Spirit Varnish versus Oil Varnish

August 2, 2008 at 01:52 AM · All other things being equal (same white violin), what effect does a spirit varnish have on tone versus an oil varnish. I've heard that an spirit varnish makes for a "brighter" tone while an oil varnish makes for a "mellower" tone. Is this true?

Replies (28)

August 2, 2008 at 01:12 PM · Spirit varnishes may be good or bad, the same for oil varnish. I would not like to use an oil varnish that never dries completely on my violin, neither an spirit varnish that is too "dry". I find the final result of oil varnish better, that's why I use it and there is a trend towards oil varnish, but many makers in Italy prefer spirit varnishes.

In my process I use an oil varnish based on a 1550 recipe in the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, it's two parts oil, one part colophony and one part mastic. I make a paste with this varnish and pumice and burnish it into the wood, it makes quite a reflexive ground and is good for sound, I think.

The final result in terms on sound will not depend only on the varnish, but model, wood, archings, set up and the experience of the maker.

You can see pics of some of my instruments here:


August 3, 2008 at 12:24 AM · All other things being equal: none

"all things being equal" doesn't doesn't apply with violins. That's a big reason making violins is so difficult.

A properly applied varnish should have little to no effect on the white violin's sound. Conventional wisdom places way too much importance on the varnish's effect on sound.

One thing to consider is that spirit varnishes are much easier to touch-up than oil in a repair. Saying that, I prefer to varnish using oil because oil varnishes are much easier to work with on a new violin.

August 3, 2008 at 03:09 AM · Things to remember:

1) As said, no two violins are identical

2) No two varnish batches are alike (most luthiers brew their own), and their can be inconsistencies within single batches of varnish for all manner of reasons

3) It is hard to find 2 luthiers who agree on just what exactly constitutes a "good" varnish. Or what one of said should do.

The above are amongst many reasons why you'll never find a "scientific" analysis on the topic--and why there is so much myth and truisms surrounding varnishes.....and why for the last 300 some odd years people have been claiming to have "found the secret of Antonio Strad."

Best case, a varnish protects the wood, adheres to the wood or ground, is pleasing visually, does not wear off or chip easily, and be able to be applied evenly [These points, most folks can agree on as being positive qualities that a good varnish should have].

In the worst case--it can strangle the tone, as a result of the finish being applied too thick or the layers drying to become too stiff to permit vibrations of the wood.

There have been many many many myths surrounding varnishes over the years. Popular myths on the topic, as with many things about violins started off with Cremona, and how all those hot violin makers up to around 1750 did what they did and how. Amongst many myths said that the Cremonese of Yore, used only oil varnishes-and that was where their great "Secret" is hidden [Perhaps they did, or didn't--who knows]. Needless to say no "miracle varnish" can take a poor instrument and turn it into a good one (or we'd have Strads off Amazon available)..... and needless to say, a good sounding violin, sounded good even before the ground and varnish were applied.

Why do myths like to pick oil finishes as being better somehow?

Oil varnishes tend to be much more difficult to brew, however they have much longer working times. (and they never really "dry") Look in a violin making book such as Johnson and Courtnall's The Art of Violin Making, their instructions for brewing a spirit varnish read like something off a box of Mac and Cheese you'd get at a supermarket.....the instructions for brewing up an oil varnish read like something out of a really classy verbose professional chef's cookbook.

August 3, 2008 at 03:06 AM · My wife has a very good violin with oil varnish which she loves very much and my daughter has a very good violin with spirit varnish which she loves very much.

Therefore we love both types of varnish if they are on the right fiddle!

April 20, 2014 at 03:57 PM · I heartily concur that the "all things being equal" criteria is the big variable in the equation. Any good luthier will tell you that wood, arching, and graduation, are the main factors that play into the final result of the tone of an instrument. if you're hoping to come up with the magic formula that will turn any white instrument into a Strad sounding masterpiece simply by varnishing, I'm afraid you're out of luck. In an age where superstition is almost universally mocked I find it laughable how many voice this view. However, varnish does effect the sound,so let's look at the properties of varnish and how they effect the wood, and its resonance to see what really happens when you varnish an instrument.

Probably the biggest difference between spirit varnish and oil varnish is the speed that they dry. Spirit varnish dries much faster than oil varnish (which is why it is often preferred for touch up as multiple coats can be applied quickly to achieve color, thickness,etc.) Within bounds, the longer a varnish takes to dry the deeper it soaks into the wood. Based on these factors I will say that oil effects the tone more than spirit. However this can take many years so you may never get to hear it in your lifetime. Sorry. All of this is changed by the ground. Over the years many different methods have been employed for pre-sealing the wood which of course probably changes and diminishes the effect of the varnish itself while having quite a lot more to do with the tone. Most Italian makers in the old days and good luthiers today allow the sun to "tan" the wood before varnishing which certainly has an effect on the look as well as the tone of an instrument. Stradivari most certainly used a ground which was very hard and of an orange tint (which enhances the flame in the wood), and a varnish on top that was soft and beautiful. (many of his instruments retain only a small portion of this original top coat)

Going back to your white violin. I would say that it is nearly certain that it is not made by an experienced Luther and therefore the graduation is nearly a third thicker in most places than a good instrument and so the varnish can't possibly help or do much to the sound anyway. Even if the varnish soaks in before it hardens the proportion to the full thickness is so small I think you would have a hard time telling the difference.

In conclusion: If your simply varnishing white instruments to sell, make them pretty and don't worry about your varnish changing the sound. That is much more a result of other things over which you have no control. If you want to make beautiful sounding instruments get ready for a lifetime of discovery, disappointment, and patience. Or you could just buy one from me. :-)

April 20, 2014 at 10:20 PM · From a visual standpoint, I used to think that, all other things being equal (again that phrase!), an oil varnish would be warmer and more pliant looking. I used to compare an oil varnish to an oil painting and a spirit varnish to an acrylic painting, and felt that oil varnish was somehow a bit "classier". But I've since seen too many really beautiful contemporary violins that I know to be spirit varnished (-the maker said so-) that I had to abandon that theory.

April 22, 2014 at 10:45 AM · I'm in the position to comment because I bought a few violins from new with different varnishes.

(1) Propolis + Sandarac with alcohol solvent (a Sacconi recipe I think) with silicate primer.

(2) 2 by 2 different makers are varnished with an oil/spirit mix, but one with and the other without silicate primer.

(3) One with an OIL varnish, silicate primer.

All these play well, in different ways.

(1) and (3) are slightly more "veiled" in tone than the others. However, "all things being equal" doesn't quite apply as wood and construction differ.

I expect you realise already that much of the surface layer of many great classic oil-varnished fiddles has disappeared as a result of time and use - indeed it's been facetiously observed that many Strads and such didn't even BEGIN sounding well until most of the varnish was worn off !!

April 22, 2014 at 02:27 PM · From my limited comparison, pure shellac spirit varnish or spirit that is mostly shellac or seedlac is very bright with often a hard edgy quality to the high harmonics, not particularly warm in the midrange, even a Stradivari heavily french polished can suffer from this hard edgy high end.

The good oil varnish I have used acts slightly as a filter and cut the extreme high harmonics so it is not as bright in upper harmonics, however it seems to make the midrange warmer and fuller in tone.

These are the two extremes, tonally and many if not most varnishes lie somewhere inbetween, in not being mostly shellac, or pure oil varnish.

Also the thicker the coats of varnish the greater the tonal effects, or defects.

April 22, 2014 at 09:44 PM · "All other things being equal (same white violin), what effect does a spirit varnish have on tone versus an oil varnish. I've heard that an spirit varnish makes for a "brighter" tone while an oil varnish makes for a "mellower" tone. Is this true?"


Very hard to say. Most generalizations about spirit and oil varnishes should really be thrown out the window. One can make a way-too-soft shellac-based varnish, and also a way-too-hard oil varnish.

Over a period of many years, I've used both, and I doubt that anything other than chemical analysis could tell them apart.

April 23, 2014 at 12:03 AM · How about this..... one with spirit varnish will sound more spirited, one with oil more oily?!

April 23, 2014 at 04:49 PM · I wasn't referring to all spirit or all oil varnishes, just shellac varnishes, where shellac is the only or predominate ingredient vs oil varnishes made from rosin and linseed oil.

A lot of spirit varnishes contain oil, and a lot of oil vanishes contain ingredients that are really hard like shellac. So no generalizations, OK??

June 16, 2016 at 04:40 AM · Looking at some beautiful photos of violins on the net today I thought I'd re-visit this subject from this angle:

My understanding is that most violin scholars and historians have assumed that Strad used an oil varnish and that there is a letter extant from Strad to a client, apologizing for the delay in delivery of an instrument on account of the time needed for the varnish to dry. Yet I've also come across speculation (including, supposedly, Renee Morel) that Strad actually used spirit varnish or that he interleaved oil and spirit coatings.

Any thoughts?

June 16, 2016 at 04:55 AM · We know know from chemical analysis of Strads and other Italian varnishes of that era that they used a mixture of tree resins(I think conifers) and linseed oil and no seedlac (from what we make shellac spirit varnishes) since these ingredients are traditionally dissolved in turpentine, we can be pretty sure Strad used an oil varnish.

June 16, 2016 at 09:02 AM · How do you tell which varnish has been used on a violin? Is it possible just by looking at the instrument?

June 16, 2016 at 09:10 AM · Shellac based spirit varnish tends to be very very shiny, softer more flexible oil varnish has a bit more satin finish, and usually can't be polished to as much shine as a shellac varnish can, but all these aspects can be manipulated by how one polishes the varnish so it can be hard to know for sure on many varnishes.

June 16, 2016 at 09:36 AM · In other words when you see the super shiny finish, it almost has to be shellac based spirit varnish, but even this varnish can be made to have a more satin finish like oil varnish with the right polishing compounds.

June 16, 2016 at 09:38 AM · I read somewhere that holding a Strad by the body leaves an imprint - which disappears in a few hours. If the varnish is still so soft, I imagine it is oil varnish.

June 16, 2016 at 10:56 AM · Thanks Lyndon and Adrian. Looking at the shine, I guess my fiddle has spirit varnish and it does tend to have the higher harmonics along with a powerful sound on the A,D,G.

June 16, 2016 at 12:13 PM · Adrian, the imprint thing may have been true at some point in the past (like during the Hill or Sacconi eras), but I have not experienced it (on original and unadulterated Strad varnish) during my own career. So maybe it has continued to harden.

Regarding spirit versus oil varnish:

There is no consistently reliable way to tell the difference by appearance, or by many other varnish properties. For instance, I can make a shellac-based spirit varnish which is very soft, even so soft that it never "dries", or an oil varnish which is very hard and brittle. Or vice versa. And I can get any desired degree of gloss, or lack of gloss, with either one.

June 16, 2016 at 12:21 PM · OK!

June 16, 2016 at 02:02 PM · Adrian - you were right. - well it was over 50 years ago, but in 1963 I held in my hands and played for a few minutes one the former OlĂ© Bull Stradivarius violins and the varnish did retain fingerprint impression for a while.

In fact that was one of the factors in the owner's lecture about the violin's finish. He was a visiting lecture for the American Chemical Society and an employee of the Dow Chemical Company (or maybe Dupont) and a specialist in "finishes." He traveled that "lecture circuit" with his Strad, that was then insured for $150,000. I made a point of sitting next to him during dinner and being very friendly so I'd get a chance to play it. The lecturer had been collecting violins all his life - getting more and more of them - and then selling the off to buy an upgrade - and so on until he could afford the "prize" I got to see and play on that night.

He talked about a surface finish that was then about 250 years old and yet retained such freshness that it would take a finger impression and then gradually relax and the distortion would disappear. I don't really remember anything else about his talk (why would I) remembering what it was like to play that violin was enough!


June 16, 2016 at 05:48 PM · Wow, to be able to hold and play a Strad....

June 16, 2016 at 08:50 PM · I've held and played about 10 or more Strads over the years. Of course it was exciting, but tonally, none gave me sleepless nights. Probably the best one for me - at least at the time - was the first in the early '80's. But it was actually a composite with only the top by Strad and the rest by one of the Gaglianos. I called it a "Stradiano"!

June 17, 2016 at 03:49 PM · My luthier taught me to NEVER touch the body of my violin with my hands and my teacher, who owned violins from many famous old makers, agreed. I recently read (I think in "The Glory of the Violin" that compounds in the oil on your skin can make chemical changes to the varnish.

June 17, 2016 at 05:33 PM · I've seen troubles on many violins with spirit varnish get imprints from cases when they sit inside the case for prolong period (weeks), in where I live, with high humidity and heat generally throughout the year. They're made by various famous contemporary Italian makers, as well as some from Chinese workshops.

Oil varnish, in general, seems to hold up much much better. I have two violins, one with spirit varnish, the other with oil varnish. Both are fine instruments, and the one with spirit varnish did this case imprint thing. Needless to say it annoyed me to some extent, and seems no way to avoid it other than playing them often or leave it in a display cabinet than in the case.

June 18, 2016 at 04:25 PM ·

June 18, 2016 at 04:25 PM · If oil varnish is so soft you can impress a fingerprint in it, then the varnish isn't fully dried. A long drying time is the calling card of the linseed oil used in many varnish recipes throughout the history of the violin. Linseed oil is called a "non-drying" oil because it polymerizes over time, as opposed to walnut oil that actually does dry. Soft varnishes have a damping effect on the violin's upper frequencies. This is not an accusation, but rather an observation. Some like the effect, and some don't.

Chemicals and other processes can force linseed oil to dry, and the oil itself can be processed to extract its components for use in other varnish recipes. These are often used in "etheric" oil varnishes that dry as fast as shellac in spirit.

June 18, 2016 at 04:25 PM ·

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