What type of varnish is this?

May 24, 2018, 1:17 AM · My violin and most violins I’ve seen are very glossy in appearance, but my teacher has a violin that does not have this shine. I would call it dull only for lack of a better word. I actually think this looks better than the very shiny varnish because you can see the grain of the spruce better. Since noticing this I think I see Hillary Hahn’s has this type of varnish job as well. Can anyone tell me the technical terms of this type of varnish? Is it considered more sophisticated to have a high shine or not to have it?

Replies (5)

May 24, 2018, 6:44 AM · Do you know how old your teacher's violin is?
May 24, 2018, 7:10 AM · No idea I can ask her next week
Edited: May 24, 2018, 8:50 AM · Chances are that your shiny instrument and others similar you see are varnished with spirit / synthetic base varnish such as that you would find at your local hardware store. This is a very hard and usual (but not necessarily) shiny varnish type. More expensive quality instruments are varnished with a softer more flexible oil-based varnish (usually mixed by the maker). Varnish can significantly affect the sound of an instrument, and some believed is the holy grail of master instruments’ superior sound (but it’s a lot more complex than that actually). The shine is a matter of personal taste, but even the shiny oil-base varnishes have a more subtle natural look than the plastic looking spirit/synthetic base varnishes.
Edited: May 24, 2018, 1:52 PM · Luthiers also make dull instruments shine, and soloists seem to like their Strads shiny: it is not varnish, just some safe methods of polishing. I took a dull instrument in for setup and it came back very shiny. The luthier had not changed the varnish, just polished over it. I told him a new violin he showed me was too shiny. It is not the varnish, just a polish.

As an aside, he told me that Americans are not interested in buying brand new instruments unless they shine, so I supppose he must have experienced trying to sell to one or two Americans who have a taste for a bit more gloss than the varnish provides, just as we in the UK imagine that many Americans (and a few Brits and Europeans, to be fair) like to keep their teeth whiter than God intended!

May 25, 2018, 3:28 AM · The original varnish in undisturbed old instruments is rare to see today. Many classic instruments had their original varnish covered with French polishing, in order to make them shine.

Many contemporary makers' varnishes will not be all that shiny too.

Charles Beare advises against the use of french polishing in old instruments, specially in America (Dartington Conference, 1995):

"It`s not uncommon these days to see fine instruments with layer upon layer of grey/green discolouring French polish built up year after year as part of their regular overhaul, which far exceeds in thickness and hardness the original varnish wcich may still be seen underneath with the aid of a strong light. Most of the Stradivaris and Grarneris in the USA have this - and I once asked a leding American restorer, a good friend from the old Wurlitzer days, why he and his compaions were giving the violins that were enstruted to them this patent leather look, "If I don`t do it, the customer won`t accept the job" was his reply. "They want it to shine all over; if there is a dull spot they bring it back and complain". Surely this is a case for re-educating these customers. I fear there are many in our trade, as well as the customers, who are unaware of the beauty of unpolished Italian varnish, who don`t recognise it when they see it. It`s like fine wine, the taste comes with experience and is none the less valuable for that.


Obviously the purer (the varnish) it is the better, and I would say that French polishing, which is still a habit of one or two of the bigger institutions in the USA has actually almost irretrievably damaged perhaps to a ninor extent a large number of instruments. It is being fought against by many of the younger makers. "

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