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To Restore or Not To Restore...


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I have finished cleaning and setting up and adjusting an old probably German/Bohemian violin (the one I asked help identifying in this other post), and now I'm debating moving to a more hairy task with it: Varnish restoration!

The violin has some scuffs and dings, but two that concern me are the ones on the lower bout bass side where a piece of it is actually chipped off, and on the back where some very aggressive shoulder-rest use seems to have worn through the varnish (please see pictures).

The value of the violin is inconsequential, this is a work of love and for the sake of the experience, so I'm not worried if I mess it up, although I do have professional experience with restoration/conservation of vintage and ancient jewelry and swords (not exactly related, are they? ;) ), so I am familiar with the delicate touch required, and the rule that less is more.

What I'm wondering and hope you folks can help with is:

First of all, are those spots issues that should be addressed, or would they normally be left alone unless a very pedantic customer insisted on them being restored? I have heard that bare wood is a bad thing and should be touched-up, but one shouldn't be neurotic to the point of touching up every little ding, but those spots are quite big in my opinion.

What would be the most common way of restoring a chipped spot like that? Just varnish it over, or make a patch and glue it in place and the whole nine yards from there?

Is there some relatively easy way to test varnish, to figure out if it's oil or spirits (shouldn't be anything else in this case I think)? Was there any relatively standard varnish preferred in the Schönbach area around 1900 (assuming it's from there) or are they all over the place?

If there's no way to know what varnish it is, what would be the safest bet to go with for repairs? Oil? Spirits? Shellac? Something else? Are they relatively compatible or are they like paints where you don't put certain types over others?

Thank you for your input! :) 





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The varnish of the period/area would have been some stain first with a slightly colourd spirit varnish over it. You could try to get the underneath colour right (you don't need to for instance with the shoulder rest wear, 'cos it still has the original stain) with water colours, then go over that with button polish or similar

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Retouching is almost always done with spirit type varnishes. It's done in several very thin layers so that the color can be matched exactly. With spirit varnish, it dries quickly, and, if you don't like the way the color is going, you can wipe it off with a little alcohol. Retouching is an art!!! I've been doing this for a long time, and still feel humbled when I see a real Master at retouching working. Mixing small amounts of varnish, with very small amounts of colors, working in thin layers, are all essential, but that's a very simplistic explanation. You'll need spirit varnish, lots of different colors to mix, very fine brushes, and lots of practice. Good luck! 

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5 hours ago, FoxMitchell said:

.......... the lower bout bass side where a piece of it is actually chipped off,

Putting new wood there seems difficult at first but when it's time to shape the repair piece you'll see it's not bad at all when you actually see it conforming to the shape it's supposed to be.

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My 2 cents:

For the broken edge: You will need to remove wood to JUST through the next intact winter grain that allows you a clean glue surface, which appears to be well before the purfling (so not too difficult), and add a slightly oversized piece of appropriately grained spruce, planed to just remove the winter grain where the joint will occur.  I'd suggest darkening the new piece to "match" the existing wood as much as possible (backing is effective, and since it's not a critical structural area, is fine) before fitting it.  Your glue line will take the place of the winter grain you remove.  You can fine-adjust the color chemically, or with water color once the piece is shaped (make sure you wet it, let it dry, and reshape it a couple times, as spruce tends to swell a bit...), but careful with watercolor on spruce.  You can make things look "dirty" rather quickly and reversing that is difficult. Seal it once it's "right" and touch it in when you do the back.

Hard to tell from photos, but I don't think too much coloring will be necessary on the portion of the back that's missing varnish. Carefully clean the grunge out of the dark area.  Compare the ground to another worn area (I see one a little ways in on the back plate in your photo) under a couple of different light sources (sunlight, lamplight) and correct as Jacob describes, but only just as much as you need to.  Too dark will be hard to compensate for in the varnish.  Matching the varnish color and intensity (use spirit varnish) can be accomplished by use of a bit of Saran wrap placed over the area you'll be retouching (you can determine the intensity by letting it dry on the wrap).  Once you have the color, apply thin coats and make small adjustments to the color and intensity as you build it up if necessary.

Good luck!

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Thank you folks for all the info!

I've started on it today. Matching the back color was actually really easy. The top is proving to be a bit more challenging; I'm trying out variations on some pieces of spruce before I try it on the repair itself.

This will probably take a few days because I need to cook up some varnish or get some from the local luthiers.

I'll report back later!

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16 hours ago, palousian said:

Well, then, let me be the first to say... That looks pretty darn good.  Congratulations!


9 hours ago, GeorgeH said:

Looks great!

Thank you! :)


14 hours ago, carl1961 said:

Look great, can't tell where the patch it. And your varnish looking nice.

How did you do the color matching, I need to match colors on a top of a old violin  that had several crack repairs done that had to be redone. Thanks

Prismacolor markers! ;)

Helps if you're proficient with blending colors and all that; the back was actually just one color (Goldenrod), but the top was achieved with 4 different colors. Also in this case (probably because of the spirits varnish?) the markers will melt the varnish so you have to be extremely careful. And let it dry for a couple of days to make sure the color is what you want it to be. Once varnished it should be stable for the long run.

The varnish I used also had a bit of a golden tint to it so account for that when coloring the bare wood.

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  • 3 weeks later...
On 29/06/2017 at 6:08 AM, FoxMitchell said:

Here we go, got this one done today!

I'm rather pleased with the results. Not too bad for my first violin restoration, I would say, if I may be so bold. :D 




Please tell me how and with what you varnished that repair.

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On 6/23/2017 at 2:30 AM, FoxMitchell said:

Yay! I made a patch!  :D

I've got to admit that I didn't think you would actually try your hand at that though I was trying to encourage you to do so.  I'm not sure what the shops charge for that kind of work.  

  How I got into replace/repair edge work was when Jandepora showed up with a plate in his 2016 "A new one to i.d."  topic.  I thought that if someone can do all that to a plate then the least I could do is try my hand with replacing two sections of curved c-bout edges.  About two inches worth each side. I was not sure of myself until seeing the shaping of the new edge wood started to appear like the surrounding good wood.   

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