To describe my varnishing procedure would be quite boring for most musicians, so I will quickly outline some of the steps and procedures involved.
The varnish I use these days is an oil varnish, which is made from colophony (pine/larch resin) and linseed oil. The colophony resin is cooked in a pan (what else would you cook in?), until it’s volume has considerably reduced, and the resin has darkened somewhat.
The linseed oil contains a lot of impurities from the pressing process, so to improve the clarity of the finished varnish, I wash this out in a jar of water with some clean sand in. The jar is shaken to agitate the oil, and the impurities can be separated and discarded, after this has been done several times, the oil can be used.
The oil is heated to drive off any residual water, and after a certain point can be combined with the still hot resin. At this point the amalgamated resin and oil forms a varnish with a little more cooking. Sounds simple, but it can be incredibly dangerous to make varnish. The fumes given off can be very strong, and I have no doubt are not good at all to breathe in. As you might expect, molten resins are extremely hot, and there is always the risk of everything catching fire!
With each new batch of varnish, I make numerous samples, and test these in a variety of ways to ensure it’s quality, durability and drying properties. Once I am satisfied, the varnish can be committed to the instrument.
With this violin, I’ve gone for a much more heavily antiqued look than I’ve done for years. This was partly inspired by some of the wonderful violins coming through the workshop recently, and also a desire to create a different look to another violin I’ve recently finished.
Firstly, the ground coat is applied, which acts both as a sealer and a colourant for the bare wood. The proper varnish coats are then built up on top of this. To obtain some red colour, I use madder pigment, which is made from the roots of a plant. Although red is most common, it can give a variety of shades from orange, to pale pink, a strong bright red, to a rich red brown colour, depending on how it has been precipitated.
To obtain the antiqued look, the violin was fully varnished a deep red brown colour all over, and then this was worked back, creating the varnish loss and wear we associate with 18th century instruments. The worn areas were patinated further, enhancing the overall appearance, and giving an impression of age.
Once it’s all dry, which involves a very frustrating wait for me, I can begin the final jobs, such as fitting the bottom nut, truing the fingerboard, shaping the top nut. With these done, it’s onto the pegs, soundpost, bridge, fitting the end button and tailpiece, then getting the strings on.
I did have some nice rosewood fittings I had intended to use, but following the recent inclusion of all rosewood to the CITES appendix, I decided it would be better to use the non endangered boxwood variety (thanks to Knut Tempel and his colleagues), which I think give a pleasing contrast to the varnish.
For those who haven’t read the earlier parts of the making of this violin, the first part can be found here.