Antiquing. Why it is attractive, and what’s wrong with it.
I normally antique my instruments and I do it for two main reasons: for visual richness, and for variety. Visual richness and variety are two features of objects that have aged naturally and Nature is supreme in providing these qualities. This is a feature that is recognized and embraced in the tradition of Wabi-Sabi in many Japanese arts and crafts. Wabi-Sabi recognizes that nothing is perfect, nothing is finished and nothing lasts. This understanding is tacitly acknowledged in violinmaking by our practice of mimicking genuinely old, worn instruments.
Antiquing an instrument well is a highly skilled exercise in observation and application and I’m in awe of those who have mastered it. I don’t claim to do it well, I don’t have the patience, nerve and doggedness that is required to reach the standards that are being achieved by today’s best practitioners. Though I antique my own instruments, I do have some philosophical problems with it: there is the nagging feeling feel that, where one of the ultimate goals is to deceive the viewer, there’s something slightly furtive and dishonest going on. A second problem is the implicit assumption that the new violin will always be second best to the original. You lose before you start!
A Good honest finish
What if we could have a finish for our instruments that had some of the very attractive qualities, the variety and visual textures of old or antiqued instruments, but without some of the negative baggage? In other words a finish that is proudly what it is, and is not pretending to be something it’s not.
I’m imagining a finishing technique where you would set up the conditions, run the process and get the results. A process where you know that the results will fall within a predictable range, but you don’t know exactly what you will get in the end. In other words there would be a degree of controlled randomness, and every finished instrument would be unique.
We already commonly use one such technique when we “craquelure” varnish that has already been applied to a violin. This could be developed by deliberately making varnishes that crackle by themselves. There are techniques used in other crafts that make use of controlled randomness. I list a few here. They are not directly applicable to violin finishes but perhaps some of the underlying principals could be harnessed.
Examples of controlled randomness in other crafts
Ceramic glazes probably have the greatest diversity of colors and textures in surface finish of any craft. The random element can be tightly controlled or highly unpredictable
Animal glue is spread onto glass. As the glue dries and shrinks, it pulls chips of glass from the surface. This is the original frosted glass. I’ve heard that some German violinmakers used a similar technique on violin varnish to produce a random texture. I’ve never seen an example, but I think that this is worth pursuing.
Inks are floated on water, a receptive surface, usually paper, is laid on the surface and the ink pattern is transferred. There are many traditional patterns, with varying degrees of control or randomness.
Cloth is bunched and tied before dying. The uneven penetration of the dye creates patterns that range from random to quite controlled.
The crust of the bread becomes hard and inert in the oven while the inside continues to expand. A sprinkling of flour or a glaze highlights the contrast between the cracks and the inert surface.
The Holy Grail
Finding a finish which, through controlled randomness, would quickly mimic some of the qualities of a naturally aged object has been a holy grail of mine for years. Like all the best grails, it feels within reach, even though I’ve had only small tastes of success so far.
Here are some things I’ve thought of. I’ve tried some of them.
Dye diffusion patterns when you drop colored inks onto a solvent or absorptive surface and they bleed towards each other. You could perhaps prime a surface with something absorptive, bleed on colors then fix the resulting patterns with a more or less durable coating
Forming crystals on, or under the varnish which could later be washed out leaving crystalline texture. An artist friend was freezing Sumi ink in trays and capturing the frost patterns onto paper. How cool would it be to have a fiddle with fern frond ice patterns all over, and then have those patterns wear and age over time?
Organic: let insects attack the surface, either the wood or the varnish for a short period. Let lichens, molds or fungus grow.
Handwork – Nothing is perfect
Another way to get this controlled randomness is through hand application. We already value the diversity of form in violins that comes from hand work. There are many other arts and crafts that have an ideal form and realizations that are varied. I’m thinking again of some ceramic glazes applied with broad brush strokes. Or calligraphy, particularly some Asian brush calligraphy, where a practiced hand aims to produce an ideal form and then embraces variety that comes from imperfect implementation.
Here are some brush and ink ideas I had for applying a colored topcoat of varnish that might drip a little and craze a little, but could give a design that is engaging from a distance and close up.
Age and Use – Nothing lasts
However we finish our instruments, that is just the beginning of their natural aging process. Here are some classes of forces that modify the appearance of objects as they age;
- Surface reactions – oxidation, cracking, color changes.
- Accretions – dirt. Organic growths : Lichen, moss, molds, bacteria
- Abrasions, either from repeated human use or from other sources of motion in the environment, say two tree branches rubbing together, or rocks tumbling past each other in moving water. The surface interactions form a continuum from dents and scratches, which lead, as they become progressively finer, thru a matte to a polished surface
All materials have different susceptibilities to the forces / agents listed above. The balance of these reactions as a material ages becomes an identifying feature of the material. Silver and bronze polish and tarnish easily. Gold polishes, dents and scratches easily but doesn’t tarnish. Marble and granite take a hard shine and resist organic growths. Limestone takes a dull polish and, if left outside, quickly becomes a garden of lichen and moss.
Patina – Polish and dirt
Harder woods will take a polish and are easier to clean. Softer woods take less of a shine and absorb more dirt and are discolored by it. For that reason we have violin varnish which goes onto the maple and spruce but less onto the rosewood and ebony parts. The varnish hardens the wood surface and resists abrasion and the accumulation of dirt. The varnish itself is a reactive material which will age depending on its composition. Varnish might be hard and relatively inert or soft and reactive.
All woods can change color, either darkening or bleaching as they react to the atmosphere and ultra violet light. Varnishing may or may not slow this process
Stradivari’s blue jeans
I always like to call on Stradivari to validate my current crackpot theories, so here goes: I suggest that The Classic Violinmakers who introduced a friable, highly colored top coat on top of a durable lower varnish treatment, were consciously creating a finish which they knew would wear and “age” in a short period. Or, if the finish wasn’t designed specifically to wear beautifully, when they saw their instruments coming back scratched and “deteriorated” within a few years of leaving the shop, they embraced these natural effects of age and use. This would have been in much the same way that we enjoy the natural wear on our blue jeans. We could buy jeans that don’t fade, but some of us enjoy watching our pants reveal the ongoing story of their lives. It is a small celebration of the principals of Wabi-Sabi: That nothing is perfect, nothing lasts, and nothing is finished.