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Violin Varnishing Safety


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Hello all,


After being told my varnishing area smells very strongly, I wanted to do some research to make sure the smells/fumes weren't health hazardous.  I've attempted searching, but have come up relatively unsatisfied.  So, when varnishing, is there a health risk?  Any dangerous solvents or varnishes?  Or am I overreacting?  I just want to be sure that myself (and others) will remain as healthy as can be.



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Almost all solvents are dangerous. Water is the major exception. There's plenty of information online about safety, toxicity, and ventilation. For any given solvent, you can google solvent name + MSDS (material safety data sheet). The Merck manual is also good.

Here's a sample


Merck online


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As Addie says, all solvents, beside water, and even then, depending on whats in it, should be considered dangerous. Inhalation, hand, skin, eye protection should be used depending on what your level of exposure is and how you are applying it. Ventilation  and flammability is another huge one, particularly with alcohol in and for spirit/shellac varnishes.


You would have to huff quite a bit of alcohol before it became dangerous, but still precautions should be taken with it as well as turpentine, mineral spirit, gamasol, naptha, acetone, laquer thinner, xylol ect..  Denatured alcohol has methanol and or wood alcohol added to skate liquor lic laws so it can be sold as a fuel or solvent. And it can be dangerous, but requires quite a bit of exposure, however it is respiratory systemic and any inhaled will go "into" you, small amounts won't effect you with casual exposure, however many "small amounts" of exposure, repeatedly  over several years can be very bad with all solvents and can lead to big problems with vital organs. Fortunately the "volume" based on the size of instrument is very small compared to other occupations that have high levels of exposure.


Also fortunate that the "cure" for wood alcohol poisoning is booze, so if you find yourself sickened by it, grab the Jamesons. I generally have a nip before I start just to be safe -_-


And finally, perhaps most importantly, because this is the one that "gets you" and gets you good, and or really bad is SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION!!!! be very careful with ANY rags or absorbent material that has been soaked in solvents particularly when mixed with any type of drying oil...RAGS SHOULD NEVER BE PLACED IN A CLOSED BAG!!! .properly dispose of rags by placing them in a steel can that has a good fitting lid and some water in it,leave them to soak for a long period of time untile the solvent become inert, then remove the rags and reuse if possible, if not allow them to air dry opened up and then dispose in garbage, NEVER CHANGE THE WATER, just add bit as you need. After several years you will have a sludge bucket that hopefully isn't more than a gallon or 2 and can be brought to waste disposal....Please don't dump solvents or water with solvents into the ground, drains , sinks, or toilets. Just as bad as these things can be for you is nothing compared to what they have done to the ecosystems based on careless use and disposal of those who came before us.



edit; for your lung protection you need something like this, with "organic" filters, there are several types, just an example



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Crikey! I spend half the day smelling both Spirit and Oil varnishes. The aroma is so addictive. Benzoin . . . Turpentine . . . superb!

I once overdosed on Olbas (Eucalyptus) Oil. I'd given up the smokes and needed something to replace them. Olbas Oil was it. The overdose was frightening and very, very, very tearful.

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Solvents....where to begin.  I agree with everything jezzupe said.  then...

Basic stuff.  Oil based violin varnishes have little or no raw turpentine, so your exposure is determined by what you add as "thinner".

Spirit varnish is mostly alcohol and should be handled as if it were raw alcohol.

The single most noticeable effect of inhaling fumes from organic solvents is dehydration. Therefore drink water, early and often.

Paint thinner, mineral spirit, gamsol, stoddard solvent...any petroleum based "thinner"  ...even if you can't smell them they are still dehydrating you.

Read the basic info and MSDS....though a lot of the literature IMHO is extreme in its evaluation.

Maintain good ventilation.

Trust your body.  Your reactions will have a lot to do with exposure over time. 

40 years as a woodworker, 30+ years making finishes...20+ of which were in the environmentally safe finish business ...I can be around turpentine and alcohol all day long...no turpentine in the evening, though....and suffer no obvious side effects.  However I cannot enter a Yankee Candle Store without getting a headache and nausea.  When I go through the cosmetics section of a store I hold my breath and hope to get through.  Most air fresheners make me sick.

on we go,


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How would varnishing materials compare to a daily commute in a car in and out of Los Angeles or a plane ride across the USA?


All risks should be benchmarked appropriately.



I'd rather drink a pint of varnish than a pint of that stuff from LA anytime.....but still, I prefer wine...


Ever smelled a jumbo door being opened after a long flight?  :unsure: ....ops sorry, back to OP's post....

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One option, if venting is not practical, would be a carbon filter, like the mask but with a fan in a box , some HEPA air filter units have a carbon filter , activated carbon/charcoal really is amazing stuff. A box filter could be built simple enough with some plywood and a bathroom venting  fan .

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Just my two cents: on a daily basis, I use various chemicals, some of them are highly toxic or dangerous on any other way one can imagine. When I work with the students, I thoroughly insist on using of proper protecting equipment, but, I have to admit, when I am working alone, I barely use any of protection, primarily because all such equipment, simplified, bother me. I'd say that the knowledge and experience, along the appropriate equipment, could ensure one's safety, without any special personal protection gadgets. OK, I have the approach to the mentioned equipment, so, I have to repeat, this post worth not more than my two cents.

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