The perfect violin varnish has to protect the wood but be acoustically transparent. To achieve that, I have to make my own. Commercial varnish is a marvel of engineering – immensely strong and durable. But that’s precisely why it doesn’t work on violins; it dampens the vibration.

A Montagnana cello, showing the varnish wear on the back. The varnish begins to wear the moment the cello is first played.

A Montagnana cello, showing the varnish wear on the back. The varnish begins to wear the moment the cello is first played.

 

 

A detail, showing how the varnish has craquelled and worn, resulting in a gorgeous patina.

A detail, showing how the varnish has craquelled and worn, resulting in a gorgeous patina.

Commercial varnishes get their strength through polymerization, the crosslinking of individual molecules into a seamless, impenetrable coating. The best violin varnish, though, is the exact opposite of that. It’s designed to fail. It’s fragile – it chips easily, abrades, starts wearing away from the first day it leaves the shop. But those qualities are what create the extraordinary sound of the most highly prized instruments.

 

It’s also an essential part of their visual beauty. The gradual wear creates variations that catch the light and refract it like a jewel. The highly colored varnish contrasting with the golden wood underneath yields a rich landscape of color. The very fragility of the varnish is what allows the instrument to come alive.

The back of a Stradivari violin. The natural wear of the varnish creates a gorgeous patina that can't be reproduced artificially.

The back of a Stradivari violin. The natural wear of the varnish creates a gorgeous patina that can't be reproduced artificially.

The resins, cooked, dyed, washed, and drying in the sun before being made into varnish.

The resins, cooked, dyed, washed, and drying in the sun before being made into varnish.

The texture and richness of a fine oil varnish.

The texture and richness of a fine oil varnish.

I started experimenting with varnish over forty years ago, when I was still a student. I spent untold hours in research, reading technical analysis of violin varnish, hunting down books and recipes. I also delved deeply into the methods and materials of painting and surface preparation from the Renaissance, when the great classic Italian varnishes first came into use. I began cooking resins and oils, making lakes with pigments, searching for new sources for the old traditional ingredients. It can be dangerous – turpentine and drying oils are very volatile, and can easily explode as they’re being processed and cooked down to a more stable form.

The sealer is even more important than the actual varnish, because it soaks deeply into the bare wood, altering the way it vibrates. And its appearance is crucial: the correct sealer makes the wood glow under the varnish as if it’s lit from within. The materials come from all over the world, and cost thousands of dollars; some are extremely rare and hard to find. There are at least a dozen different steps in making my varnish, yielding enough for a year.

The varnishing process is lengthy and painstaking. I first put on the ground, which takes at least two weeks to dry. The varnish itself takes another two weeks, with one thin coat a day; it requires total concentration, because each new coat can dissolve the ones already applied. The completed varnish then needs to cure for another week or so before I can polish out the instrument and set it up. I leave some of the texture – the slight graininess of a fine oil varnish adds a deep lustre and brings out the richness of the color.

It’s been decades of research and experimentation. It’s complicated and dangerous to make. It takes weeks of preparation and then application. It’s extremely hard to apply.

But in the end, it’s worth it.

 

I do test strips for every new batch of varnish.

I do test strips for every new batch of varnish.

The varnish pot I've used for forty years. The sunlight refracts through the varnish, bringing it to life.

The varnish pot I've used for forty years. The sunlight refracts through the varnish, bringing it to life.