Your violin should now be the yellow/brown/honey color, the ground properly dry and cured. Generally, when varnishing, you should watch out for the following qualities: color, darkness, thinness, transparency.

Color layer

The next layer is the Madder tincture. Refer to the Madder tincture section on how to prepare the tincture. Make sure the tincture is the right viscosity and that it doesn't streak. Test on scrap wood.
  1. Put one coat of Madder tincture on the back of the violin. Work quickly, wiping off any excess tincture with a paper towel. Let dry for at least an hour.
  2. If the color looks good to you, apply to the remaining parts of the violin.
  3. Let dry for at least an hour or two otherwise you risk dissolving the last layer when putting on a fresh one.
  4. Repeat until you think its red enough.
  5. Now you can accentuate some parts of the violin with more color. Study other violins which you consider good looking. The areas with more color are often the C bouts and the scroll. Use a small brush and/or your fingers.
  6. Let dry overnight.

Color oil varnish layers

Before you continue, make sure there are no fibers sticking out anywhere. Use a 1200 grade sand paper to make the surface even. Don't overdo it, you still want to retain the character.

Refer to the section Varnish recipes for how to prepare an oil varnish. The varnish can be colorized and darkened:

a) During the cooking / see the recipes.
b) By adding tar / darkening
c) By adding Madder lake / reddening

We will use options a and b, namely the Wood ash oil varnish, which has during its cooking been already colorized/oxidized by the Wood ash oil varnish which gave it a dark brown-yellow tint and add some tar the make its color even darker. We may use the option c if the violin seems to want more red.
  1. Pour some of the varnish in a new jar.
  2. To make the varnish darker, add a couple of drops of tar and check the result.
  3. If the varnish is too viscous, add a little turpentine, stir and check again.
  4. Put a drop on the back of the violin to see how it will look like.
  5. If you feel its too light, add more tar but be careful not to add too much as that would render the varnish impossible to dry. A drop for a milliliter is ok.
  6. If you feel it needs more red, get a glass table and mix a couple of grams of Madder lake into the varnish. A glass muller is great for that.

    Bear in mind though that adding this pigment will decrease transparency of the varnish. It depends on the size of the particles, so only finely ground pigment should be used. It is also a good idea to let the bigger particles of the pigment settle in the varnish for 15 minutes before varnishing.

    Put some of the varnish on the glass, add a bit of Madder lake pigment and using the glass muller, keep making circular movements with it to incorporate the pigment into the varnish. You shouldn't need to press down on the muller, just keep moving it about.
  7. When you are satisfied with the color, try some of it on scrap wood and let dry to see how it behaves.

    The varnish before application should have the consistency of fresh paint. Too thick gives you streaks and is difficult to spread, too thin forces you to do too many layers.

  1. Using a flat 25 mm wide brush put on the first coat of varnish on the back. Make sure there the distribution of varnish is equal without streaks and smudges. Work fast as the varnish starts to thicken in tenths of seconds. Try to work in areas, quarters which you should make perfect fast to move to the next area.

    If there are smudges or other defects, don't worry, you can wipe off the varnish with a cloth, which you should have handy at all times.

    If you cannot avoid smudges, it can be you are using a brush which is too coarse or the varnish is too thick or colored.

    If the varnish runs, you are probably using too much of it or it is the wrong type. There is a great amount of calcium in the Wood ash oil varnish to prevent the running.
  2. If you are satisfied with the coat, using your fingers, go over the edge areas, corners and make sure there is no buildup of varnish there.
  3. Move over to the top side. Again, work quickly. Make sure there is no buildup at the edges, corners and especially in the area of f-holes.
  4. On the ribs, use the least amount of varnish here because it tends to collect underneath the overhangs and then flow towards the center creating an ugly patch.
  5. On the pegbox and scroll again make sure you are using only the amount of varnish necessary. Go over the pegbox holes and collect any varnish buildup there.
  6. Take a look a the whole instrument again and correct errors. A different viewing angle helps so does taking the violin outside and inspecting it under the sun.
  7. Put the violin in the box or outside to dry. Allow at least a day or two per layer.
  8. Use your finger to check how the varnish is curing. When it ceases to be sticky to the touch, you can go over the surfaces removing any zits and dirt with your nail. The varnish is considered sufficiently dry when your finger leaves no fingerprint in it after mild pressure for a couple of seconds at room temperature.

The number of color varnish layers depends on the thickness of the layers, their colorizing effect and common sense which says that less varnish, if possible, affects less the sound of the instrument. With medium thickness varnish layers, three should be enough, supposing the violin has been properly tanned and received some layers of Madder tincture before.


Oil varnishes need UV light to speed up the oxidization of oil. It is best and often fastest to put the violin out in the sun. For this, get a length of firm string {a fishing synthetic line is great} and attach it somewhere, where the sun shines most of the day. A tree branch is great. At the other end create a noose to hang the scroll of the violin on. The violin should freely rotate in preferably a light breeze.

It is important to keep checking the state of the varnish and the violin as a whole. A strong sun, especially without wind can make the violin very hot which can result in dehydration, cracking or blistering of the varnish.

Whenever there is insufficient sunlight, the usage of an UV box is preferred. Check the UV cabinet building section for more info. The cabinet should be spacious enough to allow plenty of fresh air around the hanging violin. Ventilation must be installed /in and out fans/ to supply that fresh oxygen needed for the catalysis process taking place in the varnish and also to prevent the violin from overheating and overdrying and cracks from forming. The key is to keep the temperature inside as low as possible. Putting a bowl of water at the bottom is a good idea, but it will not do much good if the temperature of the instrument itself is too high.

It is a good idea to measure the humidity inside the cabinet. In my cabinet it can get as low as 30 percent so I keep to limit the time the violin stays inside the box as much as possible with breaks /ie. outside during the day and in the cabinet at night/.

Either way, the varnish drying is, along with tanning, the most stressful time for the new violin so bear that in mind and check often.

The drying times are obviously based on many factors. For this reason to make sure every layer is dry enough, press your finger on in for a couple of seconds to see whether it leaves a print. By leaving a print I mean that the varnish will get visibly grooved not that you just leave a fingerprint as on a glass window. If the varnish is still plastic, it is not sufficiently dry. Repeat the test in different areas on the violin, especially if you have a reason to think that certain areas received less UV than others, ie. in the upper curves of the C bouts.

Oil varnish finishing layers

Put on a coat or two of your colorless Wood ash oil varnish to form a protective layer. Following the lean to fat principle, this varnish should have somewhat more oil in it, making it slightly softer.

Category: Varnishing
Comment by
2016-05-06 00:45:08
So when looking online at other peoples work, oftentimes I see that their varnish almost looks like paint as opposed to varnish. It lacks that clarity and just looks like colored paint. Can someone tell me why that may occur?
Comment by Vojtech Blahout
2016-05-07 18:59:24
This could be the result of glazing, applying a layer of colorant in between the layers of varnish. It could also be because the varnish itself was colored with too much pigment which rendered it opaque. Or the varnish itself had a cast /was opaque/ for some reason. Just guessing.
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