Cost of varnish touchup?

Edited: September 21, 2018, 8:43 PM · What would a varnish touchup cost for about 2 square inches? The wood isn't damaged, I'm pretty sure it's just the shiny varnish that's come off.

I realise this will vary based on location, I'm just looking to see what the ballpark is. This is a professional luthier with a good reputation in my city.

The damage wasn't my fault - no lectures please! :)

Replies (40)

September 22, 2018, 12:34 AM · For a real professional you're probably looking at roughly $200.
September 22, 2018, 1:15 AM · But that would be someone able to make it not evident that it was touched up at all, more visible retouching could be had much cheaper
September 22, 2018, 5:01 AM · A top-quality job could also be a lot more.
September 22, 2018, 8:20 AM · Gemma,

None of us Vcomers lecture or criticize do we?

My hand wears the varnish on a small spot on the C bout near the neck which I should probably have taken care of but it is so easy to keep saying maybe next month...

September 22, 2018, 9:19 AM · I received an email ad for this 82-year old violin yesterday:

Note the wear areas on the upper bout, and the two areas on the lower bout. These are typical of instruments that are played (left had wear on the upper bout, chinrest and sweat wear on the left and right lower bouts respectively). I think of them as "badges of courage," instruments that have "made it through the wars." They may also be visible on some brand new antiqued violins to cheat a few years.

In 1951, when I was 17 my father bought a new violin for me to play. We visited the maker who had 5 brand new, identical appearing, antiqued Strad copies. I chose the one whose sound I liked best. It was clear the maker had not only colored the "badge of courage" areas a little lighter, but he had also apparently varnished them a little thinner too as I realized 20 years later when the violin had become an even better replica of a 250 year old instrument, since those areas were then closer to bare wood.

I still have that violin and that visible wear has a lot of meaning to me for the memory of my father who bought the violin when I was 17, and gifted it to me on my 18th birthday - making a special trip to give it to me at college - he died 2 years later - and for the 65 years of musical enjoyment it has given me, and continues to, to this day.

Edited: September 22, 2018, 9:09 PM · Thanks everyone, that gives me a decent idea of what I'm looking at. I certainly hope it's not more than $200! Would it be rude to ask for a price estimate before the luthier starts working on it?

Andrew, I also appreciate the look of an old violin. Mine has several marks and color variations which are part of its charm and reminders of its history with previous owners. However, in this particular area, the wood is actually exposed to the elements beyond what I'm comfortable with. I don't own the violin (a family member does) so I feel the best thing to do is repair the damage.

September 22, 2018, 10:17 PM · Don't even consider leaving it without an estimate of the cost!! And without knowing how good a job they're going to do.
September 22, 2018, 10:47 PM · This is a topic that I am loath to dredge up but is humorous in a gross way.I was practising in the basement last April for a difficult Masterseries concert and I had a big sneeze as I was practising.After the rather "wet" sneeze I just kept on slogging through the piece and didnt notice that I expelled a rather big lump of , umm how shall we say mucus pile right on the left upper bout of my 1925 Garimberti.I didn't notice the result of my sneeze for about a half an hour.By then it had eaten into the clear varnish layers and I was at a loss as to what to do.I had Tim Bergen thoroughly clean the entire instrument in May and it cost an extra $50.00 to clean the "problem area" on the Garimberti.I was too embarrased to tell tell him how it happened.
Edited: September 22, 2018, 10:53 PM · Next time tell him how it happened, it will probably make it easier for him to figure out how to clean it. Keeping stuff from your luthier is like keeping stuff from your doctor. Bad idea.
September 22, 2018, 11:01 PM · There will not be a next time Paul....Tim must use a pretty powerful cleaner that moves the varnish around.I will be more aware in the future during allergy season and take necessary precautions.The violin looks fine BTW...
September 23, 2018, 1:36 AM · Sorry to be so demanding, but does anyone know how long this procedure would take?
September 23, 2018, 1:59 AM · A luthier qualified enough to do the job properly will probably have a back log of work, he may be willing to give you a loaner violin though.
September 23, 2018, 2:44 AM · Cleaning, retouching, and some layers of varnish... That takes time. If he can start immediately, then you should expect one full week at a minimum.

Another possibility - maybe a bit faster, for sure cheaper, and preserving your instruments "vintage look" and visible history would be if you asked for a layer of clear varnish, only to protect the wood where it obviously had been played intensively in the high positions for decades. (We still can only guess, but is it this you are talking about?) That's what my luthier proposed to do on my 12k instrument, and it's fine like that. It wasn't a big job, and an intensive cleaning and single retouching next to the tailpiece included (where someone had mounted a centered CR once and probably didn't use appropriate padding) it was for €100.

Edited: September 23, 2018, 8:40 PM · Thank you both for the info and advice. I'll ask him for a price/time estimate and possibly go with the clear varnish option if it's going to take too long.

It's on the side of the violin next to the neck, if that makes sense. So not *too* visible.

September 23, 2018, 9:15 PM · the violin is supposed to wear in that area.
September 24, 2018, 12:48 AM · Are you suggesting I leave the wood exposed? (Not being sarcastic - if it's an option, I'll consider it)
September 24, 2018, 1:12 AM · yes, its an option,
September 24, 2018, 5:13 AM · If the wear is on the treble side upper rib where the hand touches, it's not uncommon to leave the worn appearance, and periodically apply some clear varnish to protect the wood. It's also not uncommon to have some adhesive plastic film applied to the area to protect the varnish and wood, and minimize future wear.
September 24, 2018, 6:15 AM · Is that adhesive hard to remove David? Does it take varnish with it when it's taken off?
September 24, 2018, 7:13 AM · It can, so it's best to have the same professional remove it who applied it. They SHOULD know how to remove the product they used, without damage.
September 24, 2018, 8:08 AM · A word of caution: after the varnish is applied, it can take weeks and even months to cure fully, depending on the type of varnish used.

That means that care should be exercised when putting the violin inside the case, especially in hot weather, as the interior lining can dull or even stick to newly-varnished areas. When possible, especially at first, it may be a good idea to leave the case out of the case when possible.

September 24, 2018, 11:55 AM · Can you use wax paper on the inside of the case with a newly varnished instrument?
September 24, 2018, 12:08 PM · Anne Sophie Mutter uses this adhesive plastic film on her Strads, as far as I know. I haven't ever seen one of those from close - David, is it obvious or does one need to know it to recognize that it's on?
September 24, 2018, 1:43 PM · It's not obvious, but can be seen if you are looking for it. One tell-tale is a vertical line on the rib where it ends (with the fiddle horizontal, as in playing position). Sometimes, a plastic film with a very weak adhesive is used (like clear "shelf paper"), and then one might see opaque areas where it has separated.
September 24, 2018, 4:38 PM · ... and if it separates, it doesn't make noises?

Sorry, Gemma, did not want to hijack your thread, but I'm curious about that. If I were in your shoes, I'd get a layer if clear protection varnish. It's cheap, quick, and doesn't change the instrument's "antique" character but preserves the current state. A complete touch up job is almost irreversible. If it's done perfectly, you'll have a "new looking" instrument. And if not, then it can be a real pity!
You said it was a borrowed violin? What does the owner wish? I guess it's him or her who finally will have to decide the way to go?

Edited: September 24, 2018, 7:37 PM · I might just get the clear varnish. I'm seeing the luthier today. The only issue is if he refuses to do it this way. Will update everyone in this thread in a few hours.

The owner says if it needs to be sold in the future, they want at least what they paid for it. They don't mind what I do with the varnish as long as it doesn't damage the actual instrument. Worst case scenario "future me" has to compensate for a small amount lost.

September 24, 2018, 10:56 PM · Update if anyone was interested: I opted for the coloured varnish. it will only take a couple of days and it costs a lot less than expected. Thanks for the advice!

Edited: September 25, 2018, 5:44 AM · Wow,$200 for such a small area is excessive. I'd understand $200 or more for almost the full top or bottom. If you have to take the violin apart, I guess it will be much more expensive.

Anyways, when you go to a luthier shop and ask for a repair, you must talk about the price and even more importantly about how the reparation is going to be made. In the past I went to a luthier (other instrument) and the reparation was not at all what I expected, it was something I could have done myself. So, from then on, I always know what's the price and how it's gonma be repaired.

Edited: September 25, 2018, 6:39 AM · "Wow,$200 for such a small area is excessive."

Tim, why do you think so? How much time, practice and experience do you think would be involved in doing a really nice job?

September 25, 2018, 6:51 AM · A poor varnish touch up job is going to devalue the violin more than doing nothing at all IMHO
Edited: September 25, 2018, 10:30 AM · After reading some of the responses here I've been inspired to look at my old #1 violin (late 18th c) with more of a forensic eye and noticed a varnish wear mark on the neck where the player's thumb rests when playing in the 5th position and above. From that I can make a deduction that the instrument was likely used for a long time by a first violinist, rather than by a second violinist. I think this would have happened in decades before 1850, when the violin entered my family and where it has been ever since.

Wear marks on an old instrument can thus reveal a little of its history.

Edited: September 25, 2018, 10:00 AM · Well, sorry if I sounded... wrong.

Let me get this right. Two square inches are about less than a 1.5" x 1.5" square, or less than a 4 x 4 cm square. That's a very small area. Taking into account that you don't have to disassemble the violin at all, all you have to do is put varnish over a very small area.

From my ignorance about varnish related topics, please, explain to me how such task could imply the charge of $200 to a client. I take into account as well that the violin in question is not a $2.5M strad, but a regular $1000-10000 violin.

From my ignorance again, I guess there are no expensive materials in the reparation, no wood hard working, no sanding, measuring, checking and fitting, ungluing... If I had this problem and wanted it to be repaired, I would go to a luthier with a $50 bill in mind. I would guess it would take less than an hour to varnish the area, then the days it need to dry.

Edited: September 25, 2018, 10:17 AM · Tim, the level of skill and work required depends on the varnish surrounding the area, and if you want a virtually invisible repair when it is complete.

If the area is down to the wood and the varnish layer surrounding it is thick, then it might require many coats of varnish to build up the area to be even with the surrounding varnish. Each layer of varnish has to be applied carefully and then allowed to fully dry between applications.

Next, if the instrument's varnish is not a uniform color, then the area being repaired must properly match the colors and color gradients of the violin to blend in perfectly.

Next, if the violin is naturally or artificially antiqued, the area must be carefully antiqued to match the surrounding antiquing.

Finally, the area must be perfectly blended to match the matte or shine of the finish.

I consider the luthier who does the varnish and touchups on my violins an artist because his work is beautiful and invisible when he is done.

September 25, 2018, 10:46 AM · $50 pays for a repair that is quite obvious and far from invisible, if you think its easy, try it yourself!!
Edited: September 25, 2018, 12:57 PM · If the level of difficulty is the main reason you use to set those $200, then you won't be surprised if someone charges you $100 per hour for a lesson about resolving college level integrals, will you?
If you expected $20 per hour (regular price), imagine I tell you that hey, they are very hard. Yes, they are impossible to understand for anyone that doesn't know maths, but that's why you're a student and the other person is a teacher, that's why I play the violin and the other one is a luthier.

The core of the price in a *reparation* should be hours spent + profit + materials used. It doesn't make any sense that for a 1 hour job you charge $600 because it was "difficult", specially when we talk about reparation, not art. When we don't talk about art, "difficult" normally comes with a $40 000 machine that is needed to do it in 1 h, that explains the $600.

In the other hand, I guess this is not an art job, this is a reparation. In art, prices have no logic, you can paint in 2h a blue background with 3 red dots and charge $500 000, but as I said, this is not the case, it's not a luxury that the violinist wants, is it?

I am not reading that the violinist wants this "weird" effect varnish full of shadows that the luthier must work on and try this and that. She just wants a reparation of that area.

May be I'm a little lost...
Does it take 15 hours to varnish 2 squared inches?
If it only needs 1-2 hours, do you need any special machine that costs $4000 so you have to charge that as well?
Are we dealing with a $20 000 violin?

I understand that for jobs that are luxurious, for example a violinist asks a luthier to create a portrait of Paganini in the back plate using ebony and ivory inlays, even if it only took 15 hours the luthier can charge a much higher price because we are dealing with art here. But a reparation of varnish, I hope, is not considered art by anybody. Yes, you have to match the color, but $200 for that?

Edited: September 25, 2018, 3:40 PM · Tim wrote:
"The core of the price in a *reparation* should be hours spent + profit + materials used."

Absolutely not! I've met superb restorers who could bang out spectacular varnish repair in two hours, and other repair people who couldn't come anywhere close to that level, regardless of how much time they spent.

What do you think the hourly rate of each should be?

September 25, 2018, 2:41 PM · Tim,

Repairing the varnish of a finely varnished violin is an art restoration project. It requires the skill and eye of an artist to do well.

It is far far more than just having to "match the color." Your "2 square inches" might be an irregular scratch down to the wood that is 4 inches long and 1/2 inch wide cutting across many shades of varnish and textures.

It is not as easy as you imply or would like to think.

One difference between a poorly done repair and a well-done repair is that you can see the former but not the later.

September 25, 2018, 3:29 PM · The level of professional needed to make a repair invisible generally works for $150/hr or even more, I work for $50 an hour, which is cheap, and cannot make varnish touch up "disappear", that's why you need a real pro if you're trying to minimize the devaluation for your violin. If someone works for much less than $50/hr you can almost guarantee that they will do more damage to you violin than good.
Edited: September 25, 2018, 5:18 PM · Well, well, well, of course, the "hours" spent must be backed up. You can't just add hours because you are slow or do unnecessary things to get the job done. Truth be told, I've never seen this kind of reparation, but I do have seen plenty of violin making videos from many different manufacturers/luthiers, as well as plenty of videos about reparations in string instruments. I really like to observe and learn how string instruments are made: guitars, violins... I've even done myself some important reparations and modifications in string instruments, thought not classical ones like viola, violin, cello...

Of course the price of a good luthier SHOULD be way higher than those that are called luthiers but don't really care about making it right. Unfortunately, I've faced a few times some of the later (guitars mostly) and the reparations were from OK to straight wrong/unfinished. In most of the cases, I could have done a better job, but I always had the feeling that I should trust expert hands. The last time, I paid $140 for a series of minimal adjustments + the big core problem (guitar). I had no time to do the repair myself and didn't trust myself to do it. Nevertheless, I knew how the process was and how it should look and feel after the whole reparation. End of the story: I paid $140, looked at the job at home and I was disappointed. I undid all the luthier's core operation of those $140 and redid myself everything, making it right and almost perfect, with the few complications and errors a non-professional amateur luthier like me would have. Hey, but the former one was called a luthier and I'm an "amateur".

Anyways, I still can't see how the process of re-varnish a little area can cost $200. Unless, of course, we are talking about a high-end violin, something from $10 000. Also, let's not call "everything" an art, or we will end up calling rubbish an art. Oh wait, that already happened. I mean, come on, a violin that is very carefully made, yeah, it could stay in the line between art and object, but, first, we call them instruments, these are not meant to be exposed in museums to be amazed by them. Violins are not sculptures or painting, are instruments. Luthiers are artisans, not artists, there's nothing good or wrong about that (well there's good). I can admire a violin very much, indeed I do, of course I do, but I could admire a microprocessor, how it is done and built, amazing technology that cares about every single step and little detail, authentic pieces of engineering that I could start considering "an art". But they aren't, they are meant to be working inside a plastic/metal case. I've seen pictures of real violins that were treated almost as sculptures, incredible crafting in the back plate, amazing portraits and scenes combining wood crafting and colorful inlays, even paintings. Nevertheless, that is not the purpose of a violin, and I guess the important thing about it, its sound, is not very good in those wannabe violin sculptures.

September 25, 2018, 6:24 PM · I'd be more than willing to call some of the top restorers "artists". I've been involved in running one of the world's highest level continuing-education restoration workshops for years, and some of the people there would just blow your mind with what they can do. If you want to drop by sometime for an hour or two (further permissions and arrangements would be needed), we might be up for that. I think Laurie Niles has visited the associated Vioin Making workishop, and has written a blog about that.

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