Varnishing a New Handmade 5-string Fiddle

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5-string Varnish progress


Last post included the sealer, which, to be honest, looks awfully nice. But it isn’t varnish: it was just a resin dissolved in turpentine. The sealer is used to lock in the mineral ground and seal the pores against excessive varnish saturation (which could dampen the tone.) It looked like this:

Back view of handmade 5-string Oregon bluegrass fiddle with sealer.
Back view of 5-string fiddle with sealer.


So, from that point forward, the varnishing began:

Early Varnish

The first coats of varnish I use are pretty intensely yellow. I want that golden glow to shine through the other colors, wherever there is any wear, or deliberately thin spots in the color coats. After the yellow varnish I begin selectively darkening certain areas, corners, etc..The purpose of the selective shading is to enhance the overall look and feel, visually.

So, here are the front and back after the early coats of varnish. Pretty much all of this is from the first day or two of varnishing:

Front view of handmade five-string fiddle with early coats of varnish.
Front view, with early coats of varnish.


Back view of handmade Oregon 5-string fiddle with early varnish coats.
Back view with early varnish coats.


Later Varnish

After the early varnish is well-cured, I scrape or sand away any sags, drips, or brush-marks. I also remove any brush-hairs that might have been overlooked earlier. Then, I lightly sand over the entire instrument. The aim is to produce a smooth surface upon which to deposit subsequent coats of varnish. (Usually, there will be about eight coats, overall, by the time I am done varnishing.)

I add the deeper color coats, still striving to produce the shading that would go along with the old instruments that everyone finds so attractive. (I have numerous excellent photos of “old-master” instruments to study, from which to gain ideas as to what is “normal” wear.) So, here are photos of the front and back of the same instrument after further layers of varnish have been applied.

Front view of Handmade Bluegrass 5-string fiddle with later layers of varnish.
Front view of same 5-string fiddle with later layers of varnish.


Back view of handmade 5-string fiddle made of Oregon Big Leaf Maple.
Back view with later varnish layers. I like that back, of Oregon Big Leaf Maple!


Future plans:

I anticipate about two or three more coats of amber varnish to deepen the shine and improve the clarity. There will be some re-touching done as needed, of course. This will be especially true after I re-install the fingerboard and fit the pegs, to begin set-up. But, the varnish is looking pretty much the way it will when it is finished, in terms of overall color. The red will probably look a little less intense, but it will still be there.

I hope to have it playing next week sometime.

This is the “sister instrument” to a five-string fiddle made last year. Each was built from wood salvaged from the scraps after I built a five-string Double Bass last Summer.

Here are some clips of the sister instrument played by Andy Pastor:

And, here is a 15″ 5-string viola, currently for sale in Charlotte, North Carolina, at “The Violin Shoppe!”

Thanks for looking.

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