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Jonathan Hai

Violin Maker's Wife: Of Tanning in the Israeli Summer

September 23, 2012 at 8:37 PM

Post No. 22

There are lots of things I didn’t know about violins before my husband became a violin maker. One of the most bizarre of them is that sometimes violins, violas and cellos get tanned before they are varnished. Yes – tanned as in a tanning salon.

But let me take a step back and give you an update on where we are with the Quartet: the bodies (or "casse" in Italian) of all four instruments have been closed, which is an important and exciting step. But as Yonatan explained to me yesterday over dinner, "there are phases in the violin-making process, in which it's hard to see that real progress is made, but nonetheless a lot of work is required".

"OK", I thought to myself, "now he's beginning to sound like a Zen-Buddhist…" out loud I looked at him and said "say WHAT?".

"Well", he said, "for example, after I close the body of an instrument, it would seem that work on it is finished. But actually there is still a lot of work to be done on the finishing touches that really create the perfectly-flowing, curvy lines of the hand-made instrument. I redo the "sguscia" (the indented line above the purfling all around the instrument's contour), and shave very fine slivers off the instrument's borders, rounding them further and making them more symmetrical and perfect still". This, by the way, is not done with sandpaper – oh NO!! As I mentioned in an earlier post, sanding would scratch the surface of the instrument. So the entire, exact work of finishing the last details is done with a special, extremely sharp, gauge and with the scraper – one tenth of a millimeter (or less) at a time.

When the final touches on each instrument were completed, it went into the tanning closet. It's like this – Yonatan had built a special, perfectly light-proof closet in his workshop, and placed extremely powerful ultra-violet lights in it. He hangs each instrument perfectly in mid-air, so that the lights can tan it evenly all around. It takes a number of days, but after tanning like this, the instruments' wood acquires a beautiful golden color. This color will then serve as the background (or "ground") for the varnishing process.

The instruments were placed in the tanning closet one after the other from mid-August onwards - first the cello, then the viola, then the first-violin, and finally, today, the second-violin. If you have ever had the misfortune to be in Israel during that time of year, you know it's over 35 degrees Celsius most of the day, maybe dropping to a low of 30 at night (for all you Americans, that's between 100 and 85 Fahrenheit…) with the sun beating on you like a hammer. So when I was tanning in the summer heat with the kids on the beach, the instruments had the ultra-violet light to tan them :) Actually, this is exactly why the ultra-violet closet is used in the climate-controlled studio – the real sun around here is just too damn hot for the instruments. Boy, do I sympathize…
Here are a few pictures of the instruments tanning in Yonatan's special closet:

Cello and viola ready:


Viola tanning:

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Cello tanning:

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All four instruments prepared:

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Lights on!

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Pretty cool, ha?

From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 24, 2012 at 1:50 AM
I love those pictures from the tanning closet, with the blue light!

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on September 24, 2012 at 3:17 AM
Hi Avivit. You said "grund". That sounds German, not Italian! Violin makers do talk about the "ground", which I took to mean the colored layer(s) of varnish. Did I misunderstand something (either in your blog or elsewhere)?

I also thought violin makers use a UV closet to speed up the varnish drying. Is that true?

I've never seen blue UV lights. Is that just how the camera interpreted the light's wavelength.

And Lauire is right--those pictures are very cool! They remind me of the tanks of jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. (For those who aren't familiar with it, check out the pictures at

From Jonathan Hai
Posted on September 24, 2012 at 7:11 PM
thank you both for your compliments regarding the photos - all credit goes to Yonatan:)

Francesca - regarding your first question: yes it's true that the word should be "ground" - and I actually changed it in the blog - but it's pronaunced "grund" in Hebrew and often in other languages as well (a kind of professional jargon, short for "background" probably). In Italian it's often called "sottofondo". It doesn't refer to the varnish itself, though, but rather to a number of preparatory steps that prepare the instrument's wood for the varnishing process.

secondly - yes, oil-based varnishes require UV to dry and so the UV closet is used for that too.

thirdly - you're right that UV is violet - it just appears to be blue as a result of the photo.

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