Sunday, July 17, 2022

Varnish 2022

After a couple of years of pandemic shut down, the varnish workshop run by Joe Robson (the Varnish Guy) was up and running again this year! It was the last week of April, held once more in the Chicago School of Violin Making in Skokie (which is newly renovated and quite lovely).

I wasn’t sure at first if I would be able to attend due to conflicts at either end of the week, but Joe was able to accommodate my truncated work schedule. I missed the first day, and most of the last two, but it was still worth it.

The main things I get out of the workshop at this point (since I’m rather comfortable in my varnishing skills, even if it’s an area where one can always improve) are the camaraderie, and the time to focus.

The camaraderie is hard to overstate. It’s wonderful to spend full days with people in your field when normally we are rather isolated from one another. I got to catch up with old friends and make new ones (none of whom ever ask, “What kinds of wood are violins made from?”)

I even got to share my commute this time with the incomparable Jennifer Creadick of Lutherie Lab in MN. She made my trip in March to Atlanta for the Celebration of Women in Lutherie exhibit possible by sharing her hotel room, so I offered her a place to stay in my home during varnish week, and she took me up on it. She made the drive to Chicago and back delightful every day and I miss her. 

(This is us on a whirlwind and chilly tour of Milwaukee making a stop at Bradford Beach on Lake Michigan.)

This workshop also had the highest number of women in attendance yet! Six out of fourteen, and we even found a seventh to come out to dinner one night for a Women In Lutherie evening of fun and sushi. (That evening was really good for the soul and one of the highlights of the week.)

In terms of focus, I have so much competing for my attention at home that to take a few days to concentrate on nothing but varnish work is both efficient and satisfying. In addition, it never hurts to have knowledgeable people to problem solve with right in the same room.

One other thing to mention before I get to any actual varnishing, is that we always see extraordinary antique instruments from around Chicago during varnish week. The most amusing part of that this time was the day an Omobono and a Bergonzi arrived. The Bergonzi is on the bench, and the Omobono is in the case.

If you're not a violin history nerd, let me explain: Carlo Bergonzi worked in Antonio Stradivari's shop, and his exquisite instruments are greatly admired among luthiers. He's sort of a violin maker's violin maker. Omobono was one of Stradivari's sons who also worked in the shop, but he was famously maligned by his father, and his name is industry slang for a screw up. It's hard to know how fair that characterization of Omobono is since his father seemed like a harsh and unforgiving man to work for, and the instrument of his we got to see was lovely. But it was hard not to feel for Omobono to watch centuries later, when placed in direct comparison with Bergonzi, he's still left to the side. (Poor Omobono!)

On to actual varnishing!

The projects I took down to Chicago this year were ambitious in number. Typically people bring two instruments: One in the white, and one already grounded. I brought six instruments (all of them at least grounded, a couple with some varnish already started), and a couple of days in I brought a seventh on which to learn antiquing methods. That was. . . a lot.

I made excellent progress, so I don't regret it, but that much work left less time for socializing. One of the nice things about the varnishing stage of building an instrument is that it comes with built in time constraints. At some point you can't do anything until whatever you've put on the instrument has completely dried, which forces you to take a break and turn your attention to something else. I had enough instruments on my bench that there was always a new one to pick up and work on. Good for accomplishing work goals, less good in terms of enjoying other things in life.

So here's what I worked on:

I brought three really beautiful commercial instruments in the white that I purchased back in 2020 to put under a store label for sale at Korinthian Violins. I prepared each with a balsam ground, but a different choice of aged wood color. That made for a good show-and-tell for the people new to those materials at the beginning of the week, to see (as pictured here from left to right) the gold, red-brown, and grey-green all side by side.

These instruments were straightforward, and an exercise in efficiency. They didn't all quite go to plan in terms of finished color, but I think they all came out nice, and I hope customers like them. Two are already set up and on the shelf, so I'm looking forward to people trying them out.

The other three instruments were all things I built.

There is this violin that I made for my daughter, Mona. She doesn't play, but I built a violin for her sister who can, and I think it's a good idea for each of my children to own an example of what I do even if they don't appreciate it now. 

I associate Mona with the color yellow, and wanted this instrument to look like pale amber. I used a Strad Varnish (from Violin Varnish Ltd) base coat for most of it, with a bit of cochineal tapped directly into some of the stronger flame lines, and a touch mixed into an all over coat.

A personalized feature of this instrument is the bird on the back of the scroll that was sketched there by Mona's older sister, Aden.

People often admire how pretty instruments look when they are still in the white--and they are--but I'm always enthralled by the transformation of a piece of maple during the varnish process that brings that piece of wood to life. I find this particular piece of wood dazzling.


I was able to do most of the varnishing on this instrument in the workshop, with one additional coat at home before polishing it all out. I recently set it up and was able to play it, and I'm pleased with how it sounds (which is always a relief!).

Part of what keeps varnishing interesting is all the variation possible. Mona's violin I wanted rather light, which is an interesting contrast the other one I worked on.

The next violin is a commission for a client in the Milwaukee area who wanted something to honor her grandparents. It has their names inside, and a Star of David on the back of the scroll.

The varnishing challenge on this violin was she wanted it very dark. Much darker than I usually go with my varnish, and I ended up combining bone black, lamp black, and cosmic black, along with some deep reds and browns to reach the color she wanted. It's not what I would have done on my own, but it's quite striking. I just strung it up the other day, and it needs to settle and be adjusted before I pass it on to the client, but I think she's going to love it.

I can't wait for her to be able to play this instrument for her grandmother.

The final thing I brought that I built is this viola. It's for a client who wanted it to match a violin I built for his daughter a few years ago. That instrument I also varnished in the Chicago workshop, and I still had all my notes about how I achieved that particular color. 


It was interesting to chart out step by step what I did before and see if I could replicate it. I think I did it, but I can't wait to see the two instruments side by side one day and see how close I got. I love how this viola came out, but I still have a few tiny things to do here and there before I can finally set it up and hear how it sounds. I can't wait!

The final project is still hanging in my shop waiting for some free time to magically show up so I can complete it. I experimented with a quicker approach to varnishing at a workshop a few years ago, and was never happy with the results I got on this viola. I also wasn't completely happy with the construction on this instrument when it arrived from the supplier in the white, so I figured it was a perfect candidate for antiquing.

Antiquing is a process of artificially aging the varnish wear on an instrument to make it look older, which is what a lot of players want, even in a new instrument. I normally don't do it, since I figure my instruments will get worn enough just out in the world on their own without me hastening the process. But when the talented Itzel Avila, antiquing master, gave a demonstration at the workshop and mentioned how much easier it is emotionally to antique something she didn't make herself, I was inspired! Why not pull out that viola that I was planning to strip and do over anyway and try some of these techniques? That was really enjoyable, and I'm looking forward to finishing it someday.

I also managed to leave the workshop with more things than I brought, since I purchased a viola that Joe varnished for my inventory. That one needed a couple more coats of varnish on just the top and the ribs, and I was flattered that Joe trusted me to finish that work on my own. But this was the lineup of things to complete after a week in Chicago:

It's a happy sight.

And it was a wonderful week! I hope everyone this year gets to do something as fulfilling as I got to do in my varnish workshop.