Scratches or wear in a string instrument’s varnish are generally not cause for alarm. Though it’s painful to be the one to make the first scratch, some wear is inevitable. On older violins, a network of innumerable tiny marks is part of the patina that owners find so charming. Learn why some wear is actually a good thing, and how to deal with minor scratches.
Dealing With Scratches
One easy way to reduce the impact of minor scratches is to darken them. The “do-it-yourself” method is to moisten a fingertip, pick up a bit of dust off the top of a doorframe, and rub that into the nick. This really works, and is the inelegant version of what a shop would do using commercially available materials.
Retouching scratches with a similarly colored varnish or adding a bit of color just at that offending spot is one way to deal with the problem. But although this looks fine at first, such retouching eventually shows up as an isolated island of color. Therefore, this fix, although tempting, is one you should avoid.
Although it’s technically possible to make a varnish that is extremely durable and lasts almost forever, durability is not a quality of the finest varnishes on the best old violins. Most of the colored varnish on many fine Cremonese violins is now missing, and many experts believe it was lost in the first few decades of the instruments’ lives. Even today such varnish remains chippy and fragile. Though there was an intervening period through the industrial eras of the 1800s and 1900s when tough varnishes were considered desirable, it’s also long been recognized that violins with these varnishes are often inferior in tone. Consequently, some modern makers work to achieve a varnish with the same vulnerability as that on the original models that they follow. Consider yourself lucky if your violin has such an accurately-compounded and vulnerable varnish!
Usually this type of varnish will appear to corrode and turn to a bit of a mess, and then rub entirely off. The first place this happens is often on the heel of the neck and the rib to the left of it, where the player’s hand touches in the higher positions. On the rib, in particular, your shop can install a plastic tape as protection if this begins to happen and it bothers you. Most of the rest of the violin will age more gracefully, and more slowly. Normally, the resulting bare wood is not a concern—it will not shorten the life of the violin—but if you are bothered by it, or if your perspiration is particularly corrosive (it happens!), a shop can seal this area with a more durable coat. Worn edges around the perimeter of the body and other similar places will lose their varnish rapidly, but much less obviously. Try to think of this as part of the charm of an aging violin. Take the opportunity, if it presents itself, of looking carefully at any truly antique violins you might see, and imagine how your own instrument will look in 300 years!