A Varnisher's Toolbox: The Basics of Varnishing a Violin

2023 UNH Violin Craftmanship Institute will be held online.

A few hundred years of secretive craft practices and vague terminology in ancient art books has rendered the term ‘varnish’ loaded. This course will attempt to break through the confusion of 'magic ingredients’ and 'lost recipes’ and instead focus on an overall theory of varnishing. A basic coating will be created made up of discrete layers using traditional materials and methods. Topics will include:

  • Preparing the wood for varnish
  • Making a pore filler
  • Grinding pigments in oil
  • Application of varnish

Students will gain an understanding of varnishing in general and come away with the tools to create their own coating that will expand as their experience grows. No prior experience is necessary. Emphasis will be placed on tradition, and a moderate attempt will be made to capture the 'spirit’ of the classic Italian varnishes.

A list of the tools and materials required for this course can be found under the Tools & Materials tab above, or by clicking here.

Tools & Materials


A Varnisher's Toolbox: The Basics of Varnishing a Violin

UNH Course: A Varnisher’s Toolbox, the Basics of Varnishing a Violin​ - Tools and Materials
Instructor: Michael Anthony Daddona

One to three completed violins 'in the white’ will be needed, ideally with fingerboards removed. Various pieces of maple rib stock will also be extremely useful for experimentation, along with various 'off cuts’ of both spruce and maple. Due to the nature of oil based materials, the more pieces students have to work on, the less likely they will be halted due to drying considerations. UV cabinets will be provided to minimize dry time but cannot guarantee perfect results.

A note from the instructor:

Students should be aware that varnish supplies can be quite expensive. A basic “clear” varnish will be needed, as stated in the “Tools and Materials” list. Your choice of varnish material can be made based on any number of reasons, including price. I’ve listed some decent commercially available varnishes having various price points. Do not feel as though you need to purchase the most expensive material to have success in class. Having a good process (which I hope to teach you) will better determine your success than any material in a jar, however expensive. A 30ml jar of material will be enough for the class, allowing you to varnish several violins. If any student has some experience and wishes to bring more expensive violins or perhaps one they have made, that is great. But those students with limited experience or are new should not feel they have to have the finest of materials to begin with. The same holds for choosing pigments. I've made some recommendations for basic colors, but, again, students should feel free to make choices based on experience. Choose pigments you like, but it is important that they are 'transparent’. There will be trial and error, hopefully not too much error, in learning to varnish a violin. I hope to make it as fun and affordable as possible.

Tools and Materials:

Item Source Example
Roll of paper towel Supermarket N/A
Various jars and small cups N/A N/A
1/8' plate glass Hardware store 6" X 6" or similar
4- 1" foam brushes Hardware store N/A
Hair dryer N/A N/A
Small scraps of linen Fabric store N/A
Grain alcohol Liquor store Graves or Everclear
Small tweezers Hardware store or equivalent N/A
Roll of Saran wrap Supermarket N/A
Apron (optional) N/A N/A
Nitrile gloves Supermarket/pharmacy N/A
Respirator Hardware store 3M "half face" or similar
Scrapers (sharp/ready to use) Tool supply International Violin #T23 or equivalent
Micro mesh Tool supply Assorted grits 2000-6000 International Violin #M2000-M6000
Varnish brushes 1 lg 1 1/4" 1sm 1/2" Tool supply International Violin #103715 & #10360 or equivalent
Stiff bristle brush Tool supply International Violin #10345 or equivalent
3" porcelain dishes Art supply Dick Blick #03071-1005 or equivalent
2 Palette knives Art supply Dick Blick #03115-1003 or equivalent
Tripoli Art supply Kremer Pigments #599920 or equivalent
Turpentine Art supply Dick Blick #Y01563-1005 or equivalent
Mineral spirits Art supply/hardware store N/A
Ammonia (small jar) Supermarket N/A
Potassium nitrite Specialty supply Woodfinishing Enterprises 1oz #01-0180-2
Commercial varnish choices: (see notes)    
Joha (clear varnish) Tool supply International Violin #1010C
Holtier (clear varnish) Tool supply Woodfinishing Enterprises #25-2950-1
Old Wood ( "italian varnish') oldwood1700.com Old Wood #13023
DR J G McIntosh (transparent rosinate oil) Tool supply Woodfinishing Enterprises #25-2958-1
Pigment choices: (see notes)    
Alizarin Crimson Art supply Windsor Newton #1214004
Purple Madder Art supply Windsor Newton #1214543
Brown Madder Art supply Windsor Newton #1214056
"Lake Pigment" (optional/experienced student) Art supply Kremer Pigments #37202 or #372141
2-4 trial violins "in the white" Violin/instrument supply International Violin #3695 or #3712
Various scrap pieces of maple and spruce N/A N/A
Maple rib stock Violin/instrument supply N/A

Suggested Reading:

Violin Varnish notes and articles from the workshop of Koen Padding ISBN 978-0-9933075-0-8.


Instructor Bios


A Varnisher's Toolbox: The Basics of Varnishing a Violin

  • Michael Anthony Daddona

    Michael began his career in woodworking in the mid 90’s as a furniture and cabinet maker. With a deep love of music and a desire to practice a more traditional craft, he eventually turned to violin making. He began an apprenticeship in the workshop of Francis Morris where he stayed for eleven years. Michael has also had numerous short term trainings with many recognized masters currently in the field, and has numerous relationships with some of today’s finest living makers.

    Michael has been awarded a Certificate of Merit for Tone at the 2018 Violin Society of America’s international violin making competition. He has taught violin set up and continues to teach varnishing at the University of New Hampshire Violin Craftsmanship Institute. He is a co-founder of Temple Violins in Hudson, NY.

This course is currently unavailable.