Strangleld older violin needs help- can a fat coat of NEW varnish be removed?

November 26, 2010 at 06:19 PM ·

...strangled... I just bought a 1935 violin off Craigslist that was repaired in 2004. A new coat of varnish or lacquer was applied over the belly and the repaired crack, in an overly generous manner. I curse the guy who did it!  The varnish/lacquer seems especially thick at the base of the curves along the purfling. I can see a place where some pooled and evidence of 2 drips that were sanded down on the ribs. The bridge is one of those fat Aubert things with pivoting legs.

This morning I set the sound post and bridge- in a totally ignorant fashion.  If I had sanding supplies, I would have sanded the bridge down to a fraction of itself, but alas, my sandpaper is 70 miles away.

The instrument sounds like my 1907 instrument, by the same maker, with a bad head cold.  I know having someone put on a custom fit real bridge and setting the sound post will make a real difference in the sound, but --

The instrument hasn't been played since the 'repair' was done.  Might it improve with playing?

Can removing a thick coat of varnish clean up tone?   If so, what type of solvents would I try? Where would I find them?  Or, is this a job for a luthier?  I need to find me one...

Replies (41)

November 26, 2010 at 09:49 PM ·

i borrowed some sand paper and sanded down fat albert (Aubert).  It made a difference!  Do y'all think a good luthier could double or triple the improvement I made?  Then I might not have to mess with the varnish. 

November 27, 2010 at 02:38 PM ·

Any varnish can be removed.  This would not be a job for anyone except an experienced and skillful luthier, however.  Bridges are carved and filed (not sanded) to their optimal shape and dimensions.  Sound post fit and position is critical for optimal violin sound and this job also requires skill and expertise.  So I think you can see that my bias is against amateur set up and repair work, however well intentioned.  The bottom line here would be whether the (significant) expense entailed in professional setup and restoration is something you're willing to bear.

November 27, 2010 at 04:36 PM ·

Thanks, guys.   I am 150 miles away from The Luthier.  The instrument will get there, when I can take an afternoon off during their business hours. In the mean time, how can one NOT attempt to remedy a dirt-cheap, fat bridge? How can one NOT stand up a post, and PLAY a newly acquired instrument after the lustful anticipation?  :-)

The cost-benefit ratio will be interesting to work out. If new varnish cuts value in 1/2, and a belly crack cuts value in 1/2, a professional set-up and repair cuts profit in 1/2, well, someone will get a nice sounding instrument by a quality American maker at a REALLY good price. 

And, in the mean time, I learned more about my own violin, bridges, string spacing, etc.

p.s.  i returned the sandpaper, so yes, it was borrowed!  ;-)


November 27, 2010 at 05:14 PM ·

 Sounds like you are hell-bent on ruining the violin yourself. What was your question again?

November 27, 2010 at 06:01 PM ·

In your situation I would be patient and wait to have everything done the right way.  Only someone who is experienced with making violins or restoring them will know how to reduce the thickness of the varnish.  They probably won't use solvents, they will likely buff it down, polish it thinner.  Its difficult to tell what your looking at with varnish.  How many layers are there, are they different colors?  This is why varnishing is the top job in a violin shop.  Sometimes only the master of the shop varnished the instruments. 

As far as messing around with the bridge and soundpost yourself  I would also wait, you probably won't do anything unrepairable to the instrument, but why waste time doing it wrong yourself.  You could drive 150 miles to your nearest luthier in less time then it would take doing it yourself.

November 27, 2010 at 06:21 PM ·

I'm having a violin mailed to me that I bought on EBay from about 120 miles away, measured as a straight line, but the way Florida is, the path by Interstate level roads makes it about twice as far. It's slightly less than $9.

If you sent it off to your luthier, it would be out of sight, out of mind and you would not be so agonized over it and less tempted to start something on it. Email the person and warn him it's coming and describe the problem. Save insuring it 'till after it's repaired and you have more into it to make it worthwhile.

Edit for correction: it was more like 3 times, not twice. It went 170 miles in the opposite direction first.

November 27, 2010 at 06:51 PM ·

John- yes, a catch 22- your comment made me smile.  I won't mess with the varnish if other adjustments make me feel satisfied that we're geting good (or great) tone from this instrument. 

wow, Scott--  that felt like a pretty good insult--  unprofessional and uncalled for.  Reread my post without emotion.  I put out the question to get helpful advice.

Yes, I thinned and reshaped a $5.00 bridge for better sound transmission and to better match the fingerboard arch. I stood up the sound post.  Now I can play it.  Altering the bridge helped tremendously!  It gave me better insight as to the tone hidden in this violin and made me less inclined to want to do anything drastic to the varnish.

My car is in the shop in the midst of $1000 repairs.  I am in a training program that requires my presence about 36 hours a week- during business hours. There are closer places I could take it, but they aren't The Luthier.  So, I will get it to The Luthier when I get the opportunity. I will have them do a professional set-up.

Paul-  I think the new varnish is a clear coat, but I'm not positive. I could scrape one of the splats off the side of the fingerboard to check. ;-)    Buffing it down?  That sounds like far better solution than a solvent IF thick, new varnish is a problem.  Is it a problem?  That gets back to the original question- could the new top coat be muffling sound?  could removing it clear up the tone?



November 27, 2010 at 09:29 PM ·

Be careful with anything you do to your instrument if you're unskilled.  Setting the soundpost seems simple but it's a delicate job and even professionals (albeit not very good ones...) have scratched the f-holes on my friends' instruments. 

The only repair work I ever do on my violin are: straightening the bridge, changing the strings, tightening the fine tuner, tightening the chinrest in winter and loosening it in summer. I suppose I once put on a tail-gut temporarily because I needed the violin THAT DAY and the thing had popped on me....Otherwise find a good shop (talk to violinists in your area, often there is a person who drives through the town regularly or works out of their home who does good work)

November 27, 2010 at 09:52 PM ·

A luthier could positively id what's on the violin- whether it's varnish or lacquer, and what type it is- which is important to remove it properly.  If you're determined to do something anyway, you could try rubbing it out with a microfiber cloth (dry or dipped in a little hot water, but no other solvents). If it works, it might take several cloths to do the job (change surface often).  Test first on an inconspicuous place, and assume all risk of fooling with the violin based on dumb advice on the internet!!  The luthier really is the answer...

November 27, 2010 at 11:36 PM ·

Could you post some photos of the violin here?

November 28, 2010 at 12:41 AM ·

Manfio-  I cannot post pictures today/night- no camera here.  I fear that my little camera may not get pictures to show what you'll be looking for.  What do you want to see? The puddle over the purfling? The splats on the side of the fingerboard? The ridge of varnish over the crack?  The beauty of the f-holes?  (my maker makes sleek f-holes!)

There are loads of clues that this is a recent top coat. (they couldn't get  under the fingerboard, either). It might be colored-- as i examine one of the splats on the side of the fingerboard, there does seem to be some color on the very bottom edge.

and the question remains unanswered...   ;-)   ...   can a top coat of varnish/shellac muffle the tone? If so, can removing it clean up the voice?


November 28, 2010 at 10:44 PM ·

This morning I set the sound post and bridge- in a totally ignorant fashion.  If I had sanding supplies, I would have sanded the bridge down to a fraction of itself, but alas, my sandpaper is 70 miles away."

Helen, when I said you were determined to ruin it yourself, I was basing that on your own words and actions. You're asking for advice even when you've gone ahead and attempted to work on the violin yourself, something which I would never advise. If you have to ask, you shouldn't be doing it. But then you seem to already be aware of that.

November 30, 2010 at 01:05 AM ·

John-  I scraped one of the splats on the fingerboard. (I left the other for The Luthier).  It peeled up in tiny little orangish-brown pieces.  It did not appear powdery white.  What does that mean?

Manfio-  I posted a few pictures into an album that should allow public access: 


EDIT:  link deleted for privacy reasons


December 1, 2010 at 05:56 AM ·

thanks, John-  so if it isn't spirit varnish, does that make it oil varnish? I do need to get this instrument up to The Luthier.  I want answer, so very badly!!!

This is neither a factory nor a workshop violin.   It is by a well-respected and honored American maker-- Knute Reindahl.  He won prizes in Paris for his violins and had over 40 years of violin building experience when he built this instrument.  It is either the last or the second to last violin he built.   I found it by a stroke of luck.  I hope I can get it up to the tonal quality of my instrument, but  I fear I might spend the money and have it not sound as nice as my 1907.

December 1, 2010 at 12:40 PM ·

Helen, a friend of mine has a Knute Reindahl violin.  Her grandfather was a taylor.  He wanted to learn to play the violin and contacted Reindahl.  He couldn't afford to purchase the violin so he and Reindahl worked out a deal where the grandfather made a suite of clothes in exchange for the violin.  All of this is documented.  The family still has the letters between the two of them describing the violin and describing the clothing that was to be made.

When the grandfather died, the violin was left to his son.  No one in that generation played the violin so it was put in the attic.  The next generation did not play either, until Lynn, now in her 50's was encouraged to learn by her husband.  Lynn's mother told her about the violin and called Lynn's uncle asking after it.  He immediately shipped it to Lynn, original bow, case, documentation and all.  Lynn had it cleaned and set up and now plays it every day.  It has a beautiful sound.  I've had the pleasure of playing it myself.  It is an odd color, sort of grayish gold with lots of flaming.  Very pretty.  Lynn was at a music camp last summer.  The instructor went down the line, playing each violin as he came to it.  Lynn said he played each one briefly and commented nicely on each one.  Then has played Lynn's - and kept playing.  He said this violin was VERY nice.

Lynn and her husband are the people who encouraged my husband and I to learn to play.  

December 1, 2010 at 02:48 PM ·

Edited per John's edits.

December 1, 2010 at 04:32 PM ·

This is a very strange thread.

December 2, 2010 at 12:10 AM ·

I think it will be self-explanatory if anyone goes back to your last five posts. Perhaps some will recall your numerous posts in other threads as well.

Many of us professional makers and restorers feel a certain duty to educate, and to put out highly accurate information about our business and our craft. There have been several such posts from other makers in this thread already. Considerable time has been invested, here and elsewhere.

Sorry if some of this has sounded rude, but given our efforts, it can seem like an affront when a single prolific poster repeatedly corrupts these efforts.

Selecting just one example of incorrect information:

"If it was damaged by a drop the bit outside the purfling would be intact."

Simply not true. Damage from a drop often goes completely to the outside edge; both edges, in this example:


To show what good repair can look like, here's a closeup of the broken area after the repair. This work was done by Jeffrey Holmes, who posts here.


Here's another "before and after" of damage which is probably due to being dropped, and it has also been mucked up by multiple previous repair attempts. This latest repair was done by Jerry Pasewicz, who also posts here.


December 2, 2010 at 04:43 PM ·

Edited per John's edits.

December 2, 2010 at 05:33 PM ·

Just as an aside, David -- those photos have almost creeped me out.  They are fantastic-looking.  I wouldn't have imagined that any repair could look so invisible.

December 2, 2010 at 10:05 PM ·

I'm with Janis.  That is some AMAZING work!

December 2, 2010 at 11:45 PM ·

Janis and Susan, I'll pass that along to Jerry and Jeffrey. Both have made some huge sacrifices, and spent some time in the trenches to get where they are.

December 3, 2010 at 12:10 AM ·

It shows in their work.  My husband is a woodworker.  I know how difficult it is to get a repair to disappear. 

December 3, 2010 at 04:12 AM ·

That explains it David.

I saw two guys that looked like Jerry and Jeffrey ( and we both know nobody looks quite like Jerry and Jeffrey) standing down at a crossroads in Mississippi apparently waiting for someone to show up. Coincidence? I don't think so..

December 3, 2010 at 04:15 AM ·

So, can varnish removal (and crack repair)  clean up tone?

December 3, 2010 at 11:54 AM ·

Ha, Helen wants to get back to her question. LOL

Yes, there may be potential for that. It's hard to tell exactly what's going on from the pictures. The first thing I'd check is whether the cracks have actually been glued or repaired. From the appearance of the overcoat of varnish, it may have been applied over open cracks. These cracks could be considered "open", even if they have cleats reinforcing them on the inside, and even if they are filled or bridged with varnish. The wood-to-wood continuity will have been lost, and that can be a source of tonal problems. If what's been done wasn't immediately evident with in-person visual examination, probably the next thing I'd try is putting a strong light source on one side of the crack or the other, and seeing how much light comes through compared to the surrounding area.

Whatever has been done, the cracks weren't properly repaired. If varnish has gone into them, or if they've been filled with something like epoxy (perhaps that's some of the buildup showing on the surface near the crack?), proper repair would be a nightmare, and very expensive.

I've mentioned the cracks first, because determining their status, and probably repairing them properly, would typically precede removing the overcoat of varnish. What you're trying to avoid is contaminating the cracks any more than they already are.

Strictly sound-wise, it could be possible that the instrument will sound decent with a proper setup and sound adjustment, and without messing with the varnish, if most things about it are within fairly normal parameters, and there aren't any big surprises, like a bass bar which is in the wrong place. An instrument with the potential to sound decent can certainly fail to show that if the setup isn't right for that specific instrument.

But I've said much more than I really should (I originally wasn't going to say anything about the instrument, but now I'm feeling a little guilty about having sidetracked your thread so much), and you'll notice that the other people in my business (Marples, Manfio, Meyer)  haven't said very much. They've done a better job than I have at this. There's not a great deal to say, because there's too much information missing without in-person examination, and even with that, some experimentation may be required to figure out where things stand.

See, with this long-winded post, I haven't really brought you any closer to a solution than Marples did near the beginning of this thread, when he advised taking the violin to someone who knows what they're doing. But maybe now you understand better why he said that, and why a lot of us are reluctant to diagnose over the internet. We don't always respond in the way that someone might anticipate, but sometimes in a way that we think will do the most good, or the least harm. Sometimes clicking on a posters name, to see the bio info, is helpful at sorting things out.

Oh, a wild guess would be that the top was not made of adequately seasoned and stable wood originally, since the top appears to have shrunk quite a bit more than the purfling. This probably isn't from seasonal fluctuations or temporary dryness, because such cracks tend to come back together more (less gap remaining) when the wood rehydrates. There are some other clues to this as well.



December 3, 2010 at 02:21 PM ·

Helen, does your 1935 Reindahl include a complete date on the label? Is it branded? I 'm curious because reportedly he stopped making in 1934, so yours may be his last known work.

December 4, 2010 at 04:35 AM ·

David- thank you for your input.  i was amazed at the repair pictures you posted.  wow.  i realized the clean wood on a cut surface probably aided the repair, but I had not considered the inverse  problems involved with removing any glue or, heavens forbid, epoxy in the middle of the poorly repaird crack on this 1935 instrument. 

I've gone back and forth in my mind over how much I want to $ink into this instrument.  At first, it wasn't much.  After shaving down the bridge and hearing the difference that made, I started revising my thoughts and had great expectations.  Now, I may have been brought back to reality by your post, but I thank you, anyway.  :-)

Y Cheung- I am very familiar with all the info posted on the Reindahl Registry website and have been informed that there are a few errors that need correcting. I was in touch with Ron, the biographer, as soon as I saw the instrument for sale.  Ron has info about three violins from 1935.  He is convinced the instrument was made by Knute and has told me that mine might be the last one completed, although there may have been one he was working on after mine.  Knute died six months after completing my instrument. 

I went to a concert tonight, and half-way through, it dawned on me that someone in the orchestra would probably be going up to The Luthier.  Sure enough, the concertmaster is headed there, tomorrow, with my instrument-- weather permitting. I hope they stay safe-- it is a very snowy night to travel.

Thanks, all, for your contributions!


December 5, 2010 at 06:41 PM ·

John, saying things like "that doesn't include me..." etc., can overly personalize things and hinder one's growth.  Most of the modern luthiers who are very well-regarded have put a lot of time and effort into learning the craft, and they are remarkably willing to share what they've learned with each other and the public.  They don't have to do this, and  we wouldn't have such great modern violins today if they didn't.   I'd bet that if you put the same effort into learning the field that they have, pay your dues, in effect, you'd be accorded the same respect and be welcome to share as well.

December 6, 2010 at 04:39 AM ·

It's the friggin' internet.

December 31, 2010 at 04:49 PM ·

Well, the top came off and there were.... drum roll..... more surprises-  go figure.

Read  The Last Violin:

See pictures at:

It seems crazy to advocate stripping and refinishing an antique.  But this might be the time to do it.  ? 

Are there times when stripping and refinishing (in the style of the master) is the right thing to do for the instrument?

December 31, 2010 at 06:11 PM ·


Thank you for the tour through your process. I enjoyed it, although I admit I did get lost a couple times on the detours.

January 1, 2011 at 05:06 AM ·

Photos 16 and 17 are interesting to say the least.

Are those varnish drips? From where? Through cracks in the joins? What about all the cracks in what appears to be soft low-tide muck along the linings? And the gap on the bass side of the neck block/ rib join?  Fugly.

And the hand-written note makes it clear that this fiddle is only partly Knute's. It wasn't finished and "in the white" When Olav got it. It was carved by Knute--but maybe not even completely.

What does your repairer say about the linings and those cracks? Is it put together with hide glue or something else?

That crack in the top plate is terrible. I vote you strip the varnish. Just be sure it all makes sense financially.

The funny thing about this fiddle is that it is the sort of thing that a good repairer might have turned a profit on--if it had an achievable market value in the $10k to $15k range. Pretty tough going if it is more like $5k. Varnishing takes some serious time if it is done right.....

Maybe just re-varnish the top.

What does your repairer quote for a top re-varnish, full restoration of the top plate, repair of dodgy linings and re-assembly? $3000? I am guessing...

January 1, 2011 at 02:17 PM ·

I agree with Bill.  I would strip the varnish.  The question I would ask myself is if Reindhal would have wanted the violin finished this way.  I can't imagine.  I would take it down to the gold bottom layer and work from there.  I can't imagine it would hurt the value to strip it when this current poor finish will hurt the sound quality.  

January 1, 2011 at 03:59 PM ·

photos 16 & 17 make me, once again, want to strangle that repairman!  How can someone possibly put that much "clear coat" onto a curved surface to leak that far into the violin?   My only guess is that he was trying to seal cracks with varnish.  (?)  good grief! 

Bill- what I know of Reindahl instruments, based on an auction sale and an insurance appraisal,  is that some have a value in the 10-$15,000 range.  Your estimate for top-notch shop restoration is pretty darn close.  We're still trying to judge if anything other than the varnish is not Knute's work.  Right now, the varnish and inscription are the only things that don't scream "made by Knute", but because of those things, I suspect the market value is closer to the restoration price than the top value price.  

As to the financially viable of this project- well, top-notch restoration estimates make it look more like an effort of love than a financially sound investment.  And, they  don't need my business and haven't worked for it.  So that leaves me with less well known folks with less well known skills- but ya know what?  His work may be published in a book!  It also helps that I didn't  pay much up-front for this "Craigslist special".

January 1, 2011 at 04:14 PM ·

Roland- thanks for the feedback.  Ya never know what you'll learn here on :-) I enjoy sharing, it helps me analyze my thought processes.  AND- The detours were educational!  I am simply amazed by those repair pictures, but now I will never be 100% satisfied with anything less than "invisible".  wow.  

Susan- now that we see more and understand more about the lack of repairs, I think you're right- to do justice to Knute's work,  the instrument probably should be repaired, stripped, and refinished in a style like the Old Master would have done.  stay tuned...

May 23, 2011 at 01:57 AM ·

The verdict is in.  The answer is YES!

She sounds FANTASTIC!

May 23, 2011 at 03:30 AM ·

Congrats Helen.  Maybe we will get a you tube recording one day?

May 24, 2011 at 12:51 AM ·

"I suffered enough in the early stages of this topic .I even had a spontaneous  e mail asking why I was being attacked . Can you imagine such a thing?"

John, you were attacked because you can come across as being someone who is knowledgeable in the violin trade, while giving really poor advice. If  some of your content is refuted, it may not serve your agenda in posting, and you may not understand it, but the goal is the greater good of the violin community.

May 25, 2011 at 05:13 PM ·

Oh John, you make me chuckle.  You enjoy stirring the pot, eh?  :-)  How 'bout you start a new thread with that one.  lol

Perhaps they'll rub a mineral rich ground layer into it before the varnish?

May 27, 2011 at 02:13 PM ·


..... You are a cad....


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