Full Chisel Blog

March 14, 2010

Where did Antonio Stradivarius buy his varnish?

Filed under: Finishing,Of Interest,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 2:03 pm


I doubt Stradivarius and all other luthiers of the time period [18th century] made their own varnish.  I wouldn’t be surprised that some of them sent their instruments out to be finished.  If they didn’t then they bought the best local varnish available and who what that from?  I would guess that it was from the local carriage maker, they had the best varnish.  Cabinet makers of the period would frequently purchase varnish already mixed up, in larger cities they would have sent their furniture out to be varnished.

The Painter, Gilder and Varnisher made their own paints and varnishes because that was their business and while they could purchase it already mixed up and ready to use, it was a matter of economy as well as tradition.  It was cheaper to make up their own because of the large quantity they went through.  Making varnish is a bit tricky and requires specialized equipment and unique materials, so unless you were in the business of using it every day, you simply didn’t make your own.

This is true for all of the other trades, so it makes sense that musical instrument makers, the bulk of their work is making the instrument, investing in the tools and wood, etc., to make their instruments and would spend little time [compared to construction] in the finish of their instruments.  Making a small amount of varnish still requires a great deal of time, some varnishes need to age for months before they were used and time is money.  It was more in their financial interest to invest their time in making their instruments, not varnish.

The legendary Vernice Martin, considered the finest furniture varnish ever made was produced by the Martin brothers [particularly Robert] in the 18th century for varnishing the carriages they made.  They found they could make more money making furniture and using their varnish [and selling it as well] and the rest is history.

If you want to know what the mysterious varnish was on these lovely instruments, find out what kind of varnish was used on wagons in Cremona.



  1. The local Venetian Borg?

    I agree with your suggestion that varnishes were purchased from established makers. Perhaps the luthier added ingredients to achieve their own ‘secret’ finish, or not. I wonder if there are any Italian luthiers listening in who might know?


    Comment by Gary Roberts — March 14, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

  2. Stephen, I’d be interested to learn your source or reference material for your supposition. I have no doubt many trades obtained their raw materials from a common supplier, but I seriously doubt if any luthier worth his salt would use the same varnish (and probably not even the same ingredients) that was applied to a carriage! The few luthiers I know are extremely particular with their varnish ingredients and application.

    Carriages were outwardly impressive looking and shiny, but the final gleam was derived from much rubbing with pumice and rouge – the actual varnish could well have had more than the odd fly and other impurity in it.

    The answer could most likely be found here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6W6G-4V1K538-9&_user=10&_coverDate=12%2F31%2F2008&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1249102874&_rerunOrigin=google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=a8598515789c36f5ffe5df006d8c177d

    Comment by Jack Plane — March 15, 2010 @ 1:07 am

  3. Why you doubt that Antonio Stradivari (not Stradivarius) made his own varnish?
    The secret of its extraordinary instruments is not only to be found in the varnish used, but also in the timber.
    He personally went to choose which trees to cut by taking a trip of about 200 km that, of its time, it was not really a simple trip.

    Comment by Auguste Gusteau — March 15, 2010 @ 6:43 am

  4. While singing “I love to go a-wandering along the mountain track…” whacking the trunks and listening to the trees ring.

    Have fun Stephen!

    Comment by Ken Pollard — March 15, 2010 @ 10:21 pm

  5. Gary,

    While the finish is important I think everything involved especially the craftsmanship enters the equation.


    The recent research and analysis of 5 Stradivari violins indicate that it was probably a common varnish consisting of linseed oil, pine resin and an undetermined paint pigment. Why use carriage varnish, everyone did, it was great stuff. Of course it wasn’t applied like carriage painters did with repeated coats rubbed out.


    Because of the nature of varnish manufacture during the time period, it would require a great expense to make an oil based varnish, the resins need to be run in a varnish furnace, the proper treated oil had to be made by aging and some varnishes take months up to a year before they were fit for use. I doubt Stradivari (thank you for the correction) or any other maker made there own, nor did other trades they would purchase them from a Painter, Gilder or Varnisher of the time, if they didn’t send them out to be finished. I don’t think there are records of these luthiers making their own varnish.

    I agree with you the wood was much more important although an instrument in the ‘white’ doesn’t have the same tone as one with a finish. The wood that these makers used was unique in that the stuff was growing during the Maunder Minimum [last inter-glaciation, mini-ice age] and produced trees with exceptionally tight growth rings. The storage of the logs under the piers in water may also contribute to the tonality.


    Of course he did, only in Italian.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — March 16, 2010 @ 9:17 am

  6. Sometimes mythology overpowers reality.

    Comment by Gary Roberts — March 16, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

  7. Thank you for your replay, Stephen, but I don’t agree with you.
    I think that Stradivari made his own varnish (that was different from the one used by Amati or Guarneri del Gesù) as many Cremonese luthiers still do today.
    The varnish used by Stradivari is a “banal” mixture of pine resin and oil and is not so important for the sound of his instruments.
    Much more important was the underlying treatment based on potash, silica and coal.
    The wood after long exposure to this compound, was almost crystallized, or in luthiers terms “ossified.”
    The actual varnish could not be applied directly at this point because it would react chemically with the first layer. So Stradivari applied a second layer, an insulator composed of egg white, honey, sugar and gum arabic.

    What you write about the particular wood from Val di Fiemme, who grew up during the so-called “little ice age” and taking a long time in water during transport is correct.

    Cremona is a beautiful city, but is very small and in the 16th century was even more small, and probably there was no one selling ready varnish.


    Comment by Auguste Gusteau — March 16, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

  8. Since we know Stradivari was a woodworker by trade, and that he happened into the violin making business by chance, it is certainly possible that he made his own varnish.

    Comment by Rich — December 12, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

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