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Violin/Taking apart a violin and putting it back together again

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QUESTION: HI,

My 14 year old daughter wants me to buy a banged up violin so she can take it apart and put it back together again and strip the varnish and repaint it.  I was wondering if you have any tips and also what type of glue I should get her if she decides to completely dismantle it rather than just stipping the varnish and repainting it?

I was thinking of getting an old Pfrehschner or whatever I can get for about $60 (although I hear they are heavy violins).  I was going to steer clear of any with cracks, but do you think if she glued the cracks that it would be an issue?

Thanks for any advice you can give,

Claire

ANSWER: Hi Claire

I will answer more fully later after I have a better idea of what your daughter wants to do.

One of the first things you must think about is how you are going to put the instrument  back together, assuming you meant by that to remove the top. Gluing the top on requires clamping it all around so that nothing is left open and the neck is at the proper angle, that requires about 30-35 clamps. Since you were asking about glue (hot hide glue always), I assume you are talking about the removal of the top, but I just want to be sure before going into too much detail. Cracks are a different issue, but can also be tackled if one knows how to proceed.

Depending on what you want the end result to be, keep in mind that "paint" ruins the sound.  If she is looking at producing an art work, that is fine, but if she wants an instrument that can be played, the paint will destroy the sound.  I know you are only talking about a low quality instrument, but it will still make it sound worse than it originally was.

Let me know what her plans for "taking apart" are so that I may more fully answer your question.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thanks for your reply, I have talked to my daughter and it seems she just wants to mess with the finish for now (so no gluing and clamping required).

I have done a little web surfing and I think that I might be able to persuade her to use some dyes that can be added to varnishes - I saw some called TransTint, but know nothing about them or what varnish should be made or store bought to use - although I want to try and avoid a heavy varnish, is there such a thing as an oiled finish? Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

I think she plans on still trying to get a tune out of it for practice at home, after she has finished messing with it, but don't worry - she has a more expensive one that she uses for Orchestra at school.

Thanks,

Claire

Answer
Hi again

Let's assume you are going to strip the varnish, I would recommend that you use a citrus based furniture stripper like Citristrip available at Home Depot. This is much better than sanding or scraping off the old finish. Transtints are nice but they are expensive ($20 each) and you don't use very much as they are very highly concentrated, easy to use too much. Once the violin is stripped, in the white, the wood needs to be sealed. This may be easier on a stripped instrument than on a new wood instrument since some of the original finish may have sealed the pores of the wood somewhat.  In any case, orange shellac works well for this, a hardware store version like Bullseye works fine, also available at Home depot, this should be diluted to about 1:3 ratio with denatured or grain alcohol (also used to clean the brushes after using the shellac.  Usually 2-3 coats very lightly sanded with 320 (wet-dry), use dry at this point or use wet with odorless mineral spirits, which you will need anyway to clean your brushes later when doing the actual varnishing. We don't want to use water as it will raise the wood grain. If you choose to use Transtint, a drop or two of a yellow or yellow brown will give it a nice ground color.

Once the shellac ground layers are dry, the process of actually varnishing the instrument can start.  I also recommend an oil finish as it is easier to apply than a spirit finish. An easy to use product called "Birchwood - Casey Gun Stock Finish" is available, sometimes even at Walmart, do an internet search, it can also be ordered on line from lots of places. The smallest bottle should be enough (I think it's 3 oz.).  This is a linseed oil based finish that is similar to what a lot or European instrument makers used in the late 1800's. It is fast drying and Transtint can be mixed into it.  You might prefer to get some Artist Oil Colors instead (around $10-12 each), again the Transtint is very concentrated and twice the price. The idea with varnishing a violin is that you use different colors in different layers and build it up, that is how you get the transparency and depth of field that good violins have.  Here is an example of the layers using some artist colors:
1) Artist Oil (AO) Transparent Earth Yellow
2) AO Transparent Orange and AO Transparent Earth Red
3) AO Transparent Earth Red
4) AO Transparent Earth Red and AO Asphaltum
5) AO Asphaltum

If you use the Transtints - these are the ones that I have used: Amber, Honey Amber, Golden Brown, Reddish Brown, Medium Brown, Dark Vintage Maple, Red Mahogany.  You won't need all, but pick at least 3 or four from lighter to darker. Skip mixing it first with mineral spirits and just add it directly to the finish and mix very, very well. Final reminder, a drop or two is a lot.

Notice you keep changing colors, remember a little red goes a long way and you can't get rid of it if it is too red. For each one of these, about 1/8" to 1/4" squeezed out from the tube is often enough.  Always try the varnish color in the peg box before starting on the instrument, you can always make it darker. Varnish in the direction of the woods grain, it can hide any inconsistencies. A few drops of Kerosene in the finish can make the application smoother, too much and it can make it runny. Be careful around the F holes because of runs, check back and lift off any runs with a dab from a finger or a clean lint free cloth.

The amount of each color is to taste and needs to be completely dissolved in the finish before starting the application. Mixing the color first with a few drops of mineral spirits makes it easier to mix with the finish material. I like to use the little plastic disposable condiment containers from fast food places to mix my varnish coats. You can just toss them when done.  

Between each coat after it dries, use the 320 wet with mineral spirits, you are only trying to remove any dust that has adhered. Each coat should take one to two days to dry. After all the color coats are done, apply two that are only the clear finish, this will allow for rubbing out so you don't go through the color. You may want to use some 600 grit at this point for the final preparation. Don't forget that you don't varnish the neck itself. As you varnish each layer, you may want to clean any finish out of the peg holes while it is still wet, otherwise you may end up changing the sizes of the holes causing an issue with the pegs later on.

This is not a simple task, there are some violin varnishes available that has the color already mixed in. One place to get these is from International Violin Company.  This varnish takes longer to dry between coats and is sometime difficult to get it dark enough, at least to my taste, however there is little to no mixing. Otherwise the directions are basically the same. Be sure to varnish in a space that is as dust free as possible, these aren't bad for you chemicals, check about the stripper, but that can be done outside if needed.  

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David Lashof

Expertise

I can answer questions on violin, viola, cello and bass making, repair and maintenance as well as supply general violin value ranges and information on instrument makers’ assuming the instrument's as labeled. I don't give values for modern makers as many of these modern makers are yet unknown to me. I can only give you feedback based on what information you give me, and no authority on the instrument can know every maker's work that ever lived. I have access to many books on makers and auction prices on over 25,000 makers, as well as having 36 years of experience with selling and appraising violins. Without having the instrument in hand, any estimate over the internet is just a guess as the label inside an instrument is more often wrong than right, so just having that information is not very useful. Pictures can sometimes be helpful but only so much, as the "feel" of the instrument along with small clues in workmanship and varnish cannot be seen in pictures. Any pictures should be high quality close-ups of the top and back. Additional photos of the front and treble side of the neck are also useful. It is always best to have an instrument seen in person at a violin shop that does appraisals. I can also provide advice on bows, rosin, strings and other string instrument accessories. As I am now retired, I have no bias towards selling anything; I only wish to share my knowledge and experience by providing information for those that may be getting confused by misinformation, misdirection or conflicting statements. (While I have seen many thousands of instruments and have performed numerous appraisals; if I have not evaluated an instrument in person, any information I set forth in an opinion is just that, an opinion based solely on what you have provided. Thusly, no financial decision should be based on that opinion, but rather, further investigation should be performed by having the instrument examined in person.)

Experience

I am a retired violin maker and repairman with 35 years experience having worked in Chicago and Maryland at 5 different violin shops and music stores including the first violin repairman at William Harris Lee in Chicago, the head repairman at Weavers Violins in Maryland, and in my own shop of 25 years. I have made 160 instruments and have restored countless professional level and student grade instruments. I am an accomplished violinist having performed with semi-professional as well as amateur groups although I haven't played for years and mostly stay away from questions about playing. I have taught violin making and restoration to about 20 students; three of which have gone on professionally and now have their own shops. I know violins from playing, selling, repairing, making and teaching.

Organizations
Violin Society of America (VSA). American String Teachers Association (ASTA)

Education/Credentials
I graduated from the prestigious 4 year Chicago School of Violin Making in 1981 under Master Violin Maker Tschu Ho Lee. I also studied with violin maker Willis M. Gault in Washington DC from 1973-75, who was the former owner of the oldest known example of an instrument from the modern violin family, an Andreas Amati Viola.

Awards and Honors
2008 Chester Petranek Award for service to the music community. ASTA award for service. Top All Expert in Violin for 2014 and 2015.

Past/Present Clients
I have worked with many professional musicians from DC area Symphonies as well as players from all over the US. Here are just a few, Leonard Slatkin - Former conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. Doris Gazda - Nationally renowned string specialist and composer. Bernard Greenhouse, Tanya Anisimova - Internationally renowned Solo Cellists. Jody Gatwood, Mark Pfannschmidt, Lori Barnet, Doug Dubé, Judy Silverman - National Philharmonic Orchestra. Robert Blatt, David Hardy, Glen Garlick - National Symphony Orchestra. Eddie Stubbs, Brendan Mulvahill, Nate Leath - Professional Fiddle Players. David Basche, Pat Braunlich, John Knudson, Romano Solano, Ed Ferris, Fred Lieder - freelance musicians.

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