A Look at Parisian Violin Makers’ Approach to Varnish

In the case of Parisian violin makers’ approach to varnish, evolution meant a return to the past.

By Andrew Dipper

For those who experienced the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to its final fatal gasps in 1799, the world must have seemed a place of sheer chaos, and yet it was a time of productivity and evolution for some French luthiers. Business and craft associations were set up that mirrored attempts in the rest of Europe to gain advantage over other countries by expanding the efficacy of manufacturing processes and lines of supply.

In this new world, industrial and craft exhibitions—with their diplomas and gold medals—boosted the development of trades and expertise in a significant way. And over time, the ideals of the craft shifted as well, as French luthiers began to more earnestly adopt techniques of the old Cremonese masters. This was especially evident in the way they varnished their instruments.

Fossil copal resin
Fossil copal resin

Old-School Parisian Varnish

The violin-making style of late-18th-century Parisian makers, such as Nicolas Augustin Chappuy (ca. 1730–84), Jean Nicolas Lambert (active ca. 1731–61), Jean Gabriel Koliker (active ca. 1783–1820), and Thomas Bertrand, was generally far from the classical Italian model of the same period, if one considers the finishing of the edge-work and the cutting of the f-holes—and the varnish. The makers of the late-18th century, considered the old Paris school, generally used varnishes based on seed lac with an addition of gum sandarac and gum elemi, all dissolved in alcohol with perhaps the addition of a small quantity of essential oil that covered a base coat of parchment glue-size. These varnishes were fast drying and did not need sunlight to bring them to perfection as oil varnishes do, but they can lack the light-transmitting and illuminating characteristics that oil varnishes have by nature.

A typical recipe using French ounce and pint measures, from Jacques Lacombe’s 1789 edition of The Encyclopédie méthodique, reads:

Varnish for Violins and Other Musical Instruments 

One puts four ounces [19dwt (around 1.6 grams), 16 ¼ grains to the ounce] of sandarac resin in a pint [58.145 cubic English inches] of spirits of wine, two ounces of seed lac, two ounces of tears of mastic, and an ounce of gum elemi: Dissolve the gums over a slow fire at moderate heat. When the alcohol starts to boil a little, incorporate two ounces of galipot [pine turpentine]. When an instrument is subject to repeated handling, the varnish should be made harder. This is why (for violins and other musical instruments) a certain amount of seed lac is prescribed. If too much lac is added, the varnish will be mealy (lack suppleness). To make the varnish hardier one can use a smaller dose of galipot, since this gum tends to soften under the heat of the hand. If you do this, substitute your decrease in the dose of galipot by an identical increase in the dose of gum elemi, which will make the varnish hardier.

But changes were coming, and the Paris of Chappuy, Lambert, Koliker, and Bertrand was soon to give way to Nicolas Lupot (1758–1824), Francois-Louis Pique (1758–1822), and J.B. Vuillaume (1798–1875), where the oil varnishes of the Italian masters became the ideal.

Varnish coating failure on a 19th-century Chanot corner-less violin, circa 1830
Varnish coating failure on a 19th-century Chanot corner-less violin, circa 1830

A Changing Tradition

An association between prominent violin maker Nicolas Lupot (1758–1824) and Abbe Sébastien-André Sibire produced a publication that reflected the changing times, and the idealism of the Paris luthier. The document La Chélonomie, ou Le Parfait Luthier (The Shell of the Turtle, or The Perfect Luthier), sets down Lupot’s thoughts on varnish:

I might remain quiet if the application of varnish didn’t have a marked influence over the air, the wood, and the tonal production of the instrument. A violin in the white only produces sounds that are raw and sharp. Moreover, the violin would begin decaying immediately if the placing on and the spreading of an unctuous liquid did not defend it from the intemperance of the seasons, and above all from the perspiration of the player. But this obligatory covering should not have a muting effect on the instrument. Then while an adhesive ground and then a certain number of coats of varnish are indispensable for the protection of the wood, it is necessary to see that its constitution is perfectly tempered. It must tend to be rather lighter than heavy handed. It must be nourishing to the materials without masking their force and energy, and should make the sound response sweeter without obstructing it. It is not worth the effort to have taken precautions with the compass in order to nullify them with a sorry commodity like ill-conceived varnish. Enamel it as much as you find agreeable, but don’t mute it!

And the materials Lupot preferred for this “obligatory covering” were oil based, as was referenced by a famously reported letter from Lupot to Pique (though the original hasn’t survived):


I beg you, if you can do me the favor at this time to have some of your oil varnish for a few violins, I being short in this time and not having the time to make it. I made some four years ago, that I used up until this time; However, in Paris it is not very convenient to do this, we would need a yard or garden (for the process). As I have two violins to varnish immediately, I would be obliged if you would send me this in a small bottle with rocourt (annatto) to put before the ground coat of saffron, I am not in a particular hurry for the two violins that I mentioned.

The letter has references and details that ring true to the period, when commerce in varnish materials in Paris was disturbed by civil unrest. Certainly the appearance of Lupot’s varnish cannot be said to be consistent, since there are large variations both of quality and color. An association of varnishing technique between Lupot and Pique would explain this. The writing neatly alludes to the complicated process of varnish making—Lupot has no outside space in Paris to make oil varnish, and he would need it.

It is well known from the literature and manuals of the time that the hot fusing of amber, copal, or sandarac with oil was used in the manufacture of the highest-quality varnishes, usually used for exterior work and carriages. Thus the making of it is a very dangerous process and could not be attempted inside a house, as hot oil and resins can be flammable, unstable, and noxious. Making hot-run oil varnish, even in an enclosed garden in the city of Paris, would certainly have enraged the neighbors.

The process is very exacting and one needs time, good materials, and a specially adapted space in which to carry it out successfully. But why didn’t Lupot go to a varnish maker in Paris and purchase it ready-made? There were excellent vernisseurs in the capital. I presume that the answer was probably that Pique knew how to incorporate color (see sidebar on the right “Adding a Dash of Color”) into a special amber varnish—a secret that was practiced by only a few makers. The small amount requested seems to support this idea, as amber varnish is expensive and risky to make. Annatto is similarly difficult to manipulate. It has to be fermented in order to use it correctly and this fermentation is a putrid process. As with the making of oil varnish, it is noxious enough not to have been recommended in a house in the city.

J.B. Vuillaume: Belly of a violin dated 1825 showing a varnish antiquing technique of small splatters and dots between layers of varnish
J.B. Vuillaume: Belly of a violin dated 1825 showing a varnish antiquing technique of small splatters and dots between layers of varnish

A New (Old) Recipe 

The oil varnish of the classic Cremonese Italian luthiers that was becoming the ideal in Paris was the well-known hard varnish also used by engravers and etchers. The famous printmaker and draftsman Jacques Callot (1592–1635) writes that he had his hard varnish Vernicé grosso da Lignaioly imported from Italy ready-made. I have slightly annotated one version of Callot’s recipe, given in Traité des manieres de graver en taille douce sur l’airin of 1701, by the etcher Abraham Bosse (1604–76) so that the process of making oil varnish is more clear:

Take five ounces of Greek pitch [galipot] or if you cannot find this, raw pine resin or some resin of Boulogne [Burgundy pitch]. Take also five ounces of the resin of Tyre or colophony, again if you cannot procure this you may use common resin [larch turpentine]. Melt these two together over a low heat in a sound, well-glazed earthenware pot. When these two substances are well incorporated together and melted, put into it four ounces of good clarified walnut or linseed oil. Mix everything together for around a half an hour then leave the whole to cook until it has just started to thicken. If a drop of this varnish is touched between the fingers it will form strings when it is done. When the varnish has cooled a little more you may pass it through a new cloth into a larger well-glazed or faience jar. After this is done [transfer and] close it up in a thick-walled glass bottle or vessel that will not be permeable to the varnish. Then you may stopper it up. Kept like this the varnish will be good for 20 years and there will be nothing else that is better. I have it on good notice that Monsieur Callot had the varnish he used sent from Italy and that it was made there by the woodworkers (Florentine luthiers in some accounts) and that it was called, Vernicé grosso da Lignaioly and he gave me that which served me well for a long time. At present I use that varnish for which I have given the above recipe. The best varnish is made in Venice and Florence, where it is sold by the spice sellers and pharmacists.

When cooked, this varnish will have a tendency to be a transparent red in color, and its color will deepen with extended cooking, in the same way that a sugar and butter mixture becomes increasingly red when cooked at low temperature for a long time.

After the deaths of Lupot and Pique, Charles Francois Gand (1787–1845) became the violin maker of note in Paris. His oil varnishes are some of the best of this time and the colors are rich and not very fugitive. It is significant that some experts have noted a similarity between the varnishes of Lupot, Pique, and Gand, which are not to be seen in the works of other Parisian luthiers in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This similarity may point to a common process of manufacture or varnish supplier.

The New School Marches On

N.A. Lété, Pique’s son in law, was too involved in the business of manufacturing organs to spend much time in making violins, but he had established a business relationship with a young, talented maker from Mirecourt: J.B. Vuillaume (1798–1875). After working for François Chanot, Vuillaume was engaged as foreman of Lété’s violin commerce and manufacture. Vuillaume had first come to Paris at the age of 20 to work with Chanot on the manufacture of newly designed corner-less violins. The varnish on these corner-less instruments is usually quite thin and hard (resembling copal) but I have seen at least one decorated with a higher grade of finish. After Lété retired, J.B. Vuillaume set up shop on his own in 1828 at 46, Rue Croix-des-Petits Champs.

His first violins were excellent copies of the Cremonese masters without antiquing, but despite having been awarded a silver medal in the industrial exposition of 1827, these did not find a ready market. He began working hard on the confection of the varnishes and grounds, and on the exacting process of distressing his instruments in emulation of the antique.


He was very successful in this enterprise, and with the knowledge and experience that he had gained in mass production in the workshop of Chanot and Lété, his business expanded rapidly.

From the look of Vuillaume’s varnish in the early years, it is apparent that he was continually searching for the recipe of the old Cremonese varnishes. He needed success and the development of a wholesale market in order to succeed in his enterprise of copying the classic Cremonese school of violin making. An account of Vuillaume in the Musical Gazette of Paris in May 1836 states:

M. Vuillaume has established a market for his instruments at a good price, rendering a highly important service to young musicians, as much for the form of the instruments as the varnish. In this regard, these instruments resemble perfectly those of the old Italians, so much that it is difficult for the eye to distinguish the difference between them.

And then in 1841 in the Dictionary of Trade and Commerce:

M. Vuillaume has been renowned for many years for his imitations of ancient violins. This imitation of form, of color, and of varnish is perfect and we have to presume that in the hands of some violinists that these violins will be deemed excellent.


By the late 1850s—after Vuillaume’s success, and reputation for beautiful varnish, was assured—the transformation of the Parisian school from alcohol varnishes to oil-based ones was almost complete. In 1859 the work of Eugène Mailand was published, serving as a milestone in the history of violin making and the study of varnishes. In Mailand’s book, The Varnishes of the Italian Violin-Makers of the Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Centuries, and their Influence on Tone, the recipes are logically listed and various dialect terms all translated into modern language. He writes:

We have stated that the decadence in the manufacture of violin making in Cremona coincides with progress in the development of varnishes, where the one we search for was abandoned and replaced by shellac-based varnishes mixed with other more or less flexible resins, with everything being dissolved in alcohol. We can understand that the luthiers were obliged to use varnishes that would dry in a maximum of eight days so that they could make violins as fast in the winter as in the summer, but these varnishes have no flexibility and become too hard when dry and choke up the tone of the violin. Without doubt we could always use alcohol varnishes with essential oil of turpentine or lavender, of copaiba balsam and castor oil, which give flexibility to the varnish coat and are faster drying than oil or essential oil varnishes, but to what end when it would be better to use that used by our forebears? 

In 1867 Victor Grivel published an account of the “rediscovery” of Cremonese varnish and in the same year, the Société de Statistique des Sciences et des Arts de Grenoble published a report on it as well.

Oil-based varnish, specifically the varnish used by the old Cremonese masters, had become the new standard in Parisian violin making.

Carmine lake color and manzanita root extract, both red colors. Made by Andrew Dipper
Carmine lake color and manzanita root extract, both red colors. Made by Andrew Dipper

Adding a Dash of Color

Some oil-soluble colors were available to the Parisian makers, such as alkanet, alizarin, carmine, and stil-de-grain, but these natural colors have a tendency to be fugitive in oil varnish since the oxidization of the oil and turpentine form part of the process of curing, and so bleach additional colors markedly during the drying stages of the coating.

If an alcohol varnish was chosen by the luthier, the options were more plentiful, as the list of alcohol-soluble dyes is much longer than those that are miscible with oil.

They range from common dyes, like Hungarian paprika and madder root, to various naturally colored shellacs to gamboge (a yellow tree resin), dragon’s blood (a bright red resin), sanders wood (from which an orange dye was extracted), and hybrid dyes that were manufactured to be soluble in alcohol. There were only two other options to Parisian varnish makers at the time:

  1.  Essential oils—but these are slow to dry and expensive.
  2. To use lye to saponify in water all the ingredients of the varnish, including the color, and precipitate the whole using a solution of metallic salts, then re-dissolve the carefully dried precipitate in a suitable solvent. But this is the job of a chemist, not a luthier.