The Elusive Varnish Recipe

The search for violin varnishes is one that is undertaken by most violin makers. Ultimately, what the maker is looking for is the varnish which most resembles the varnish of the masters, specifically those from Cremona, such as Stradivar and his contemporaries, and that search has been conducted since the early 1800's.

In the beginning most research was hit & miss. J.B. Vuillaume was one of the earliest and most published. Many will agree that his applications produced beautiful results, but his scientific methods probably left something to be desired. At times he was known to bake his wood before use, nevertheless he made some wonderful instruments.

Since those days a lot has been done to find the 'Lost Formula'. Many have come forth with the so-called 'Cremonese Secrets'. And a few have come close to the mark. As a result, a Myriad of concoctions and alchemy have arisen.

In the computer era, research has taken on a new meaning. With powerful electron microscopes, samples can be scanned at the molecular level revealing the exact composition of the thin film.

There is a list of recipe as long as both of my arms. Some of the most valid are those by Michelman, Fulton, Sacconi, Bease, Molenaar and a few others.

Most cremonese varnish was based with oils and resins and turps. So it is not worthwhile to consider spirit varnish, even though such recipes are noteworthy, but not in the realm of Cremona.

There is also the conjecture that it was the varnish that resulted in the great Italian tone. I agree to a point, however other factors are method of construction, treatment of bare wood, etc..there must be a million variables when building a violin.

Another matter to ponder, is the fact that most of these instruments. Which have such great tenet response are 150-400 years old. So age definitely has a bearing on tone and even the colour of the varnish. Oxidation can leave varnish very dark or light, looking very different from date of birth.

Wood continues to harden for a 1000 yrs. after it is dried. And all the cells and resins have crystallized.

Hardeners or ossifiers, such as potassium silicate have affects on sound, as do hide glue and fillers which include anything from garlic juice, sugar, plum sap, albumen and milk to volcanic ash and plaster.

Well if all this doesn't make your head spin, there's more. In trying to make varnish ingredients, people have been blown up, poisoned, set on fire and frustrated.

Resins, oils and turps in particular have volatile oils and peroxides, so heat can cause exothermic reactions resulting in explosion or fire. Safety is always a factor, so doing your homework is of utmost importance.

In my personal quest, I've tried several avenues. I haven't blown anything up yet, but I try to perform my experiments outside in a well ventilated area with a hose at ready and personal protection. e.g. glasses, shield, gloves, armor???

I confess I do use spirit varnish but not exclusively. I use an oil varnish when I can, because it needs ultraviolet radiation from the sun to make it dry. So I try to reserve varnishing for the summer months.

Coloring of the varnish is another story. Usually a ground colour is laid down on the sealed wood which has been suntanned a few weeks. The ground is generally yellow-amber, if it exists at all. Then subsequent layers of varnish and colour (red-brown) are added until the desired look is achieved.

Colour can be made from vegetable colour or mineral pigments. Vegetable colour must be fixed with a meridian or the colour will be fugitive.

Varnishing is not for the squeamish, it takes a lot of practice and a good eye to bring an instrument to a higher standard.

I take a lot of time and patience to build a violin. It takes only seconds to ruin it by applying the wrong thing. Chemical reactions can occur when using certain substances, e.g. alizarine yellow can turn purple when exposed to silicates. (Interesting). So all methods should be tested.

And on top of all that, you still need a finish which is smooth, satin gloss, free of blemishes, and pitting and not too thick or thin.

When completely dry and hard, the finish can be buffed with different grades of pumice and rottenstone and can be french polished to bring out a deep gloss.

Violin varnish is not resistant to abuse. Chipping and wear can happen. Many old violins have polished to a gloss with dirty old rags that have been used for the same things for years. Yet even without this coat, they continue to impress the ear so much for the varnish and tone.

Finally, I don't know if I've found the answer yet. I guess 3-400 years will tell. If you would like more information on varnish, I am at your service.

Here is a list of some ingredients:

Linseed oil
Aniline Dyes
Castor oil
Madder Root
Spike oil
Rosemary oil
Greek pitch
Oil of turpentine
Pine Rosin
Propolis soap
Walnut oil
Hide Glue
Vegetable colours
Oil colours
Cherry gum
Water colours
Plum gum
Pernum Bucco
Walnut Hulls
Dragons Blood