Of Humble Orgins. The Tenor Viola da Gamba of fratelli G.B and Francesco Grancino

 Purchased at auction by Jose Vazquez for the Orpheon consort collection, the instrument bore the telltale signs which easily gave away its original origins. Signs of the filled six pegholes are not always as clear as this on antique instruments. In this case we have a smoking gun. After some consultation and correspondence with the new owner, I began to look more closely at high resolution photos sent to me, it became apparent that the plates may have been reduced at the center joint in order to accommodate  the new cello bridge with more narrow feet, while still maintaining bass bar clearance for the bridge foot.

The top bout has as a result a rather pinched appearance, as if it were squeezed together uncomfortably.

G.Battista Grancino tenor gamba scroll head

One notes when looking closely also, a certain sense of urgency in the outline of this scroll head. The throat, desperately shallow, almost as if an afterthought, reflects a very rapid system of rasping out the original outline. Nevertheless, the scroll retains a certain elegance, the original inspiration being of Amatise orgins. In fact, when looking  closely,   this instrument reflects in all of its facets a musician’s need for good working tools without luxurious embellishments.

The technique of painting on the purfling instead of inlaying is actually quite common through all schools of Continental Lutherie, as well as in the British Isles, and thus paints a very clear and certain picture of the modest means in which it must have come to life.

The discernment  of a Grancino family attribution, while at first troublesome, becomes clear with the painted purfling. This could only have been done by the The Brothers’ Grancino, Francesco and Giovanni, who were the sons of Andrea. Francesco worked from c.1660-1670s. A few instruments bear his original label.  Giovanni Battista and his brother produced quickly executed instruments often with a sense of urgency.  The plain materials, also speak of the general Milanese tradition of using trade woods.

Although the instrument would seem incongruent with  Renaissance ideas about Neoplatonic beauty and qualities of human temperament one must remember both the later date of its construction, as well as the limited patronage of the makers. I have decided to widen the center only slightly (2cm), thus allowing space for the wider bridge feet.

Copying such plain materials would seem a bit pedantic. In contrast, I have decided to embellish the instrument with profuse ornamentation on the corpus, neck and pegbox. As if a fantasy exploration of a reality where the Brothers Grancino had the patronage and financial freedom which they undoubtedly deserved.

Viols with violin shaped outlines in the Italianate tradition offer a unique opportunity for expression of feeling and sound.  In contrast to the English tradition of bent top instruments, both plates will be arched, adding to the possibility of total control of sound. The rather heavy Blackwood scroll will provide a counterbalance in weight ratios, as well as optically matching the palates of maroon hues of the corpus.

Grancino tenor gamba cedar topTenor viola da gamba

*Jose Vazquez tragically passed away during the construction of this instrument.  He has been a kind friend for over more than a decade, providing countless details of any instruments in the collection at a moments notice. It should be noted that in addition to his stellar talent as a Gambist and conservator  of beautiful instruments, he was incredibly funny, and unboundedly generous. During my early years as a rather vagabond violin dealer in Vienna, he was a friend among many foes.  This instrument will bear a dedication to him internally in ink in honor of his memory.

More chapters on the construction of this instrument soon to come. Stay tuned.

The Baroque Tenor Viola – Gespenst of History and Tone

Most violists are familiar with the contemporary tenor size viola and its stark contrast to the historical Baroque tenor viola. In relation to this modern mindset in which a scale of corpus reaches a maximum of 43cm or (17″) all aspects of the construction of these utterly modern violas, their string and neck lengths,  mensur, and ribs depths, are usually set by the standards of the Quaderni di Liuteria and dimensions taken from Cremonese instruments altered in the 19th Century.  It is no small wonder then that they will often add the notion that they are unplayable, giant beasts, ill-suited for day-to-day playing and most repertoire.

Many however fail to grasp that the ergonomic design of historic large tenors made them quite manageable as compared to the modern tenor. Overly large violas and their players in contemporary culture and particularly in the 20th Century, have been the subject of unfair discrimination and jesting,  humorously seen as a knuckle-dragging curmudgeons unable to manage the virtuosity needing for modern violin performance. On the other hand, 20th Century violin makers began to realize and recognize that the sonority of the larger corpus violas was something greatly desired, or even aesthetically more pleasing than the smaller alto or contralto sized instruments.

Anonymous German Tenor Viola with altered outline.

The tenor viola has a dark past. As if a hunted beast,  most were “cut down” in the 19th Century to make smaller instruments. These hacked-down specimens regularly come up for auction as crippled versions of their old larger selves. The most obvious sign that they were once larger instruments is wide sound hole spacing close to the purfling or outline. Less often noticed or remarked upon is the practice of rib reduction. Often,  this butchery is done so well and convincingly, that modern eyes fail to see the changes. The alteration of musical instruments did not begin only in the mid to late 19th Century as a means to turn a profit, however. The workshop of the Mantegazza family of violin makers was entrusted with the regraduation and thinning of many of Guarneri del Gesu’s violins. The voice of your favorite Del Gesu violin would probably not even be recognized by its creator should he magically be able to listen to it today.  With the successive generations around1800 (likely prompted by the violinist Viotti) the workshop was one of many who were involved in altering/lengthening necks to modern dimensions. Neck blocks were added as a necessity towards a mortised, not nailed, neck. It may surprise you to know that the majority of all violin makers working today reproduce these 19th Century alterations when they make an instrument. In effect, they reproduce a sound and tone which were not by any means the intention of the luthiers they seek to emulate. The “Strad Cult” is another topic altogether, as is the emergence of 19th C. Opera, which was the beginning of the total destruction of the culture of artisenal, handmade keyboard instruments in Italy. For now, we will focus on violas.

17th Century ViolaThe early tenors were often massive instruments with back lengths at 50cm and occasionally, even larger. What is often overlooked is that in Italy the neck lengths were commonly made at around 12cm, or shorter than our modern violin neck.  Playing postures varied considerably and were both under the chin and rested on the arm. In the Organological treatise of Praetorius  Syntagma Musicum, written in 1618, two separate tunings are given for the Tenor Geige – the instrument which corresponds to the larger tenor violas. One may note that the rib depth is quite substantial; a characteristic trait that would continue in the construction of later tenors far into the 18th Century, some of which will be seen below.    These instruments must have been massive. The position of the instrument resting on the arm was likely much more common than one would assume, as ribs depths and corpus most certainly made them difficult to be played under the chin.

Johann Mattheson’s treatise of 1713, Das Neueröffnette Orchestra, stresses the importance of the separation of alto and tenor parts and of the crucial role violas play in a “harmonious concert”.

Tenor BratscheIt is important to realize that the tenors played a separate role and were occasionally even tuned differently from the smaller, alto instruments. Daniel Hitzler writing in 1623 gives a lower tuning for the tenors by a fifth, separating them entirely.

The few real tenors that have miraculously survived can be counted on the fingers. Many of these you may already be aware of, as they are made by familiar names in the history of violin making.  Antonio Stradivari, Andrea Guarneri, Jacob Stainer, all produced tenor violas, some of which survive in their original dimensions.  A tenor mould marked “TV” survives till the present day in the Stradivari Museum in Cremona. This illustrates the often overlooked fact that these giant tenors were once essential tools for musicians and a rich and important part of our human cultural heritage.

I have long wished to make a comprehensive catalog of all of the surviving tenors, listing not only the rare instruments that have survived in their original states, but also as many as possible those which have been altered and cut down. This is an ongoing task which will continue on this page.  The further one looks into the history of the tenor viola, the more multifarious and complex it seems. One sees cut down tenor violas come up for sale at auction quite often; the facts of their lineage and former dimensions going occasionally unmentioned  in the catalogs. Below is a short catalog  of many rare survivors, starting with the most famous ones which are for the most part unaltered from their original state. I shall also include some violas which have been cut down and attempt to surmise their original dimensions,  include playful and fantasy reconstructions of their possible outlines based upon extant examples, as well as include a short history of how the tenor viola developed and subsequently later disappeared from use.

The Stradivari Medici tenor viola

I begin with this instrument as it epitomizes both the rare survival of a large tenor in original condition and the most basic impetus later in history toward the tendency of reduction in size. One may be tempted to think that the first concern and motivation to reduce the corpus of any instrument would be the difference and elimination  of part writing for the tenor violas, or perhaps the issue of comfort and playability. The most dominant motivation to butcher such beautiful instruments however was most often financial greed.

Baroque viola tenor Strad

This large tenor barely escaped being tragically  cut down and is remarkable in its near perfect state of preservation.  Why, you might ask, did such atrocious butchery occur?   In 1863 the Cherubini’ Conservatory  stated that the value of this instrument was only £1,000, most likely because its overly large dimensions made it difficult to play.This valuation gives a window into the 19th C. mindset regarding large tenors.  It is remarkable is that the fingerboard and bridge have survived intact. The fact that the most famous violin maker in the world had a tenor mould tells us how common large tenor violas were in the musical culture of 18th Century lutherie.


Jakob Stainer, Absam 1650.

The very famous and grand tenor viola has a back of 46cm   – the deepest depth of ribs at 44.4cm  The viola has a neck of 12.9. which is actually relatively long in comparison to some other tenors.  This instrument was made just at the dawn on the invention of wound over gut strings, however almost certainly had all-gut stringing. There are several surviving Stainer tenors and probably many more which have been cut down and lost. One may note that this world famous luthier produced highly arched instruments which held the dominant aesthetic for sound at the time.

Early baroque score violaThe works of German composer Dietrich Buxtehude  may help to give us a glimpse into how the large tenors were used in the time of Stainer.  Although the viola da gamba often played a primary role independent from the  Continuo parts, the alto and tenor clefs were occasionally written in two separate parts, Violas 1 and 2.  The middle ranges can however be represented by  complex and confusing instrumentation.  Most often designated simply with “Violas”  (Va)  one also sees both viola da braccio,  (Vb)  or for the Violetta, (Vt) – an instrument which contemporary sources define in differing ways. In BuxWV 4, 24, 34, and 54,  two separate viola parts are given which double the violins. It should be noted that while Buxtehude composed during a time when viola da gamba was making its exit from the fashions of the time, he still continued to write parts for that instrument.  While I personally know of no direct connection to Stainer,  St. Marys Church in Lübeck (where Buxtehude held the position of Organist and Treasurer) had in its possession two tenor violas built by the Lübeck maker Daniel Erich.tenor bratsche







Mathäus Steger Mittersill 1644

Curious and eccentric sound holes,  asymmetrical corners and outline characterize this unique German tenor built without a mould. The length of the back at 44.6cm is considerably small in comparison to other German instruments. The ribs are also very slim at 31.8cm, and inlaid into the back plate. This method of building was not uncommon in Germany and one occasionally sees Flemish and Dutch instruments which employ the same method. These instruments usually had linings; Mittersill used the very curious and odd method of gluing cleats or studs to provide ample gluing surface. (See photo below)  Another unusual feature is the dramatic slant of the bass bar position running across the grain. This positioning would have limited the mensur or bridge placement considerably. The instrument well illustrates the acuity of experimentation  in early mid-17th Century violas.

Andrea Guarneri 1664

The grandfather of Joseph Guerneri del Gesu, Andrea Guarneri began studying in the famous Amati workshop at the age of 10 years old. This giant tenor is well known among viola geeks as it truly is a monster instrument.  The bouts of the viola are so wide that wings were added to the 2-piece spruce table. The 48.2cm back is large by any standard of viola, however what is most remarkable is that the neck is quite long at 15.5cm, very unusual for an Italian tenor, whose necks are often shorter. It is nothing short of a miracle that this tenor has survived in such a remarkably perfect state of preservation. Worm damage was repaired in the 1940’s in the Bisach workshop; the nails were removed and carefully replaced with wooden dowels.

Tenor bratsche Tenor Bratsche barock

Gaspar Borbon 1692

Gaspar Borbon worked from around 1673-1705 and many of his instruments,  (as well as his pupil Egidius Snoeck) survive today and are housed in the  Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussels.   While Brescian instruments appear to have commonly inspired this Flemish maker, this beautiful tenor with its upright, straight sound holes appears to pay homage to the Stainer/Amati tradition.

Hauteur: 72,5 cm, Largeur: 26,8 cm, Profondeur: 11 cm

The Gasparo Da Salo Tenor Violas

There are no less than 10 uncut tenor violas attributed to Gasparo da Salo, and I hope to make a complete catalog of these in the near future.  One should also take some attributions carefully and with a grain of salt. Brescian instruments are the most common subjects of forgeries as their characteristics tended to attract the forgers muse. Inevitably any viola which looked as if made in this neighboring city to Cremona, would magically have a Da Salo label put inside. This Brescian master tended to make larger instruments as opposed to his student Paolo Maggini. This grand tenor retains it original dimensions, with a neck length of 12.3

Italian tenor viola

Johann Michael Alban. Bozen or Salzburg 1707

This giant tenor with a corpus of 45cm is particularly interesting as the extremely  deep ribs of bring into question the division between large tenor and violoncello piccolo. One notes that the neck is long in comparison to the Italian tenors.  I have made a copy of this instrument and found that it can be played both under the chin and resting on the arm comfortably.

On first appearance when walking into the treasure trove of instruments housed in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna this massive tenor  tends to lead one to think it was a one-off experiment. Ribs of such depth also magnify in the mind the modern misconception of unplayability and whisper of their miraculous survival.

Hanging imprisioned behind glass, one gets a strong sense of the existence of a true chimerical survivor. My personal belief is that far from being an experiment, ribs and corpus of such magnitude were much more common than is normally believed, especially on instruments made in Germany, Austria, and the Northern Alpine region. Haydn tenor violaRIb depth is actually one of the most common things to be altered in an instrument. In the case of the violoncello, the depths of ribs are expanded for more air volume, transversely with tenor violas the ribs are commonly shorted to allow more comfortable playing under the chin.

Traces of rib reduction on an early Amati viola.

Oddities in the world of lutherie and Organology abound.   The absence of surviving tenors with ribs as deep as the Alban viola does not necessarily mean that many were not built, or that Johann Michael working even at the comparatively later date of 1707 was a particular maverick in making successful experiments in sound. Other instruments though rare do exist, and were not early curiosities; instead being instruments likely produced to the demands of  real musicians. This brings us to the next German tenor.

Anon. German Tenor Viola ca. 1700 or later.

The Germanische Museum in Nurenberg have this cataloged as a 17th C. instrument. It is  however quite obvious to me that this viola was built much later, possibly even as late as 1750. The high rib depths recall the Alban Tenor of 1707 above. Tenor violas with cello-like ribs seem to be more common in Germany and Tyrol than in Italy, England, or other centers of lutherie. One may also note that the neck is quite long (I will provide dimensions later) similar to the Alban tenor. Such anomalies with ribs so deep as to confuse the line between piccolo cello and tenor viola inevitably lead one to question the historical playing position. While the Alban copy I made is surprising easy to play “under the chin” its more likely  that these instruments were played rested on the arm. While this is hardly a playing posture suited to virtuosity, it is certainly manageable when one becomes accustomed to the posture.


Barack Norman Grand Tenor

This wonderful grand tenor viola made in the period of 1700-1710 defies normal classifications due to the back folds on both bouts. Carved, arched backs with a top fold can be found mostly on Cremonese and Northern Italian viola da gambas and other bass instruments. The rib depth at the corners is an astonishing 72mm. Norman’s experimentation with this large tenor using gamba construction for the back allowed him to employ a second fold at the lower bout.

The depth here at 14mm leaves no doubt as to the playing posture intended; this was a giant tenor meant to be played under the chin. One should understand that this method of construction was not common, however illustrates well that there was a general desire for larger tenor sized instruments.

This lovely instrument is in the private collection of Benjamin Hebbert in London, who has  kindly provided me with the following dimensions:  472mm length (of front) –   72mm rib depth at corners-    48mm rib depth at heel –  14 – fourteen mm at endpin –  244 / 157 / 278 mm widths  – 44cm string length. Ben has written an extensive blog entry on this instrument which is a true pleasure to read. One may also hear audio samples of it being played by Paul Silverthorne.

Baroque Tenor Viola by Jonas Heringer Füssen, 1625

The long corners and double purfling take Brescian instruments as inspiration in this lovely tenor made in Tyrol. The instrument would have been originally fitted with all-gut strings. I include it here as it is a fine example of an early 17th Century tenors. Further research is needed on my part; a trip to the Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum is pending, should I have time in the near future.

Anonymous Tenor, Austria ca. 1700

This interesting viola in the second image below came up for auction in 2014 at the Dorotheum in Vienna Austria and was listed as an anonymous cut down tenor with a corpus of 43.4cm. Based upon comparison of later Alban family outlines, sound holes and body dimensions I believe the original to have been quite large at 45-50cm and quite possibly made by Johann Michael Alban,   son of Mathias Alban. What you see below is my own fantasy recreation based carefully upon outlines of several instruments from this school of lutherie.

March 2018: I will adding additional instruments in the coming months should time allow me to do so. In the future I will also begin to arrange this as a catalog in chronological order and provide a table which compares by region, compositions during their time of creations, and  dimensions, when possible. I would also greatly appreciate your comments, suggestions, and images of additional instruments. I am hoping that this blog can help to dispel some of the myths regarding large tenors, and bring forth more interest in performing on them. Stay tuned.

Five String Violoncello Piccolo – Confusion and Reality in 17th and 18th Century Performance.

Most often when I engage in dialogue using the term Violoncello Piccolo and those with either small corpus, or any five string violoncello, the musician will often say… Oh you mean the instrument created by Bach to play the 6th Suite!

The reality regarding violoncelli with a petite corpus and their relationship and context within performance is just a bit more complicated. Bass Instruments with five strings can be found in both iconography and texts, and would served an important and complex role within musical performances of the time.

The first use of the term Violoncello comes not surprisingly from Italy, ca. 1660’s in Giulio Cesare Arresti’s Sonate A 2.& a Tre Con la parte di Violoncello a beneplacito. One may note that this coincides with the Bolognese invention of wound strings. His predecessors in Italy before the mid 17th Century used a wide variety of terms for bass instruments: violoncino, bassetto viola, basso di braccio, violone……

Before the invention of silver or other metal wire wound over gut string, bass instruments would have most often been quite large in corpus and string length, due to the large amount of tension needed with pure-gut strings. A Corpus of around 77- 80cm was common, however not always the case. Smaller corpus instruments certainly existed if we are to go from iconographical images.

In this image from 1609 we see pure gut strings on a 5-string bass instrument which is remarkably close in outline to violoncelli of that late baroque and ones we are used to today. Note the unique playing position. Female musicians certainly could not be expected to play with the instrument between spread legs(!)

Wound strings allowed luthiers to experiment with smaller corpus instruments, and the new clarity of voice of these strings allowed musicians to use the violoncello with more virtuosity, no longer relegated to the first position by the need to support the weight of the instrument with the left hand. After Bologna, the news would have spread rapidly of these strings. First within Italy, then in France, Germany, England, etc. A kind of wild west period of experimentation  then ensued, with corpus lengths and string lengths seemingly haphazard.baroque cello 5 string  

It is true that  J.S Bach and J.C. Hoffman were close friends , however the surviving instruments present something of an anomaly in relation to the performance of repertoire composed by Bach.  Later in the 19th Century, it is understandable how a semantic confusion could have developed, as this actual instrument has a corpus size of only 45cm.  Indeed, it is not much larger in body than a tenor viola, thus the erroneous later moniker of “Viola Pomposa”


5 string violoncello piccolo

The Hoffman violoncello piccolo made in 1732.

On first glance, the instrument simply appears to be a typical five string violoncello. When you examine the actual dimensions of the instrument however, it becomes clear how the instrument could have developed the name Viola Pomposa, Here you can see that the actual length of the neck of the Hoffmann instrument is not much longer than a modern viola neck 19th Century expansion of the string length at the neck, along with regraduation of the plates has unfortunately transformed the 1732 instrument into a curiosity which offers no tangible evidence towards further clarification of its original use and tuning. 

Only after Bach’s death did the misnomer Viola Pomposa occur in printed sources, and several 19th Century authors mistakenly refer to Bach as the inventor of the violoncello piccolo. When one begins to study paintings of baroque and late Renaissance instruments, it becomes fairly clear that piccolo violoncelli of 5 strings were a more than common occurrence in the musical life.viola pomposa neck

It is important to realize that Bach’s instrument in the Suites was a true bass/tenor instrument, and surprisingly, the original instrument made by Hoffmann has a very rich bass range, albeit with a touch of the “bassoon-like” quality which is inevitable with such a small corpus length. While there seems to be a peculiar inclination towards middle-range instruments in Germany and Saxony in particular, the Hoffmann anomaly shares more traits with the common tenor viola.  When we consider the wide variety of names for bass, (and bass/tenor) instruments in Germany, the situation becomes very confusing….Bass Geig(e), Faggotgeige, Bas-Geige de braccio, Violonzell, Bassetl…among others.

When we understand that 5-string violoncelli were more common than one would think, and that the choices for controlling tone with arching, wood selection, air volume of the corpus, and vibrating string length, an entire new world opens up for the baroque luthier. in my mind, Stradivari’s general standardization of the cello corpus at around 75cm was no great boon for cello performance, or lutherie in general. These voices, once important parts of musical culture, have essentially been lost to us today.

Lost voices. Combinations of arching height, tension, vibrating string length to corpus, wood with or without damping qualities… interior varnish treatments… strings with wound silver, or all gut…..bridge height and tuning of bridges in relation to all the above. The possibilities are endless, and endlessly exciting. What voice do we want to achieve? How do we get there. I am fascinated. And the fact remains, we have just begun.


Ancient Materials used in Violinmaking

The curse of the Mummy. Asphaltum, Bitumen or Mummia. Pigments from the Dead.

Obtaining a true and transparent brown hue when varnishing string instruments can be extremely difficult to the novice luthier. Often, commercial powered pigments can mask the inherent visual optics of the wood, simultaneously destroying the brilliance of any golden ground varnish applied. Commercially made brown pigments are simply difficult to work with. This has been the case for centuries.  A clear, transparent brown can however, be obtained by various methods, but the color itself must be itself inherent in the material used; mixing together other pigments to create brown usually results in lackluster final results.   Cooking Colophony for a period of 48 hours at low temperature can turn the rosin a rich,  golden amber, but In order to obtain the lovely golden browns achieved by the early Füssen makers, some pigment must be later added.  The pigment, “Mummy Brown”(Caput Mortuum) was a common, commercially available color pigment favored by Pre-Raphaelite artists and 19th Century painters.  This was obtained by, you guessed it, pulverized Egyptian mummies.19th Century pigment Mummia violin making Your shock may hence be multiplied if you happen to be a cat lover; some of the materials used were from both feline, and human mummies. While some artists in the Romantic period began to raise moral objections to this practice, the use of pulverized mummies in pigments continued far past  the 19th Century, spawning a greed-influenced trade in forged mummies; a gruesome practice of digging  up dead cadavers, mummifying them, and selling them as ancient materials.

The use of Bitumen or mineral pitch goes back to Ancient times. During the Twelfth Dynasty (1991-1802 BCE) ancient Egyptians used bitumen  for embalming the dead. Medieval Arab Physicians used it for medicinal purposes. The importation of Egyptian mummies into Europe for medicinal and other uses was quite common in the 16th Century. Tombs were plundered and their contents sold whole, or as parts ground up. Despite the 19th C. moral objections, the use of mummy brown as a pigment continued into the 1930s, until concerns over preservation and rarity of specimens killed the trade. I have had wonderful results using a synthetic version of Bitumen, as well as artificial Asphaltum, however these cannot be used alone, and great care must be taken to retain transparency in the varnish. The search for a wonderful brown has been something which has preoccupied my thoughts and time for the past two decades. You may notice when browsing finished instruments in the gallery section of this website many attempts with various shades of brown. One need not, in any case, worry when ordering an instrument from me about the Curse of the Mummy; no Egyptians, cats or humans, were harmed in the making of my instruments.

Horsetail, or Equisetum arvense, or, “let the wood be rubbed with reeds, and it shall be good.”

The use of common Horsetail in wood finishing was common as far back as ancient Egypt. The reed plant stalks of Equisetum were cut, and occasionally fashioned into tools by binding, cutting, or splicing. This means of burnishing a wood surface must have been effective, as there are traces of its use well into Greek and Roman times, and continuing into the Renaissance.  Advanced use of Horsetail continues into modern times  as an abrasive for finishing the surfaces of violins (usually maple and hardwoods only) before applying the ground varnish.

This is a truly miraculous substance. A common weed, it has additional medicinal properties and is prepared as a tea. It is mineral rich, with silicon, potassium, calcium, manganese, magnesium and phosphorus are all present in the brew which can help dampen bloating and the pains of menstrual cramps.

Violin makers have used it as an burnishing tool, with a wide variety of application methods. Commercial powders are available on the market and work similar to Italian Pumice or Rottenstone; all are common in the final stages of rubbing out violin varnishes. I use the powdered product as a final burnishing technique both before and after applying the interior varnish; something which is more uncommon but does great wonders for improving final resonance as it can work both as pore filler, as well as leaving a mirror-like surface.  Interior varnishes are another topic altogether and not the subject at hand, however I will briefly say that dramatic differentiation in final sound results from specific composition of interior varnish. These involve the use of fatty, or less fatty, hence softer or harder compositions to influence both resonance and sound.

Barlow/Woodhouse (JCAS/1989) in their chemical analysis of four instruments made by Antonio Stradivari found that  Silica (SI) composed 12-39%  of the ground layer beneath the varnish. Other instruments by less worshiped makers such as Milanese school most likely contain similar levels of Silica, as this was no well-kept secret in Northern Italian violin making. There is a particular pleasure in using this very simple plant to burnish and finalize work which has taken months to complete, slowly and with love. It is a rather beautiful irony, that a common weed, be the final stage in such a complex series of labors.

Burning the Kettle Dark. Or how the Death of Ludwig Van Beethoven turned Violins Black.

Perhaps you have visited once upon a time the Naschmarkt outdoor antique market in Vienna on a sunny Saturday and seen the rich multitudes of Austrian artifacts and lost pieces of time on display and for sale. I have seen taxidermic monkeys, engraved whale tusks from the 19th Century, and as well endless trade fiddles from the former Czechloslovakian republic piled together in cardboard boxes, rife with cracks, and for sale at 20Euro a piece. Occasionally though, one sees a master violin on sale. This would be only encountered in the early morning, before the light of dawn, when violin hunters roam with flashlights and dreams of finding a Meistergeige. If you do happen to be so lucky (the chances are slim to nil) perhaps you might encounter an old Sebastian Dallinger, or Johann Georg Thir violin, or at least one with a very dark, almost black varnish, and with a very old, authentic looking label inside it. Don’t get too excited.

You might also begin to notice how many Germanic fiddles have a dark, discolored, or even black varnish, one which cannot be explained by the usual endless buildup of rosin from the bow absorbing dirt over eons of time.

Why are these violins black? Vienna violin scroll Its almost impossible to imagine any violin maker lovingly crafting an instrument, burnishing and taking great care to finalize the surface, then adding a black varnish atop it! One quite humorous explanation given to me by an avid violin collector was that, when Beethoven died, all the makers stained their violins black in order to mourn his passing. The collector even seemed to believe this myth, although it was said with a smile. The truth is actually much less dramatic, however just as tragic.

Cooking violin varnish in iron kettles was quite common far before the lifetime of Beethoven. Some have suggested that the use of iron was considered advantageous  to the final hue of color to the varnish, however I tend to believe that the use of iron was simply that it was a common material, stable, and easily obtained. In any case, what these makers did not realize is that the Ferrous Cations or Ferrous ion; Iron(2+) from the kettle would over time oxidize and turn the varnish black. This could take a century or longer, or less. All depends on the amount of light exposure to the instrument.

What is intensely ironic is that a later trend of violin fraud and forgery developed from this purely accidental chemical reaction, and even became mainstream, as later in some early 20th Century factories  fiddles were mass produced and “black” varnish was applied  to mimic the poor original black fiddles. R.I.P Lieber Beethoven!

Dragons Blood. Or the Knight slayeth the Dragon to Color his Violin Red.

This is a very rare material obtained from the internal organs and blood of real dragons.  Indeed as dragons are quite rare as and lately fall under protection of international law this can be a very expensive material for violin making.

I am joking! Dragons Blood is a resin obtained from several species plant species. Medieval scholars did once claim its source to be the actual blood of dragons killed in battle, and the early Greeks, Romans, and Arabs thought it to have medicinal qualities, particularly for respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments.tree resin extract for violin varnish

(Dracaena draco) and (Dracaena cinnabari) were the most common species used in 18th Century violin varnishes, though this was not the only means to achieve a deep red hue. Quality of this material is famously variable and unstable depending upon location of species, and preparation methods. In modern times imitations of true dragons blood can be found on the market as a powder, however the results tend to be very poor, and in the worse case, not light sensitive. The best quality comes in buttons or large solid balls of pure material. These are soluble in alcohol but require further treatment by tincturing in alcohol and removing the resins.

I have experimented with several methods of achieving beautiful red varnishes over the years, Dragons blood varnish 17inch violaincluding alternatives to dragons blood using substances such as Madder Root (Rubia tinctorum) and extracting the pure color using an old Gaggia coffee machine. These days however I prefer to focus on more subdued colors, the rich antique browns and ambers which seem to be more spiritually related to the inherent color of wood itself. In many alternative wood  materials such as willow, Cedar, Sycamore or lacewood  there can be already present a rich, natural coloring which the violin maker must balance into his other palettes of color when varnishing, which can be a sometimes difficult task.

The Venetian makers sometimes used Dragons Blood to great effect, taking advantage of being located directly on ancient trade routes for rare pigments and other materials. Every violin maker must go through a phase of dragons blood, for better or worse. For now, I will spare the dragon his dear life.


The first sources of Gamboge are in Oriental culture around the 8th century for decorative arts, which is not surprising as the resin used for its bright, illuminating yellows stems from the Garcinia evergreen tree, in Southeast Asia. The etymological source is from the Latin Gambogium, or Cambodia.

Gamboge was used medicinally to treat high blood pressure, and as a powerful laxative.We first encounter Gamboge in European culture around the start of the 17th Century, as it became common with Flemish painters to achieve  warm golden yellow hues. Today when purchasing Gamboge one must have a poison handling permit, as when ingested in too large amounts it can be lethal.

If you are unclear about the specific hue of yellow that Gamboge produces, think of a Buddhist monk’s robe; Gamboge is often used to dye fabrics as its yellow it very pure and lovely.

yellow gamboge violin varnish

It is fascinating how many materials used for varnish and lutherie go back so far into time. This however should not be surprising. The traditions of ancient crafts seem to merge into one another. I usually hibernate in Vienna every winter, and have found myself walking into tool supply shops for Goldsmithing, and something clicked in my head. Many of the tools used could easily transubstantiate into ones needed for violin making.  One is quite surprised  how these two very different crafts might merge together. I am always searching for these beautiful mergings, where the past reaches its warm arms into the present, and the future.