Which finish for my first violin?

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Steven Wheeler
Posts: 10
Joined: Mon Feb 06, 2012 10:52 am

Which finish for my first violin?

Post by Steven Wheeler »


I am closing in on the final woodworking steps on my first violin, which of course has me researching what finish to use. While I have substantial experience with all sorts of finishes and techniques, I am fairly certain I have never varnished anything. I am not locked in to using a traditional violin finish, nor am I opposed to learning how to apply one. Mostly I would like a protective coating that will not diminish the voice of the instrument and not miss the deadline of the second week in August. If I were to use a violin varnish, I would like to get there without all of the eye of newt and bat wing boiling caldron stuff.

Any suggestions?


Michael Lewis
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Joined: Thu Jan 12, 2012 1:22 am
Location: Northern California USA

Re: Which finish for my first violin?

Post by Michael Lewis »

A lot depends on what you want it to look like, whether you want it to look like fresh new wood or like old wood and old varnish. The first is much easier, and the latter you can spend a lifetime trying to make it look old and nice. If you choose the first you can use an oil varnish thinned with either turpentine or mineral spirits (paint thinner). You brush it on with a foam brush and throw the brush away immediately after using it. By thinning the varnish it flows and levels out, evening out the streaky brush marks. Thinning also makes for thinner coats and less build up, which is a good thing for a violin.

The most important step in the finishing process is the preparation of the surfaces. By this I mean final sanding after evening all the dings, scratches, chips, gaps, etc. Make the surfaces as perfect as you can and your finishing job will go easily and probably surprise you how good it will look.

A good grade of oil varnish is readily available at your ACE Hardware store for a whole lot less than any 'violin varnish'.

The other way you can go is to french polish your new instrument. That's just rubbing on shellac with a pad in very thin coats. It's trickier than brushing oil varnish but cures out much quicker. Oil varnish is the more traditional approach.

John E Giarrizzo
Posts: 139
Joined: Sat Feb 04, 2012 10:17 am

Re: Which finish for my first violin?

Post by John E Giarrizzo »

What Michael said.

I don't have the expertise or the ambition to "get there without all of the eye of newt and bat wing boiling caldron stuff". Bazillions of pages have been written on that.

I, and a couple of other guys here, have used Ace Oil varnish, however, the old stuff, which is no longer available. Ace changed the formula. It is no longer pure "Oil" varnish. Don't know how the new stuff would work.

My favorite? Quickest? Easiest for me?

Plain old shellac. I've read where even one of the pro's has used it in a pinch.

Dan Hill
Posts: 15
Joined: Sat Feb 04, 2012 2:57 am

Re: Which finish for my first violin?

Post by Dan Hill »

Save the Newts! Cooking varnish is difficult, dangerous, and best left to paint companies (but you already knew that).
There's really no such thing as "pure oil" varnish, so whatever the hardware store has now is probably just as good as whatever they had before, if not better. "Oil varnish" is so called to distinguish it from "Spirit varnish", which uses alcohol as the solvent. Shellac is a spirit varnish. Behlen's Violin Varnish is shellac with some resins added to make it tougher. You can make your own wiping varnish by thinning any oil-based varnish about one-to-one with mineral spirits or naphtha. Most of what I think I know about finishes comes from Understanding Wood Finishing by Bob Flexner, which I am surprised not to find in the MIMF bookstore.
To summarize: What Michael said.

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Dick Hutchings
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Joined: Sun Jan 08, 2012 6:39 am

Re: Which finish for my first violin?

Post by Dick Hutchings »

What about "ground"? I keep hearing this word but I can't make a lot of sense out of it. I think a couple of coats of shellac would act as a ground followed by oil varnish. At least that's my plan if I ever finish my first.

I'm slowly getting back into instrument building and repair after a 2 year hiatus into model trains. They fill my shop and I have to remove them to get my shop back. I'm ready.
Dick Hutchings

Leonardo Silva
Posts: 124
Joined: Mon Nov 04, 2013 10:04 pm

Re: Which finish for my first violin?

Post by Leonardo Silva »

a girl asked for a re-finish on her student violin, so I'm quite interested in this topic, I also thought of "grounding" with shellac and then using a thinned oil varnish on top.

so what approach did you took in the end?

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Barry Daniels
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Joined: Thu Jan 05, 2012 10:58 am
Location: The Woodlands, Texas

Re: Which finish for my first violin?

Post by Barry Daniels »

Ground, in my experience working at a violin parts store, was a yellow/brown penetrating aniline dye that was rubbed over the entire instrument. It served as a background for the other tinted varnishes to build on. It was also the only thing that would get applied to the back of the neck.
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