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Michael Avagliano

Better Late Than Never

May 31, 2011 at 6:27 PM

Memorial Day weekend is one of those holidays that has several meanings – a day for remembrance, a day for rest, a day for barbecue, parades, sales…

                Or, in my case, a day for varnish!
 
                In my experience, musicians (and luthiers) rarely go on vacation. The job descriptions don’t really allow us to. For musicians, on most holidays when everyone else has the day off, we’re working: providing the musical backdrop to Christmas, New Year’s Day (or Eve), the 4th of July, Easter, Hanukah… the list goes on. When “normal” people have the day off, they want to hear music. Even Memorial Day often has concerts scheduled around it. So it’s unusual for us to have nothing to do on a holiday.
Little chips...
               
 
Luthiers, on the other hand, generally seem to have the problem that most woodworkers have: it’s just too much fun. An old buddy of mine summed it up pretty well many years ago with this exchange:
                “Whatcha doin’, Neil?”
                “Makin’ little chips out of big chips.”

 

 
               
 
 
 
Now who couldn’t see the fun in that?
                So while everyone else is off grilling burgers and walking the malls, I’d be willing to bet you’ll find a fair number of the violinmakers across this country at their benches, having fun. And so it was that I found myself in the shop yesterday, eager to sit down and do something fun.

 
                For those who may remember, a year ago (and yes, it was a year ago!) I made a violin birth announcement. I had completed making a violin that I’d started 17 years earlier, as an apprentice. At the time, the announcement was a little premature – the fiddle wasn’t quite born yet; or rather, it was born, but still naked. Here’s what it looked like back then:

 

 

 
 And, thanks to a busy schedule, lack of sunlight during winter, and a little procrastination (one of my favorite things!), here’s what it looked like a few days ago:

 

 
                Now that this violin is old enough to vote, I figured it was finally time to get around to putting some clothes on it. But it’s not such an easy thing to do. Since most of what I do is repairing instruments, when I work with varnish, it’s in retouching, which uses tiny amounts of actual varnish to cover and blend in scratches or cracks. And of course, since the violin already has varnish on it, I’m trying to match the color that’s already there. But with my violin, there’s a simple question that has to be answered: what color do I want it to be? Certainly not this:
                       Yeeccchh!
               
             There are a variety of colors to choose from, but that’s definitely not one of them! But in the realm of the earth tones that look so good on violins, there’s still a wide selection: browns, reds, yellows, orange, even a little green (a tiny bit can give an aged look to the violin, but too much and it’ll look like it had some bad mayo with lunch). After thinking about it for a while, I settled on a warm orange-brown, with a little red thrown in for drama.
                When you’re putting together colors like this, it’s best to start on the light side and go darker with successive coats – it’s much easier to darken a light color than the other way around! It was a little nerve-racking starting things off. I mean, this violin is almost 2 decades old, and it’s the only one I’ve made (so far). After all that work, I don’t want to screw it up now!
 
Okay, take a deep breath. And here we go with a few pictures to give you the idea:
 
Buffing down the ground layer before varnishing

Look -- it's got a name!

Ready for the big moment.

Getting started




 Whew! The first coat is done, and pretty smoothly applied. The varnish will be rubbed down between coats, to even things out and give the next coat a fresh start. But good violin varnish isn’t a smooth surface; as a great maker once put it, we’re making violins, not bar countertops. The soft spruce of the top in particular should have a little crenellation to it, a texture that most makers call the “corduroy”.
The light hitting the "corduroy".
 

 
Look at this picture closely where the light hits the top; see how the varnish accentuates the grain lines of the spruce? That’s the effect we’re going for. It means that I haven’t screwed up… yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
So now that the first coat is on, what we need is a place to hang out, literally:
 My shop’s windows catch the sun at about 1 p.m. and keep it until sunset, which is time enough for the varnish to get settled before going into a drying booth for the night. A drying booth is basically a foil-lined box with some UV lights and a hanger. It lets the varnish dry overnight (or thereabouts), so I don’t have to wait only for sunny days.

 

 
 
 
And since those windows face Main Street, it also means free advertising!


So there you go – step one down. A few more coats, and the violin will FINALLY be done. And then what? Well, I said before that I would start another one, but to tell the truth…
I really need to make myself a viola first.

 


From Emily Liz
Posted on May 31, 2011 at 10:05 PM

 So pretty!! Thanks for showing us pics of the....uh, birth? Graduation? Hmm...

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