisconsin cabin. I believe he is a second cousin of Carl's.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

What about a balsam diluted with an essential oil, perhaps with a very small amount of a drying oil? Canada balsam diluted with rosemary or spike would appear to match the drying rate and application method described. Such a varnish conceivably would either eventually chip, or upon drying be susceptible to fingerprinting for quite some time. I think the use of larch balsam can be excluded here because its drying rate would be nearly as slow as an oil varnish. But with Canada balsam, or some equivalent like Strasbourg turpentine, the application would be buttery smooth at first until the balsam begins to "bite" and develop tack under the brush. The gloss would be vitreous-like if applied in thin coats.

Also, the only egg emulsion I have ever made which dries hard has been with Canada balsam; thinning this with an essential oil would most likely be very effective. However, if Becker used this someone would certainly have commented on the cloudy appearance of the varnish before drying, and its difficult application: smooth and silky one second, strong tack like a spirit varnish the next.

For added durability a soft or medium-hard resin could be dissolved directly in a camphor-rich essential oil like spike lavender, though rosemary and eucalyptus are also apparently effective. The resin content of the varnish is relatively small; otherwise a solvent is necessary and the nature of the varnish is changed.

The oil content of a balsam varnish is also small to very small; I follow what I call "Laurie's Rule," or the addition of no more than one part of a drying oil to three parts Canada balsam. Laurie found that this ratio did not substantially alter the unique varnish film of a balsam or compromise its protective ability (moisture, etc.).

Don't ignore the unique ability of sun drying to help these types of varnishes harden properly.

Dave

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I don't know how many instruments Paul or Jennifer Becker make per year if any, but don't forget the other member of the family who is actively making. Eric Benning is the only other maker that I know who shares the knowledge of Becker instruments. He went on making trips with Carl to the Wisconsin cabin. I believe he is a second cousin of Carl's.

Joseph,

What were the 'making trips' ?

Did they all go off to a log cabin and make violins? That sounds improbable.

Glenn

Link to comment
Share on other sites

dumb question.. What's so special about Becker varnish?

My dumb answer as a player and based on my 1956 violin would be that there was nothing special, visually, about the varnish on that instrument. It was very fragile and quite opaque. It did nothing to enhance the figure or flame of the wood. You couldn't see the figure of the wood through that varnish, and the fire engine red of the varnish didn't invite the eye to linger on its surface appearance.

Over the years I've seen varnishes which visually appealed to me more.

On the other hand, I assume that the varnish contributed to the great tone that fiddle had, and I would not have cared if it had been green house paint, completely impervious to any light reaching the wood, if it helped produce that tone.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

What about a balsam diluted with an essential oil, perhaps with a very small amount of a drying oil? Canada balsam diluted with rosemary or spike would appear to match the drying rate and application method described. Such a varnish conceivably would either eventually chip, or upon drying be susceptible to fingerprinting for quite some time. I think the use of larch balsam can be excluded here because its drying rate would be nearly as slow as an oil varnish. But with Canada balsam, or some equivalent like Strasbourg turpentine, the application would be buttery smooth at first until the balsam begins to "bite" and develop tack under the brush. The gloss would be vitreous-like if applied in thin coats.

Also, the only egg emulsion I have ever made which dries hard has been with Canada balsam; thinning this with an essential oil would most likely be very effective. However, if Becker used this someone would certainly have commented on the cloudy appearance of the varnish before drying, and its difficult application: smooth and silky one second, strong tack like a spirit varnish the next.

For added durability a soft or medium-hard resin could be dissolved directly in a camphor-rich essential oil like spike lavender, though rosemary and eucalyptus are also apparently effective. The resin content of the varnish is relatively small; otherwise a solvent is necessary and the nature of the varnish is changed.

The oil content of a balsam varnish is also small to very small; I follow what I call "Laurie's Rule," or the addition of no more than one part of a drying oil to three parts Canada balsam. Laurie found that this ratio did not substantially alter the unique varnish film of a balsam or compromise its protective ability (moisture, etc.).

Don't ignore the unique ability of sun drying to help these types of varnishes harden properly.

Dave

You snuck onto my back porch and saw the ground I've been experimenting with didn't you! :rolleyes:

So it's a varnish that contributes to a good tone? Even though it may not look all that good.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Glenn, is that photo of the violin backside your Halvarson? Or is that the Christies' Becker? Either way, very nice.

I wonder how many makers who were in the Lyon/Healy and the Lewis shops at the same time as Carl Sr. used that same varnish? Or maybe "same" is too strong. Is the Halvarson varnish just "similar" or is it something he learned at the Lewis shop from Becker or perhaps from Becker's mentor, John Hornsteiner?

Richard

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Glenn, is that photo of the violin backside your Halvarson? Or is that the Christies' Becker? Either way, very nice.

I wonder how many makers who were in the Lyon/Healy and the Lewis shops at the same time as Carl Sr. used that same varnish? Or maybe "same" is too strong. Is the Halvarson varnish just "similar" or is it something he learned at the Lewis shop from Becker or perhaps from Becker's mentor, John Hornsteiner?

Richard

Richf,

Sharp eyes! The picture I posted was of a violin by Anders Halvarson, 1937 but the type of wear seems the same as the Becker sold recently at Christies. I was so struck by the similarity, I was moved to start this thread.

You raise a very interesting point about the provenance of the varnish. It seemed to me that the softness conformed to reports about the classic Cremonese varnishes and yet, as you suggest, the historical connection is with Germany rather than Italy through John Hornsteiner. I really know nothing about Hornsteiner other than that he was born in Mittenwald and later worked for Lyon & Healy and Wurlitzer. So, it's hard to see how Becker and his group would have picked up any Italian influences. Conversely, his varnish seems to have no parallels in Germany.

Glenn

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Glenn, Maybe Fiorini had some influence,whilst in Germany working with Rieger.He was president of the German Violinmakers Society for anumber of years. I know Fiorini mentioned some sort of spirit varnish made of softer resins.Looking at Becker and some Fiorinis ,i can see some similarities in the way the varnish wears and its appearance.

Just a thought.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Glenn, Maybe Fiorini had some influence,whilst in Germany working with Rieger.He was president of the German Violinmakers Society for anumber of years. I know Fiorini mentioned some sort of spirit varnish made of softer resins.Looking at Becker and some Fiorinis ,i can see some similarities in the way the varnish wears and its appearance.

Just a thought.

I was just reading an old Strad article on Fiorini. It gave his spirit recipe. It was mostly Sandarac with some Gum Lac, Mastic, Elemi, Venice Turp. and spirit. I think a lot of the Italian guys had their own spirit recipe. The article mentioned Bisiach and his recipe was similar, except he used Benzoin instead of Elemi and twice as much spirit.

Berl

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Glenn, Maybe Fiorini had some influence,whilst in Germany working with Rieger.He was president of the German Violinmakers Society for anumber of years. I know Fiorini mentioned some sort of spirit varnish made of softer resins.Looking at Becker and some Fiorinis ,i can see some similarities in the way the varnish wears and its appearance.

Just a thought.

Bob,

I wondered about a Fiorini connection but I don't know enough about the Munich school (does anyone?).

We always think of spirit varnishes as being hard and chippy and, in my mind, oil varnishes are soft and pliant.

You and Luthier9010 now raise the possibility of a soft spirit varnish and this is intriguing.

It would solve many of the problems associated with coloring.

Is there a real possibility that Bisiach used a spirit concoction? If so, the Becker varnish roots do indeed go back to Italy.

Glenn

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I was just reading an old Strad article on Fiorini. It gave his spirit recipe. It was mostly Sandarac with some Gum Lac, Mastic, Elemi, Venice Turp. and spirit. I think a lot of the Italian guys had their own spirit recipe. The article mentioned Bisiach and his recipe was similar, except he used Benzoin instead of Elemi and twice as much spirit.

Berl

Berl, as mentioned above, this is interesting information.

Have you tried this recipe?

Come to think of it, Bisiach violins have much in common with Beckers both from a varnish standpoint and also tonally.

Glenn

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...
  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.



×
×
  • Create New...