~The Varnish Room~

Otis A Tomas ~ Stringed Instruments









No aspect of violin making has generated more confusion, controversy, and conjecture than the subject of varnish. Some would claim that herein lies the lost secret of the great classical period violins from the likes of Stradivari and Guarneri. While many of these claims may be tinged by speculation and hyperbole, it does seem fairly clear that the varnish (along with every other element of the instrument's construction) does contribute its part to the overall voice of the instrument. It is unlikely that the varnish can significantly improve the tone of a violin that is otherwise lacking in the quality of its materials, design and execution -- on the other hand, a hard and heavy coat of poor varnish can certainly hinder the instrument from responding to its full potential. But the varnish's main functions are probably more utilitarian -- in providing a protective coating to seal and protect the wood; and aesthetic -- in enhancing the beauty of the wood with its warm and glowing optical properties.

As with all things violin, the most respected examples are found among the classical Cremonese makers of the 17th and early 18th centuries -- Stradivari, Guarnari and their near contemporaries, but we have very little definite information about their materials and methods. Written accounts of the techniques of the artists of the time suggest a varnish compounded of a drying oil such as linseed or walnut oil, and a resin -- easily obtained from the exudation from pine trees, though many natural tree resins would also have been available both locally (larch and fir), and imported (mastic, sandarac, amber, etc.) It was only later in the 18th century, with improved distillation methods providing good solvent grade alcohol, that the violin makers began using spirit varnishes (most simply, a resin dissolved in a volatile (evaporating) solvent rather than a drying oil -- e.g: shellac). In turning to the spirit varnishes, the continuity of tradition with the earlier Cremonese methods was broken, leaving modern violin makers with the problem of trying to reconstruct the older techniques, and giving rise to mystique of the "lost secrets".

The varnish itself is actually only one small part of the overall finishing technique -- the transparent colored glaze that the varnish gives is probably it's most noticeable quality. A variety of traditional coloring methods are possible, from the cooking (hence darkening) of the varnish itself, to the addition of colored resins such as "dragon's blood" (a red resin once thought to the result of a battle between a dragon and an elephant), or the incorporation of inert artist's pigments, notably the traditional "lake" pigments -- insoluble but transparent colors obtained from plant materials, such as madder root.

Modern researchers and scientific analysts have turned their attention to the old varnishes, and while many chemical elements can be identified, it does little to tell us the source of those elements or the method of application. Notably, in the 1980's, Barlow and Woodhouse published, in the Strad Magazine, the results of their study of early Italian violin varnish using electron microscopy, and focussed considerable attention on a relatively thick layer of mineral particles that were applied to the wood prior to the varnish itself. This seems to be extremely durable, sealing and protecting the wood long after the upper colored varnish layer has worn away. A chemical profile can be given, but again, the actual raw material or technique is unknown.



Some of the various varnishes and materials that I work with.

Today's violin makers have the benefit of a wealth of knowledge of materials and historical examples far beyond that of the classical makers. But they lack the continuity with the tradition that provides the finest examples of their art. We should be sceptical of the claims of discovery of the lost secrets of Cremona (of which there are multitudes) and instead appreciate the diversity of possible methods and approaches.


A "lake" pigment made from madder roots is ground in oil with a muller before being incorporated into the varnish. The addition of this pigment gives the varnish a warm red undertone that to seem to glow from within.

For most purposes, I use a traditional oil varnish. That is, a varnish made from a natural resin dissolved in a 'drying' or polymerizing oil. For quite a few years, I have made my main varnish from South American fossil amber, cooked in linseed oil and thinned with pure turpentine. The basic materials are simple, but by altering the proportions and cooking process, or with the addition of small quantities of other oils, resins, or solvents, quite a range of characteristics can be acheived. The color of the varnish can be modified in the cooking process, or accomplished through the addition of natural pigments.

More recently, I have been working with a varnish that I make from the resin I collect from the fir trees that grow around my home. Not only do I take pleasure in using such local materials for the personal connection it gives me with the work, but I find that it makes an excellent tough and durable finish. Through varying the processing of it, I can get a range of varnishes from clear and almost colorless to a deep rich red-brown. You can find a more detailed description of one of my varnishing methods with the essays in the "Reflections" section.

The varnish is a continual process of experimentation and exploration for me. More than just the materials from which the varnish is made, it is the entire finishing process, from wood preparation, through ground and sealer coats, colored varnish and glazes, to top coats and polishing, that give an instrument a distinctive and characteristic aesthetic appeal.



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