Cox Violins Blog

About Varnish

Violinmaker-in-Residence #20

The varnish is a layer of natural resins applied to the surface of the violin. Its primary function is to protect the wood from dirt and wear, its secondary function to add color and depth to the appearance. The transparency of the varnish allows light to penetrate and be reflected more deeply in the wood, giving it more life and character. Thirdly, the varnish provides a harder and smoother interface with the air, making the transmission of sound waves more clear and efficient.

A jar of varnish

The Secret Ingredients

I make a spirit varnish, a mixture of the natural gums copal, sandarac, shellac and turpentine dissolved in alcohol. The mix of the resins tunes the hardness and elasticity of the varnish so that it lasts and protects the instrument, but does not stiffen the wood too much or muffle the sound. The varnish needs to move with the wood as it expands and contracts with time and weather changes.

It is quite likely that the old Italian varnishes we admire today looked different when the instruments were new, and the varnish applied to this violin will certainly change over time. It is most likely that many of the amber varnishes were more vibrant and more red when new. Conversely the wood itself will become more brown and oxidation will darken the varnish over time. The colors I am using for this instrument are chemically produced aniline pigments and are quite stable.

The violin is a living thing in that it ages and is shaped by all its experiences, both good and bad. Nowhere is this more true than with the varnish. The history of an instrument can be read in its surface: worn by a shoulder, hand or case; chipped by a dropped bow or over-exuberant pizzicato; and repaired and polished by an expert, or by a not so careful hand.

My choice to build and varnish the VSO violin with an antiqued look is based on my understanding of how to help the violin be of best service to the player in today’s world. The violin will age more gracefully, be easier to care for, and fit into ensemble situations more naturally with this look. There are master copyists whose beautiful work is painstaking and time consuming. My approach is to create a look that is warm, natural and inviting. An antiqued look is not an attempt to fool or mislead, but to put fewer obstacles in the player’s hands and imagination.

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