Tuesday, July 13, 2010

French violin restoration

This instrument was brought in very good structural condition, but the thin, hard dark varnish had deteriorated to the point that it looked opaque, soupy and very, very boring. Some old instruments take age more kindly than others and are able to carry the wear and tear of decades of use as a beautiful patina in which the methods and materials of the maker have interacted through time with the hands of the players, and the demands of the listeners. The results can be incredibly beautiful, and restoration of such an instrument should be done with a great deal of restraint. The hand of the restorer should not be visible.

This was not one of those. The owner had the instrument for more than forty years, but never loved it because it looked so hard and unyielding. It is French and is beautifully made out of first rate materials, but was unfortunate enough to be sold onto a factory which took shortcuts in their varnish and finishing techniques. The varnish was remarkably thin and very intensely coloured so that any wear produced abrupt changes in colour, and yet on the edges the varnish was too thick and was consequently darker where it is customary for it to be lighter.

I tried to talk my client out of employing me to meddle with the instrument. It is so difficult to know what will happen when meddling begins, and I do believe in the right of old things to remain ugly if they still work well because I am not the maker and it pays to be circumspect about being too free with your own ego...
But this one now has some depth and subtlety in its appearance, and the maple edges radiate their natural beauty, framing the lovely shapes better than they once did. When I have quietened down the gloss a little I'm hoping the owner will treasure it a little more than she did- but I won't know till she sees it.

(Postscript...some time later....the client was extremely happy with the transformation, saying it never looked so fine...)


  1. Rob, I suspect that the way the grain lies has a lot to do with the owner's perception of beauty. It's almost as though the maker intentionally matched light to dark for a vivid contrast.
    My question: how do you remove the varnish so as to not get that wavy effect of soft grain adjacent to hard that sanding produces? Or is that a trade secret?

  2. Lots of issues there! I actually hope that she will find it quite beautiful now (as in the photo)- Before starting the job you could hardly see the flame in the maple at all, the varnish was like flat opaque housepaint (almost). That arrangement of 'flame' in the grain is presented in a very traditional 'bookmatched' arrangement which generally gives a stepped appearance along the centre joint line. The light and dark has certainly been accentuated by the darkness in the varnish.
    This is what we call a 'trade' instrument and for the varnish it was given to finishers to produce a more economical line of violins than the quality of the materials and craftsmanship deserved. Too thin, too hard and too much pigment, and no nuance.
    I would normally almost never remove varnish from an old instrument, and this post was pretty much an attempt to describe the reasons why I did what I ordinarily wouldn't. And even then I left most of it on.
    Wavy grain on the back and sides is all hardwood and the grain pattern is caused by a ripple that means that much of what is on the surface is actually end-grain, but it is pretty much all of equal hardness, so the effect you describe doesn't really occur there. What you describe will always happen on softwoods though because of the difference in density between winter and summer growth rings.
    The trick with softwood is to make sure that it is the abrasive or the blade that is doing the cutting, not pressure. On spruce or Douglas Fir if you press abrasive while moving it along the surface it will cut the summer growth more quickly than the denser winter growth and will bring the gain out in relief. So on plywood, really sharp grit on clean paper moved lightly over the surface will cut flatter than if it is pushed onto the surface with pressure. Moisture will also bring out the relief texture. Soft grain will swell when moist and if sanded it will appear to shrink back below the hard grain.
    Short answer? Abrade or slice without downwards pressure and do it while dry.

  3. I love your bit about old things being allowed to remain ugly if they still work...its real, its gorgeous and considered! Awesome piece dad!

  4. I have two mandolins. One is handmade (not to perfection) and has a beautiful finish, which is why my sweetie bought it for me. But it is impossible to tune, so sits on the shelf. The other was made in a factory, but by some grace has beautiful tone, though not much to look at. The ugly duckling gets all the attention - I don't look at it while I'm playing, do I.

    When finishing a boat, I coat with a layer of vanish after the first sanding, though I know I will sand most of it off, as well as the next coat too. The finish helps mediate the damage done to soft layers, though I am an impatient sander and lay on too much pressure and too heavy a grit. Still trying to learn the softer touch.

  5. What a lovely thing a good sounding mandolin is, whatever it looks like. I'm with you on this Michael.

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