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Which ground before oil varnish?


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Kuttner says you can use a thin solution of hide glue as a sealer. 
A primer / ground of rosin oil over that would work. 

I think Levin is talking about an all in one primer sealer ground, which is doable. 
Others use a clear shellac. 

Depends what his varnish is and how it will adhere. 
Whether he intends to flatten the ground or leave it au natural then tripoli the finish. 


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What is a good sealer?

I hadn't in mind the distinction between sealer and ground.
I have tested my oil varnish and I like the result, however, with backlight
I see the open pores of the wood and I would therefore products that fills the pores before varnishing.



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I know it's mostly a personal bias, but since we revere the old instruments, I also like to understand all the processes in an historical context.


That said, concepts like 'sealer' and 'primer' are modern.  So is the idea of a premixed product that covers several functions in one step.


If you survey the literature on old Italian arts and related processes, you'll see that in the 17th century and earlier Italian practice, everything was in terms of the artisan preparing materials from basic natural ingredients.    The few exceptions prove the rule.   Oil varnish apparently at times was bought prepared.  And certain colors and materials were sometimes but not always prepared to a very basic level for the artisan; white lead, vermilion, gall ink, etc.   But recipes and process were known, and common across multiple arts.   The artisan's training generally began with mixing materials. etc.


So....   If you take a broad look across the existing historical evidence, you'll see that gilding, painting, varnishing, dying, leather preparation, and wood finishing share many basic materials, recipes, and processes.   And that almost all surface decoration and preparation processes repeat with variation through all the old Italian arts.


Given this stuff, I'm always trying to understand the violin work and varnish/finishing in this context.


Starting from in the wood(or other substrata) and building out to the final surface, here are things you do read about in the old arts:



Treatments penetrating into the strata:

  • Staining  -- largely water based, but not entirely
  • Mordants and preservatives  -- Alum, garlic, many different washes
  • Transparency or stabilization or waterproofing  -- oil penetration and similar
  • lye or acid applications
  • Tannings and softeners (mostly from leather work)
  • Burning or scorching work


Right at the surface or slightly in:

  • Scraping with steel and rubbing with rushes  
  • Cleanings and lighteners  -- lemon, salt, etc.  (many)
  • Fills
  • Sizing   (usually glue, but casein or other binders are possible)


Just into and immediately above the strata:

  • Grounds  (not exactly our common violin making meaning. though ideas can overlap) 
    • literally minerals ground up and in a binder -- generally white, but sometimes with tint added
    • sometimes made transparent by penetration by oil, varnish, or similar
    • always meant to visually and physically underpin the decorative finish
  • False golds, and false tins, etc.  various schemes for a reflective, transparent, colored glaze.
  • Stabilizing sub grounds
    • Gross grounds -- sand and gravel or charcoal etc.
    • boles to prepare gilding work

Decorative coloring work:

  • Painting (with the artisan generally preparing their own materials in shop)
    • binders can be almost any -- protein, oil, varnish, etc
    • the older idea is the physical pigment-- tempered with just enough binder.  As opposed to a more modern approach of mostly binder and fill, tinted with enough colorant.
  • Gilding
  • Glazes


  • Primarily to protect the decorative work, and modify the surface and appearance
    • perhaps tinted, but not generally meant to be the primary source of color or decoration.


  • Abrasive rubs like chalk, rouge, charcoal, tripoli, pumice, cuttlebone (from jewellery work), many others
  • Oils (non-drying) or waxes
  • Thin varnish like polishes and French polish, etc



I think it's very possible to understand historical violin finishes simply as variations on these broader art practices.



Not saying there's anything wrong with modern ways, or that anyone needs to follow this agenda.   But for me, I'm happier working in this context.

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Wow, thanks.  That's a lot.  Reminds me, in the Plictho there is a recipe for creating a seeming gold on wood panels.  It's made primarily of animal dung.  Really logically consistent with what some have been saying here.  One could probably create a refractive ground or layer with that recipe or at least would do well to be informed by it.  Also, OT, I am curious if those who are painting golds on instruments are gold leafing it, or using some historical recipe like that.  There is also a lot of information about 15th c. tanning methods in the Plictho that I would think would be potentially useful too.  

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Yes, a tincture of myrrh works well as a humidity sealer for inside violin, could also use it as a sealer

for under the ground.   

It's slightly brown in colour so don't use it on bare wood, size with gelatin first. 

Benzoin adds lustre to the mix, but it's soft.

Both smell nice. 



There are so many options for pre-stains and sealers that I sometimes get overwhelmed by the variety, and end up sticking with solutions I've used in past, such as tea then dilute unwaxed shellac. I like the color of the myrrh in tests however.


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Myrrh and Benzoin were both found in the remaining workshop contents of Padding, 
if a 'historical' context is needed. 

In the Violin Varnish book Padding shows how a 'Byzantine' system of layers is 
one way to look at it, but he also notes that his particular angle is just one way to do it. 
Quite good to remember that. 


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Myrrh and Benzoin were both found in the remaining workshop contents of Padding, 

if a 'historical' context is needed. 


Someone going though my stores after my death might find everything from jars of snake snot, to hypo hymen. Doesn't mean that I ever managed to incorporate them into a successful instrument filler or coating. ;)



I read about Mrryh being used to seal the inside of a violin, in the violin varnish book

by a German author, can't remember the name.




Here's one decent vapor barrier study, and there have been many others.


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Not Telling, here are some microscope shots of the decorations on the 'King' A. Amati cello.  It looked an awful lot like gold leaf to me.



Definitely gold leaf. The respective significance of the gold and silver leaf in the decoration's been explored by Andrew Dipper in some fascinating ways. Also...... that's you, isn't it, Jordan??

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The violin varnish book and other writing by K. Padding sum up the steps pretty well but I think of the process as a sealer or sizing first just to prevent uneven or deep soaking in of subsequent substances, then a coloring substance such as a stain or chemically reactive ingredient  and then a hard but quite thin layer of sealing varnish which forms the real ground layer on which the colored varnish is applied. I think the initial sizing can be water soluble as long as it doesn't remain as a layer on the surface but wonder whether those might tend to attract dirt when the varnish wears through. 

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