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Oil Varnish Techniques

Oil Varnish Techniques

by David Rolfe

Originally published as Guild of American Luthiers Data Sheet #89, 1978 and in Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2000



I decided to investigate the use of traditional oil varnishes as used by violin makers. At first sight, there seemed to be a lot of information around with enough detail to get on with the job. But as I delved deeper, I found enormous gaps in details of technique and lack of information on what is important and what is not. This is a detailed summary of what I have learned so far. My basic sources of information are the books and articles listed at the end.

Materials

Varnish. Traditional oil varnishes consist of a variety of resins, heated and dissolved in linseed oil, and turpentine. Coloring is added, and these agents can either be from the heartwood of certain trees (like dragon’s blood or gamboge) or organic mineral salts. Linseed oil is a slow-drying oil, and in conjunction with the resins, goes through the process of oxidation and polymerization (molecules of short length combine to become longer). Polymerization occurs mainly in the presence of ultraviolet light and continues for decades. Turpentine is used as a thinner or as a solvent to get the varnish on and then to evaporate in a relatively short time. The important characteristics of the varnish in liquid form are:

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Violin Top Removal

Violin Top Removal

by George Manno

Originally published in American Lutherie #5, 1986 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2000



One of the most difficult repairs to perform on a violin is removing its top after it has been glued with a yellow or a polyvinyl white glue, such as Titebond. These glues do exactly what the name implies: Their main objective is to close the separation between the rib and the top or back permanently. Violins are built in such a way that they can be taken apart if necessary. On many occasions, we have seen instruments come into our shop that were repaired by amateurs using whatever glue was available at the local hardware store. Apparently, thoughts of future adjustments to the neck or bass bar are not considered. Efforts to remove the top without damaging it after such glues have been used were, for a time, a cause of great distress to us.

We have found a way to dissolve such a bond without harming the table, ribs, or back. Using a number of thin artist’s spatulas, a syringe, and some warm vinegar, along with a lot of patience, the removal of the top can be done successfully and the repair completed in a few days.

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Gimme Back My Minutes

Gimme Back My Minutes

by Rick Turner

previously published in American Lutherie #26, 1991 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume Three, 2004



I’d like to share a couple of things with those in the repair business: how I handle the financial end of repair work, and what I’m trying to do to gain back some of the eight to ten hours a week I currently lose talking to customers.

I do repair work for Westwood Music in Los Angeles, working as an independent contractor. I set my own hours, use my own tools, pay for my own worker’s compensation insurance, and establish the prices for the repair work. There is one other part-time repairman, David Neely, and he works the same way I do. Prices for repair work are set for each job either by direct quote from our price list or an estimate of time at $50 per hour. On big jobs or for building custom Strats from generic parts I drop the hourly to $45; I figure there’s less time wasted talking on bigger jobs. Our store sales people sometimes take in the work (the more of that the better), and they might make a ballpark estimate. We in the shop usually call the customer to give a closer price and/or suggest additional needed work.

When the job is complete, I fill out a four-part sequentially-numbered store invoice which includes labor, retail-parts cost (at the net-to-musician price — we figure any applicable discounts), sales tax, and the invoice total. I keep a copy which I use to bill the store, and the second copy goes on a clipboard in sequential order. The instrument, along with the two remaining copies, is put in the front of the store in the “to be picked up” pile. When the customer picks up the instrument, he or she gets a copy, and the remaining copy is filed with the store’s daily receipts.

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Bow Rehairing

Bow Rehairing

by Paul Hill

previously published in American Lutherie #91, 2007



Bows need rehairing on a regular basis. As bow hair ages it gets brittle and breaks more easily, and with use it wears itself smooth, won’t hold rosin as well, and produces a thin sound. Sometimes hairs break more on one side than the other, pulling the bow sideways. Bow bugs may chew the hair into a frizzy pile. Some fine violinists can hear the change in tone and have their bows rehaired every few months, and some fiddlers wait till there are only a few dozen hairs left. Beginning violinists may not notice the degradation in tone since it happens slowly, but most will notice immediately when they get new hair!

I rehair about fifty bows a year, and have been doing it for thirty years. My one-man repair shop is in my basement and space is at a premium, and since this is not my favorite job, I’ve evolved a compact system that works for me, minimizing the time and tedium, and making it enjoyable in a Zen kind of way.

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Making a Weissenborn-Style Guitar

Making a Weissenborn-style Guitar

by John Calkin

previously published in American Lutherie #102, 2010



“You shouldn’t write a Weissenborn story,” said Lamar Scomp, “’cuz I don’t want to build one.” Lamar tends to take everything personally, and the rest of humanity be damned.

“You didn’t want to build a dulcimer either, until I twisted your arm. But you had fun with it, didn’t you?” I said.

“Yup.”

“And didn’t you tell me that playing dulcimer was making you a better guitar player?”

“Yeah,” said Lamar suspiciously, like he could see the trap in front of him and knew he was going to step in it anyway.

“Well, a Weissenborn is sort of the ultimate dulcimer on its way to becoming a guitar. The plates are flat, but braced like a guitar. My version has no taper to the sides, just like a dulcimer. Since it’s meant to be played with a slide, there are no frets to mess with, and setting the high action is a breeze. And it’s fun to play. I think you should check out some ace players on YouTube. You’ll be impressed.”

“I don’t believe nothin’ I see online. It’s all computerized trickery,” he said.

“OK, Lamar. But the Weissenborn is your next step on the way to making guitars. I think you need to build one.”

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