robyn sullivan violins

hand-made violins, violas, and cellos


Well the past six weeks were a bit annoying and physically uncomfortable.  Since I couldn’t do any repair work besides the odd small retouch job here or there I became the shop’s janitor/administrative assistant.  The shops’ one handed janitor/administrative assistant.

I dusted, vacuumed, wiped and scrubbed out dirt and dust that the shop has produced from the past 3 years it’s been there and then some.   If I could have dated some of the grime I scrubbed out it may have been from way back when the building was a casket factory.  That’s what the building was originally, a casket factory.  Now there’s a heating and cooling business on the first floor, a violin shop on half of the second floor, and an auto detailing business in the garage.  Oh how times change.  I digress..

It took me about 2 weeks to really clean the shop single-handedly (in every sense of the word), then another week or two to re-organize toolboxes and shelves.  The last few weeks of being incapacitated I took up typing some of the handwritten notes my boss has amassed during his 30+ year career.  Some of the notes were from the Bein & Fushi shop back in the late 70s and early 80s.  Not all the notes were handwritten, the ones from Bein & Fushi had originally been done on a typewriter then mimeographed or xeroxed.

I fully understand and appreciate that almost all aspects of violin making are archaic.  However, seeing and using mimeographed copies of notes originally written up on a typewriter felt beyond old fashioned.  If they had been printed on a dot-matrix printer they would have felt more contemporary.

During all of this cleaning and typing I continued to take care of the phone messages, help with customers when I could and take on the odd organizing job whenever my boss would think of one.  There was a lot of shifting tools from one toolbox to another and re-arranging drawers.

I personally gained some extra bench space by one of these organizing ordeals.  Part of my bench had been occupied with my boss’s cd collection.  Once I unearthed some shelves and desks out from under the piles of paper, boxes, shipping materials and massive amounts of other random crap in our back room we suddenly had more storage space!  The cd’s went into the back room, and I got more bench space which I promptly filled up with my varnish materials.

I was able to prepare and mix varnish during my convalescence.  It takes a week or two of  once or twice daily stirring of the mixture then another week or so to let all the non-dissolved materials to settle (picture below of the varnish mixture after being stirred).  Once that was done I siphoned the varnish off of the top of the mix with a turkey baster and then portioned it into individual jars which I later added color to.  Due to the addition of lavender oil and propolis in this recipe the varnish smells really nice and brushes on very smoothly.


This being my first solo attempt at varnishing there have been some surprises, mostly with the color.  I have discovered that the lightfast colors I’m using are not exactly the same as the ones I used at school.  The brown has a lot of orange in it, and the orange comes out pink.  I discovered this the hard way (silly me for not having or making any test pieces to use first).  After I finished with some clear coats and then yellow coats I mixed up an orange/brown coat.  After two applications I officially had a very ‘strawberry blond’ looking viola.  Not what I was going for.  I have not mixed in any more orange in my varnish since.  The brown makes it orange enough.  Using straight brown and now a brown and red-brown mixture it’s toned down a bit.  This instrument will still end up having a ‘strawberry blond’ hue but at least it’s subtle. (Picture below of viola after 18 coats or so of varnish)


A lot of this varnishing I was able to manage with less than two hands.  My first cast (as seen below) encased my thumb as well as my entire forearm, making the simple task of grabbing things impossible.  I was lucky to get a second cast later in which my thumb was no longer wrapped up.  Both casts were purple.  What can I say, it’s my favorite color.

07082010This past Tuesday I was finally liberated from my purple casing.  My arm emerged much paler, hairier, and still swollen.  I don’t have full strength or flexibility, I still can’t really ride my bike, but today I returned to making my violin.  I successfully finished planing the rib assembly and trimmed down the corners to their final length.  Woohoo!  Plus having two functioning hands makes applying the last few coats of varnish on my viola so much easier.

It’s going to take a few more weeks to get back to full speed at the shop.  I don’t have the strength in my hand and wrist for any task that involves applying a lot of pressure or a having firm grip.  But in the meantime, I’m enjoying being able to wash my face with two hands, peel and chop vegetables, and of course, doing any and all making and repair work that is physically possible.

1 Comment

    Nice post, Robyn! I think you should take full advantage of the use of both hands by learning to write greek with one and latin with the other simultaneously. (Or just build violins, whatever.)

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