Luthier Steffen Nowak Contemplates the Varnishing Process

What’s your favorite part of the process of making an instrument—what day do you most look forward to?

After more than 30 years as a professional violin maker, most aspects of my profession remain interesting and stimulating. And the varnishing of my instruments still gives me an anticipatory sense of excitement. It is the culmination of all stages of the making process, and the finished instrument with its colorful transparent varnish is the first aspect that a prospective client sees and reacts to.

The varnishing process is governed by acoustic as well as visual considerations. It should enhance rather then hinder the vibration of the wood. It should boost the structure of the wood when light shines on it.


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It can be a challenge to varnish a new instrument evenly and to make it stand out. The assumption often is that old violins are of a golden or brown color. But the bright colors and pigments of the Baroque period can be observed in the churches, paintings, and best-preserved instruments of the Classical period.

I love to varnish my instruments evenly and “straight,” but also to impart gentle shading with light patinated textures for a more mellow look. Both finishes allow the player to impart natural wear over the next years and decades, rather than rushing 300 years ahead with heavy antiquing.

I always wonder, after making a “perfect” copy of say, a Strad, for the fortunate owner, and having copied the half dozen or so most obvious scratches in the varnish, does the copy need further “antiquing” should the original suffer another unsightly mishap? And what to do if the copy suffers some damage—will the Strad then need to undergo the same “correction”?  

Steffen Nowak, maker of fine violins, violas and cellos