Soft oil varnish - how do you...

Edited: August 22, 2021, 4:31 PM · As already mentioned earlier, I happen to own a fine viola with rather soft varnish and as I'm playing without SR, it's a bit of a struggle. Now I added a violin of similar characteristics, and although its not 13 years but 52 years, the varnish still lacks what I'd call "completely cured". It just sticks to my t-shirt! When I add a piece of chamois, it will stick to that. Best works a piece of microfiber, but it's too slippery. From my viola I know it's not a big deal to have these marks polished out once in a year, but... it sucks.

Replies (13)

Edited: August 22, 2021, 8:41 PM · Go to maestronet this is where Luthiers hang out. If the varnish (obviously oil based) is to ever cure it will need a lot of UV light exposure. Some oil varnish will still be soft after centuries! Makers use UV light boxes nowadays to speed up the curing process, and if it were me that is what I'd be looking for. There may be some chemical treatments possible (and likely risky), but only a luthier could advise you on that and in any case would have to be done by a professional, hence maestronet. 52 years and still this soft make me wonder how there's any varnish left! My instrument (brand new at the time) had very soft uncured varnish, and the UV box made a significant improvement in both hardness and tone, but it wasn't 52yrs old though (the varnish that is, the wood is however 70yrs old since harvest).
August 22, 2021, 8:47 PM · I don't think I'd buy a violin where the varnish felt sticky.
Edited: August 22, 2021, 9:08 PM · I am currently varnishing a guitar with a very simple oil varnish. After one day in direct sun, any parts exposed to the light will be completely dry and hard enough to sand. Presumably your violin has had more than its share of UV exposure over its long life... the varnish still being soft is simply unacceptable.

Maybe hang it out in the sun for a week? With the strings off.

Edited: August 23, 2021, 8:36 AM · Oh no, this can last for centuries?? I happen to have such a violin, which is just 5 years old. I have a piece of leather at the bottom, and that sticked, and the varnish got marks. It got polished, last year, but now, I am at the same point, again.
During this summer, the violin spend some time in its one y/o Musafia case, and the plush of the new case lost some fibers which now are sticking to some edges of the violin. As if it hadn’t properly shaved. :-)

I thought that was due to the instrument’s young age, but probably it will stay like that as long as I live.

August 23, 2021, 9:09 AM · 57 years ago I had in my hands a 250 year old Stradivarius violin. When I handed it back to the owner my fingerprints were still embossed in the surface. They vanished in a minute or so.
August 23, 2021, 9:59 AM · My go-to varnish for home woodworking projects is Minwax Helmsman for an oil-based varnish and Benwood Stays Clear for a water-based product. I've never had these issues with these fine products.
August 23, 2021, 10:43 AM · If the varnish has not dried by now, UV will do nothing more than bleach the color. One way to possibly solve the problem is a coat of [only!] orange shellac. I can't guarantee this will work, however, and I would try it on a violin I did not make myself. I would contact the maker for his advice.
August 23, 2021, 10:59 AM · Strange that you have two fine instruments that you like with varnish that has not set properly. An unset overly elastic varnish can heavily damp the tone - perhaps your ear is attracted to that? I'd take the instrument to a luthier to have it revarnished with a proper setting varnish. Any competent maker would do that for you.
Edited: August 23, 2021, 11:38 AM · I purchased a new instrument that had the same issue. A suspension case left impressions at the top and bottom. Eventually, I got it back to the maker, who polished it out a bit. But it won't look new ever again.
Edited: August 23, 2021, 3:16 PM · I think my description of the situation was a bit unprecise, so I'll try to go into detail...

Both instruments don't feel sticky, rosin dust and other residuals are easy to clean off. They don't stick to their cases, and especially the violin shows no signs of wear and tear from sitting in its old Gewa case since decades. It is rather like Andrew described the fingerprints on the Strad he touched. Most of it vanishes within days. But when playing restless, the temperature (and eventually moisture) makes it adhesive with any kind of fabric or leather even after 10 minutes, and this leaves marks without damaging the varnish. The most reliable solution seems to be switching back to playing with SR. (I can with violin, only with viola this doesn't work.)
But. During the pandemic, it sat in a luthiers safe (outside of its case) until I was able to pick it up, and from lying there the back plate carried away a small varnish defect - the missing molecules will still be inside the safe, I suppose. I've seen this on newer instruments. Well, it'll be with my luthier soon...


Since it's a better work of one of the most outstanding central European 20th century makers, a perfect beauty in mint condition, I wouldn't try anything contributing to its depreciation in value, which is significant. I'm not sure yet what I'm going to do with the violin, but it feels like a resale in the near future might be regretted and isn't an option, although I purchased it for a steal at an auction and could make some serious profit. But hell, that's a nice one... It rarely happens that I prefer any violin to my good old saxonian principessa, but this one seems to be on route. The soft but thin varnish is typical for this very maker and apparently doesn't dampen the full and carrying sound.

My question was not so much about making changes to the instrument itself, but rather about behavioral modifications - how you deal with this kind of situation, and if someone found a solution I couldn't think of yet. As said, chamois doesn't help, and I'm not going to "dress up" for practice. I wouldn't add anything to the varnish, and with the UV treatment I feel that Michael Darnton knows his trade. A multilayer microfiber cloth helps 90% but not for hours. A SR seems to solve the issue, but isn't my favorised solution. Nevertheless, I feel like one darn happy puppy! (But please don't tell Principessa...!)

August 23, 2021, 5:13 PM · Nuuska, congrats on your acquisitions. The instruments sound beautiful but a tiny bit temperamental regarding the varnish issues. I would use a SR. Have you tried the VLM Diamond? It’s very light and will allow you to get the violin up close. At least it works for me. Best of luck!
Edited: August 23, 2021, 7:53 PM · I double the suggestion of French polishing with shellac. This serves no other purpose than concealing the stickiness with another resin.
August 23, 2021, 11:11 PM · John, it is the VLM I finally ended up with after acquiring a representative collection of different brands and models... For me it works because it goes down low and can be angled towards the collarbone, but that's a different story.

Cotton, I'll keep that in mind and discuss whith my luthier.


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