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.
|Aden's violin back in the white|
|Same back with ground|
|...and with some varnish in the sun|
Here's the finished violin which got polished out and set up almost two weeks ago:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.