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Urban Luthier

The allure of a fine 'straight' varnished instrument

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Picking up on Joel's thread about Antiquing help. There is so much good information on 'antiquing' on this forum. Neil Ertz posts come to mind. however...

While I admire those who 'antique' -- Neil and Melvin among others here do a very natural job), I find myself asking 'why don't we hear (here) more about the techniques of members who do a 'straight varnish job'? -- The work of Hans Pluhar, Kelvin Scott, Peter Goodfellow, et al. come to mind. Personally, I find a fine straight varnish job every bit as alluring as a good antiqued instrument and would love to learn more about how makers approach the challenge of making a new instrument look good in the finishing process.

Chris

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...how makers approach the challenge of making a new instrument look good in the finishing process.

Yes, well. That's the root of the problem right there. It's hard to make a new instrument look as if it has 200 yrs of patina, but over the years I've seen several admirable examples. I'm not a maker, but I wonder if one of the well-known summer workshops might offer a class on this very topic. Certainly it would go a long way to eliminate the prejudice players have against modern work.

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Vclati,

Dont think theres any real challenge to make a newly varnished instrument. ,the challenge is in selling them. You talk as if the aim is to make a new violin with full varnish but have the appearance of 200 years ,isnt that a contradiction. Patination in itself is a method of antiquing. Or are you meaning a varnish that is slightly matt (hence more attractive to most) as opposed to a shiny billiard ball.

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When you varnish a violin, whether the goal is a "straight"..."shaded"...or "antiqued" instrument, visual satisfaction remains the same.

The eye likes complexity....not unifomity. If the surface is to be fully covered the varnish it does not have to be the same throughout its thickness or surface area. The ground does not have to be bland and boring. What pleases or offends the eye in old instruments is not their age alone, but the skill of the maker and the quality of the materials.

on we go,

Joe

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... What pleases or offends the eye in old instruments is not their age, but the skill of the maker.

Precisely Joe, that's why I started the thread. -- beyond good judgement, what techniques do contemporary makers do to make a new, straight varnished instrument look good?

I DID NOT start the thread to debate new vs antiqued, antiquing techniques or the market conditions that lead makers to antique. All of that has been covered before. As I noted in post #1 take a look at the some of the makers work who post here who have achieved good results making straight varnished instruments. It is their visualization and technical techniques and thought process, I think is a subject that hasn't been discussed all that much

Chris

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"the surface is to be fully covered the varnish it does not have to be the same throughout its thickness or surface area. The ground does not have to be bland and boring. "

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The short answer is, sales.

Antiqued instruments sell better than straight ones.

I'm convinced that any Joe can make a good fiddle, not many Joes can play em, and fewer can sell em.

If you have 5 instruments lined up to sell, you could likely make them look old or new....but generally most makers aren't so lucky.

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Ben,

I agree...But I do see in the American market a shift away from radically antiqued instruments. It will be interesting to see how this plays out at the VSA competition.

Chris,

I thought maybe I was being more obtuse than normal...The way we approach this technique in workshop is to learn to see how the thickness of the varnish reacts with the ground. One way to "see" this is to realize that old varnish is a dark over light contrast....without hiding the wood underneath.

Joe

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Joe what do you mean by "the ground does not have to be bland and boring"? Isn't the ground just a uniform application all over the instrument? Wouldn't any variability in thickness or texture or whatever just be in the varnish layer?

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Mike,

There is a great deal of variation in the wood we choose..colors which change with carving angles, cross-grain patterns, etc....these + the luminosity of the undersurface [the wood] becomes the palette against which we varnish. So whatever we use as a ground should not obscure this.

Joe

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Chris,

I find your question interesting.

I think that it is extremely difficult to make a beautiful fresh instrument- a bit of antiquinq warms everything up, and gives the interest that Joe talks about. I'm full of admiration for those who do it well. I think it takes some confidence to leave your work so exposed.

I think that the greatest skill is to make a beautiful instrument from plain wood, with straight varnish.

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When you make a fully varnished new instrument the violin under the varnish must have a lot going for it in the first place. The flow of the arches and scroll, the edgework and the texture of the wood surfaces are all exposed and even magnified. When the instrument is worn by either age or artifice surface flaws become character marks and the changes and variability of the surface adds interest to what might otherwise be a boring or even ugly violin. Making a new looking instrument which has a unique and interesting personality is really very dificult and those who can do it consistrently have my greatest admiration. Unfortunately it takes an equally educated eye to apreciate them and most buyers cant tell the difference between a mint perfect masterpiece and a mass produced cheapie.

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When you make a fully varnished new instrument the violin under the varnish must have a lot going for it in the first place. The flow of the arches and scroll, the edge work and the texture of the wood surfaces are all exposed and even magnified.

Nate,

Right on the money....with a pristine varnish all things are revealed....not an exercise for the meek. Most of the contemporary instruments that I see, which are fully varnished, accentuate their flaws because the varnish is sooooo uniform...the eye has no place to rest or inquire BUT the flaws.....or perhaps shortcomings is a better word.

There are some makers who have made long and success filled careers making instruments of the most pristine varnish...close your ears now David...In my experience David Burgess and Raymond Schryer stand head and shoulders above the crowd among North American makers who concentrate on pristine varnishing. However there are many makers in Poland, the Czech Republic, Italy, China and elsewhere who have always varnished in this way..so a lot of our attitude as makers, dealers, and players is cultural.

on we go,

Joe

ok David you can come back into the room now.........................

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Sadly for internet apprentices like myself, examples of David's work is difficult to find online. but his reputation in this regard as I understand it is legendary! Raymond Schryer's work is a little easier to view for Canadian folk -- I would agree -- stunning work.

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I have a slightly different question, (but yet somewhat related), maybe I should start a new post??

But, I'll ask here anyways, and can start up a new thread if necessary. I was wondering if a "straight" varnished instrument can be expected to eventually wear similiarly to an antique instrument. There are two reason why I wonder about this. One is that our modern varnish is not the varnish of the Italians, so why should we expect it to wear similiarly? I have a straight varnished violin that is 100 plus years old, and there are no typical wear patterns as you would expect on a classic Italian instrument. The second factor is, do modern players really have as much physical contact with their instruments as baroque players had? I think most modern players really only touch the neck to pick up the instrument, and they no longer support the instrument directly against their neck as baroque players had.

These may seem like trivial points, but if the expectation of the modern violin varnisher is that their "straight" varnished instrument will eventually wear like the old Italian instruments, these are important obstacles to consider. Of course, you won't be around in three hundred years to observe the outcome, either. :)

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Well said Conor, Nathan and Joe.

Getting a full coating of varnish to work in an interesting manner is exceedingly difficult.

One of the more stunning varnishes I have seen was that on a Matteo Goffriller. The back was relatively plain, slab cut covered with a moderately fine layer of reddish varnish. At a glance it all looked very plain, that is, until you changed the viewing angle. Suddenly everything exploded into life, creating a magnificent visual feast.

Getting a ground system to work in a certain way seems central to achieving this effect.

This poor quality photo (“le Davidoff” Strad????) is a screen capture taken from a video. A full coating of varnish would look spectacular over such a ground.

post-24896-0-78222700-1347938684_thumb.jpg

An excellent sequence showing how this ground visually changes with viewing angle can be seen here:

http://videos.tf1.fr...et-5594506.html

Drag the cursor through to 2.05 minutes and start at that point.

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ok David you can come back into the room now.........................

As I see it, one problem is that whenever musicians see the "rare and valuable" antique instruments in general circulation, the most obvious feature of these instruments is that they are quite worn. So what's the feature that's going to stick in their heads, and tend to become synonymous with a "good instrument"?

A little education can be helpful there, such as showing them photos of the instruments which are most prized by the hard-core connoisseurs. We can lead a little bit, and don't need to just be followers.

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Well said Conor, Nathan and Joe.

Getting a full coating of varnish to work in an interesting manner is exceedingly difficult.

One of the more stunning varnishes I have seen was that on a Matteo Goffriller. The back was relatively plain, slab cut covered with a moderately fine layer of reddish varnish. At a glance it all looked very plain, that is, until you changed the viewing angle. Suddenly everything exploded into life, creating a magnificent visual feast.

Getting a ground system to work in a certain way seems central to achieving this effect.

This poor quality photo (“le Davidoff” Strad????) is a screen capture taken from a video. A full coating of varnish would look spectacular over such a ground.

post-24896-0-78222700-1347938684_thumb.jpg

An excellent sequence showing how this ground visually changes with viewing angle can be seen here:

http://videos.tf1.fr...et-5594506.html

Drag the cursor through to 2.05 minutes and start at that point.

this smal film is really good to see, especially some of the micrscope images. the cracks nature of the varnish is really impressive.

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"A little education can be helpful there..."

David I understand your point, but I also understand why a musician might want to experience the charm of a beautifully aged instrument right away rather than being "educated" towards letting time do it's magic... in other words to perform the role of contributer to the wear than someone ELSE can enjoy in 200 years.

Best regards,

Ernie

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