Finishing your Own Instrument

February 13, 2007 at 09:41 PM · Has anyone purchased an unfinished violin and completed it yourself - varnishing and installing fittings, pegs, strings etc?? If you did, how were your results? Was it difficult to do? Was it worth it? There are several sources for unfinished "violins in the white" and fittings and I'd really like to try finishing one.

Replies (38)

February 14, 2007 at 04:39 AM · Jim,

I know that many artists buy these unfinished instruments so that they can paint them. They become works of art and are not to be played. (I have a beautiful painted violin on the wall)

I do not know of any musician not affiliated with a violin shop, that would try to finish one. You would have to have the proper kind of varnish for starters.

But if you have the materials then I suppose it might be fun to try.


February 14, 2007 at 09:03 AM · Forget it.

Even if you learn to apply a nice, even oil varnish over sealer & ground (something that takes a lot of practice) you will still have a student fiddle. "In the white" fiddles are not graduated. To make them sound good, you must remove the top, then graduate the inside top & back until it becomes a real instrument.

Do you know how to do that?

You can buy white fiddles that have been graduated and finished from many sources for very resonable prices. Gianna sells them done by expert Steven Perry. You'd be insane to try it yourself.

February 14, 2007 at 08:16 PM · I agree with allan.

February 14, 2007 at 09:43 PM · Though I do agree with the original responces. Finishing your own violin (though will be a student violin such as mentioned) can be a great accomplishment and fun to do. I once saw a white violin selling for $45, so I think it would be great to be able to say you "made" your own violin, and isn't too cost inhibative.

February 15, 2007 at 02:03 AM · I am presently making a violin from a kit. I find it enjoyable. I like to work with wood and when it is all done I would like to take lessons. God knows what kind of music I will make from this music box. If you have the opportunity to make a violin I think it is a good idea. The only problem is with the tools. I have bought a bunch of Luthier supplies so it can be expensive.

February 15, 2007 at 06:27 PM · Forget it? Insane? I doubt it. Even Stradavari had to start somewhere. So, I am going to try it - I have nothing to lose but some time and a few bucks. And... even if those remarks came from a serious musican I still wouldn't listen to him.

Here's the story... the body of the instrument is assembled (and yes it was graduated properly.) It was made by a student luthier in Milan in 2001. The shop where I'm getting the violin is fitting and drilling the tuning pegs, fitting the end plug and applying the sealer/stains to the color I want.

I have to apply the varnish (which is based on a cremonese formula and provided by the shop.) I'll put on as many coats as necessary to achieve the finish I'm looking for. (I have some experience in finishing fine furniture.)

I'll need to glue down the finger board, install the tailpiece, bridge, strings and chin rest (challanging but not rocket science.)

Since I'm curently playing a $125 factory made Chinese violin, this should sound magnificent by comparison. Plus... like Richard said in his response - I will have played a part of making my own violin.

Christopher - I admire your willingness to take on the project of building one from a kit. Keep in touch and let me know how it turns out. I'd like to hear about it.

Lucia - I really like your idea of painting one. I don't think I'd invest in a good instrument in the white just to paint, but finding a used student instrument at a yard sale would be a great way to get one.

I'll let everyone know how it turns out.


February 18, 2007 at 12:28 AM · I don't really see any problem with taking it on. Graduation itself to a better degree isn't really very difficult. Murphy working in the shop here can now, after fairly little instruction, get the top off an instrument, graduate it, fit a new bar, and close it up again without any trouble.

I do the final graduation tweeking, the final bar tweeking, and final neck shaping. If I didn't, the instruments would still be fine.

Varnishing to a reasonable level isn't too difficult either. Getting that final bit of what you might want in a finish takes most of the thought and work. We use commercial oil varnish modified a bit for some violins, and our own soft expensive stuff on the better ones. Neither pose great challenges. I don't think. I've varnished a lot of violins and Murphy is an artist of substantial experience, so there's some chance I'm understating things. I have seen others do a horrible job through vast amounts of work.

I suspect like most things it is technique, not materials, that govern the results.

February 18, 2007 at 04:39 PM · Hi Steve, I'm eager to learn on $30 white violins. Do you use a scraper for graduating or one of those round bottom thumb planes? I already bought a caliper.

I've already learned how to ream and fit pegs. The hardest part for me was holding it still to drill the hole with a dremel tool. Practicing on dowels didn't help as much because the ebony is harder and actually smell burning and see smoke coming out. I had to stop the tool every so often.


February 18, 2007 at 07:55 PM · Jim,

Please let us know how it turns out. Maybe put up some pics and a sound file. I think it's great that you're putting the finishing touches on it!

Good luck!!


February 18, 2007 at 11:43 PM · It is imporatnt when working with Ebony you need to be in a well ventilated area. Ebony gives off a toxic smell and dust that can be lethal. I wear a mask with a filter. My Dad is a wood turner so he always coughs after working with ebony and other toxic woods.

February 19, 2007 at 05:36 PM · Dave - I'll keep everyone posted and take some pictures.

Christopher - thanks for the tip on ebony. I didn't know that. Luckily, all that is done for me already. I only heve to varnish it and work with the finish.

I even have a luthier who's going to do all the final fitting and adjusting for me.

March 9, 2007 at 04:47 PM · Update -

I took the violin to a well respected local luthier yesterday. Essentially, he said it was a really nice instrument and definately worth finishing. It didn't need further graduating and when finished it should have a nice sound. He's going to make some adjustment to the tolerences in the finger board before stringing it up and fitting it out.

I had to repair a 2" area where the top had separated from the side near the neck. I used hide glue and it worked just fine. Now the fun begins.... the varnishing. I have several scraps of tone-wood and lots of violin varnish. So I'll be able to practice first. I'm going to work with amber and 2 shades of brown to get a slightly antiqued look.

So far this project is working out well and I'm really glad I took it on. In the end I'll have a nice sounding instrument that's worth several times my investment - as well as the pride that comes with doing some of it myself.

March 9, 2007 at 04:52 PM · quote: "I have several scraps of tone-wood and lots of violin varnish. So I'll be able to practice first. I'm going to work with amber and 2 shades of brown to get a slightly antiqued look."

Don't forget the ground.

March 10, 2007 at 02:41 PM · I just noticed Clare's request for information on graduation.

Depends on what we're starting with. From a flat bottomed, arched plate, I'll lay out the graduation pattern with a drill press to get the basic thickness. Left fat so we can move fast. Then with the plate in a cradle, we use gouges cross grain. These can get quite close - I'll generally use gouges to 4 mm in the top and 5 mm in the back. No biggie. Then I drill the final patten and use a mix of palm gouges and fingerplanes to get within perhaps .3 mm. Then I use sharp scrapers. In regraduation, it depends. Some, like that old Bohemian, are so thick that we start with gouges! Others just take a scraper. Key is getting whatever you use frighteningly sharp.

March 10, 2007 at 10:17 PM · If you are going to graduate a plate you will need a set of measuring calipers or some other measuring device to check the thicknesses accurately. Otherwise you will end up with a plate that is too thick in some areas and too thin in others.

Added Note: sorry I just read your post again and saw that you already have calipers :-)

March 11, 2007 at 02:39 AM · Calipers are easy to make. I use a dial gauge on an arm with the plate resting against a post underneath. Just wood I cut with a bandsaw. My clock is in inches, so I end up thinking both inches & mm, which gets confusing.

But really, with a punch or press one can get sufficiently accurate I suspect.

March 12, 2007 at 10:27 PM · These were the calipers and punch I made recently and apart from adding re-reinforcement for the calipers they work perfectly for graduating.

March 13, 2007 at 05:44 AM · if you're buying a violin in the white... then you haev to graduate then violin...(cutting the thickness into correct dimensions) it's quite complicated at times but you can do it right and get the right varnish then you'll probably be happy. usually people aren't very successful though, good luck

March 14, 2007 at 12:51 AM · Before I even started, I had a luthier at Robertson's in Albuquerque evaluate the instrument. He let me know that it was in good shape and would be fine without any further graduation. So far it has 6 coats of varnish over the ground and is looking pretty good. The same luthier will be doing the final fitting and adjustments so it should sound really nice too.

March 16, 2007 at 05:35 PM · who is the luthier?

March 19, 2007 at 03:41 AM · Nigel - It's Chris Pedersen. I don't know if you've heard or played any of his instruments but they're sweet.

March 19, 2007 at 03:46 AM · Well the varnishing is done. It turned out a nice honey brown - lightly antiqued. The next step is to just let it sit for a few days to dry completely - then buff it out with Micro Mesh pads. I my goal is to get it to a nice satin finish - not too glossy. Then it goes in for the final fitting.

April 4, 2007 at 09:44 PM · Well I took it to the luthier this afternoon for the final fittings and stringing. I'm really pleased at the finish. The luthier said that it's better than some of the work coming from other professional luthiers. Not bad for my first one. All in all it cost me less than $500 for a violin that would be worth several times that amount. When I get it back, I'll psot some pictures.

April 5, 2007 at 05:29 AM · Well done Jim, it will be great to see the photos. Next time you should get a little more adventurous and maybe try a kit!


April 6, 2007 at 02:14 AM · Thanks Jaz - As soon as I get it back, I'll take some pictures and post them. I went on your website - AWESOME cello! That was quite an undertaking. I'm not sure I'm ready for that yet. I do want to study cello though, after I have another year or two of the violin.


June 28, 2011 at 09:24 PM ·

Over the past decade I have purchased about 20 white violins.  I have officially ruined 17 of them trying to finish them because I have no one to actually teach me what to do.  I read articles and books.  I have actually visited my local violin shop here in St. Louis but they are so busy I can only get a few verbal tips.  They are VERY kind to me and my daughter when we go in.

One time I found a varnish maker that made the most amazing ground coat and varnish.  But he died a week after I bought it and his family didn't know how to do it.  Everything else just doesn't seem to be so great.

The hard part for me is the spruce top.  I buy good brushes and try to get good varnish but things just don't seem to look all that great.  However, if you don't get frustrated and you are not too hard on yourself, it can be very enjoyable.


June 28, 2011 at 10:47 PM ·

I purchased an inexpensive white violin 1.4 size, and put a lot of effort into getting it in good shape to finish. I did not regraduate or do any other work on it.

I tried using basic artist oils (Sienna, Umber, etc) for the ground, and a mix of turpentine/linseed oil (in varying proportions) for the layers of finish. I think it ended up with over a dozen layers of finish.

The back and sides look adequate, but not something I would sell. The face was a significant challenge; I would agree it is the most difficult.

One thing I would try if I ever want to do this again would be to use a scraper to finish the wood, rather than sanding. Sanding makes the nap lift, while scraping would compress the wood. I think it would make the finish look a bit better.

I would suggest practicing on an inexpensive fiddle first, or maybe buy some fiddle parts, and practice the finish. Once you get to a point where you are satisfied with the finish, then start on a 'good' fiddle.

June 30, 2011 at 04:05 AM ·


Thanks for the note about Copal varnish; I had considered it, but was afraid to try it on the one I made. I ended up with the linseed oil finish you mention.  Oh well!

June 30, 2011 at 07:20 PM ·

Is anyone aware of some study on the impact of finish type to the sound of a violin?

I have to luthiers use a fussy finish (rather that a wipe-on polyurethane), because there is data or experience to indicate it sounds better?

Or do the luthiers simply try to use the same techniques that have been used hundreds of years ago?

I just wonder if Mr Stradivarious would have bought "Watco wipe-on polyurethane varnish" if he had it available to him......Would he have said..."this is much easier to use, I can finish this in a fraction of the time, it looks nice, and it is more "goof-proof".......

July 1, 2011 at 12:30 AM ·

i've thought about it too ... maybe not.  here's a fellow pilgrim's progress you might be interested in seeing:

July 1, 2011 at 04:20 PM · thanks Bill, that looks like a complicated process. i think i'll stick to building cabinets,tables. I still wonder how much of the construction and finishing process is tied to tradition vs. a better understanding of potential efficiency improvements that would not degrade sound quality.....

July 1, 2011 at 09:14 PM ·

One simple reason for not using polyurethane varnish is that it has not stood the test of time. Some 300 year old oil varnish looks like new.  I once varnished a piece with polyurethane that flaked off in a few months. There are many versions of polyurethane. How would you know which one might last? And be compatible with useful colorants? Sound is not really the issue.

July 2, 2011 at 03:10 PM ·

Lyle, what about marine varnish? That's formulated to stand up to anything the sea can throw at it. (But nevertheless, boat-owners still repaint / revarnish their vessels every year.)

July 4, 2011 at 02:48 PM ·

I have about 20 years experience finishing the wood in fine furniture I build.  I've never finished a white violin but I think it would be very interesting to do so, but also extremely challenging. I would plan to spend months experimenting with coloration using pieces of flame maple and quarter sawn spruce, until I find a satisfactory way to color both of these extremely different woods.

A fair number of years ago I read several articles in Strad and other publications on modern finishes for violins. There seemed to be universal agreement that some sort of "ground substance" was used on most historical instruments.  Research is based on electron microscopy of fine old instruments.  Modern research does not support using ground glass or other solids for the ground substance.  The substance which is absorbed into the wood greatly effects the tone production but the finish on top of the wood has little, if any effect.  A few articles recomend using Tung oil, which is not unlike linseed oil, only harder.  This interests me quite a bit because I have always done my finishing with Tung oil and I think it is fantastic.  The first few coats penetrate the wood fibers, stiffen them, and provide a translucence which makes the grain seem 3-dimentional.  It also is the ground substance which is needed for good tone.  The next dozen or so coats provide sheen or gloss depending on one's preference.  Tung oil is applied in many layers and polished in between, allowing one to control the sheen.  Tung oil does not wear well however, and on items like chair arms I apply a couple of coats of hand wiped urathane which greatly increases durability.  This micron-thick layer is too thin to flake or crack.  Luthiers I know cure their finishes with ultraviolet light which incerases cross-linking of molecules making it harder.  Tung oil does not provide much color so I would experiment extensively with the addition of water/alcohol soluable analine dyes added to the Tung oil. These  are the most permanant.  The spruce and the maple will color VERY differently with any dye or stain so experimentation is an absolute must!

Good Luck

July 6, 2011 at 05:58 AM ·

 re ...How about you? Did you seal the wood?
I did not properly seal the wood, but after sanding (not scraping) with grits 120, 320,600, I rubbed in the basic colorant I wanted for the wood (I think the back was primarily Windson & Newton Raw Sienna with a touch of light umber. For the face, since the violin was for my grandson, and he loves everything red, I use Winton Cadmium Red Hue, which is a cadmium-free tint. 
I rubbed the colorant into the wood by squeezing a bit onto a spot, then rubbed with an oiled rag. It did not cover as well as I planned. I think more of the final color was generated in the later layers when I had the turpentine/oil mixed with the same tints. 

July 6, 2011 at 02:50 PM ·

Roland has the correct process, generally speaking. The colors (dyes and/or pigment stains) are USUALLY applied prior to any topcoat. The only exception being if you are finishing wood that is prone to blotching (Pine, Cherry, and maple to some extent). For the blotch prone woods, many wood finishers use a wash coat (Dewaxed shallac works great, or there are various oil based wood conditioners which I don't think work as well). Polyurethane or any varnish is a top coat of "film" type finish that provides a seal. Oil (Linseed, tung) are not film finishes and don't protect the wood very well at all from moisture. Apply a colorant (pigment) on top of a film type topcoat may be done in order to acheive some sort of aged finish, however I would usually avoid that routine due to concerns about adhering to the topcoat. However you can always use dewaxed shellac between any type of finish, as it is compatible with just about anything. As for John's cemetary bench......about the only finish that provides UV protection is paint. I think Marine varnish will provide respectable UV protection. And no matter what you put down on exterior wood needs to be re-done every 5 years.

Lyle, you are correct that polyurethane is "relatively" new.....In tests it is a very durable finish, but not easy to repair. Your experience with it flaking off in a few months is not typical, especiall for oil base poly.  Sound like a compatibility issue, or perhaps it was overexposure to weather elements, etc

I still would like to see any studies on the effect of a finish on the sound quality. I don't think it exists. Also, all of this talk is about finishing one side of the violin. The inside is always unfinished. That will increase the violin's rate at which is absorbs moisture and expands/contracts. Given the construction of the violin, (ribs are glued perpendicularly to the grain and movement of the wood, normally you'd want to minimize this).

I still think violin making (at least the high quality violins) is tied to century's old traditions, and we hesitate to stray from it...perhaps it's the "if it ain't broke don't fix it".

July 6, 2011 at 07:34 PM ·

good luck. some of us luithers have gone through revarnishing a instrument several times

July 6, 2011 at 07:51 PM · Joshua, you sound like a furniture maker........ I think anyone that likes the wood finishing process has probably inhaled too much of the fumes.....

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