Classical musicians have long upheld the notion that the very best stringed instruments are made so by the generations of virtuosi who have enriched their sound with their playing. While this may be so, modern science reveals another crucial component: varnish. In fact, some have attributed the renown of Stradivari and other early Italian instruments solely to the mystical properties of some lost or secret varnish recipe. Designed to protect the wooden body from the elements as well as agerelated chipping and cracking, the composition and application of varnish significantly impacts the acoustic properties of an instrument. While the sound of a violin or viola comes from the vibration of the wood, the protective coat of varnish determines whether the natural voice of the instrument will really sing.
Two traditional types of varnish exist: oil and spirit. Oil varnish, the choice varnish of Stradivari and most leading contemporary violin makers, consists of a mixture of cooked resin and a drying oil, such as linseed or walnut, which hardens through exposure to sunlight and air. The ground coating of the great historic instruments have also been found to have an unusually thick mineral layer, which penetrates and strengthens the wood while protecting it from perspiration, moisture, dirt, etc. Generally speaking, most oil varnishes are superior to spirit varnishes. Oilbased varnishes have been found to be not only more durable, but also softer and more flexible, allowing the top and back plates to vibrate easily and producing a more complex open sound with greater color. For the player, the disadvantage lies in its higher cost. Because oil varnishes require lengthy preparation and drying time, and particular skill in regulating the proper cooking time and temperature (as well as in balancing the resin and oil content), this type of varnish is more commonly found on more expensive instruments.
Spirit varnish, on the other hand, is made by dissolving resins and pigments in a spirit (alcohol) base. Compared to oil, spirit varnishes have a tougher, glossier appearance and are often harder and less flexible, therefore tending to stifle the sound of the instrument. They are easy to make and evaporate quickly, allowing makers to varnish an instrument in days, rather than weeks or months. Spirit varnishes are more commonly used in commercial production settings, where many instruments must be varnished in a short amount of time and can be found at the lower end of the quality and price spectrum. This type of varnish is also frequently used for touch up and restoration work.
A final consideration in the selection process relates to the aesthetic value of a fine, artfully applied varnish. Much of what intrigues the eye about varnishes on old instruments is the contrast in colors, transparencies, and textures. A good varnish is translucent and enhances the optical properties in the wood, collecting light and giving the surface a warm and rich color. The best varnishes exhibit a dichroic effect, the ability to reflect different colors when viewed from different angles (i.e., a thinner layer will be golden and a thicker layer reddish).
Ultimately, the role of varnish in protecting the wood as well as beautifying the instrument acoustically and visually contribute considerably to the overall character of that violin, viola, or cello. Choosing the right balance of factors makes the selection process a highly individualistic and exploratory one. At Music and Arts, we offer instruments made with both modern fastdrying oil varnishes and oldfashioned slow drying varnishes, as well as high quality spirit varnishes. If you need assistance choosing which type is right for you or if you simply have other general questions, please stop by your local Music and Arts for a recommendation.
Angeline De Leon
Music and Arts Itasca