Violin Oil Varnish: Maintenance Tips

July 11, 2021, 6:32 PM · I own a 5 year old violin that has an oil based varnish. I was told I had to treat the instrument differently as this is a more delicate type of varnish but details were not given for what to do. I live in Georgia(USA), it gets very hot and humid here, and my violin has suffered at times. I've found the cloth cover or shoulder sponge leaves imprints on the varnish after 73F degrees and it starts to crack, but now I am curious how can I best take care of this particularly sensitive violin? How do I clean it, how do I prevent damage like this? How do I prevent the marks? Any advice is much appreciated!

Replies (14)

Edited: July 11, 2021, 10:25 PM · Less is more. Polish lightly with a soft cloth as needed, and keep away from environmental hazards. Real damage happens when people start to obsess over every imperfection and dedicate themselves to "fixing" it.

A good oil varnish should be as durable as anything. I guess yours is particularly soft.

Edited: July 11, 2021, 11:07 PM · My violin has a similarly soft varnish. Since my parents bought it directly from the heirs of the previous owner (who presumably knew--unlike his heirs) I did not get any instructions as to maintenance. So I cleaned it the way my teacher had instructed me to clean my previous instrument..

I did some damage to the varnish. Until a luthier told me how to take car of it (essentially not at all, just wipe rosin away as needed with a soft cloth and leave all the rest to the luthier). He put some thin layers of protective varnish on and things have been fine ever since.

I would recommend to consult a luthier. Some of them will probably respond on this thread but it may be better to have an expert looking at your instrument to give you instruction exactly fitting your situation.

I need to add that none of my mishandling and none of the luthier's repairs caused any damage to the sound or to the playability of the instrument; it is still the very fine violin it had been all along. From that point of view there is no need to panic about this.

July 12, 2021, 3:21 AM · All of the above, including not to touch the varnish with bear hands.
July 12, 2021, 7:13 AM · Yes, a bear's claws would do serious damage. Don't let lions or tigers play your violin either !
July 12, 2021, 8:40 AM · When I was a kid I wanted my violin shiny so decided to put a coat of Turtle car wax on it which didn't seem to hurt it and did make it shine. Back then I had never knew what a luthier was and information on care was not so easy to find.
July 12, 2021, 9:01 AM · I have a violin with soft oil varnish, which I did buy directly from its maker, and he told me to just wipe it with a soft, clean cotton cloth, and otherwise bring it to him for cleaning.

I strongly advise against putting any other kind of coating on top of it (I don't believe the above comment about turtle wax was meant as a serious recommendation). I've been playing the violin for 20 years now, and it has a good bit more chips than a typical student instrument with tougher varnish, but is otherwise fine, and these have no impact on the sound. I had asked the luthier about repairing them at one point but he suggested just leaving the small chips as it was authentic wear on the instrument (which was already thoroughly antiqued).

Do be mindful of where you contact it with your skin - no worries, just wipe it clean and expect some wear patterns there. You might consider using a rigid shoulder rest, which contacts the instrument in only a few places near the edge, instead of a sponge as you live in a high humidity environment. If you do use a rigid rest, make sure the feet of the rest don't have exposed metal.

Edited: July 13, 2021, 3:11 PM · Obviously Jeff was not "recommending" Turtle Wax. A humorous memory.
July 13, 2021, 12:47 PM · Soft oil varnish will harden with UV light, eventually. Could be years, especially if the instrument is stored in its case. I wouldn't recommend leaving it in bright sunshine overheating, but during the day mine is usually hung in a window on the shady side of the house for a slow gentle exposure to natural light. I had to return mine originally to the maker because the varnish was way too soft, and it got a good bathe in the UV box that helped things considerably, and improved tone. Maestronet is a good source for advice where lots of luthiers hangout.
July 13, 2021, 2:03 PM · I agree with Roger; I have a modern Italian violin where the varnish was still a bit soft when I received it (there was actually a small mark on the side from the packaging). Based on my luthier's advice, I put it on a stand on my desk for a couple of months and it was fine. But as many have said, it's best to ask a luthier about your specific instrument.
Edited: July 13, 2021, 6:17 PM · I can't see the turtle wax hurting, though... makers and repairers french polish instruments all the time, which is basically the same thing: coating the whole instrument in a thin layer of shellac.

Putting your instrument in a uv box or outside in summertime (strings off!) may help to harden the varnish. Depending on the colorants used it may also fade slightly. The best thing would be to contact the maker on that front

July 14, 2021, 4:03 AM · Viol cleaning an polishing fluid twice every year or as needed to remove grime and rosin accumulation.
July 17, 2021, 6:26 PM · Oil varnishes can be made from so many different formulas, and vary so much in properties, that you'll really need to take the instrument to an expert to know the best path forward.

I do not recommend consumer-level cleaner/polishes.

Edited: July 17, 2021, 6:55 PM · In 1963 I had the opportunity to touch, hold and play the first of the two Stradivarius violins I have ever met. It was at an ACS lecture (I was still a member). The owner was a visiting PhD chemist doing the ACS lecture tour. He was a "finishes' chemist at Dow, an amateur violinist and collector. He had spent his violinist life buying and selling and trading up until he acquired this ex-OlĂ© Bull Strad (well-insured at $150,000 at the time). After I played it (absolutely incredible fiddle - you could tell that it would soar to "heaven" on vibrato if I could only get just a little more, but I only had a minute or 2 with it) the lecturer especially wanted me to fingerprint the surface varnish and then watch it slowly fade.

Imagine, 250 year old varnish - still soft/flexible.

A very interesting visual for a scientific lecture!

Edited: July 18, 2021, 8:53 AM · I have a violin-maker friend for whom (when I lived near him - almost 30 years ago) I used to test/play his newly made violins "in the white" - as they call it - before any ground or finish is applied - then I also got to play them after they had been finished and dried in the desert sun, before they went to their new owners.

I think the secret of proper "varnish" is to NOT get in the way of the unvarnished sound and response.


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