[ the craft of the guitar maker ]


7. The Age of Alchemy

THERE is no aspect of instrument making more difficult for the maker than that of varnishing. There are so many possibilities, and yet no one varnish seems to exactly fit your requirements. There is probably some agreement among makers as to the list of desirable qualities of a good varnish. The trouble is that you then have to rank these qualities in order of importance. This means that the final choice can vary enormously from maker to maker. In these next articles, we look at some of the varnishes used, and some of the reasons for using them.

First, why use varnish at all? The varnish covering a musical instrument serves several purposes. It protects the wood from wear where it comes into contact with the hands and clothing of the player. It also seals the wood from dirt and moisture. This makes the instrument more stable during humidity changes, and preserves its attractiveness. And finally, sometimes in conjunction with colour-coating, it enhances the natural beauty of the timber itself.

Some sort of surface treatment for wood has been common at least since Roman times. In China, lacquer was first used centuries earlier than this. After I000 years of accumulated skill, craftsmen were able to create masterpieces of extraordinary complexity. To give a sufficient depth of lacquer for carving it often took up to 300 individually applied layers! Virtually all surviving European instruments show the use of some kind of varnish, and quite often colouring agents as well.

The earliest European finishes were very simple, such as beeswax or oil. Oils such as linseed were left in sunlight in open trays until they began to thicken, then spread on the wood and left to dry. Cricketers still treat their bats in much the same way today.

By medieval times, the alchemists had been busy. The list of possible ingredients for their concoctions is almost endless. They include a number of gums and resins, which are almost entirely bled from incisions made in the trunks or stems of various plants. There are several oils, from crushed fruit or seeds. There are solvents like alcohol (men don't seem to have had much trouble discovering the art of brewing!) and turpentine. The latter is one of the main products originally obtained from the larch by distillation. The other, interestingly enough, is rosin, without which violinists could not use their bows. Then, finally, there are the colouring agents, extracted from some insects, plants, or mineral ores.

Various combinations of these, put in the melting pot, may give all sorts of possible 'varnishes'. So much has already been speculated that there is no point in adding more possible recipes here.

It seems probable that early lute makers used two main types of varnish. In 1526 the Duke of Ferrara sent an assistant to inquire of a recipe for some lute varnish. The assistant wrote back: 'The celebrated lute maker Sigismond Maler has promised to give me in writing by Monday next the recipe of the varnish he uses, as well as the manner of putting it on the lutes. This master also tells me that he has two kinds of varnish, and that it is his assistants, not he himself, who make it.' As well as the lute makers, the violin makers developed their own equally elusive varnishes. This must rank as the most controversial varnish of all time. In spite of the best efforts of all those involved in this field, nobody has yet succeeded in reconstructing this fascinating varnishing process. There is one very curious tale about the 'lost secrets' of the varnish used by the Cremona makers. There is, in fact, a very faint possibility that the recipe used by Stradivari himself may still be in existence. During their monumental research of the life and works of Stradivari, the Hill brothers contacted one Giacomo Stradivari, a proven descendant of the luthier, living at the end of the last century. According to him, he accidentally found a recipe for varnish, written in Stradivari's own hand, on the inside cover of a bible that had been passed down through their family for generations. In spite of repeated requests to make public the information, he refused right until his death, with the following explanation:

'You make an impossible request, one which I cannot grant you, as I have never confided the secret of the varnish even to my wife or my daughters. You may consider it an eccentricity on my part; but nevertheless, until I arrive at a different opinion, I wish to be consistent with and remain faithful to the resolution of my youth never to reveal to anybody the contents of this precious recipe, holding steadfastly to the conclusions I arrived at when still a boy: that, if by chance other Stradivaris - my sons, nephews, grandsons, or grandnephews - should turn their attention to the craft of our celebrated ancestor, they should then at least have the advantage of possessing the recipe of his varnish, the possession of which could not but be of material assistance to them.....

If such a recipe ever existed, it has never since come to light. With each passing year the probability of this happening becomes a little more remote. True, we have the possibility of carrying out chemical analysis on the surviving varnish, but the organic chemistry is so complicated that it is currently impossible to reconstruct the mixture of ingredients. It seems probable that this knowledge has been lost for ever. One of the reasons that these varnishes originally fell into disuse was that a fantastic new varnish had made its appearance in Europe. It was called 'French Polish'. Although we now think of this as an extremely ancient material, it is a sobering thought that many of the finest luthiers of Europe were long dead before this varnish was ever invented. If we gather together all of their instruments, our collection would include almost every lute ever built and all the violins of the old Italian masters.

We will look more at these early varnishes next month.

©1990 Trevor Semple

"Classical Guitar Magazine", February 1991

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