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Violin Varnish and Sealers

Violin Varnish and Sealers

by Graham Caldersmith

Originally published as Guild of American Luthiers Data Sheet #276, 1984, and Big Red Book of American Luthierie Volume One, 2000

Probably more unsubstantiated speculation has been written about violin varnish, its effects on the instrument, and the quest for the “lost” Cremonese recipe than about any other of the subtleties of the violin and its behavior.

It is true that those who have examined enough violins to appreciate the variety of varnishing systems employed by different makers in different ages cannot but admire the clear golden-brown varnish sometimes grading to a deep red that characterizes 17th–18th century Cremonese instruments. It is also true that varnish preparation and application techniques changed to more durable and convenient ones towards the end of the 18th century when faster drying oil and spirit varnishes were developed to meet the needs of the growing furniture trade, arguably at the expense of transparency and lucidity. So while bearing in mind that the early Cremonese varnishes were not unique to the violin trade, since they appear on fine furniture and wooden ornaments of the same period, we may reasonably inquire as to how important the varnishing techniques used by the Cremonese Masters were to the excellence of the violins they produced. Were the advantages of Cremonese varnishing merely passive, in that they preserved good violins into sublime maturity, or were they also active, conditioning the wood for optimal acoustical behavior?

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