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.

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