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Polish used on fine instruments

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Hello! I know I have seen similar posts before, but I still feel some of the questions in my mind are not completely answered. Plus it is very hard to locate anything among thousands of old MN posts. 

Lately I have seen many arguments on polishing violins, especially French polish, which many people strongly oppose to its usage on violins. I remember reading something like "Strads / Guarneri are shiny because they were 'French Polished' at some point in the past" in a MN post. I am just wondering what is the general opinion on French Polish nowadays (on more valuable instruments of course). 

And if French Polish is not the way to go, what do most violin makers use to polish more valuable instruments? Say if I walk into a shop with a Real Strad, and ask them to polish it, what would they be using? (I obviously don't own one) I know that most shops have their own polish formula, is this what they normally use?

While we are at it, I am also wondering usually when or how often should a violin be polished? 

I guess the answer would be different from everyone, but I just hope to get a professional idea/insight on this matter. Thanks a lot!

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If I am not wrong French Polish was meant for wooden furniture. People started using it because it makes the violin looks "nice and shiny". But then people realized that it ruins the varnish. 

Edited by Wilano Cortignini

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I remember the days when there was a pretty hefty debate between Charles Beare and Emmamuel Gradoux Matt about this at a conference. Beare was condemning the use of French polish on the ground that the varnish appearance is largely altered by polishing in dirt (he called it black polish) whereas Gradoux Matt defended the polish approach for best protection of the instrument. In this respect I can say that having worked in the Morel-Gradoux Matt business at that time is that we used polish very sparingly often only wetting the polish rag with a little alcohol to get the job done. The reason is very apparent, because once there is a good polish layer on the instrument you need only to refresh its shine and for this purpose only alcohol is good enough. At the same time in the Beares shop I think Renaissance wax polish was used. (People who know better can correct me here)

 

Otherwise I remember that

Etienne Vatelot used his popot rouge formula for cleaning and Super Nicko for finish. But to my experience this approach needs sometimes a partial polish fresh up with normal polish. @christian bayon Will be able to tell you more because he has been working there. This method is still used and has been transported to Japan. (Not by me)

Not today but in the past the Moeller shop used a polish formula with high percentage of Benzoe which makes the result ultra shiny. For the cleaning I don't know. I don't know if there are still makers using this method

At rene morels shop we used xylene for cleaning (very unhealthy stuff but super aggressive on colophany and fatty dirt) followed by a morel (Sacconi) formula polish. Supposedly still used though the xylene might have been replaced in list shops  with something less harmful. 

I have in my shop now Morel formula, Vatelot formula and rainessance and use each depending on the situation. 

 

 

 

 

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The fundamental problem/issue in polish procedure is that once you have smoothed out the original texture of the varnish, it is gone forever. The best way to preserve it is to never touch it at all, put it in a glass case in a museum. The worst way is what used to be the norm, to polish with alcohol and some spirit varnish until the varnish is smoothed out completely and has a glassy layer of foreign material on it.  The latter was the standard for a lot of the early part of the 20th Century, and many original textures were ruined forever because players are attracted to shiny things and sales were more important than preservation of the instruments.

Between those extremes there's a lot of room, but basically any time you touch the varnish with any alcohol and rub, you will be removing original texture, so the more conscientious modern shops try to not do that.

The idea of wax is to give a sheen that's easily removed, leaving the unruffled original. Renaissance Wax was the choice of Beares because that's what museums use because it is supposed to stay more separate from what's underneath than other waxes and be easily removable without damage. 

The most dangerous point is perhaps if the shop processes the original surface to match their repair work rather than the other way around (I saw a bench copy of a del Gesu once where the maker french polished the original to match his copy! For free!). This is not too uncommon. Also a problem is when a shop has a "style" it imposes on everything that comes through. 

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Charles Beare talked about French polishing in the Dartington Conference, 1995:

"It`s not uncommon these days to see fine instruments with layer upon layer of grey/green discolouring French polish built up year after year as part of their regular overhaul, which far exceeds in thickness and hardness the original varnish which may still be seen underneath with the aid of a strong light. Most of the Stradivaris and Guarneris in the USA have this - and I once asked a leading American restorer, a good friend from the old Wurlitzer days, why he and his companions were giving the violins that were entrusted to them this patent leather look, "If I don`t do it, the customer won`t accept the job" was his reply. "They want it to shine all over; if there is a dull spot they bring it back and complain". Surely this is a case for re-educating these customers. I fear there are many in our trade, as well as the customers, who are unaware of the beauty of unpolished Italian varnish, who don`t recognize it when they see it. It`s like fine wine, the taste comes with experience and is none the less valuable for that.

omissis

Obviously the purer (the varnish) it is the better, and I would say that French polishing, which is still a habit of one or two of the bigger institutions in the USA has actually almost irretrievably damaged perhaps to a minor extent a large number of instruments. It is being fought against by many of the younger makers. "

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49 minutes ago, Three13 said:

I just saw an early Pique with a Moennig style "bowling ball" polish. Made me wonder what people were thinking 50 years ago.  

Not that it matters (but just because I know), decades ago a polished bowling ball was desirable and the norm; today a duller finish (sometimes sanded with 500 grit!) is normal.  I haven't seen a bowling ball polishing machine (once ubiquitous)  in at least 20 years.  Things and tastes change.

But in bowling, as in violin players, it seems like the very shiny stuff is often the preference of the less experienced today.

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11 minutes ago, Don Noon said:

Not that it matters (but just because I know), decades ago a polished bowling ball was desirable and the norm; today a duller finish (sometimes sanded with 500 grit!) is normal.  I haven't seen a bowling ball polishing machine (once ubiquitous)  in at least 20 years.  Things and tastes change.

But in bowling, as in violin players, it seems like the very shiny stuff is often the preference of the less experienced today.

There seems to be a zeitgeist at work here...

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Can Renaissance wax be used to build up to a polish from a rough surface or is it just used to make an already smooth surface shiny?
Is there any special application method?

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WOW. Thank you so much for all the detailed and informative responses! TBH I would have preferred any fine old violins to be nice and shiny, but not after reading all of these. 

 

14 hours ago, MANFIO said:

I fear there are many in our trade, as well as the customers, who are unaware of the beauty of unpolished Italian varnish, who don`t recognize it when they see it. It`s like fine wine, the taste comes with experience and is none the less valuable for that.

This is very sad to know. I went to a lot of concerts in the past few decades, and interestingly almost every fine old valuable instrument on stage, whether something like the soloist's DG or the concert master's strad, is covered with an extra thick and shiny layer of polish. Every one of them. And for that reason alone I thought it is purely “a sign of great valuable instrument”, since people tends to take extra care of them. But it seems not.

 

14 hours ago, Michael Darnton said:

I saw a bench copy of a del Gesu once where the maker french polished the original to match his copy! For free!

No offense but this absolutely does not sound like a good idea... (oops I added an extra scratch while antiquing, let's add that to the original DG too.)

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I have seen many talking about wax too. So taken from Mr. Preuss and Mr. Darnton, apart from the shops own polish formula, wax seems to be a rather harmless way of giving the violin a refreshing look while protecting the original varnish with an isolating and removable coating? Correct me if I am wrong! Does that only apply to museum instruments where they are stored away, or it is also commonly applied to those that are frequently in play?

 

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I am curious as to how some of the experts here would treat this Mirecourt violin. There are patches of somewhat shiny areas and patches of dull flat areas.

Would Renaissance wax work to create a uniform glossiness on this?

IMG_5487.jpeg

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The first thing to do is to check what's causing the difference. Could be a former layer of polish, wax or whatever either at the shiny or dull side which should be removed before applying anything else.

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43 minutes ago, Blank face said:

The first thing to do is to check what's causing the difference. Could be a former layer of polish, wax or whatever either at the shiny or dull side which should be removed before applying anything else.

I suspect the shinier areas may be some kind of polish (shellac maybe?), and the dull areas are where the polish has oxidized, or maybe there was no polish and the varnish has oxidized in spots.

The shiniest areas now are the areas that were under the thickest coat of black rosin before cleaning. (This violin sat for decades in a case.) I wonder if the thick rosin acted as an anti-oxidant and protected the surface compared to the exposed areas. 

A polishing compound would make it uniformly shiny, but is that the best way to go?

varnish_compare.jpg

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If by French Polish you mean shellac dissolved in some kind of alcohol, there are two fundamental properties you should consider before using it.

1. This stuff will stick to and seal in just about anything. As has been already mentioned, dirt and discoloration will become a "permanent" part of the finish after French Polishing, even if applied as a very thin layer. Make sure the surface is clean of dirt and rosin build up and has the color tone you want before applying shellac as a varnish or a polish.

2. Shellac is highly leveling. The means using a polish technique can rapidly smooth out texture, from microscopic roughness that is making a worn surface appear dull, to pronounced corrugation due to deliberately raised grain meant to give the wood surface a more natural finish. This leveling characteristic is why shines can be achieved that approach a mirror finish.

That said, shellac that still has some wax content can be used in a very dilute form, and a barely damp polishing rag, to create a soft sheen yet uniformly smooth surface that can preserve most grain texture and not change the color of the underlying varnish. The effect is similar to a fine wax polish. It has the added advantages of being wear and water resistant, and dirt and rosin can be easily removed with a soft cloth. It is also trivial to repolish areas that are subject to high wear, like the treble side upper bout plate and ribs.

Unwaxed shellac, again used sparingly, gives a highly polished sheen while preserving larger grain texture and the color of the underlying varnish.

Over-polish, or use a strong shellac solution, and you can quickly turn a violin into a mirror.

 

 

Edited by ctanzio
typo

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18 hours ago, J.DiLisio said:

Can Renaissance wax be used to build up to a polish from a rough surface or is it just used to make an already smooth surface shiny?
Is there any special application method?

Ren wax is formulated to provide a very thin protective layer that can easily be removed.  What one would want to try to build that up is beyond me...

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8 hours ago, GeorgeH said:

The shiniest areas now are the areas that were under the thickest coat of black rosin before cleaning. (This violin sat for decades in a case.) I wonder if the thick rosin acted as an anti-oxidant and protected the surface compared to the exposed areas. 

Maybe the shine was caused by the way you removed the built up rosin.

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30 minutes ago, Blank face said:

Maybe the shine was caused by the way you removed the built up rosin.

I thought about how that could possibly be the case, but I used the same cleaning technique and materials on all areas of the top, and worked gently in all areas. It could just be a coincidence, too. 

There is still a thick layer of black crust under the fingerboard, and as the neck is loose, I will have my luthier remove and reset it. He will have a chance to clean the top under the fingerboard with the neck off, and it will be interesting to see how that turns out. My guess is that he will then use something like "Super Nicko" to get a uniform surface gloss after it is cleaned.

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