How did quickly Strad's varnish wear away?

August 27, 2011 at 08:27 PM ·

 For Strads,  did the wear of varnish we see on the back and scroll, caused by the simple act of taking an instrument in and out of a case, take years or decades to manifest?  

If this soft Cremonese varnish is emulated by modern makers, why isn't this varnish erosion typical?

Also I've read that the varnish on most Strads are almost completely worn away?  Yet I see photos of these instruments looking so shiny!  Have they been re-coated for preservation?

Replies (29)

August 27, 2011 at 11:26 PM ·

Many cases were different then, with the violin being slid in from the bottom, rather than being placed in from the top. Add travel to that, with an instrument banging around in a case, traveling in  a carriage over rough roads.

When you see a shiny Strad, it's been messed with. When you see a shiny and smooth Strad, it's been messed with even more.

August 27, 2011 at 11:42 PM ·

 @ David B.  you call it being "messed with..." this is a bad thing?

August 27, 2011 at 11:55 PM ·

"messed with" = overpolished, French polished, so that all the texture of the varnish is destroyed, resulting in a patent leather shine.

August 28, 2011 at 01:13 AM ·

"David B.  you call it being "messed with..." this is a bad thing?"

Marjory, the largely unused "Messiah" Strad is so different from those which have been heavily played, maintained, worn and repaired for 300 years, that some people have claimed it's a fake. It's interesting to put that violin alongside what may be the second best preserved Strad, the "Lady Blunt", and most of those doubts go out the window.

August 28, 2011 at 02:00 AM ·

 I guess my question really is, since most Strads etc., are played so intensively, could they have survived without a certain amount of being 'messed with'--not French polishing, but restorative and sympathetic 'magic'?

August 28, 2011 at 02:06 AM ·

No, but we can do a better job today than was done in the past.

August 28, 2011 at 04:28 AM ·

 Ah!  Well, given our track record in other areas of living, that's a reassuring statement to ponder!

August 28, 2011 at 11:13 AM ·

 A little more on why we do better today:

Part of this has come from greater knowledge about how to preserve things, and more interaction with specialists in the museum and conservation trade. Another part has come from changes in the way rare instruments are perceived. At one time, they were largely perceived as tools, and both the care and the alteration reflected that. If a Strad didn't sound good because it was too thin, wood might be grafted to the inside to make it more useful to a musician. If heavy use had badly worn the edges, cut everything off from the purfling on out, and replace the edging on the entire top. There is at least one Strad I worked on where there was probably more wood supplied by repairmen than there was original wood, and there are probably many more like this. It's hard to know what all has been done sometimes until they are taken apart for extensive work.

Now, these instruments are thought of more as rare and irreplaceable historical objects and art objects, which is really what they have become, and repair people are more likely to treat them that way. They do the best they can, but the agenda of preservation is still at odds with the way musicians continue to use them. It's hard to come up with many other  multi-million dollar rare antiques which are subjected to the conditions which professional players subject these instruments to.


August 28, 2011 at 01:46 PM ·

To further confuse Jason, it should be remembered that players of the 17th and 18th centuries were most often men with beards who did not use chinrests. Facial hair can be like steel wool, depending on one's genetics, so you would see wear on an old Cremonese instrument where the player's chin rubbed the wood. Today, there is almost no wear in those places unless it's faked . . . oops, I mean, artistically antiqued. Other wear is much as David so accurately describes. What to do about excessive varnish loss on a fine old instrument puts a modern luthier in a quandary because the old varnish recipes have never been exactly duplicated. So you are damned if you do something else and damned if you don't.

August 28, 2011 at 08:51 PM ·

Even if we could exactly duplicate the original varnish I think it is widely agreed that to re-varnish bare areas with such material would be far from ideal.  Preservation standards now require that anything added to the original should be reversible, ideally (though still not universally) without damaging the remaining original material.

August 28, 2011 at 10:46 PM ·

 Could anyone estimate how long it took for the varnish to wear off, from sliding into those old cases, or sweaty beards?!    Did they wear fairly quickly within Strad's lifetime?  Or over the centuries?


August 28, 2011 at 11:15 PM ·

None of us were alive then, but reports from that time indicate that it wore or chipped off rather quickly. Also, if you look at Vuillaume copies from around the 1850s, where he copied wear, these suggest that a lot of wear had occurred in the first 150 years.

I witnessed one rather pristine Strad lose about 30% of it's original varnish during a 30 year period of heavy use.


August 28, 2011 at 11:41 PM ·

 Thanks David.   Though the Cremonese varnish is often cited as an ideal,  modern instruments I have seen have varnish that doesn't appear to erode at all.  Are modern makers able to create varnish that enhances sound, but is now more durable?

Also, is the French polish applied to those shiny strads, absolutely necessary for preservation?  Does this layer affect the instruments resonance?  I saw Kavakos's long Strad looked pretty shiny, but sounded great.

August 30, 2011 at 03:03 PM ·

Old Italian varnish seems to have had two conflicting characteristics. It was both soft and chippy. How fast it wore off would of course be contingent on how much the instrument was played. The interesting observation on worn varnish is that there appears to be another layer underneath, between the varnish and the wood, that was quite hard and durable. It outlasted the varnish by far even in the most vulnerable places, and many feel that it was this coat that saved many violins from ruin. This has led to some interesting research on the properties of the Cremonese ground coat and some evidence that it was actually made from minerals, which would have been quite resistant to wear. The jury is never in on this; research has revealed many differences in ground coats, even by the same maker.

August 30, 2011 at 04:36 PM ·

Should a modern maker use a varnish as soft and fragile as he/she thinks the ancient Cremonese was, the violin is apt to sound stiff and veiled, as Hills described the sound of the Lupot instruments. I have a case stained red inside after housing an instrument (now nearly 20 years old) varnished after a Sacconi recipe using propolis. That violin sounded "veiled" for some years. If I hadn't used a shoulder rest I think the violin would by now have those wear patterns beloved of the French copyists ! I have seen Lucci instruments, for example, where the wear of his soft varnish has been pretty extreme, and it's not difficult to go along with the view that the typical "Strad" wear took place in the first 20 years or so.

[ EDIT:= Why doesn't this wear typicially occur with modern instruments?

So, if a modern maker can put on a soft varnish, it's down to the type of handling. It's said that French makers would distress their instruments using a bunch of keys ! ]

What's hard to comprehend is the idea that those old makers went along to the apothecary and "bought in" a mixture used for furniture, adding their own coloring as they went along. (The grounding seems to have been a separate entity). That procedure can still be adopted today, too. All I can think is that the furniture cannot have lasted long before looking very tatty indeed !!

It's little wonder that there's a fashion for "antique" if it involves scraping most of the varnish off again. Personally, I have always preferred to "do it myself" !

There's a lot to be said for using a harder, more durable varnish. That's what Storioni, Camilli and others seemed to have decided. For one thing, parents of young players are less likely to complain if after a few years the little blighters have not yet trashed the appearance of their fiddle .......

August 30, 2011 at 05:08 PM ·

I remember Charles Beare saying that most of the wear ocurred in the  first 20  years of the instruments.

August 30, 2011 at 08:28 PM ·

Just adding coloring, depending on what and how, to an otherwise durable varnish can make it quite fragile. It can make the varnish brittle or it can interfere with adhesion to the ground coat, which can be the same but uncolored varnish. I know this from experience.

August 30, 2011 at 11:09 PM ·

That fits pretty well with historical observations, as well as recent scientific research. We know a lot more than we did 20 years ago. There may be some big future surprises, but that isn't looking very likely right now. Probably, we can anticipate little more than minor refinements.

August 31, 2011 at 12:13 AM ·

 I'm now puzzled.  I've always heard the varnish helps make the sound.  But that doesn't seem to be the case.  What does a good violin in the white sound like?  Does anyone ever play them? not for 'keeps,' but just to hear?

August 31, 2011 at 12:38 AM ·

Vanish, and wood impregnation, can enhance sound, and also kill it, depending on what is used and how it is applied. Figuring it all out can be fun for a nerd like me.

August 31, 2011 at 04:33 AM ·

A colleague in the Hallé Orchestra, many moons ago, had previously worked for Hills, in London. According to him, violins "in the white" sound wonderful, but then after varnishing, they go right off ! This from a man whose Christmas treat was to be allowed to play the "Alard" 1715 Strad.

During the 19th. century makers were unable to reproduce either the varnish or the sound of the Strad instruments. They then concluded that the one produced the other, downplaying the contribution of wood, construction, and the "wonder working effects of time and use". 

An English maker, Lawrence Cocker, of Derby, tried varnishing with Yacht varnish. The result was, according to him, a sound of great brilliancy. 

I gather that nowadays fashions change periodically in varnishing techniques. One year it's 3 or 4 thick coats, slapped on with a swab. A few years on, it's back to many thin coats. Is there any reason to think that those old masters didn't chop and change too ? I suspect that making up a varnish must have been like cooking a student curry - put in whatever is to hand. Any final result would be dependent on what hadn't run out in the maker's spice-rack of colored ingredients. Some of those ingredients can make a varnish chippy, I understand.

It's usually at this juncture that Luis Claudio Manfio reminds us that things would be so much better if the market allowed fiddles to be finished with a simple uncolored varnish. Why luthiers adopted the habit of putting on all that soft and all-too-destructible gunge we shall never know. No need for fly-paper if you own a new Strad. What a pity you have to wear off 90% of the stuff before your violin sounds really well.

August 31, 2011 at 02:49 PM ·

Some years ago, I worked up a very nice varnish that looked stunning when the light hit it. The formula was very soft, though, and within a year I was doing some pretty serious retouching on instruments I had sold. As time went by, the calls for retouching became fewer and fewer as the varnish hardened. From a lot of further research, I learned that all varnishes become hard over time; it's only in the first decade or so that all the softer ingredients have much of an effect. I think we got too close to the forest to see the leaves, so to speak.

August 31, 2011 at 04:21 PM ·

Thanks for all the fascinating responses.  

For the Strads with most of the varnish worn away, or even the modern instruments "antiqued" by stressing this soft varnish, is a protective layer of French polish then applied?  Is their any mystery ingredients debated about French polish?   

Looking at Strads on the videos of Joshua Bell and Leonid Kavakos, they look shiny and gleaming!


August 31, 2011 at 04:33 PM ·

 Robert and David Burgess, thank you for the insights.  Personally, I would LOVE a violin (or viola) with just a transparent coat of protector on it.  I think it would be stunningly beautiful because the wood itself is always so lovely.  What a trademark for a fine maker--to break away from the pack and do something integral and intelligent for musical and physical reasons!

August 31, 2011 at 07:32 PM ·

Then they would start to look like guitars. Can't have that!  It would be bad. Very bad.  ;-)

August 31, 2011 at 08:47 PM ·

David is right, of course. I did that to one of my early ones, (which I loaned out and recently discovered was sold by the borrower), intending to add colored varnish but never got around to it. Recently I did two more at the request of a customer, but I cheated a little and darkened part of it slightly to even out the appearance of the spruce and maple.

August 31, 2011 at 10:33 PM ·

 ...and after I posted, a violin-maker friend of mine said that 'blond' violins would stick out too much.  Also that most makers use the coloring to hide (small) imperfections in the instruments.  Since one of my instruments shows up on camera as fire-engine orange, I feel I already stick out, and I don't admit there are imperfections ;^)

September 1, 2011 at 12:18 AM ·

For tone reasons, a thin uncoloured shellac coat would be the best thing, but players would frown upon the instrument, even if they sounded great.

By the way, I love this part of HILL`S book on Stradivari:

"If players would be content with instruments treated with colourless varnish, the difficulty of producing fine tone would be very greatly dimisnished, as the addition of many and various injurious colouring substances, or the artificial staining of the wood (at sometimes accoplished by the use of acids) in order to please the eye, in the one case mars what would be a varnish favourable for tone, and in the other adversely affects the material from which the instrument is made. In fact, tone is, and has been, though often unintentionally, sacrified by many through seeking to gratify the taste for mere outward appearence. The great influence of time is not suffiently taken in account when the ordinary observer compares the newly varnished work with the old. As well try to change quickly new wine into old as try to obtain in a short time the richly matured and soft-toned appearence wich age alone can impart to perfectly varnished violins.

Could we have seen the most brilliant works of Italian violin-makers fresh form their hands, we should have been not a little surprised by their bright and unsubdued aspect; nay, in many instances, notably with regard to some of the violins of Joseph Guarnerius, we would have been struck by their positively crude appearance. The conditions for ultimately ensureing a fine appearance were certainly there; but to the wonder-working effects of time and use, and to these alone, we unhesitatingly attibute all that charms us now. That the more ambitious of modern makers should have sought to rival the productions of the old masters in external appearance is readily conceivable - however injudicious at times their procedure - when we bear in mind the popular demand for athing of beauty. An ugly or even plain instrument, though excellent in tone, is again and again rejected. Many may view this statement with incredulity; it is nevertheless strictly true, and the statement is the outcome of innumerable experiences
." (see the chapter on varnish).

September 1, 2011 at 05:25 AM ·

 Bravo, Luis Claudio Manfio. Right on cue.

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