Friday, May 19, 2017

Varnish Workshop 2017

I went to my third varnish workshop in April and this was the best one yet.  I went for the first time in 2013 when it was in Boston (during which the marathon bombing occurred, so that was memorable even without all the cool new information about turpentine), and again last year when the workshop moved to Chicago. 

This year it was in Chicago for the second time, using the facilities of the Chicago School of Violin Making while the regular students were away on break.  (It was a long commute from Milwaukee, but it was nice to sleep in my own bed at night.)

I think the most natural question of the uninitiated at this point would be, "What is there still to learn by going to this workshop for a third time?"  And someone who has never varnished a violin or doesn't know anything about it probably assumes there can't be that many ways to do it, so it would be hard to imagine a whole week of it yet again.

But the better you become at anything the more capable you are of learning new things.  It's great to feel you are improving your skill set while also adding to it.

The first varnish workshop was a revelation about how to see violin varnish, how to read the wood as you progress, to understand ground in more depth, and how to use materials very different from what I was initially trained with in school. 

By the second workshop I was able to move past more general ideas and focus on finer details.  I learned a huge amount about preparing an instrument while it was still in the white in order to influence the look of the varnish later.  I was led by the hand through explorations in color in ways I never would have conceived of on my own.

This workshop I went in with some specific goals and a confidence in my varnishing abilities that meant I could experiment and test ideas.  I learned techniques I'd never seen before, and got a chance to do some problem solving.  I didn't have any of my own instruments ready to work on this time, so I ordered three instruments in the white to play with that I could set up and sell in my store.
My seat between two varnish friends
I got two violins with similar wood so I could treat them in very different ways and compare the results.  I also got a viola simply because I needed one in a particular price range for my inventory, and this seemed more fun than just buying something wholesale.  I'm pleased with how all of them came out, but I'm sad I don't have anything left at the moment to varnish anymore.

My goals this time were:  Learn to varnish with the fingerboard glued on already (turns out it's not a big deal, but I'd never done it, and it's a WONDERFUL thing to not have that extra step of re-gluing the board after varnishing so this is my method from now on), compare two different grounds, work with the new Strad varnish (that I bought at the last convention but hadn't tried yet), learn a good way to blacken the inside of the pegbox and the f-hole walls, make a violin a really dark brown, and to do some basic color shading.

The simplest project was probably the viola which I used for my color shading work.  Antiquing is a process where you make an instrument look aged by adding artificial wear.  It requires making the wood look worn as well as the varnish for the effect to be convincing.  Shading is not that.  It's more of a way of adding subtle visual interest to an instrument that doesn't require making it look old.  A lot of commercial instruments are shaded, and although this isn't a technique I plan to use on things I make, it's something I feel I need to know how to do for things I restore and just for my own knowledge tool kit.

The first thing I was taught for this was to apply more ground coats in places where there will ultimately be less varnish.  The particular wood color I used starts out a pretty scary yellow, but fades quickly in the sun to something far more attractive.  But here it does literally highlight the areas where instruments are more likely to experience wear and would benefit from more ground.
Here it is drying in the sun toward the end of the week:

These pictures sort of capture the ultimate color (varnish looks very different in different kinds of light, so it's hard to show in photographs).  The shading isn't particularly clear because of the reflections on the surface.

This picture shows the shading a little better I suppose:

Anyway, I'm pleased with it, and that viola is all set up and on the shelf and sounds quite good so I'm hoping it finds a home soon.

The two violins I brought along were a Strad model and a Guarneri model.  They had wood that appeared similar in the white, and I wanted to treat them differently in order to compare the results.
The Guarneri model I decided I wanted to make very dark, which is another thing I don't normally do.  To help that along I did the ground before arriving in Chicago using a wood stain that I was introduced to in school, and topped that with a ground varnish that comes with our workshop kits.
The stain does make the flame lines pop with intensity right away, but it also sort of fixes them in place.  Flamed maple is particularly beautiful when you rock the instrument back and forth and the lines sort of roll in the light.  In this case the contrast was dramatic, but the rolling effect was sacrificed.  To get that back, I was shown a technique for applying varnish using small pieces of paper to simultaneously push the varnish deeply into the wood and burnish it.  I was able to revive the look of the flame that way quite successfully.
It was tempting to stop early because the instrument was looking beautiful, but as dark as it already was, the varnish was really very thin.  I still wanted to try to get it really dark like some of the violins from Brescia (a region of Italy that was also famous for producing notable violins).  The nice thing about using instruments you didn't make yourself for varnishing practice is there is a greater sense of freedom to experiment since the finished piece doesn't completely represent you.  So I pushed ahead toward Brescia!

It still came out more red than I was aiming for, but it's very pretty.  (Much prettier in real life--everyone I show it to wants to touch it.)  I wanted there to be an old fashioned look to it, even though it's new, and I think I got that.  We'll see when people start trying it in the store what they think. 

The Strad model violin I treated with the balsam ground system I learned at the first workshop.  It's excellent protection for the wood (unlike the stain I used on the Guarneri model which only affects color), and it allows the flame lines to roll easily.  It didn't have the same visual impact as the other violin, but it made the flame appear more supple.  When you hold the instrument you are compelled to keep tipping it to watch the light move within it.

The most interesting new toy at this workshop was Joe's latest formulation: An oil varnish he calls "Stradivari" because based on his research and work it's the closest he's gotten to what he believes the Cremonese masters used.  The texture of this varnish was different from the more viscous Greek Pitch varnishes that Joe usually supplies for the workshop.  There was a greasiness to it that was also kind of light and easy to manipulate on a violin.

But here's the fun part: There are only two jars to play with.  One is a golden-brown, and the other is mixed with cochineal, which is an intense red (almost purple) coloring made from beetles from Mexico.  From those two jars you could get nearly anything.

Normally I'm accustomed to having a large palette of colors to play with.  I have jars of varnish from Brown to Gold to Rose, color concentrates I can add including orange and purple and black, plus the possibility of mixing in ground pigments or oil paint, etc.  There are so many combinations that continue to surprise with each new instrument, and finding new ways to get where you want to go is always interesting.

But to use this new varnish I had to set much of what I knew about achieving the color I wanted aside.  Playing with just two colors and seeing where they could get you was a whole different approach.  There were maybe half a dozen people trying the Strad varnish at the workshop, and no two instruments looked remotely alike.  Depending on what order you laid those two colors down, in what proportions you mixed them, and how many coats you decided to apply, everything changed.  So one person's violin was a deep gold, another's was a brilliant red, another's a warm orange, etc.  Mine came out a rosy sort of orange.  (Or an orangey sort of rose?)  I really like the end result.

I like both violins equally, just in different ways.  I'm looking forward to trying both sets of techniques and materials again.

However, as much as I was able to accomplish in my work, the real beauty of the workshop has more to do with being able to learn from others and spending time with varnish friends.  The instructors certainly bring very different perspectives to the table (Joe Robson the varnish maker, Todd Goldenberg the luthier, and my idol Marilyn Wallin whom I continue to learn from on many levels), but so do the students.  Everyone works on a slightly different project, and following what people around you are doing is instructive in its own right. 

So just because I didn't happen to be trying to match color on a poplar back with a much lighter spruce top didn't mean I couldn't learn how to do it by watching the person one seat over tackle that problem.  My friend and colleague, Robyn, managed to transform the back of her viola which had an unappealing vertical "racing stripe" of pale wood down the center into something far more coherent and attractive, and by watching her I now know how to do it, too.
There were other valuable elements to the workshop as well.  We got to borrow several exquisite antique instruments to study from a couple of the important shops in downtown Chicago.  There were a few really good demonstrations and talks.  There was the chance to play people's new instruments and run through some duets for fun.  There was catching up with old friends and making new ones.  There was a pizza party.  (Never underestimate the value of a good pizza party.) 

Violin making for many of us is often something we do alone, so to talk about it in a whole room of others who get it, too, is energizing.  I always come away with a list of new products to try and tools to seek out.

Varnishing as an activity is simply fun, and when it's going right is incredibly relaxing.  I think I spent the whole time there smiling, which I needed.  Varnish week for me is what I imagine a spa trip is for some.  Except I get finished violins out of my trip, and I end up smelling of turpentine instead of rose petals.  (Or whatever.  I prefer the smell of good turpentine because to me that's the smell of happiness.)

It's a privilege to get to do what I do.  To get to do it for a week in the spring alongside some of the best people I know?  It doesn't get better than that.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Other Mothers

I've always been irritated with people who are quick to dismiss Mother's Day as a greeting card holiday.  Holidays are what you choose to make them.  The commercialization of certain holidays can indeed get out of hand to the point where the real sentiments get lost, but that's the fault of capitalism and the juvenile insistence of the average person in this country that everything be fun or dramatic rather than meaningful.

Major Christian holidays in this country get a lot of attention, and I know members of minority faiths who resent how little the mainstream knows about other holidays when they come around, but I've often felt they should be a bit grateful that the relative obscurity shields them from some of the nonsense, and they don't see important traditions reduced to another excuse to buy unnecessary things.  My kids were surprised to learn Easter was a religious holiday at all, because they've only known it as egg hunts and candy.  For us that works, again, because we can make holidays what we like, and for some of them that means making them silly.

But even secular holidays aren't immune from further secularization.  Mother's Day in this country was eventually denounced by its creator who found its reduction from something meaningful to something used as a marketing ploy to be deplorable.  However, we can pick what we like and reject the rest, just as we can on any other day.  The tricky part is navigating the larger context and being prepared for the various meanings any holiday has for others.  We can't assume it's the same for everyone.

Mother's Day can be complicated because mothers are complicated.

Saturday, May 6, 2017


Quinn (and consequently I) have been taking Latin lessons once a week at the local university for a couple of years now.  I love having an activity that I get to do with just him where we can chat in the car and walk together to the library and maybe share a snack if there's time.  Plus the Latin is fun, too.  All of that I sort of pictured ahead of time when we signed up.

What I hadn't pictured was our regular inspection of the flags.

We fly an inordinate number of flags in our country.  Quinn loves flags (or, at least, he loves anything related to geography that can be put into an orderly list) and can currently identify all 197 country flags we found on an online quiz.  He pays attention to them in a way I normally don't.  On our short commute to the university we pass many flags flying outside of schools and government buildings and people's homes.

It seems more often than not anymore, those flags are at half-staff.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Fudge and Moccasins

So much to write about, so little time to write.  I am so behind here!  I just finished an incredible week at this year's varnish workshop, but I need a bit more time to process it all before I can share any of it in a post.  The kids just had their science and multi-cultural fair, Aden played in the pit orchestra for her first musical, work has been busy, I've performed in a couple of great concerts, but I don't think I will get a chance to write about any of it.

However, I do want to take a second to describe a bit of our recent trip to The Wisconsin Dells over Easter weekend.  It wasn't possible to go to New York this year for our tradition of staying in my brother's apartment and setting up egg hunts in the nearby rose garden.  So instead we headed west for my other brother's home in LaCrosse and on the way stayed a couple of nights in The Dells.  It's something we've been meaning to do with our kids at some point, and now was apparently the time.
Trojan Horse on the way to our hotel

The Wisconsin Dells, for those who are not familiar, is a small town not far from Madison with a small local population but a ton of visitors during vacation season.  It was a spot where in the past river traffic had to stop at the falls in order for people to change boats, and as a result tourist attractions were born.  Today it's a kitchy place full of water parks and different theme hotels.  There are various boat tours (including the famous "ducks" and we saw intriguing ads for something called "Ghost Boat"), lots of mini golf, go carts, ice cream and restaurants, and goofy souvenirs.  It's the sort of place that always seems to have fudge and moccasins.  (We got both.)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Peeps Art

My kids, my mom, and I all have pieces on display in this year's annual Peeps Art show at the Racine Art Museum.  None of us won a prize, but when a TV station interviewed the artist who took first place and asked her what things in the show she liked, she singled out Mona's bird (which got a nice close up).  And this morning my Peeps orchestra was featured in the paper!

I liked all the things we entered so I thought I'd share them here for some pre-Easter fun:

The first person to finish the Peeps Art project was Quinn.  He likes maps and decided to do the United Peeps of America (Land of the Peeps, Home of the Other Peeps).  Note the different types of Peeps for the different oceans.  He also did the map outline freehand (because tracing would be cheating, even though there is no one anywhere who expects a ten year old to draw the U.S. freehand).

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The mechanic whose car doesn't run

Earlier this week I finally rehaired my bow.

Violin family instruments use horsehair on their bows, and that has to be replaced periodically.  Bow hair is coated with rosin (which is sort of a refined block of tree sap that looks like a white powder on the bow, and that you reapply about every four hours of play), which makes it sticky and able to grip the strings.  The physics of what's happening is kind of like plucking a string really fast over and over--the rosined hair grabs the string and lets go repeatedly causing the string to vibrate.  The hair itself is covered in little scales that hold the rosin.  Over time and use the hair gets stripped and won't hold rosin well, and the hair even if you don't use it eventually loses elasticity.  I have some customers who play aggressively enough their bow hair only lasts a couple of weeks.  Most full-time professionals don't usually let their bow hair get older than six months.  The average person should get a rehair once a year.  No horsehair works well longer than two.

It's easy to forget the last time you got your bow rehaired.  I often hand out little reminder cards like the ones people get for oil changes so my customers can remember.  The part that's tricky is you don't feel the changes from one day to the next.  The wear sneaks up on you.  It's insidious, because when you play your bow doesn't feel that different from how it felt the day before, but if you were to jump back six months to compare you would definitely feel the change.

Anyway, last week at rehearsal I realized that I had just let my own bow go too long.  Bow rehairs are not my favorite part of my job and I'm already swamped with work, so the idea of taking time to do my own bow is not appealing.  I tend to put it off as long as I can, which makes me feel like a hypocrite as I chastise others about doing timely maintenance on their equipment.  But my own bow was well overdue and I couldn't ignore it anymore.

What a difference.  Good grief, playing at rehearsal last night was so much easier.  And I wondered the same way I do every time why I don't rehair my bow more often since I can do it whenever I like.

The same thing happens with sharpening my tools.  There is nothing more satisfying than the first few cuts with a freshly sharpened plane blade or a well-honed knife.  You don't realize how much you've been struggling with your tools until you take the time to get them back into optimal condition.  In an ideal world I would set aside an official sharpening day every two weeks and keep everything up to snuff, but real life doesn't work like that.

There is just so much to do and so many unexpected things that come up.  Maintenance takes time and gets annoying.  It doesn't feel like progress, but it facilitates it.

I'm trying to do better about applying that lesson to my health and my mental well-being.  There is a lot that wears you down day to day that you don't notice, but would if you could step back.  It's hard, because a lot like the mechanic whose car doesn't run, we don't always take care of ourselves first even if we are the most obvious choice to do it.  We expend all our energy on work for others.  The last thing we want to do at the end of the day is more work with no external appreciation or compensation for it.

But it's worth it.  I just keep forgetting.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Packets

One of the lovely things about my dad was he collected packets of articles for people he cared about.  He lived to file articles.  There are still dozens of large boxes of them to sort through since he died, and it will be a long term project to go through the raw feed of material he meant to separate out into particular piles, but I have in my possession about fifteen packets just for me and my family.

From the time I left for college to about a year or so before he died, my dad assembled collections of articles for me in big yellow envelopes.  He did that for my brothers.  He did that for other friends and family as relevant articles presented themselves.  If you expressed an interest in a topic around him you might get a file of papers in the mail.  It was his obsession to clip and save from printed material, and in its distilled form the packets were personal filing masterpieces.  I don't know anyone who got one who didn't feel special for receiving it.

If he really deeply loved you, though, you got a lot of packets.  And my dad deeply loved me.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Clean Sweep

In recent weeks (months?) the house has really gotten away from me.

I don't think I was mentally built to be a full time stay-at-home parent, but at least back during Ian's two deployments when the kids were much smaller I adapted well enough.  There was no real upside to Ian being away, but there was some satisfaction in staying on top of most of the basic chores while stuck at home.  With another responsible adult around there is always the hope that the other person will do some of what needs to be done and you can sidestep a chore, but when you are on your own you just have to do it.  I had a pretty good system of starting laundry in the morning and folding it all at night, of making meals and cleaning up with a certain rhythm, and keeping things fairly organized and tidy.  When Ian goes away for brief Army obligations now, I still fall back into those old patterns.  But lately my schedule has been rough and my work days long, which means the kinds of things that are important to me in running a house have kind of suffered.

So between Ian having just been out of state for a few days for more Army stuff, and my mom coming to visit soon, I had a lot of incentive to buckle down and try to get the house back in order.  I do what I think of as a Baryon Sweep (which is a Star Trek TNG reference for those who don't try to give house cleaning geeky connotations) where I start at one end of the house and clean thoroughly, pushing misplaced things into the next room until eventually I get to the other end and everything in my wake is clean.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Bated Breath

All of my kids at some point when they were babies had croup.  Each time it was awful.  Each of them made a trip to the emergency room at Children's Hospital for it.  Each time we were told there really was nothing they could do.  But when your baby struggles with each breath and won't stop crying and coughing it's nightmarish and you just want help.

The thing about those times I remember best was the drive to the hospital with the baby rear facing in the backseat, always in the dark, out of reach.  And I couldn't tell what was worse: Hearing each tortured inhale, or the silence in between breaths.  Each strangled breath was bad, but wondering if something worse had befallen my baby to cause the silence was equally bad.  Times like that when your imagination is spinning out of control and your instincts are hyperactive make for a very long drive (even when it's only 10.7 miles).

We are far from the baby stage now.  Those parenting challenges are hard, and some things do get easier as your kids grow, but somethings don't.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Escape the Room

This past weekend we decided to try Escape the Room.  It was really fun.

Escape the Room is a game where you are in a room filled with puzzles and locks and have one hour to figure how to get out.  We managed to escape (with lots of hints from the Clue-Master) with over three minutes to spare!

I'm not going to give anything away because it would be a lot less fun for anyone who wants to try it to know much in advance, but I will mention a few general things, and some that were unique to our experience.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Now What?

It's taken some time since election night to get my thoughts in order.

Watching the returns made me panicky.  The next morning I felt ill.  For the most part over the past several weeks I've gone back and forth between trying to stay informed (which alarms me with each new headline) and avoiding the news (which preserves my sanity and any good faith I have left toward my fellow citizens).

Donald Trump is the new president of the United States.  This says some unflattering things about ourselves as a nation, and reveals some important truths we must come to grips with.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Luna Moth Dream

If I really wanted this blog to be entertaining I would simply write about my brothers all the time.  Either of them is an easy go-to topic for me at parties because there are endless interesting stories available, and in case I'm in a situation where the company is boring, talking about Arno or Barrett keeps me amused.  I love them and could not have asked for kinder, funnier, or more intelligent siblings.

Arno is a neuroscientist who currently works at the Child Mind Institute in New York City.  He always talks to me about his work as if I'm a knowledgeable colleague, which is flattering, but consequently I have no clear idea what he does.  The bits I can follow are fascinating, and he does important research that will improve people's lives, but don't ask me to explain any of it.

But this post relates to a project coordinated by my other brother.  The baby of the family by four minutes, Barrett is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin LaCrosse where he specializes in entomology and insect sleep research.  He's also a talented artist who has done lots of model making and scientific illustration, and he is particularly interested in cultural entomology which is where insects meet art.

Last year he commissioned 30 artists to make small books with the theme "Insect Dreams."  He was generous enough to invite me to participate, and despite the limits on my time there are moments when an intense little project is a good distraction from other things so I recently buckled down over a weekend and made my contribution.

Want to see?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Who We Want to Be

When I was in high school I remember walking out of a local grocery store past a man collecting donations.  He may have been a Shriner, and he asked me as I stepped through the door if I would, "Help the retarded* children?" and having no change on me I simply said, "No" and walked on.  But then I felt terrible.  What kind of person was I that I didn't want to help the retarded children?  Wouldn't a decent human being go find some change to give that man?  I nearly cried I felt so guilty.  I felt guilty enough I obviously still remember it to this day.
[*please see the comments]

Of course, this is kind of silly because we are bombarded with requests from all levels of charity all the time.  Most of us don't want to live the kind of life where we give everything away, but each of us needs to find a balance where we maintain the life we want while still sacrificing for others.

The part of this that interests me is the narrative we tell ourselves about how good we are or want to be.  Feeling sad about "the retarded children" is not the same as actually helping them, although it can feel that way.  Being sad about it makes me a good person, right?  Not really.  It's only the potential for good.  Without action it's not tested or true.  It's fine in your head to decide you approve of helping others, but if you don't do something with that feeling it makes the same impact on the world as if in your head you loathed the idea.  It's great to make up your mind to be against racism or bigotry or sexism or cruelty, and another for that to become real.

The problem for me is day to day life is busy with mundane activities and I'm exposed to the same situations and people over and over.  Most of our time is consumed by little bits of necessary routine, such as getting dressed and brushing our teeth and moving around dishes and laundry.  Being a parent means managing other people's daily routines as well, which often feels like falling behind while simply trying to stay one step ahead so appointments aren't missed and things are signed and everyone is fed.  There is a lot to do just to feel like we're even treading water rather than going under, let alone moving forward.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Dear Child of Mine

You are beautiful and talented and smart and amazing and funny and kind and the world is better for having you in it.

You are right when you say I think those things because I am your mom.  But it's not because I am blinded by my love or exaggerating your worth because you are mine.

My love means I see you with greater clarity, not less.  I have studied you since before you took your first breath.  I have watched you grow and change, and I remember you before you remember yourself.  I care enough to examine you to a degree of detail unmatched by anyone.  I know you, I see you, and I adore you.

I'm sorry the backlash against using the word "special" in our society has robbed you of the chance to rightly own it.  I'm sorry there have been other parents who somehow labeled their children special while equating it with entitlement, and without tempering it with the idea of humility and respect for others.  They have tainted the word and made it unfairly wrong to use earnestly.

But you are special.  And worthy.  And loved.

If I could have anything on this day, it would be for you to see yourself the way I see you.  Then you would know how right you would be to love yourself too.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Looking Back on the 2016 VSA Convention

Before the past year slips too far from memory I want to take a moment to reflect upon the VSA convention I attended back in November.  It was quite an experience and I'm very glad I got to go.

2016 was a competition year.  The Violin Society of America (VSA) has an annual convention that moves around the country, and every other year they hold a competition for violin making with awards for workmanship and tone.  This year I entered my latest commissioned violin.

Renaissance Hotel, Cleveland
The convention was in Cleveland again.  I drove myself out there, and shared the drive back with my friend Robyn.  I loved having a few days alone in a hotel room where the bed magically got made every day and new towels just appeared.  (There are few things I envy the rich for, but maid service is one of them.)  I also enjoyed Robyn's company the last few days of the convention and sharing a room with someone who didn't need me for anything other than occasional grown-up conversations.