|It is my hope that this information will be found
useful by amateur and professional instrument makers alike. - Leif
Below is a varnish recipe (and my own variation thereof) that
is an old traditional Italian recipe. I have found it to be an
excellent varnish for new instruments - it dries fairly fast,
is transparent and durable (not too hard or soft). Certainly not
a hard brittle varnish, but I prefer the varnish to have a more
'natural' feel, as most of the older Italian violins have.
The materials to make it are available from us (on this web site),
and the preparation instructions below are fairly easy to follow;
the process takes about 1-2 weeks and only about an hour of time
(once you have the equipment and supplies). In the future I hope
to include photographs of my very basic setup that I use to make
This varnish also works wonderfully for mandolin
1704 Violin Varnish Recipe
Purchase 1704 Dry Ingredients Packages
or Prepared 1704 Varnish
The recipe below is a well known varnish recipe. It makes a beautiful
golden spirit varnish which is especially good for touch up, as
well as for new instruments.
- 45 g Seedlac
- 7.5 grams gum elemi (optional)
- 200 ml Alcohol
- 9 ml. Lavender Oil Spike
Place all of the ingredients in a glass jar and let it dissolve,
stirring at least twice a day, until the lac no longer sits and
sticks to the bottom of the jar (This may take from one to three
When completely dissolved, boil in a double boiler for seven
minutes, let cool, and then boil again for seven minutes. While
still warm, filter through a cloth (I use a cheese cloth). If
it is allowed to cool it will be difficult to filter. Repeat the
filtering process until there is no more dirt in the filter. Once
this process is complete, and the varnish has cooled, it is ready
to use. Since alcohol is lost in the cooking process, thinning
with alcohol will probably be necessary to obtain brushing consistency.
Be sure to have extra alcohol on hand for this.
1704N Violin Varnish Recipe (Variation)
recipe and instructions in Word format (.doc)
recipe and instructions in Adobe Acrobat format (PDF) (requires
This variation of the 1704 varnish I prefer for the varnishing
of new instruments. A small amount of mastic improves adherence
between coats, and the sandarac adds a bit of hardness.
- 45 grams seedlac
- 5 grams gum mastic
- 5 grams gum sandarac
- 200 ml. alcohol
- 5-7 ml. Lavender spike oil
Preparations are the same as for the 1704 recipe. The mastic
is a softener and improves adherence between coats. Sandarac is
a hardener, and gives a bit more gloss to the varnish. Less Lavender
oil makes the varnish a bit harder (compensated by the mastic).
Why the 1704 'Variation'?
|Through some research, trial and error, I settled
on this as my main varnish recipe. A little less lavender oil makes
it dry faster and harder. The sandarac adds a bit more gloss and
increases hardness. Mastic improves adherence between coats and
adds suppleness to the varnish, without the permanent softness that
the lavender oil tends to impart.
Clear Touch-up Varnish
|Seedlac varnish can be somewhat too dark for touching
up very light instruments. In this case, replace the seedlac with
white shellac in the 1704 varnish. A bit of Sandarac can give more
gloss to the varnish.
Varnish Tips: Coloring Agents (available
|The varnishes above will vary, depending on the
particular shipment of Seedlac. This can range from a light yellow-gold,
to an old-gold; from reddish to green/brown (not really green, but
a brown that lacks some red pigment). At any rate, the 1704 varnish
will usually be quite light without the use of colors, which some
I prefer to start with a yellow base and build the darker colors
on top. A varnish that does not have a good color base of yellow
tends to look incomplete regardless how much color is put over the
For examples of the varnish, see these violins that I have made:
Violin, Leif Luscombe, 1994
Violin, Leif Luscombe, 1996
I use Kamala, it gives a wonderful yellow base that appears quite
bright when applied but matures to a warm yellow.
Saffron (especially Spanish) also produces a fine yellow, though
I have not tried it yet in varnish.
Turmeric (curcuma) makes a nice yellow, but in my experience
is not light-fast.
|I use Catechu. While not as transparent as some
of the other dyes, it is the only brown that I have found to be
of sufficient tinctoral strength to produce a dark brown varnish.
I use Sandalwood. It varies with each shipment from a brown red
to an orange-red.
Pernambucco will yield a nice reddish stain when dissolved in
|Dissolve any of the above ingredients in alcohol;
warming the jar in a water bath will facilitate the process of extracting
the dyes. This can be added to the varnish. For this reason I like
to keep my varnish on the thicker side, as it will become thinner
with the addition of the dyes.
Dyes can be added directly to the varnish, though straining may
be quite difficult, and must be done while the varnish is hot and
thin. This method works best with sandalwood chips rather than the
powdered stains, as the chips do not clog the filter as the powder
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February 5, 2013