Classic Violin Varnish

Classic Violin Varnish


It is true that violin makers will talk all day long about their varnish; on the other hand, it is very difficult to get them to talk about their ground. The concept is this: as primer is to paint, ground is to varnish (see last photo on this page.) Of course, it can be more complicated than this basic concept. For example, some look for a primer and sealer before the ground is applied. It is dependent on your objective and the entire varnish package start to finish. Experience is your best teacher. There is nothing easy about varnishing in the traditional sense. They say you will begin to learn violn making in the first ten years, and then spend the rest of your life learning about varnish.

Basicly two main types of varnish:   Resin/Oil and Spirit (alcohol based)

For violin varnish, linseed oil and walnut oil are most often used in combination with resins. The oil is prepared by cooking or by exposing to air and sunlight. The resin is typically available as a solid, and is then "run" by cooking or literally melting it in a pot over heat without solvents. The thickened oil and prepared resin are then cooked together and thinned with turpentine into a brushable varnish.


Most resin or "gum" varnishes consist of a natural, plant- or insect-derived substance dissolved in a solvent. The two main types of natural varnishes are spirit varnish (alcohol-based) and turpentine or petroleum-based varnish. Some resins are soluble in both alcohol and turpentine. The resins include amber, dammar, copal, pine resin, sandarac, balsam, and shellac. Over centuries, many recipes were developed which involved the combination of resins, oils, and other ingredients. Ground and varnish layers impart special tonal qualities to musical instruments and thus are sometimes regarded as carefully guarded secrets. The interaction of different ingredients is sometimes difficult to predict or reproduce; this is the territory of the violin maker.

The word varnish derived ultimately via ancient Greek from a place name of a city in ancient Libya, where resins from the trees of once existing forests were sold. In modern English the ancient city is referred to as Berenice; otherwise the existing city in modern Libya is called Benghazi.

Drying oil

There are many types of drying oils, including linseed oil, tung oil, and walnut oil. These contain high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Turpentine or solvent

Traditionally, pure gum turpentine is used as the thinner or solvent.

Alcohol based-varnish


Shellac is a very widely used single component resin varnish that is alcohol soluble. The source of shellac resin is a brittle or flaky secretion of the female lac insect, Coccus lacca, found in the forests of Assam and Thailand, and harvested from the bark of trees where deposits provide a sticky hold on the trunk. Shellac is the basis of French polish, a technique that produces an inimitable sheen. Specified "dewaxed" shellac has been processed to remove the waxy substances from the raw shellac. Shellac varnish is typically available in a variety of colors from clear to amber/orange/ruby varieties.



  • Preparation of wood surface
  • Ground layer, mineral or otherwise (like a primer/sealer coat). One traditional ground "vernice bianca" composed of egg white, gum Arabic or cherry gum, candied sugar, and honey.
  • Color coats: washes/glazes/lakes
  • Top coats: colored or clear

    Investigative photos-

    Ground layers and varnish influence the acoustical outcome of the finished violin.

    A unique polarized light microscopy; cross section                             Scanning Electron Microscopy
    Stradivari varnish (color layers and dispersed minerals               10,000x magnification / Stradivari varnish.
    visible within the varnish) wood-surface side on left

    (photos courtsey of RobertMuggli/McCroneAssociates JournalofEducationinChemistry,July05)

    light microscopy of red pigment in situ violin varnish, Stradivari 1724

    (photo courtesy of JPEchard, laboratory of the MuseumofMusic Paris 2006)

    Scanning electron micrograph showing wood,                         graphic illustration of photo on left
    ground layer and varnish.

    SEM Stradivari sample: Pozzolana particles on spruce, X-section endgrain.
    wood, ground and thin varnish layer.

    (four photos courtsey of JCAS/Barlow/Woodhouse1989)


    Chemical analysis of ground layer in 7 varnish samples, (chart numbers are relative percentages.)

    (chemical analysis courtsey of JCAS/Barlow/Woodhouse1989)

    Varnish ingredients:

    A partial list at best-

    A fossil gum or resin principally found along the shores of a large part of the Baltic and North Seas, especially off the promontory of Samland. It is cast up by the sea, and collected at ebb tide with nets, and is also brought up by divers and dredging. It is partly soluble in alcohol and entirely so in chloroform. It decomposes when heated below 300 degrees Celsius, yielding "oil of amber," and a black residue called "amber pitch." This last, when dissolved in oil of turpentine or linseed oil, forms "amber varnish" or "amber lac."

    A small South American tree of the Indian plum family producing the yellowish-red dye also known as annatto.
    The bituminous pitch coming principally from Trinidad, sparingly soluble in alcohol, but more so in naphtha, turpentine or ether.
    Benzoin (Gum Benzoic or Benzoe)
    (1) A balsamic resin obtained from Styrax benzoin, a tree native to Java and Sumatra, and from other varieties of the Styrax;
    (2) the Lithocarpus benzoin, a tree found in Thailand. The Thai benzoin occurs in the form of small "tears." This Thai benzoin is reddish-yellow to white in color, consisting of 10-14 % benzoic acid, and the rest resin. The Sumatra benzoin occurs only in masses of dull red resin enclosing white tears.
    Brazil Wood and Pernambuco
    The red wood of the Brazilian Caesalpina used as a dye. The dark, yellowish-red heartwood of the Caesalpina echinata or Pernambuco wood (bois de Fernambuc) is largely used for the making of violin bows.

    Cassel Yellow
    A patent yellow pigment.
    Cinnabar (Vermilion)
    An ore of mercury, cochineal-red to lead-gray mercury sulphide, found in crystals and powders, and used as a pigment. Cinnabar is usually found in a massive or granular form but can also occur as small crystals. The main areas for cinnabar mining are in Italy and Spain.
    A dyestuff consisting of female cochineal insects, killed and dried by heat, which gives a brilliant scarlet dye and the pigment carmine.

    Colophony, or pine resin, is extracted by slashing the bark of spruce and pine trees, and is collected throughout Europe and North America. The pine resin is distilled, yielding turpentine, and the residue yields colophony. It is rarely used in violin varnish because of its brittleness and its tendency to show scratches as white streaks.
    Pine resin of high quality is used as bow rosin. Violin bow rosin is harder than cello bow rosin; cooking it for a longer period of time yields a softer and darker rosin.
    Copiaba is an oleoresin from trees of the Copiaba species found in the West Indies and the valleys of the Amazon. From its golden-colored, viscous liquid, there is distilled a volatile oil.
    Copal, from the Mexican copalli, incense, is a hard, lustrous resin, and the term is generally and vaguely used for resins which, though similar in physical properties, are altogether distinct as to their sources.
    Mexican copal, generally considered the best, is obtained from a species of Hymenia. It is tasteless, odorless, almost colorless, transparent, and lemon-yellow or yellowish-brown in color. It forms one of the most valuable of varnishes when it has been dissolved in alcohol, spirits of turpentine, oil of turpentine which has been exposed to the air, or any other suitable medium. The addition of oil of spike or rosemary promotes its solubility in alcohol. As a gum it ranks next to amber in hardness. Copal is also obtained from Sierra Leone, and in a fossil state, from the west coast of Africa, as well as from Brazil and other South American countries, from trees of the Guibourtia, Trachylobium and Hymenia families.

    Anime is the hard copal resin obtained from the Hymenia courbaril, a South American tree; while gum anime is the name also given to the resin known in commerce as Zanzibar or East African copal. The raw copal yielded by Zanzibar Trachylobium hornemannianum is inferior, and used only in India and China for making a coarse varnish. The fossilized East African copal is dug from the ground over a wide belt of the mainland coast of Zanzibar. A gum obtained from the Vateria indica is also known as gum anime, and is often confused with true copal in commerce.

    Singapore damar

    Dragon's Blood
    The best gum dragon or dragon's blood is obtained from the Calamus draco, a rotang or mattan palm of the eastern archipelago and India. It is a dark red-brown in color, brittle, nearly opaque, and when ground, supplies a fine red powder soluble in ether, alcohol, and fixed and volatile oils. Much of the dragon's blood of commerce is obtained from the Pterocarpus draco of South America.
    Elemi (Gum Elemi)
    This is a fragrant resin obtained from the Egyptian Amyris elemifera and the Mexican Elaphirium elemiferum, and is greenish-yellow and semitransparent. The oleoresin known as manilla elemi is obtained in the Philippines, probably from the cananarium commune, is pale yellowish color, and is soluble in alcohol. In the 17th and 18th centuries the term elemi usually denoted a Brazilian elemi obtained from trees of the icaeiu species.
    Also known as (Gum Gutta or Gummi Gutti) **Poison**. Externally a dirty orange in color, gamboge, which occurs in commerce as pipe or roll gamboge, which is purer, and cake gamboge, inferior in quality, is a gum resin coming from Cambodia and Thailand. It is tasteless, hard and brittle, affording a brilliant yellow powder, and is often adulterated with rice powder or pulverized bark.
    Garance (Fleur-de-garance or Madderbloom)
    This "flowers of madder" is a refined dyestuff obtained by macerating commercial madder.
    Gum Arabic (Chagual Gum)
    Gum Arabic is of the type of the gums which are entirely soluble in water. It is obtained from a variety of sources as it exists in the juices of almost all plants. It is largely obtained from the Acacia Arabica of North Africa and Eastern Asia, and varies in color from straw yellow to deep red. Gum Senegal produced by the Acacia Verek, occurs in round pieces, reddish or yellow, and supplies a very clear, tough mucilage. Shagual gum, from Santiago, Chile, resembles Gum Senegal.
    Lac or Gum Lac
    This is a resinous encrustation formed of the twigs of various trees by an infesting insect, the Coccus lacca, allied to the cochineal insect in the East Indies and southeastern Asia. To obtain the largest amount of both resin and red dyestuff, which is segregated in the ovaries of the females, the twigs with their living inhabitants are gathered in June and November. "Stick lac" is the lac encrusting the twigs when gathered; the resin is crushed small and washed in hot water to free it from coloring matter known as "seed lac," and this, melted and strained is the "shellac" of commerce. Lac forms the basis of some of the most valuable varnishes.
    Lavender Oil
    The product of the distillation of flowers of lavender with water. The variety most often used for varnishes is oil of spike (Lavender oil spike) obtained from the Lavendula latifolia.
    Lead monoxide, straw yellow in color and used as a pigment.
    Logwood (Campeche Wood)
    The Mexican and Central American Haematoxylon campechianum supplies the dark red heartwood, whose color pigments readily dissolve in boiling water. It is also known as campeche wood.

    The Dutch Rubia tinctorum is the plant whose peeled roots supply madder, a pigment whose coloring principle is alizarin. The madders are brown, madder carmine and madder orange in color.

    Mastic (Gum Mastic)
    A resinous exudation from the lentisk, Pistacia leatiscus, the evergreen shrub, tree, the mastic gum comes from the resin that seeps like teardrops from the bark.  Found in the Mediterranean, particularly in Greece on the Aegean island of Chios; also along the coast of Portugal, Morocco and the Canaries. Mastic occurs in commerce in the form of roundish tears, transparent, with pale yellow or greenish tinge. It is soluble in alcohol and oil of turpentine.
    Muriatic Acid
    Hydrochloric acid, a corrosive gaseous compound, very soluble in water, generally sold under the name of Muriatic acid.
    An arsenic-sulfur combination yielding a brilliant yellow color known as king's yellow.
    A fine, sandy volcanic ash, originally discovered and dug in Italy at Pozzuoli in the region around Vesuvius, but later at a number of other sites. It is found in all the volcanic areas of Italy in various colors: black, white, grey and red. Pozzolana is a siliceous and aluminous material which reacts with calcium hydroxide in the presence of water to form compounds possessing cement like properties. Much speculation and research into the native Italian volcanic ash as a possible source for the mineral-laden ground layer on some classic Italian violins.
    The dried, deep orange-coloured stigmas of the saffron plant, Crocus sativus, which yield a much used pigment for coloring varnishes.

    Sal Ammoniac
    A soluble ammonium chloride, white in colour, and vitreous.
    This wood, much used as a dye, is not the Santalum yasi, but the Pterocarpus santalunis, and grows in India and Ceylon. The close grained heartwood is a dark red in color.

    This is a yellowish, transparent resin obtained from the Callitris quadrivalvis, a conifer of northwest Africa; analogous resins coming from the Callitris sineusis of China and the C. reessii of South Australia, which is known as pine gum. Sandarac reaches commerce in the form of small round balls or elongated tears, is yellow in color, and somewhat harder than mastic for which it is sometimes substituted. True Sandarac is obtained from the common juniper, and is another name for juniper gum.
    Sulphate of Lead
    A mixture of lead carbonate and hydrated oxide, used as a pigment.
    The liquid oleoresinous exudation of the Pistacia terebinthus, a small tree common in southern Europe and the Mediterranean area, known as Chian, Scio or Cyprian turpentine.
    Tragacanth (Gum Tragacanth)
    This gum, a product of the Astragalus tragacantha, comes from Smyrna and Constantinople, occurs in opaque whitish flakes, and is an excellent thickener of colors. It may be considered one of the varieties of gum Arabic.
    Turmeric (Curcuma)
    Turmeric, terra merita or curcuma (safran d'Inde: Indian Saffron), is made of the old roots of the Curcuma longa, a plant of the ginger family, and curcumin is the yellow compound contained in this root.
    The oleoresins which exude from certain trees, especially of the conifer family. These resins are separated by distillation into rosin or colophony, and oil or spirit of turpentine. Venetian or Venice turpentine, collected primarily from Tyrol, from the larch tree, is the most esteemed variety. The result of its distillation with water is a colorless volatile oil (essential oil or spirits of turpentine) soluble in alcohol, ether, and other oils, and a ready solvent of nearly all resins. Cyprian turpentine is inferior in quality to the Venice turpentine.
    A hydrated ferric oxide, chestnut brown to liver brown in color, used as a pigment. As found in nature, the oxide is called raw umber, and when heated, so as to produce a reddish-brown, is known as burnt umber.

    [ref courtesy: Wikipedia/WoodFinishingEnterprises/Luscombvio.]

                                     Using a muller on a glass plate for grinding lake pigment.

    Using a muller on a glass plate for grinding pigment

    Resin/Oil Varnish Recipes

    There are almost limitless varieties of these varnish recipes, and copious amounts of reference materials. Some names that come to mind: J. Michelman, G. Bease, W. Fulton, for starters. Well worth reading before you launch into this process.

    In general it is usually 2 parts resin to 1 part oil, depending on your desired result.

    One example might be:
    • 90% pine resin, 10% gum benzoin
    • Linseed oil
    • Lime
    • Turpentine
    • Add pigment material for desired color and effect if needed.

    The temperature at which it is cooked and the presence of metallic salts will help determine its color.

    Spirit Varnish Recipes

    1704 Violin Varnish Recipe

    Spirit varnish recipe. The 1704 recipe first mentioned in the book`Gabinetto Armonico Piero D`instrumenti Sonoro` by BonnaniIt. It makes a golden spirit varnish, good for touch-up as well as for new instruments.

      • 45 g seedlac
      • 7.5 g gum elemi
      • 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 weeks).

    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 fine cloth. 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. Thinning with alcohol may be necessary to obtain brushing consistency.

    Variation of the 1704 varnish; a small amount of mastic improves adherence between coats, and the sandarac adds a bit of hardness.

      • 45 g seedlac
      • 5 g gum mastic
      • 5 g gum sandarac
      • 200 ml alcohol
      • 5-7 ml lavender spike oil

    Preparations are the same as for the 1704 recipe.

    Andre Fiorini preferred a recipe given by Jean-Felix Watin from 1774 in "L'Art du peintre, doreur, vernisseur", 2d ed. (Paris).

    • Sandarac 125gms
    • Mastic 62gms
    • Gum lac 62 gms
    • Elemi 31 gms
    • Venice turpentine 62 gms
    • 1 litre of alcohol

    A English recipe for spirit varnish from the 1690's, "Parker`s White Varnish".  In the book "A treatise of Japaning and Varnishing" by Stalker and Parker.  The recipe calls for spirits of wine, which must be strong or you will spoil the varnish. The recipe calls for separate solutions of the following in spirits of wine:

    • Gum Sandrick 1lb
    • Gum Mastick 1 oz
    • Gum Copol 1 1/2 oz
    • Gum elemni 1 1/2 oz (gum Anime from the Courbaril tree)
    • White rosine 1/2oz.T
    Preparation mixed with 3 oz of Venice Turpentine form the famous white varnish.