Violin Maker's Wife: Varnishing, Between Artisanship, Science and Myth

October 28, 2012, 1:56 PM · Post no. 25

By now all four instruments are complete – all bodies are closed, all scrolls have been carved and inserted, and Yonatan went through all of them once more, applying final touches with his most precise instruments where needed. Now comes another important and magical stage – varnishing!

The varnish plays an extremely important role in the final outcome of the stringed instrument, as it provides necessary protection for the wood over the many years the instrument will be playing. Of course the varnish also gives the violin special colors and adds that beautiful, shiny glow. As was the case with other crucial steps, varnishing is where the violin maker's artisanship – knowledge, sure hand, sensitive eye, and patience … that illusive quality once again - really shine. Well, literally SHINE.

For the Quartet Yonatan decided to use an oil varnish which of course he makes himself. In fact, looking at him making that varnish, and even hearing him talk about it, make me think of a combination between a science project - - and a type of witchcraft…. He uses materials extracted from far-away trees, dyes extracted from snails and beetles, and boils turpentine or alcohol to incredibly high temperatures, making them bubble, fume and change their colors… you get my drift:)
Here, for example, is what his workbench looks like when he varnishes:

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Anyway, as he explained it to me, oil varnishes are harder to control when applying on the instruments, but they have the advantage of being extremely beautiful if properly prepared and applied. As is true for much about hand-made instruments, and true for Yonatan's Quartet, the varnish is still prepared much in the same way as it has been for the last 350 years – from natural rosins, turpentine and dyes. You know how some violins are yellowish, some reddish-brown, others are orangey or even almost cherry-red? Well, usually these are the dyes that make the difference, but it can also be the type of varnish used. Yonatan especially likes to use oil varnish as it allows him to varnish the instruments without using dyes at all (!) Varnishing without dyes may sound as impossible as painting without colors, but that's not the case at all. What he does is use a combination of very dark rosins, and then he boils them for a very long time so that they become darker still. This way he uses but a few coats of varnish, and with the preparations the wood went through – tanning in the ultra violet light as well as a few other steps that we'll keep as a professional secret – the instruments become yellowish, then golden, and finally a rich, deep, beautiful golden-brown. The really cool thing about the oil varnish is that at the end of the process the color it produces is at once rich and potent, while also being transparent to allow the play of the wood's natural grain to clearly show:

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As you can see from the pictures, Yonatan is now working on all four instruments simultaneously, varnishing one, and while the varnish is drying, varnishing the others. Making the varnish from scratch on his own and working with natural substances only, Yonatan can only control the final shade of the varnish to a certain extent. As with Nature more generally – much is out of his hands as the varnish takes a life of its own (especially since, if you Constant Reader remember, the sound boards of the four instruments are made from different pieces of spruce tree, although the rest of them is from that famous single maple trunk).

Is it a wonder that so many myths exist around varnishes in general and those of Stradivari more specifically? There are just so many variables here – the rosins, the temperature, the dyes, the quantities, the boiling time, the number of varnish coats ("mani", meaning "hands" in Italian) used, etc. etc. etc., that it almost begs a myth of the perfect, secret, untold receipt that would make the perfect violin.

Unfortunately, we don’t believe in myths.

We have come a really long way and are in the final stretch of this amazingly ambitious – and inspiring – project (well, inspiring for me at least…). Here they are, all four "kids" as we have come to call them:


… but wait! Because we are also at the end of our rope as far as time goes. Mere weeks away from the deadline, Yonatan still has a lot of work to accomplish before the instruments are actually played. Stay with us and keep your fingers crossed :)


October 29, 2012 at 03:13 AM · Really beautiful. I hope you are both proud of your beautiful "kids"!

October 29, 2012 at 12:56 PM · What beautiful kids you have. I've been reading your blog but I didn't realize he was making 4 at the same time. Where did he learn his craft?

October 29, 2012 at 05:50 PM · thanks both!

Diana - he studied at the Stradivari School in Cremona Italy...

October 29, 2012 at 08:01 PM · Really fine work!! I love the one-piece backs....It'd be fun to hear them played...

October 30, 2012 at 07:48 PM · It's absolutely gorgeous, I LOVE one-piece back. Wonder what those beautiful instruments will sound like when it's complete.

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