Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Complexities and Challenges of Varnishing

Here at A. Cavallo Violins we have been embarking on a new project the last couple of months. Our manufacturer from China has been sending us white violins which we have been experimenting by graduating the top and varnishing the instrument. Matt was the first to dive into our varnishing adventure.

To begin his varnishing undertaking, Matt selected a violin that Alex had previously graduated and finished the edges. He begins by scraping and sanding the wood to create a smooth surface to prepare it for finishing. After sanding, he placed it in our homemade light booth to tan for 5 or 6 days. This process helps to darken the spruce top of the violin.

Next Matt applied the primer and the sealer to the violin. We are using the Magister products which are the finest available. The primer came in a pre-mixed bottle which Matt applied 2 or 3 coats to the violin with a sponge brush. This step prepares the wood and darkens the overall color. One coat of sealer is applied after the primer has dried which typically takes a few hours. Matt used a brush to thinly coat the instrument with the sealer and whipped the excess off with a cloth. The sealer helps the natural color of the wood come to life. It brings out the flames in the maple and helps the other colors really pop. After a night in the light booth we could really see the flames in the maple!

Matt's next step in the varnishing process is to apply the mineral ground. Matt had to make the mineral ground using pumice and varnish. These ingredients are cloudy when first combined and Matt had to mull them together on a piece of glass for about half an hour until the mixture became clear. This mineral ground was then ladled onto the instrument with a pallet knife and then squeegeed off. After sitting on the instrument for approximately 5 minutes, Matt then rubbed the excess off with pieces of canvas. The violin was placed in the light booth for a couple of days until the mineral ground was completely dry. This process was repeated and a second coat of mineral ground was added.

Finally, Matt arrived to the step of applying the actual varnish to the instrument. Once again, Matt mixed together the ingredients on glass to prepare it for use on the instrument. He mixed a quarter sized amount of varnish with a splash of siccative. In this step, adding a darkening agent is optional depending on the color the person chooses to varnish the instrument. To apply varnish the instrument Matt uses a technique called tamponing which is using a brush to tap the varnish onto the instrument and then using a sponge to tap the varnish to spread it around on the surface of the instrument. The sponge the was used is not just an ordinary sponge. It is foam used in prosthetics ordered specifically for our varnishing project. The technique of tamponing tends to be rather time consuming but it is a conservative way of application as it does not waste a lot of varnish.

Adding patina to the violin is Matt's next step to the varnishing process. Patina is the antiquing process where the maker uses sand paper or other materials to scuff up and scratch the surface of the instrument. Parts of the instrument that come in contact with parts of the body or other surfaces such as tables are sanded. A lot of times the scratches and marks on the instrument are colored with black water color to give it an aged look. Matt chose not add too much patina to his instrument because he believes that it "get's its patina as it goes".

Finally Matt added two very thin layers of clear coat. This clear coat gives the varnish a little depth and fills in and seals the antiquing. He then finished the instrument by rubbing it with a mixture of Italian pumice and linseed oil. This mixture is an important last step because it evens out the varnish and gives the instrument a smooth, satin look.

Matt's violin turned out to be a great success! The final product had a beautiful orange-tinted gold varnish with striking flamed maple on the back. It also had a beautiful, bright, clear tone. It sold the first day it was on our showroom floor! Unfortunately, Matt did not have an opportunity to take it home to show his mom, despite that we were all very excited about this success!

1 comment:

Owldaughter said...

This was really interesting. I've never heard the various steps explained so clearly. Usually all a layman gets is "and then the varnish is applied in several careful steps." This gave me a much better grasp of the process. Thanks for sharing!


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