The Art of Violin Restoration

This article is about restoration in general and not a DIY guide.

Background

Post the era of Amati, Stradivarius and Guarneri, masterpieces started gradually diminishing in number. This brought in the need for restoration of violins. Naturally the skill of the violin repairer had to improve to restore instruments to their original condition. Repairing and restoration are closely related. However restoration implies the additional task of adding wood (grafting) to compensate for missing or damaged pieces of wood. This could be anywhere in the body, neck or scroll. The final part of violin restoration is touching up the repair to the match the original wood.

This is easier said than done!

Grafting

Restoration is to imitate old work in minute detail. Most luthiers will have in their possession a collection of splinters of pine and maple, carefully sorted according to age, grain and texture. These pieces of wood which may look like scrap to an outsider, are in fact essential to the luthier who is restoring an instrument. Wood that is filled in for missing pieces has to match grain for grain. In order to match grains, sometimes a luthier will take wood from the underside of the instrument and insert it on the outside.

Varnish Touch-up

Touching up or cosmetically finishing repair work so that the varnish matches the surrounding wood is possibly the most difficult technique to master. This is because the old varnish with its partial decay  must be closely imitated. Usually, spirit varnish is used. The aim is to fill in and level the minute valley that may exist after grafting rather than varnish over everything. Retouch varnish is used in layers. Each layer has to dry completely before applying the next coat. For making retouch varnish, a mix of shellac, mastic crystals and sandrac is dissolved in alcohol. Sometimes other ingredients are also added depending on color. Restorers are known for their innovative methods. As an example, for brown color, a little burnt sugar will give a good tint!

In the final stage, rubbing down freshly varnished portions with fine grade glass paper brings about a smooth finish. Linseed oil is applied on the varnish before rubbing down. This can be done only when the varnish is completely dry. All this requires much patience and time. Restoration of an instrument can take months and is expensive.

A three string, 19th century Double Bass Restoration done by Philip Peter

Before restoration                                                          After restoration

Double Bass in need of restoration                Double Bass after restoration

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