Thursday, June 21, 2018

Varnish Workshop 2018

The varnish workshop that I’ve come to attend on an annual basis since it moved to Chicago (instead of Boston) has become one of the highlights of my year each spring.  I don’t need it in the way I used to—when I lacked the knowledge and tools to use oil varnish with confidence—but for something deeper now. 

I don’t mean to imply I know all I want to know to varnish a violin.  That remains a lifelong process, and I learn something new and useful at the workshop every time.  But if I never returned I could certainly proceed on my own and feel capable of varnishing instruments in a way I can be proud of.  The very first workshop I attended succeeded in doing that.

No, what I get now that I’ve done this four times is that rare and cherished sense of being among “my people.”  The participants at the varnish workshop run the gamut from absolute beginners to luthiers at the top of their field, but everyone there has something to learn, something to teach, something to share that is valuable.  The atmosphere is industrious but relaxed, and it changes a bit each year with the different personalities in attendance, but they are all people who get what it is that interests me about this field and I don’t have to explain it.  We share a language and an aesthetic and there is a pleasure in that that I don’t experience in group settings very often. 

The other thing that’s nice about the varnish workshop is simply being able to block out an entire week of time to do what I want to do all day every day.  Other people may want a vacation at a spa, but that’s not for me.  Much more satisfying to be productive and feel I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing rather than using all my energy on the chore treadmill that is often day-to-day life.  The varnish workshop has become a favorite playground.

This year’s varnish workshop was at the end of April on the premises of the Chicago School of Violin Making in Skokie.  The teachers were again Joe Robson the varnish maker, and luthiers Marilyn Wallin and Todd Goldenberg.  I got to sit next to my friend Robyn again, and on my other side was a maker from Scotland.  The weather cooperated in terms of sun for most of the week for drying our instruments outside. My commute to Chicago every day went smoothly.

Participants are asked to bring two instruments to varnish: One that is ready for ground and one that is already grounded and ready for varnish.  I feel pretty secure in my ability to ground, so I asked Joe if he minded if I brought everything ready for varnish just so I could get more done and he was fine with that.

I had four projects this year.

The first was a pretty straight forward repeat of something I did two years ago.  I varnished an instrument I'd built on commission for someone and I really liked how it came out at that workshop.  Marilyn Wallin had walked me through it, and I wanted her to do the same thing with me again so I could compare any variation in the steps from one instrument to the other.  I wanted to feel secure in my ability to achieve this look again.  I'm really pleased with how this violin came out.  I got it set up just a couple of weeks after the workshop.  (And not that this is related specifically to the varnish workshop, but I love the way this instrument plays.  The sound is incredibly even and clear.  I'm hoping it doesn't sell too quickly because I really enjoy playing it myself, although as of this writing it is already out on trial, and I'm never sad when a violin finds a home.)

This violin was done with Greek Pitch varnish, mostly dark amber mixed with various amounts of purple, orange, and black. 

The second was a violin I built for my daughter, Aden.

One of my goals in life is to build a violin for each of my kids, and this is the first one of those.  I started it way too long ago and finally buckled down and got it finished in time to take to Chicago.  Aden picked out the wood herself and got to participate in her violin's construction along the way so she could appreciate the process and know she had a hand in it.  I asked if she wanted anything special on the scroll and she decided on a bunny.

Aden's violin back in the white
Same back with ground
...and with some varnish in the sun
This violin I varnished with the Strad Cochineal varnish, which I need more practice with because controlling the color is not intuitive for me yet.  I've seen the range of things that can be done with it, but I'm only able to produce a small range of effects currently.  There is a lot to explore there, and I'm already looking forward to playing with it at next year's workshop.

Here's the finished violin which got polished out and set up almost two weeks ago:

I think Aden's pleased with it, but she's too sweet to ever criticize.  Her only statement to me about color preference when I asked was, "Not too light, not too dark, not too orange" so I think I did okay.  (I need to switch out the tailpiece for one with fine tuners on each string, but we'll save the pretty rosewood one for the future when she's better at using her pegs.)  The instrument sounds good!  I told Aden if she doesn't like it I'll happily make her another, but she looked aghast when I suggested that, so I have a feeling this is her violin for keeps.

The third was an instrument I promised Joe we could use as part of an experiment he was running with a small group of people within the workshop.  He asked a handful of us who were returning participants if we would be willing to simply do whatever he asked us to do on one of our violins so he could compare the results.

I was fine with that, but unfortunately the one I brought for that purpose would not have been what I would have chosen if I'd have known ahead of time what he wanted to do.
We began by individually varnishing the flame lines.  That's a process that Joe very much believes in, but I'm not still sold is worth the trouble in all cases.  It's a tool I use when something is visually uneven and needs help, or if the flame needs a boost, but of all the instruments I could have picked for this particular project, this was ridiculous.  When you paint in flame lines, you start by holding the instrument at one angle and filling in the dark areas (which you tap in with a small brush and then rub in deeper with your thumb or palm), but when you're finished you tilt the instrument to a new angle, which shifts the flame lines, and then paint in that second phase.  You do this for the back, the ribs, and the scroll, and usually more than once.
The violin I brought not only had a gabillion bits of fractured flame, it had three phases.  That was more work than I had patience for, especially on an instrument where no one's first thought would be that it didn't have enough flame.  I did one solid round of flame painting, then a halfhearted one, and then because of time constraints I got permission from Joe to move on.

That violin I'm still working on.  It's a commercial instrument I bought for the workshop, and it's one I plan to get more practice using the Strad Cochineal varnish with at home.  I followed very similar steps as I did with Aden's instrument while at the workshop, but I want to go darker than I did with hers.  I think it will be a nice violin when it's all done.

The last project was the most unusual.  It's something I'd asked Joe about in Boston way back at my very first workshop and we were both interested to finally test out some possibilities we'd come up with.

I had an idea when I was in school for a series of "Doodle Instruments" where I wanted to keep them looking as "in the white" (unvarnished) as possible and draw on them with ink.  I have several design ideas in mind that I'm looking forward to doing when I have the time to produce instruments for the purpose.  The problem is the wood still needs to be protected, and varnish tends to change the color, plus I was worried about ink bleeding or smearing.

Joe had thoughts about mixing shellac with kaolin (which is powdered porcelain and would keep things white), or protecting the bare surface with something like Liquin and see what would happen.  I bought several kinds of pens to compare how they would work on the different surfaces and under different products.

For my practice wood I bought a couple of crude violins from China for $45 each.  The better of the two I left intact to work on as a whole, and the worse one I took apart so I could practice what I learned on the individual pieces.

I sectioned out different areas on the violin and labeled what I was doing in the products I was doing them with.  I had a section on both the spruce and the maple where I used bare wood as a control.  And you know what?  That was the winner.

I have no explanation for these results because they don't make any sense to me at all, but what I found was India ink on bare wood somehow didn't bleed, and was also erasable.  That's right, erasable.  Like, with a pencil eraser.  On my loose piece of test maple I made a clock and then decided to move the note I'd drawn in the "1" position, and it erased just fine.

Here's the thing, though:  Once I erase the ink off the wood, anything I redraw is more likely to smear under shellac.  I have no idea why, since after erasing I also re-sanded, so it should have been like the original surface.  The solution to that was to spray the first coat of shellac on, rather than brush it.

I made a sign using my test spruce for my new Scottish violin maker friend as practice.  I think the sign came out nice, and the clock sold to someone before the week was up, so I guess I should make more someday.

My friend, Robyn, wanted to experiment with unconventional colors.  People always ask why we don't varnish things in blue or green, etc., and the simple reality is they don't sell in high enough markets to warrant the effort.  Serious players want traditional violins, so junky violins may end up in playful colors, but nice ones won't sell, so odd colors become synonymous with bad instruments.  Robyn and I are both willing to challenge that a little, because why not?  So she made an instrument we alternated dubbed "Purple Haze" or "Barney."

It came out quite striking!  Quite a challenge controlling that strong a color and not have it get blotchy.  I paid close attention to her efforts and have been trying to do something similar at home in blue.  We'll see if it sells, but at least once it's on the rack it should get some attention.
(To see the purple violin in its finished glory check it out Robyn's website.)

Unfortunately I am writing this almost two months after the fact, so all the details of my week are not as fresh as I would like as I recount them for this post, but I can tell you we saw some extraordinary old instruments courtesy of some of the amazing shops in Chicago, and I got to see some really good antiquing work.

Lots of lovely things happen over meals: The end of the week pizza party is always a good time, dinner at the Thai restaurant Joe likes never disappoints, I got unexpectedly treated to a lunch of cheeseburgers and fries by a kind doctor I felt privileged to get to know, and I had the chance to share Afghani food with two women I admire and I wish I could be more like while we discussed serious issues concerning women in our industry.  The connections I've made at this workshop mean a great deal to me.  I also remain impressed with the generosity of the instructors and fellow varnishers on both a professional and personal level.  It's a great group and I came away with a lot this year.


Now I just wish I had more time to implement what I've learned!  My plan now is to start two more violins (one for Mona and one for sale) so I will have a couple of projects on my bench, but actually to shift my focus in the upcoming year to my writing.  That's been on the back burner for far too long, and I don't feel like I can move on to new ideas while I have drafts for two novels gathering dust.
But after that I will finally make my Doodle Instrument series so I can move those ideas out of my head and into reality as well.  So much to do!  I can't wait.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Dear Dad (2018)

Has it really been almost three years since you died?  That's a long time to have gone without your hugs and kind words.  Do I still have your voice right in my head?  And your laugh?  I'm starting to wonder.  Until almost three years ago I got to refresh those details periodically.  Now whatever memories I cling to are all I will ever have.  I hate that, and it doesn't get easier.  I don't reach for the phone to call you on Mondays anymore, so at least I can say the reality has sunk in.  I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad one.

Oh, Dad.  What would I tell you about what life has been like since last Father's Day?  I guess that in recent months it's been better than the year before.  Last year was a nightmare and I'm still suffering occasional flashbacks of pain, but when I think back to where we were, and look at where we are, there is no comparison.  There are still issues to deal with and I'm scared every day that things could fall backwards into crisis again, but for now I will be grateful that on a day-to-day basis life in our home is normal again.  That's no small thing.  Normal is a gift.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Spring Catch Up Post

Life has been nuts.  I remember how hard running after toddlers was, and how babies suck up all of your day, but I also remember thinking something easier was just over the horizon if I could just get a little more sleep and make it there.

Yeah, no.  Bigger kids just have different issues that suck up just as much time, and complex problems that can tear at your soul.  Older kids can also be wonderful, and having real conversations with these people you made is amazing, especially when I think back to the days where we spent a lot of time just pointing to colors and that was as stimulating as things got.  I prefer playing Settlers of Catan to Candyland, there are just a lot more rules to remember.

Anyway, lately there has been little time to think, let alone write, so this is a giant catch-all post to sort through some of what we've been doing and to keep my memories anchored in time a bit better.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Bus

As this school year begins wrapping up I want to take a moment to acknowledge the greatest development for me in my children's school attending lives:  the bus.

Aden started taking a bus last year for high school which is almost six miles away, but this year the other two kids started taking a bus too, and to not have to get up and drive anyone anywhere first thing in the morning is amazing.  We still make breakfast (although on days when we can't it's just fine) and we still have to prod the kids awake and remind them to put on clean clothes, but that's it.  Not braving the cold or the snow or the rain or having to find a spot for drop off is wonderful.  Equally wonderful is not worrying about the pickup and having to interrupt my afternoon to get the kids at school or remember to write to note so they can walk to the violin store if I can't get them.  I love it, and I think the kids like having more autonomy.

Why didn't we do it sooner if it was an option?

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Spring Break 2018--Road Trip to San Antonio

I need to get down what we did for Spring Break (back in March!) before I forget it all.  There are times I wonder how much value there is to maintaining this blog, but when I go back and look at old posts I remember why I do it.  It's a good writing exercise, but beyond that it really is a good record of many things.  I'm often shocked by how much I've forgotten.  So in the interest of not forgetting all of this, here is our Spring Break 2018!

Our original plan to go to New York City was scuttled at the last minute this year, so I presented the kids with a list of alternatives and the one they all found most exciting was the idea of a big road trip to Texas.  Among the last of the Mold-A-Rama locations on our map was the San Antonio Zoo.  That was the one place that seemed impossible because it's just not near anything we had any excuse to visit, so we decided to make it a destination unto itself.

We hit the road early on Monday the 26th (the day after one of my orchestra concerts, which prevented us from getting a start on the weekend).  We drove straight to St Louis in a lot of rain.  We passed through many a small town (including one in Illinois with a sign claiming it was a "good" place to live and made us wonder if they were expressing honest doubt by throwing quote marks around good).  Before hitting the road we'd stopped by AAA for maps which kept Quinn entertained as he tracked our progress.

We arrived at a Drury Inn by the convention center in time to partake in the dinner buffet included in our stay.  It was a nice hotel, but peculiar in that most of the building was a parking structure and the actual hotel was just on the 5th and 6th floors.  There was a teeny tiny pool right behind the food service and the whole place was just packed with families.  I'm not sure why, really.  I felt like we were in St Louis at an odd time for tourists, but maybe not?

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Bonus Chicago Mold-A-Ramas

On the way back to Milwaukee at the end of our Spring Break Road Trip we decided to stop a couple of places in Chicago to add two more Mold-A-Ramas to our collection.  They were both places we already had Mold-A-Ramas from, but new figures we didn't have.

The first stop was MOSI (the science museum in Chicago).  We had a reciprocal membership to our science museum that was still good so Ian pulled up out front and Quinn and I popped in together and were back out in about ten minutes.  They've added a new machine to the building, not just switched out one of the molds for a new figure.  They now make a pair of chicks hatching out of eggs to go by the live chicks in the genetics display.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

In no mood for other people's updates

This is a short, grumpy post that I should probably not hit "publish" on, but sometimes this blog is my venting space, and I feel like I will get past these feelings sooner if I try to pin them down with words.  So indulge me a moment, and I will post about Mold-A-Ramas and the like again soon.

With apologies for being vague (since some stories are not mine to tell), one of my kids was pulled out of a school event that they've been looking forward to for over a year and I'm angry.  I get the problem, and I don't specifically fault the school since the people making the decisions were at the district level, not the teachers, but I do not think the way things were handled was fair, and the decision had the potential to exacerbate the situation they were supposedly trying to mitigate. 

In any case, I did everything I could to advocate for my kid, and since the decision left my hands I've been trying to just accept things and come to peace with it.  It's all okay.  The world certainly didn't end.  Compared to the nightmare I was living through a year ago at this time, this is like a dream scenario.  Life is good.

But then there is Facebook.  And blow by blow updates from happy parents nervously fretting about their kids off on an adventure.  I had expected to be one of those parents.  Instead I'm reminded with each post that I feel my kid was denied something they had earned and it hurts.  I don't want to resent those other families.  I don't for a minute wish anything but the best for those other kids.  I hope they have a fabulous time.

I just don't want to hear about it.  At least not right now.  Is that petty?

I feel a little like I did the first year or so after my dad died and I really didn't want to hear other people's stories about their dads.  Father's Day was painful.  (Father's Day is still painful.)  I don't begrudge anyone their happiness.  I just sometimes have trouble juxtaposing it with my loss.

I understand that we know things intellectually, and that we can't control how we react emotionally, but there is also the image in my mind of the person I strive to be, and that person is better at all of this.  Or at least better at accepting all of this.

Until I figure it out, I think I will stay off Facebook as much as I can afford to.  It's not helping.

The silver lining in all of this has been my kid, who is grappling with their own mix of emotions and reality and is doing it with a grace and maturity that I find astonishing and deeply reassuring.  That's more than enough to sustain me.  (As long as I avoid the jabs of other people's updates, at least for now.)

Thursday, April 19, 2018

"Mold-A-Rama" at Third Man Records

Jack White has his own "Mold-A-Rama" machine at Third Man Records in Nashville because of course he does.

And "Mold-A-Rama" has quote marks around it because technically that's a trademarked name used by a specific company, so the machine at Third Man Records is labeled a "Wax-O-Matic."  The machine at our store (which is still not up and running yet because we have to find a leak before we can put it out for public use) is not labeled anything at all other than as a way to "Make your own souvenir in seconds!" but we can at least claim to have something in common with Jack White.  (I'm also from Detroit, but I think much past that the similarities and any claim to additional coolness ends.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Mold-A-Ramas in San Antonio

We had an unexpected change of plans for Spring Break this year, and when I gave the kids a choice about other options, the one they all agreed on was a road trip down to Texas to get the (possibly) last Mold-A-Ramas from a zoo for our collection.  San Antonio was the one place on the Mold-A-Rama map that we didn't know if we'd ever reach.  There's no reason for us to go there.  So we seized the opportunity to do something random and went with it!

San Antonio is lovely, and I will write about the whole trip soon in a different post, but for now we will focus on the heart of our mission: The eight Mold-A-Ramas at the zoo.

It's a lovely zoo.  (And at this point we know zoos.)  It's compact and laid out very well.  It had the most memorable collection of birds I think we've seen at any zoo, including a ton of storks or cranes (not sure which but they were long and white) and vultures and grackles that were there voluntarily in droves to nest in the trees in the park.

We showed up very shortly after the zoo opened at 9:00, along with our small cooler to collect (and protect) our Mold-A-Ramas.  There were signs saying coolers weren't allowed in the zoo, but I showed the woman at the gate that there was no food in ours, and we'd come all the way from Wisconsin just to get Mold-A-Ramas and wanted to make sure they didn't break, and she let us take it in.

There are eight machines in the zoo, all arranged in pairs in four spots.  The first place we stopped, however, had no power!  We asked a zoo employee why the machines weren't on and she said that whole area of the park was having maintenance done and power wouldn't be back on until probably 1:00. 

Not an auspicious beginning, but also one of those times we are reminded that our collection is ultimately silly.  We were there really just to enjoy time together in a new place, so it would be disappointing not to get all the Mold-A-Ramas we came for, but nothing to get truly upset about.  I did call ahead before we settled into our plan to make sure the machines were running before driving to the other side of the country, and they assured me they were, so the two powered down machines were only a temporary setback.  We hit them again after lunch on our way out of the park and sure enough they yielded our precious plastic toys.

They were all figures we already have from other zoos, but they were all good, and the machines worked well.  We got another waving gorilla, the three monkeys, a triceratops, giraffes, a lion, a panther, an elephant, and a hippo.

A new twist on the machines:  They take credit cards now, and the price seems to have gone up universally from $2 to $3.

An excellent day and an excellent haul!  I can't believe we actually have Mold-A-Ramas we got ourselves from San Antonio.  I love that those little plastic animals represent such a fun family adventure.  It was a great trip.

Up next, a stop in Nashville for our only musical instrument Mold-A-Rama!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Peeps 2018

Last night we attended the opening of the annual Peeps Art Show at the Racine Art Museum.

It landed on a night when we had everything scheduled at the same time (2 violin lessons, Latin, orchestra rehearsal, parent meeting for the model UN trip--that was a lot to reschedule or get to late), so we only had time to run through the exhibit and then hit the road again.  (Ask how much we have on the calendar for today or tomorrow--nothing of course.  Because the scheduling gods hate us.)

We left before they announced the awards, but I did read online this morning that Quinn's piece received the Racine Mayor's Award for the under 13 category!  He created "Peepsconsin"--a county map of Wisconsin made of Peeps (that he did freehand, I might add).

I'm more than a little surprised that Aden's "Jurassic Peep" didn't get at least an honorable mention since it was quite the show stopper and was even featured at the entrance to the exhibit.  (Maybe it will still get the coveted Peeple's Choice Award by show's end.)

Dog being helpful
My entry this year was a Peeps Violin.  The Peeps Orchestra I made last year was quite popular in our violin store window after the museum show was over, so I thought it would be fun to make something else that would look good there again.  I had an old destroyed violin that we'd covered in paint and beads about ten years ago that I decided to scrape off and decorate with Peeps.

I played with flattening Peeps with a rolling pin, but that didn't go as well as I hoped, and hot glue can do funny things to marshmallows.  For most of the instrument I wound up just cutting off the backs of the Peeps and attaching them with their own natural stickiness.  The f-holes are felt, and the strings are yarn.  (You're not supposed to use any food other than Peeps according to the rules, otherwise some kind of licorice strands would have been tempting.)

I take an odd sort of pride in the fact that even though the whole thing is ridiculous (and no, you can't play it except as maybe a maraca since there are some clackity objects caught inside), the setup in terms of string spacing and bridge placement is better than on a lot of terrible student violins that walk into my store that need my help.

Peeps are not an easy medium to work in.  We've found if you need to cut them up to do anything with, it's best to let them get really stale first.  Fresh Peeps are incredibly squishy.  Even stale Peeps gum up a lot of scissors, but fresh ones are really unwieldy.  We experimented briefly with melting Peeps, which has potential for future projects.  They're just sugar, so they caramelize when heated up enough, and we played with pulling them into long strands.

Also, we discovered the hard way that there is a lot of variation in terms of the color of Peeps depending on where and when you buy them.  So even though we stock up on a lot of Peeps when we're all thinking out our projects, we know now that if you run out of a particular color you can't count on purple Peeps from Target matching the purple Peeps from the grocery store.

This year with Easter being so early we were kind of rushed and only had a few days to put anything together.  Aden's was literally still drying as we drove to drop it off at the museum twenty minutes before the final deadline.  Mona was wrapped up in a different project and didn't get to a Peeps piece this year at all.  But we plan to think ahead in 2019!  The Peeps show is just too much fun not to want to be a part of it.

Go check out the exhibit if you happen to be in the Racine area!  It runs through April 8th.  (Or swing by the violin store after that.  We'll have at least our things in the window for a while.)  Happy Peeps Break!