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?”)
(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.
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.
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.
The other three instruments were all things I built.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.