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.

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