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Violin retouching/touch-up varnish and dyes

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I am new to violin restoration and have purchased a number of old violins recently which I have been working on restoring. I'm now at the point where I need to perform some retouching/touch-up work on the varnish but am overwhelmed by the number of different and sometimes conflicting information that I have read online.

 

From what I have read in other forum posts, it looks like most people use a spirit varnish almost exclusively for touch-ups, even on an oil-varnished instrument. Is this perfectly safe to do on an oil varnished violin? Also, what is the best way to tell if an old violins varnish is oil or spirits based?

 

I'm also wondering if anyone can recommend any specific varnish and dye products that I can use for this purpose. I am trying to avoid cooking my own varnish at least until I have more experience with varnishes. I have been leaning towards using Behlen Violin Varnish but I have read that it takes a very long time to dry and I would like to avoid this issue as I can't wait weeks between each coat.

 

Lastly, does anyone have any experience with TransTint dyes?

 

Thank you in advance and best regards.

 

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Generally, use spirit varnish for touch up work, no matter the original type of varnish (oil or spirit). I generally use dyes (like your trans tints and some others)for mixing with spirit varnish, and pigments.  The pigments tend to be more opaque, and the dyes tend to be more transluscent.  Some use water color and then "flash" a light coat of spirit varnish over to seal, in layers.  Buy some granular spirit varnish and just mix it with a good "behlens" alchohol and then warm.  This will work for the base of the touchup varnish.  Don't use oil varnish, or the touch up varnish sold (It is kind of oil/spirit mixed and take a long time to dry-can't layer).  Bear in mind, you are delving into, by far, the most complicated and masterful area of violin restoration.  Hans Nebel offers a course in this every other summer (usually).   jeff

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...I'm also wondering if anyone can recommend any specific varnish and dye products that I can use for this purpose.

 ...I have been leaning towards using Behlen Violin Varnish but I have read that it takes a very long time to dry and I would like to avoid this issue as I can't wait weeks between each coat.

I use a mixture of Ciba Geigy (Orasol) dyes and earth tone pigments. The Orasol dyes can be had here

http://www.museumservicescorporation.com/scat/pa.html

Earth tone pigments you could buy from Kremer pigments. Kremer I'm sure has some dyes that would work well too, but I don't know what to recommend specifically as I don't use them.

I would just use shellac for your retouch medium. You could get a thousand different recommendations from everyone on what to use here, but just to make it simple and get started, you might get the bullseye shellac from Home Depot. It's nothing fancy but just alcohol and shellac. I'm not familiar with the Behlen Violin Varnish but with shellac you won't have problems with it drying if you apply thin coats.

You asked about telling the difference between oil and alcohol based varnish. Honestly I cannot always tell.

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You asked about telling the difference between oil and alcohol based varnish. Honestly I cannot always tell.

 

 

I'm certainly with you on that.  I won't even hazard a guess unless I'm reasonably  sure from either knowing the maker, or reading first hand accounts of what they used.  

 

Matt had some really great advice about keeping it simple.  I'll add in the beginning fewer color choices will probably make for more adept retouching later on.  Learn to use a select palate of colors really well before adding more colors.  90% of the day to day small retouching I do (minor nicks, edges, etc) are usually accomplished with an Indian yellow dry pigment, an orange dye, and a very dark brown dye.  Those three usually combine to make very average violin colors.  Larger jobs often require more planning and experimentation before committing color and varnish to the violin.  Another excellent way to train your eye is to use the three primary colors in both dyes and pigments.

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I'm certainly with you on that. I won't even hazard a guess unless I'm reasonably sure from either knowing the maker, or reading first hand accounts of what

I'm glad I'm not the only one. I suspect people who say they can tell the difference aren't really sure themselves. But maybe there's something I don't see.

Another excellent way to train your eye is to use the three primary colors in both dyes and pigments.

This is good advice. I once had a guy that I was training and he was having a hard time discerning which way to go with the color. He asked me for help and I had him read an article in one of the VSA journals by Margaret Shipman about primary colors(I'll look up what journal it was). After that we cleared his palette of everything but red, yellow, and blue. He had to get the color from only what he had there. It all clicked for him relatively quickly after that.

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After that we cleared his palette of everything but red, yellow, and blue. He had to get the color from only what he had there. It all clicked for him relatively quickly after that.

It's good training, that's for sure.  Primary colors force you to really see what is going on. Controlling red is always the shocker for most people in the beginning.

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Agree re the three primaries.  Sometimes a prepared color like quinacridone gold or bismark brown can be useful, but are usually too brassy looking.  The tiniest bit of negrosene can help to kill that.  Always look for blue in the original varnish to get a good match.  There is often more than is obvious, and it can help to control the red.

 

Feathering the edges of the existing varnish is very important.  Scrape with a very sharp scraper or curved knife.  (Edit: please see posting #19)

 

Often, a ground coat of yellow works very well.  Tinctures of annatto or turmeric are good.

 

Use a good grade of shellac flakes (Kremer, Behlen), usually blonde.  I combine 8g lac, 2g gum copal & 2g gum benzoin with 1.5 oz ethanol.  This was one of Rossi's favs for retouch, and has worked well for me.  He liked methanol, but I find it a bit too aggressive for this app., so I use the booze.

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Bill,

 

I'm very careful about advocating feathering the edges of varnish.  In some instances it's warranted, but most of the time I find with careful planning it can be avoided, and turn out better than if the varnish had been feathered.  

 

Jerry

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Bill,

 

I'm very careful about advocating feathering the edges of varnish.  In some instances it's warranted, but most of the time I find with careful planning it can be avoided, and turn out better than if the varnish had been feathered.  

 

Jerry

 

Jerry, can you go into a little more detail?

Thx --

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Jerry, can you go into a little more detail?

Thx --

Sure.  A lot of it depends on the varnish you are trying to retouch.  Bear in mind, I'm not trying to be confrontational.  If you have something that works, great.  I'm really most hesitant about recommending something to a beginner that could potentially create regret.  If you are new to working with older varnishes, removing some is potentially going to get you into a world of trouble you're not ready for.  For myself,  I'll at most employ a gentle "softening" at the extreme edges of an area to be retouched. With that said, when presented with a retouching problem you can think of it almost like selecting replacement wood - when doing so you try to match grain, figure and oxidation.  Modern conservative retouching is a similar process except that you are trying to match color, opacity, sheen and texture. The result is hopefully the replacement varnish sits nicely in the void and comes off of the brush with little or no manipulation.

 

I start by trying to match the tone of the varnish at hand.  This can usually be accomplished varying resin and wax content of my retouch varnish, as well as adding matting agents if need be, or additives to slow down drying or make brush strokes "flow" out if need be.  Next, I try to determine wether or not the color is a result of one shade over and over again, or if there are distinct layers to the varnish.  A lot of testing is then carried out on saran wrap over the surface to be retouched.  At that stage I also try to gauge what type of delivery device(s) is going to be best to be best for the area.  

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I am new to violin restoration and have purchased a number of old violins recently which I have been working on restoring. I'm now at the point where I need to perform some retouching/touch-up work on the varnish but am overwhelmed by the number of different and sometimes conflicting information that I have read online.

 

From what I have read in other forum posts, it looks like most people use a spirit varnish almost exclusively for touch-ups, even on an oil-varnished instrument. Is this perfectly safe to do on an oil varnished violin? Also, what is the best way to tell if an old violins varnish is oil or spirits based?

 

I'm also wondering if anyone can recommend any specific varnish and dye products that I can use for this purpose. I am trying to avoid cooking my own varnish at least until I have more experience with varnishes. I have been leaning towards using Behlen Violin Varnish but I have read that it takes a very long time to dry and I would like to avoid this issue as I can't wait weeks between each coat.

 

Lastly, does anyone have any experience with TransTint dyes?

 

Thank you in advance and best regards.

 

Ha! You read my product comment on StewMac website... Yeah I was apparently a guinee pig for that stuff, which took 6 months to completely harden.

 

I mix up my own spirit varnish now.  The simplest for is just denatured alcohol and dewaxed shellac flakes. (I use Amber and Garnet Tiger flakes I get from WoodCraft)   I just take dewaxed shellac flakes and grind them in a coffee grinder to a fine powder and pour the powder into an equal volume of denatured alcohol in a jelly jar woth a screw cap.  It just takes a overnight to dissolve if you ground up the flakes to a fine enough powder.  Just have to stir a bit every so often.

 

If you use something like seedlac then you'll have to filter the mixture to get the dirt out of the mix.  Tiger flakes dewaxed shellac is really nice because there is virtually no sediment and you can use it straight away with no cooking.

 

More sophisticated recipe follows for 1704 spirit varnish recipe.  Which I got from http://www.leroydouglasviolins.com/varnish.htm

 

________________________________________

 

Spirit varnish recipe. The 1704 recipe first mentioned in the book`Gabinetto Armonico Piero D`instrumenti Sonoro` by BonnaniIt. It makes a golden spirit varnish, good for touch-up as well as for new instruments.

 

o        45 g seedlac

o        7.5 g gum elemi

o        200 ml alcohol

o        9 ml Lavender Oil Spike

 

Place all of the ingredients in a glass jar and let it dissolve, stirring at least twice a day, until the lac no longer sits and sticks to the bottom of the jar (this may take from one to three weeks).

 

When completely dissolved, boil in a double boiler for seven minutes, let cool, and then boil again for seven minutes. While still warm, filter through a fine cloth. Repeat the filtering process until there is no more dirt in the filter. Once this process is complete, and the varnish has cooled, it is ready to use. Thinning with alcohol may be necessary to obtain brushing consistency.

 

Variation of the 1704 varnish; a small amount of mastic improves adherence between coats, and the sandarac adds a bit of hardness.

 

o        45 g seedlac

o        5 g gum mastic

o        5 g gum sandarac

o        200 ml alcohol

o        5-7 ml lavender spike oil

 

Preparations are the same as for the 1704 recipe.

________________________________________

 

I actually made up the variation recipe using seedlac and another batch using a 50-50 mixture of garnet and amber dewaxed shellac flakes.  Problem is I got side tracked for 9 months and now am not sure if it is any good any longer.

 

But the info is there and spirit varnish is pretty darned easy to make.

 

Finding the right dyes and getting the coloring dense enough is where I'm at right now.  Going to need to figure it out soon as I have a violin and a viola nearly done and in need of varnish. 

 

Cheers,

Joe

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Agree re the three primaries.  Sometimes a prepared color like quinacridone gold or bismark brown can be useful, but are usually too brassy looking.  The tiniest bit of negrosene can help to kill that.  Always look for blue in the original varnish to get a good match.  There is often more than is obvious, and it can help to control the red.

 

Feathering the edges of the existing varnish is very important.  Scrape with a very sharp scraper or curved knife.

 

Often, a ground coat of yellow works very well.  Tinctures of annatto or turmeric are good.

 

Use a good grade of shellac flakes (Kremer, Behlen), usually blonde.  I combine 8g lac, 2g gum copal & 2g gum benzoin with 1.5 oz ethanol.  This was one of Rossi's favs for retouch, and has worked well for me.  He liked methanol, but I find it a bit too aggressive for this app., so I use the booze.

Bill,

I'm not familiar with negrosene. Could you tell us more about it.

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You asked about telling the difference between oil and alcohol based varnish. Honestly I cannot always tell. 

 

 

I'm certainly with you on that.  I won't even hazard a guess unless I'm reasonably  sure from either knowing the maker, or reading first hand accounts of what they used.  

 

 

Boy, am I glad to here  the two of you say that.  Thought it was just me and I was going to have to go to the "oberlin confessional" one day  :unsure:   jeff

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Agree re the three primaries.  Sometimes a prepared color like quinacridone gold or bismark brown can be useful, but are usually too brassy looking.  The tiniest bit of negrosene can help to kill that.  Always look for blue in the original varnish to get a good match.  There is often more than is obvious, and it can help to control the red.

 

Feathering the edges of the existing varnish is very important.  Scrape with a very sharp scraper or curved knife.

 

Often, a ground coat of yellow works very well.  Tinctures of annatto or turmeric are good.

 

Use a good grade of shellac flakes (Kremer, Behlen), usually blonde.  I combine 8g lac, 2g gum copal & 2g gum benzoin with 1.5 oz ethanol.  This was one of Rossi's favs for retouch, and has worked well for me.  He liked methanol, but I find it a bit too aggressive for this app., so I use the booze.

 

I also agree with the primary color approach being an an excellent basis for retouching.  My initial "kit" (almost 30 years ago) was the three primaries, a lamp black and an opaque white.  A few earths were on hand if I needed to tweak things a bit.  I used shellac and a matting agent.

 

Since then, I've mixed some custom colors from dyes and added more earths and pigments to the mix.  The touchup varnish I use is one I've come up with by experimentation over the years.  The basic resins being light shellac, sandarac and a small amount of Manilla copal.  A very small amount of plasticizer is also added.

 

I second Jerry's observation about scraping.  Though sometimes necessary, I tend to be pretty conservative about easing the edge of the original varnish with a scraper.  My observations are that this is often overdone.  If required, a very slight burnish (very lightly turned edge) on the scraper, or none at all, is advisable.

 

Light use of a small round burnishing stone (or large glass bead) is often as much as is required to bring things around before retouching a crack, for example.

 

The varnish and coloring agents must work together in a complimentary and stable manner.  I tend to test new colors both alone and in a varnish layer.  I avoid the vegetable colors for ground coats, as I find these a bit too fugitive... though some of the warm initial colors that can be accomplished with them are difficult to recreate.

 

I found that some of the colors that are perceived as "red" on many instruments are actually multiple layers of complicated (shades) of "yellows".  Modify with blue, and you get into the orange-browns.  There is a color made of gamboge and several other yellow dye stuffs that has a Italian name that translates into English as "all yellows".  If you layer that stuff, you get a rather nice reddish color.

 

Cheers all.

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I'm glad to hear burnishing mentioned. Scraping the original varnish, often chipping it away, stands out to my eye on all sorts of instruments. Usually this is after some fill is put on. You can also wrap your finger in scotch tape or plastic, get some nose grease, and burnish your transitions a bit before they're fully dry. Jeffrey, I use a glass stirring rod, but I am after a bead now!

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...You can also wrap your finger in scotch tape or plastic, get some nose grease, and burnish your transitions a bit before they're fully dry...

 

Could you elaborate on this a bit.  Do you mean that you burnish the new retouching before it's completely dry?  I am curious because I have been doing the same thing with my bare finger, but I have never heard of anyone else doing it.

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Thanks to Jerry, Jeffrey, et al for very good, cautionary advice.  Re-reading, I was far too inclusive regarding scraping.

 

The O.P. had indicated s/he was new to violin restoration and had picked up a few old fiddles to work (learn?) on.  By "scrape" (sounds brutal), I probably meant more of a kiss with the sharpest edge to tame a cleanly broken varnish edge adjacent to an area of missing varnish, so often found on cheap fiddles with a flaky finish (I was doing one this week).  If necessary, this is indeed a touchy operation and should be held to a bare minimum, and probably after the edge of the existing varnish has been stabilized.  I feel it is also very important to avoid touching the bare wood with anything that might alter the natural aged tone of the wood, if varnish is the only problem at hand.

 

I certainly agree that scraping can get quickly out of control and is often not indicated, esp. with a well-done tight crack repair that can be blended with a minimum of fuss.  "Less is usually better."  Even a same-grain thru patch can be made to disappear with a minimum of edge blending if the carpentry is well done.  Again, the idea is to avoid making the repair harder than it is.

 

Naturally much of this sort of thing is predicated upon the market value of the instrument being repaired, and how much time is really spent, etc.  And, it seems to me that the better instruments are often the most responsive to good technique.

 

I'll add that non-structural cosmetic restoration can be very difficult to put into print, and that an experienced hands-on teacher can save you a ton of time and struggle.  I can't imagine learning it on my own or from anyone's book, even what little I know.

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Jeffrey,

Could you amplify on your use of the burnishing stone, for instance, its exact purpose and the timing of its use.

Thanks in advance

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Hi Brad;

 

I use it before touchup.  In the case of a crack repair, to massage down the wood fibers that may have swelled from glueing.  It is also helpful in urging fractured or lifted varnish edges to lay down (with the help of a little solvent).

 

Hi Bill;

 

You're last post sounds about right.  :)

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I have picked up a container of amber bullseye shellac the other day as per Matthew's recomendation. Thank you Matthew, this should make my life easier in the beggining. I have also just ordered the new 2nd Edition of Brian Epp's book 'The Art of Retouching'.

I am still a bit confused as to what I am mixing the dyes/pigments with. Should I be mixing the the dyes and/or pigments directly with the shellac in multiple small batches of varying colors, or should I be mixing them with something else and applying in alternate layers with the shellac? The touchups I need to do will require multiple different colors to be matched on different parts of each violin. In several videos I have seen, the dyes are mixed on a small pallet and the mixture appears to be fairly thick (so it does not look to be shellac), is this procedure only for certain types of dyes and what are they mixed with?

Should I make the first coat of just shellac with no dyes to seal the wood?

Any thoughts to using watercolors with alternating layers of shellac vs. mixing the dyes with shellac?

Starting with three basic colors makes scence in that it will force me to get a better undesrstanding of what effect each major color has on the mixtures color. I will be experimenting with this as soon as I decide which dyes to use.

Also, since touchups should be reversable in case you have to re-do them. If I made a mistake and wanted to remove a shellac based touchup is it safe to use denatured alcohol on a q-tip, or will this dammage the original finish? Is there a better way to accomplish this?

I intend to take the Hans Nebel's Workshop next summer, but meanwhyle, does anyone know anywhere I can get some hands on training in the NY/NJ area?

Many thanks to all for all the wonderful ideas. My head is still spinning with information overload but I will keep learning and experimenting. I will not be attempting any retouching on a violin until I have a much clearer idea of what I am doing. And yes, this is by far the most difficult part of restoration, but I am very passionate about this and will never quit so keep the usefull tips coming.

Best regards

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I am still a bit confused as to what I am mixing the dyes/pigments with. Should I be mixing the the dyes and/or pigments directly with the shellac in multiple small batches of varying colors, or should I be mixing them with something else and applying in alternate layers with the shellac? The touchups I need to do will require multiple different colors to be matched on different parts of each violin. In several videos I have seen, the dyes are mixed on a small pallet and the mixture appears to be fairly thick (so it does not look to be shellac), is this procedure only for certain types of dyes and what are they mixed with?

Should I make the first coat of just shellac with no dyes to seal the wood?

Any thoughts to using watercolors with alternating layers of shellac vs. mixing the dyes with shellac?

Mix the dyes with the shellac. You can work with the resulting mixture wet or let it dry on a palette and reactivate with alcohol. With a palette, you can have different colors that you can mix together to get what you want. You can get a white tile from Home Depot (your local touch up store) for about a buck. You can use watercolors in the process too, but they are opaque, meaning light won't go through. Sometimes you want some of that depending on the varnish you are working with. You can achieve some of that opaqueness with earth colors as well. Mixing a little matting agent with the shellac is effective too. You can get matting agent from Kremer. It looks like powdered sugar. Don't put a ton in. Wait until you get a feel for what it does. Actually that pretty much applies to all of the touch up. Most of this you will have to just start working with, until you get a feel for what all your materials do. Touch up is really a mastery of your materials.

I do a technique that would be referred to as glazing. I put thin layers of pure color between layers of shellac. I achieve some effect by dusting dry earth pigments in between some of the sealing layers. I apply the earth colors with makeup brushes. The earth colors get some of that opaqueness I'm looking for. I often apply the shellac with an airbrush. I'm not sure how much you want to get into this so I haven't suggested that yet as it requires tooling up a bit. My technique is probably not the standard, so that is why I suggested in the previous paragraph mixing the dyes directly with the shellac. The technique I use comes from Rene Morel with a few additives. There is a thread floating around on Maestronet where I talk more about it. I'll look for it.

My best advice for you is to work with a dry as possible brush. Use paper towel on you bench to dab your brush. Sometimes it may even look like nothing is happening while you are applying. This is ok. Build up the color slowly.

There are so many ways to do this and people using the same the technique will often get very different results. Just get started and slowly add new tricks to your bag.

Also, since touchups should be reversable in case you have to re-do them. If I made a mistake and wanted to remove a shellac based touchup is it safe to use denatured alcohol on a q-tip, or will this dammage the original finish? Is there a better way to accomplish this?

The q tip will work, but use it with caster oil. Dip the q tip in caster oil and then dip it in alcohol. Rub the q tip gently on the spot to be removed. Keep looking at the q tip to see what you are removing.  Alcohol by itself is too aggressive. You can clean the leftover with mineral spirits. I use this technique for removing old touch up and it's pretty controllable. When deciding what to remove (in the case of old touch up) a uv light is helpful. It tells you pretty clearly what is original and what is not. In the case of new stuff you put on, just be careful to only remove what you put on. I will also use 600 grit sandpaper that I fold in three and bend it into a U shape. You can then precisely sand the spots you touched up. Often this ends up as part of the process. Put a little on, take a little off, put more on, and so on until things look right. Sand lightly and be patient.

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Bear in mind what Matt said about everyone using different ways, but often achieving good results (or similar bad).  I say this, because the book you are getting is not quite the same style as what Matt is talking about, or that Hans teaches.  Good to have all the knowledge, but it is easier to start with one persons method and follow it to the end.  Then, move on with learning others techniques and styles.  Unfortunately, most of us don't have the luxury of having Matt and Jerry sitting next to us all day (I think the back of my head would hurt from all the slapping :wacko: )and we get confused by everyones techniques.  All I can say is it will be somewhat confusing to combine, but stick with it.  It's all good info.   jeff

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Matt's advice is very good as usual.  As is Jeff W's advice of finding one thing and sticking to it.  

 

The only things I would add to Matt's advice (and I think he would agree with me) is be aware of your viewing angles and lighting.  The principle of "less is more" often applies to retouch as well.

 

If you are constantly viewing your touchup from the top down it may look fine as you are applying it, only to be surprised when the angle changes and what you thought was a good retouch turns out to be a racing stripe. Learn to stop and occasionally look at the area from different angles.  That will allow you to make better decisions about color and opacity. Frequent "eye breaks" are also important to stay fresh.

 

I like having a mix of different lighting to check against.  The shop where I work, and my home shop have a mix of natural daylight, incandescent bulbs, and fluorescent bulbs. For me I find checking against all of them to be helpful.

 

The beginner mistake with retouching is to do too much. Often ending up a shade or two lighter looks more convincing to the eye and leaves room for patina.

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