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Varnishing on the Cheap


Stanley5184

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Sorry Carlo, I haven't tested any "Spars" for aging. With my own varnishes (three distinct systems so far), I subjected them to various available accelerated aging tests, like high temperatures, vanishing tool handles (perspiration, wear and heat exposure), and commercial test exposure to UV, claimed to be the equivalent of 5 years of direct sun exposure.

So that's just one reason why my fiddles are a little pricey. :lol:

Edit: A little background on how I became involved with Ace Spar Varnish:

I'd heard it mentioned here a number of times by people who seemed reasonably logical and reasonably perceptive. Reasonably reasonable, one might say. :lol:

I volunteered to test some iron oxide nano-pigments. My own varnish wasn't a good challenge, since it inherently has quite a bit of color already. The Ace Hardware store is only about a mile away. Though initially skeptical, I need to admit that it can produce some pretty good short-term results. And I need to endorse iron oxide nano-pigments as something viable, and potentially valuable.

Here's one picture I posted at the time. Nano iron oxides, combined with almost colorless Ace Spar varnish on a glass slide, shot against a tree about 30 feet away. How shabby is that? Try to produce definition and clarity like that with a tube color oil paint glazing system. Not that greater clarity is always desirable, but know your tools, what you want, and what you've got to work with.

IMG_2750 mod.jpg

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To the best of my knowledge, traditional spar varnishes were just long oil linseed oil varnishes. The long oil formulation made the varnish more flexible and durable in exterior applications, but it still had to be scraped and re-coated every year or so, because UV rays would break the coating down pretty fast. OTOH, furniture varnish typically wouldn't last more than a month or two outdoors in our climate before it started going white, cracking and flaking off.

Later, the traditional resins were replaced by alkyd resins, and UV inhibitors were added to increase resistance to UV light. This extended recoat time to 3 to 5 years, depending on application. Boat brightwork in tropical and subtropical climates is probably the most difficult application for a spar varnish, and a varnish that lasts 2 or 3 years on a sailboat mast might last 200 years on a violin - mainly because varnish on a mast gets at least 100 times the UV exposure. Maybe even an order of magnitude more yet (1,000 times ?).

I don't have much experience with the newer synthetic "spar varnishes". They were just coming into use when I was getting out of the business. Test results were pretty promising, but what I saw didn't look very attractive.

As has been pointed out here several times already, Cremonese varnish was pretty fragile stuff. If you want to get yelled at in certain violin shops, just pick a 300 year old fiddle up by anything other than the neck and end button........

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...

I've heard a lot of people say that when you invest this much time into a project, you should get the best materials possible. But for me, the right approach was definitely to start frugally. In my opinion, at the newbie level there's nothing wrong with using finishes that aren't standard for violin making. You're still learning aspects of finishing that will translate to using nicer finishes, and you won't feel the sting of making expensive mistakes. Plus, if your friends/family/colleagues are like mine, none of them would know the difference anyway! ;)

I agree with this. I'm trying to finish number 6 at the moment. I've used cheap commercail varnishes and DMV (which I like the look of). I have also stripped the varnish of instruments and re-done them. Someone said to me years ago, I don't remember if it was here in in person, get the woodwork right first before worrying too much about varnish. As I seem to be some distance from getting the woodwork right I don't obsess too much about the varnish at the moment. Alan Coggins and Adele Beardsmore have instructions on an interesting, and good looking, varnish on their website which I'd like to try making one day.

Regards,

Tim

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Hey, i've PM'ed some members recently about varnishes they use and nearly all have been using or suggesting, Joes, Magister or oldwood products. Looking at all these options, they all come to well over $100 which is well beyond my budget for my first cheap white ebay viola.

I think that I remembered to respond to your PM. The varnish system that I use, while not traditional, would cost much less than $100. A caramel stain can be created that costs as much as 1 teaspoon of sugar, a rosin ground is close to free if you have pine (or spruce, cedar or juniper) trees in your area. Just pick the solidified resin off of the tree trunks and dissolve it in alcohol. Or you could buy the cheapest rosin (either intended for bows, baseball bats, or varnish) and dissolve a bit in alcohol.

The varnish that I use is a variant of the hardware store spar varnish, I use a water soluble variety since I like the low odor and easy cleanup, http://www.amazon.com/Rust-Oleum-Varathane-250041H-1-Quart-Urethane/dp/B000F5MRRE I think it's a lot cheaper when I buy it at the store rather than online. This varnish is kind of like a modernized oil varnish in that it contains resin (acrylic) and a modern chemical varient of a drying oil. The varnish dries quite differently than a traditional oil varnish. It dries to the touch in minutes but doesn't fully cure for much longer. This varnish wasn't designed as a violin varnish so it doesn't wear like old Italian varnish.

For color I mostly just use acrylic artist's paints. The transparent iron oxides are nice and there are a few nice transparent organic red colors that I like. For yellow I use Transtint honey yellow dye (about $18 a bottle) but transparent yellow iron oxide would work too.

The basic set of everything that I use to varnish a violin would cost around $70 but that is enough material to varnish at least a dozen instruments. Most of this cost is in buying different colors, if you chose a more limited pallet then this price would come down.

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Alan Coggins and Adele Beardsmore have instructions on an interesting, and good looking, varnish on their website which I'd like to try making one day.

Them guys (likely convict exiles from Great Britain) :lol: are some pretty good champions for truth and reality, questioning the status quo.

Americans (mostly voluntary exiles) might desire a similar purpose, but at a reduced level of risk.

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One thing to factor in when pricing up a first time varnish job is the cost of varnish stripper after it's all gone wrong a few times. Varnishing well is bloody difficult and requires a LOT of experience...and that experience generally will involve a lot of failures....Recently I realized that after 32 years of varnishing it had been about two years since I had to use varnish stripper and I can normally hit the effect I want for a varied number of effects...Aged 44 I must say that I am certainly less smart & talented than I was but I am more experienced and experience with varnish and continuous compulsive experimentation will bear some fruit...Things like knowing how to brush out an even layer of varnish over a cello and when to STOP brushing before the varnish catches the brush and it goes wrong are only things that can be learned with experience and many tears of grief.

For a first time varnisher I would recommend doing lots of test samples on pieces of wood that replicate the size of the instrument to be varnished. I would also recommend using a commercially proven product and following the instructions as others have advised...Using a varnish that works for top luthiers is a good place to start from.

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Thanks for posting that, Melvin. There have been a few recent posts from newbie or amateur fiddlemakers on various forums, suggesting that anyone who charges more than 4 to 8K is a ripoff. What that really means is those critics haven't begun to scratch the surface!

John, if you've still got some of the iron oxides available, post it up. I wouldn't consider that commercial, more like a contribution to everyone here.

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David, when you tested the Ace spar varnish, were you able to get the oil-based version (which I think is what Craig was talking about)? I think it was a couple of years ago that they changed the formulation, and the cans now say "solvent-based." I don't know how the new stuff is for violins, but anyone looking for the oil-based version might have to try a few stores to find one with old stock still on the shelf.

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Stanley,

When I first attended Robson's Varnish workshop I told the attendees that the most unsettling phase of violin making for me was varnishing. :blink: I tried everything that I heard about, and only got bad results. However, Joe Robson gave me a system and structure at the Workshop from which I could branch out with my own ideas. Today, I am thrilled with varnishing. I look forward to varnishing unlike years ago. I still use Robson's Greek Pitch because it is worth every penny.

Keep in mind that you never get more than what you paid for. Doing varnishing on the cheap for a newbie is inviting a short career in lutherie.

Vaya con Dios, Amigo! ;)

Mike

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David, when you tested the Ace spar varnish, were you able to get the oil-based version (which I think is what Craig was talking about)? I think it was a couple of years ago that they changed the formulation, and the cans now say "solvent-based." I don't know how the new stuff is for violins, but anyone looking for the oil-based version might have to try a few stores to find one with old stock still on the shelf.

I only tested the oil-based version. It was still on the shelf last time I checked at my local Ace hardware store, but it may be necessary to track it back to the manufacturer in some areas to see where and under what name it shows up, if the manufacturer hasn't completely abandoned it due to potential air polution and liability concerns.

Like homeowner purchased paints contribute anything meaningful to air pollution, compared to what could be accomplished by getting every car owner to drive one less mile per day. :lol:

Oh well, at least they're trying something.

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Them guys (likely convict exiles from Great Britain) :lol: are some pretty good champions for truth and reality, questioning the status quo.

As the descendant of a second fleet marine I cannot comment on Alan's forebears, but Adele is a relatively recent adornment to Oz I understand. BTW, far more convicts were sent to the American colonies than ever came here :rolleyes:

While talking about iconoclasts, I recently saw a new double bass which was coloured with artists' pigment and rubbed with artist grade linseed oil. It looks amazing. And before everyone goes ballistic about not putting straight oil on an instrument I raised that very point and was told in pretty firm tones that it is not a problem (they were not quite the words used). The maker has vast experience in instrument making and has done this before over the years/decades. (That said, I have to admit I'd be nervous in doing it).

Regards,

Tim

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Thanks for posting that, Melvin. There have been a few recent posts from newbie or amateur fiddlemakers on various forums, suggesting that anyone who charges more than 4 to 8K is a ripoff. What that really means is those critics haven't begun to scratch the surface!

John, if you've still got some of the iron oxides available, post it up. I wouldn't consider that commercial, more like a contribution to everyone here.

David,

Ok,yes, I still have the red iron oxide, with a little brown.

John

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How is the Hammerl from IV?? doesn't it turn out looking good....just wondering because its 4x times cheaper than joes. Do you guys suggest that if i do, go with it, i should get the clear one and add my own colour or get colour from glazing with artist oil or should i buy their coloured varnish? Thanks again

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I used some Joha varnish. I am not sure if it's the same you bought, because I first thought it was an oil varnish and it was actually an essential oil varnish (and it smells like white spirit, probably the solvent used to dissolve the resin). So it dries fast by evaporation and does not requires UV curing. You can't really brush many times the same spot like you would do with a "real" oil varnish because of the drying time, but it still gives you much more time than a spirit varnish. So the application is easy. I didn't get any major defect brushing it on my violin, like no running, or visible traces. It dries enough so that you can almost put 2 layers in 24h.

I bought the clear one, amber, golden brown, red brown, and brown. the Amber, golden brown and red brown are attractive on the wood. But the red and the brown ones were not.

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Thanks for posting that, Melvin. There have been a few recent posts from newbie or amateur fiddlemakers on various forums, suggesting that anyone who charges more than 4 to 8K is a ripoff. What that really means is those critics haven't begun to scratch the surface!

I mentioned that most Western violins are overpriced. I think your message is for me. The answer to the violin price issue is the same as that for the varnish issue. It depends on what you know and can do. That is why there are "secrets." I happen to enjoy ground experiments and feel that I have found one that works very well. I would not share it easily.

4-8k is entirely reasonable for a person who has spent a lot of time working out problems and developing expert workmanship. I was thinking of the large number of people coming out of schools who immediately think that a handmade violin should start at 10k.

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That is kind of steep, a beginner charging for stringed instrument as much as Kevin Ryan charges for a guitar. :blink:

I have not been shopping around. My statement is just from a collection of comments that I have picked up from various MN postings.

I would actually be curious about an average price for school graduates. That would mean that the white violin is well made, but finishing, including ground, has not had much experimentation. And do the schools do much today to teach varnishing methods ?

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I think i'm gonna rule out the hammerl option because i've contacted IV and joha and you wont believe this but this was what i was told buy joha after i asked how much shipping for 1 bottle of varnish is......150-300 EUROS!! IV's shipping costs $19 and that more than 3x the cost of the varnish it self.....Sometimes i wish there was a supplier here is Oz.

I'm PMed joe with no reply after a couple of days....anyone know whats he up to? too buying whipping up another gallon of his super varnish? Hopefully his shipping charges are a bit less.

Got a PM from a member here recommending 2 or 3 coats of Hawthorn venice turpentine as a seal.....what are your thought?

Thanks again

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I just had a brief look at this topic and in spite of back and forth snipping I think that Lyndon makes some of the best points. When I was a genuinely poor violin making student, I had to sell my motor bike, and then my bike, and then almost everything else to finance my studies. I lived over an ancient garage, in a box room with no toilet and no running water. All I had was a sleeping bag, a small bench, and my tools. During this time I spent a small fortune on varnish, varnish experiments and materials. I tried everything from rosinates to casein, from shellac to egg emulsions. Traces of my experiments were all over the room, and it stank. I also ruined any number of violins. And it all cost me more than an arm and a leg. It cost me a healthy safe and clean lifestyle, because everything went on this violin making obsession. No, please don't feel sorry, I'm well off today. But the point that I would like to make is this. If I were doing all this again I would buy a well tried commercial 'varnish system'. It will save you money in the end, and it will allow you to SELL your instruments so that you can afford to make experiments. I highlighted the word SELL, because this is what, more than any other aspect of violin making, good varnishes do. Good varnishes sell. They can even sell bad instruments. Bad varnishes don't sell. They won't even sell an otherwise good instrument. Moreover, a bad varnish will quickly get you a bad reputation.

I also used the term 'varnish system'. Varnishing is not simply about applying coats of varnish. It is about a series of stages. Each one of which requires thought and investment. This kind of high quality commercial varnishing system was not available when I was younger. I know of two that I trust, and I also know that they are similar to the kind of varnish and varnish methods that I and many successful colleges use. (There may be several others that I don't know of) In reality they are not expensive. They are the product of many many hours of serious experimentation and research. But even with such systems you can still get it wrong. And my advice is to do a couple of experiments first, and above all read and follow the instructions very carefully. This last might seem a stupid thing to say, but I know from the kind of questions that Magister receives that people often don't read the extensive instructions that come with the product. Check out their web sites. If they do not provide adequate and sensible information about their products they are not serious contenders.

PS I have no commercial interest in any varnish manufacturing company. Gotta go!

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