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Urban Luthier

The allure of a fine 'straight' varnished instrument

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That's a nice view in that short film. I wonder how accurate is the color vs. seeing it in person. The ground seems to have a strong (saturated) color.

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The ground seems to have a strong (saturated) color.

I'm guessing that a significant part of what's going on is due to the wood itself... the effects of darkening with age. I think it's nearly impossible to add the effect with a coating if you start out with new, white wood.

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Bringing this back to method. Without a strong ground the varnish will appear flat and the color a bit starved...no matter how the surface is treated. So the better your ground, the more latitude you have in surface treatment.

Joe

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Without a strong ground the varnish will appear flat and the color a bit starved...no matter how the surface is treated.

I agree completely... ground can kill off or bring out what the wood has to offer (from my own experimenting with various grounds). My earlier point was that aged/oxidized/suntanned wood will offer more to work with, in a way that can not be duplicated by adding stuff.

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Vclati,

Dont think theres any real challenge to make a newly varnished instrument. ,the challenge is in selling them.

FC - I think the luthier community might take exception to the first part of that sentence, but I certainly agree with the challenge part. Maybe part of the mis-communication is semantics, since I don't understand a lot of what transpires here. My experience is as a player of long standing, and as such, most of the instruments I've seen were/are old Italian ones in famous violin shops in N.A.

Acknowledging that beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder, my eyes, and the huge majority of my (professional) colleagues', see beauty in the patina of the old. As I said previously, I've also seen very nice antiquing. I remember from the 70's a now long-deceased colleague had a Luiz Bellini that was one of the most gorgeous fiddles ever, new or old.

It's not necessary to rehash the topic of why players prefer old looking instruments, and I don't think that was the thrust of the topic anyway.

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Vclati, Fair enough! :)

It was mainly this statement i had a problem with,or am i misunderstanding you in that you are refering to straight varnished instruments?.:

```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````.

If a varnisher makes the varnish look like it has 200 years worth of patina,then it is `antiqued `, not straight varnished.

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Hi Chris,

thanks for your kind words.

While I have the greatest respect for the makers who do truely fine antiquing, this technique has never been my cup of tea.

I have also reailzed that antiqued instruments sell quicker than new looking ones, which has forced me to work harder on sound to make up for the slight disadvantage. Also one has to pay more attention to other details of the woodwork which might have been discussed in the thread you mentioned which I have not had the time to look at unfortunately.

I find a varnish successful if it allows me to see the details and properties of the wood well. So one of my goals is to find the right balance between getting varnish in/ on the wood and sealing it on the other hand. This is a little bit of a gamble as every piece of wood reacts differently. I like to see the flames get darker as you turn the instrument and then lighter again to the point that they almost appear to be white. The other challenge is the surface texture and I have had varying results. While it has been and to some extent is still fashionable to leave the bits of dust or other small particles on the surface, I find it quickly looks like unskilled work even though supposedly Cremonese instruments were covered with them in the beginning. On the other hand an overly polished shiny surface does not look too good either, so I try to find something in between.

One thing I have discovered is that I don't like it too much when an instrument lights up on stage in the lime light. Also energy saving lamps make the varnish look completely different than normal bulbs or the sunlight. I have no answer to this.

So light is quite understandably a huge factor. This also applies for photography, attached a picture of a violin of mine that Richard Valencia shot. I don't know how he does his lighting but he does a great job!

Seeing instruments of mine that have been heavily used for as little as 3 to 5 years shows that the everyday wear of a hard working musician adds character to the instrument immediately. A slightly softer varnish wears nicer although in my opinion it should not wear down to the wood very fast. Also a too soft varnish mixes with dirt too quickly which you can't really clean.....

Luckily there are enough musicians who like new looking instruments!

Hans

post-31393-0-68419800-1347991670_thumb.jpg

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Hans,

Beautiful work as usual. [i have had the chance to meet Hans and see his [/b]work first hand...stunning varnish and ground.]

It is my impression that pristine instruments are more common in the European market than in the US and Canada. Do you find this to be true?

Joe

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Hans, pleasure to hear the sound recordings from your site, some great players.

Also fantastic accuracy in the work itself.

Joe, re- your earlier comment about the preferences of players being 'cultural'.....can you elaborate ?

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back to that video and I didn't notice at first but at time 00:41 there is a view where the color is much less intense than it is at 2:05. Probably the earlier view is more accurate if you were looking at it in person?

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Hans you instruments Ive always admired. Great stuff.

David, I am going to take your advice and see if I can sit back down with some folks and see if I can tempt people with a more clean look and point out some instruments that look fresh and stunning.

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Hans,

Thanks for commenting and posting the picture. This is exactly what i'm talking about! the overall affect of how the varnish enhances the wood and the sculptural detail is very pleasing to the eye! Seeing work like this is what keeps me excited about the craft.

Chris

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in terms of cultural preferences -- much of the contemporary markers work I've seen for sale in shops like Heinl's and the Sound post tends to be straight rather than antiqued. Joe you mentioned Raymond Schryer as one example. Take this with a grain of salt as my experience is limited to a couple of local shops in the toronto area I visit a few times a year

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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. :)

If you're lucky enough to sell your violin to someone who abuses it slightly, it can get a lot of age very quickly, as long as the varnish is soft, and the ground rich. But in general I think that modern violins don't wear as the old ones did. Many people believe that most of the varnish loss happened to Italian violins in the first ten years of their lives.

Cellos can wear much as the old ones did however.

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"...Modern Violins don't wear as the old ones did..."

Tis true, alas... if only women fiddlers could be persuaded to grow beards and ditch the chin rest.

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back to that video and I didn't notice at first but at time 00:41 there is a view where the color is much less intense than it is at 2:05. Probably the earlier view is more accurate if you were looking at it in person?

Mike the colour at 00:41 looks a little washed out to me, as if being viewed under fluorescent lighting. This varnish can vary considerably under different lighting types.

As Hans has alluded to, one of the challenges is to create a varnish that works satisfactorily under various forms of lighting.

The reason behind mentioning the video was more to illustrate the way in which the wood/varnish behaves optically under moving light angles. While still photos can be excellent, they rarely capture the depth of appearance that can be seen when handling one of these instruments.

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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.

I recall inspecting two of your instruments on display at the VSA. Neither was "worn". Nevertheless, they were beautiful and I'm sure they sold quickly.

Mike

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I've mentioned this before but I'll repeat it now, many Amati family varnish examples are incredibly tough and have lasted intact for centuries. It is only some, usually the highly colored ones, of the Cremonese varnishes that are fragile. Yet the myth persists that Cremonese varnish is delicate. What is more Cremonese than Amati?

Oded

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Mike the colour at 00:41 looks a little washed out to me, as if being viewed under fluorescent lighting. This varnish can vary considerably under different lighting types.

As Hans has alluded to, one of the challenges is to create a varnish that works satisfactorily under various forms of lighting.

The reason behind mentioning the video was more to illustrate the way in which the wood/varnish behaves optically under moving light angles. While still photos can be excellent, they rarely capture the depth of appearance that can be seen when handling one of these instruments.

yes it's nice to finally see a close up of one of these things in a video to see how the maple figure pops out. Of course it's not hard to get figured maple to really pop like that but it sure would be nice to see one in person especially under natural day light. So you think the saturated color at 2:05 is more accurate? I have two monitors and on one it looks lemon yellow on the other it looks kind of caramel or butterscotch. That's the problem with view pictures on a computer.

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Having just returned from Cremona a few days ago, a city that is overflowing with attractive "pristine" finishes at this time of year, this subject is one that I can chime in on.

As a maker, I do both antiqued and pristine finishes. This decision has been market-realistic, driven by my personal aesthetic preferences, and a by product of my own particular path of training as a maker. More recently I and many of my clients seem to be gravitating towards pristine finishes, and this is something I welcome, because despite my love of the sexy, in-your-face complexity of antiqued violins, the craftsman and individual in me really likes the idea of making and finishing a violin that encapsulates who I am as a craftsman, a craftsman who has all kinds of ideas, good and probably not so good, on varnish, wood, texture, gloss, etc. It just strikes me that the pristinely-varnished instrument is a better platform for me to express this individualism.

That said, making a great pristine finish is a big challenge. It may lack some of the fiddly technique and trickery of great antiqueing, but to achieve a violin varnish that is warm, natural, complicated, and interesting is, again, a real challenge. One of the great things about pristine fiddles is that they say so much about what a maker values in a varnish, or what he is endeavoring to value...antqiued violins generally obscure the original message of the maker's intent because the incorporate other elements such as the semblance of age, distress, time, dirt, over polish, wood wear, etc.

So, some details. I believe that one's wood selection can aid the effort of making a successful unantiqued fiddle. Wood that is dramatic or visually complicated is important. How we leave the surface of the wood is also going to contribute to a more interesting final product. David Burgess so successfully has show us how good contrast in the head grain of the maple combined with a very even washboard ripple makes for a lovely surface on a pristine fiddle. Also, it is very important to watch how your varnish process, particularly if it incorporates water washes or stains, effects the sharpness of your toolwork. For example, edges can loose their crispness. On the other hand, water-based washes can also enhance very desirable complexity by raising the summer growth on the tops and lifting up grain and pore and tool patterns on the back. Obviously, you need to be in close control of your varnish sequence and materials. You need to know things like exactly how many coats you are going to use and how that total film thickness communicates the texture of the wood or, in excess, reduces it to next to nothing. Varnish color is also very important. I feel one can get away with very saturated colors and even opaqueness on an antiqued fiddle whereas the same color varnish will look garish or dull on a pristine instrument. The well worn subjects of transparency and liveliness of light in the flame add to make a pristine violin more appealing. Also, I think very carefully about how my final varnish surface will be left. I prefer a semi-gloss surface finished that lays over some wood texture and after several months of drying develops a little micro-texture (hard to explain this). Finally, I typically blacken the chamfers of my pristine fiddles, blacken the f hole walls, and blacken the pegbox interior. I also sometimes blacken the edge miter of the ribs. I just feel this trim work looks good with my style of workmanship and it adds visual interest to the violin.

All in all I feel pristine violins are hard to execute really really well because the tolerance for error is less than in antqiued violins, which by their nature incorporate all kinds of simulated errors...time, bow dents, incessant abrasiion, etc. The pristine finish is also a challenge they because you have to manipulate subtle materials in order to achieve subtle results, but when things come together in a straight fiddle, it is beautiful thing, and if you want an example of such, I would point you to look at Silvio Levaggi's Triennale Gold Cello from three years ago.

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In my limited experience, I observed that using differently colored coats may also add interest to the varnish - starting from a golden ground, and then evolving progressively to stronger/darker colors (maybe two or three of them may suffice). Depending on the angle under which the light strikes the violin, it penetrates more or less deeply into the coats and reflects a different color. This may lead to nice effects at some places, I like it for example on the ribs. But I also find it tricky and dangerous because, at some places, it may look like a poor varnishing job, for example a non-uniform varnish thickness. OK, I'm still trying to improve my skills, but I would be interested to hear what you think about it: source of richness and appeal, or risky quest for unnecessary complexity?

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yes it's nice to finally see a close up of one of these things in a video to see how the maple figure pops out. Of course it's not hard to get figured maple to really pop like that but it sure would be nice to see one in person especially under natural day light. So you think the saturated color at 2:05 is more accurate? I have two monitors and on one it looks lemon yellow on the other it looks kind of caramel or butterscotch. That's the problem with view pictures on a computer.

No, the colour at 2:05 looks quite garish on my computer screen.

Looking at this type of varnish under natural light can also be problematic. What you see will be influenced by a number of factors - whether it is cloudy or clear blue sky, the time of day and the angle of the sunlight etc..

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