(excerpts from Merry P.Merrifield) 

I .Jehan Le Begue Ms, 1431.
1.Recipe no. 117:
Azzurrum sic fit.
Contains a recipe for varnish: put the mastic and varnish (sandarac) in powder into the oil (olei communis) and stir it well with a stick, and when you see that they are dissolved, add the Greek pitch in powder, and let it boil a little, until the whole is incorporated. Let it stand for three days. 

II .Eraclus Ms, dated 15c.
2.’How to varnish gold so that it will not lose its color. – If you wish to varnish gold that has been laid upon gypsum, varnish over the gold, not with pure varnish, but with that color which is made for preparing auripetrum, mixed, however, with oil, and a little varnish, lest it should be too thick. But you may varnish figures and other colours with pure varnish or with thick oil.

3.’How wood is to be prepared before painting on it. – Whoever wishes to adorn any wood with divers colours, let him hear what I say. First make the wood very flat and smooth by scraping it, and lastly by rubbing it with that herb that you called shave-grass. But if the piece of wood is such that you cannot smooth down its inequalities, or you have reasons for not wishing to do so, and at the same time are not willing to cover it leather or with cloth, grind dry white-lead , but not so finely as if you were going to paint with it. Then melt wax over the fire in a vase, add tiles ground fine. Then mix it with thewhite-lead which you have ground, stirring it frequently with a small stick, and so let it cool. Than heat an iron, and with it melt the wax into the little fissures, until they are level, and than scrape off the rough parts with a knife. And when you have made it smooth, as I was saying, mix plenty of white-lead very finely ground, with linseed oil, and lay an excessively thin coat of it wherever you intend to paint’ 

III .Marcianna Ms. ‘Secreti Diversi’, middle of the 16th c. 

4.377. A most excellent glue for damp and moist places which always becomes harder, but only fears the heat, and fixes everything to wood and stone, which must be as smooth as porphyry. – Take one pound of good yellow wax, nine pounces of liquid varnish, and one pound of black naval pitch. Put the varnish into a pipkin over a slow fire, that is enough to liquefy without burning it; then through in the wax, liquefy it in the same manner and incorporate it well with the varnish; then do the same with the pitch, having previously pounded it, etc. Then take Armenian bole ground to a fine powder, and stir some of it into the other ingredients until the whole material becomes liquid, and yet tenacious that it fixes and holds together things which you wish to put together; and you must stir the ingredients well together and use then warm, because in a short time the cement hardens so you can not glue with it. And when you applied it where you please, and wish to make the surface smooth and polished, take a firebrand from the fire and bring it near to the glue until the heat causes it to liquefy and spread; you should also move the firebrand over the surface of the glue, and melt it so that it at length becomes smooth and beautiful, &c.’

5.394. Modes of making divers varnishes; and first, of ‘bengivi’ (benzoin), which will dry in the shade. – Take 2oz. Of spirit of wine which has been distilled 4 times (that which has been distilled 3 times will do, but not so well), and one ounce of benzoin. Put the ingredients into a bottle, and shake them until the benzoin is dissolved; the varnish is then finished. It must be kept in a vessel closely stopped. This is a very fine varnish upon miniatures and all other delicate works, on paste, or glue, or wood, and also on paper and glass. 

6.395. Item, a varnish. – Take one pound of linseed oil, boiled ‘ut scis’, etc., and anoint vessel with it while hot, and 4 ounces of pounded carabe (Carbone – in the Ms)(amber -M.M); place it to dissolve with the bottle closed on the coals, and when it is nearly dissolved pour in the hot oil and stop it up; afterwards, at the proper time, when the whole is dissolved, stir in 3oz. Of alum.
Dilute the varnish with the necessary quantity of naphtha, or linseed oil, or spirit of wine, and use it warm’. 

7.396. Item, a varnish of benzoin, which dries very quickly and may be used on everything, because it is pale and admirable for all delicate works. – Put into a large vessel 5 ounces of good spirit of wine, with an ounce of fine benzoin pounded into very small pieces; stop the vessel closely, and agitate it until benzoin is well dissolved. Then let it stand for a day and night; pour off the clear part, throw away the sediment at the bottom, and keep the liquid in a well-closed glass vessel: this liquid is the varnish. 

8.397. Item, an excellent varnish which is made without the aid of fire, which dries very quickly without being exposed to the sun, and remains very clear, and which may be varnished anything painted on panel, pasteboard, or iron. – Take spirit of wine whish has been rectified at least three times, because otherwise it would not dissolve the benzoin properly, and put it in a glass vessel; than take some benzoin and add either at once, or a little at a time, that quantity which you know to be sufficient. Then stop up the bottle and agitate it until the benzoin is entirely dissolved; and , if, after it is dissolved, it is of the consistence of good ‘vernice liquida’, and, as it were, tenacious, and varnishes well, it is finished; but if it is too thick, add more spirit of wine until you bring it to the correct standard; and if it is too thin, add more benzoin. You may then preserve it for use’. 

9.398.Item, a varnish tried by Master Jacop de Monte San Savino, the Sculptor, which is proper for every kind of work and on all materials. – Take one ounce of sandarac, ground to a very fine powder, and 3 ounces of clear nut oil. Heat the oil in a glazed pipkin over a slow fire in the same manner as linseed oil is boiled; then add the powdered sandarac a little at a time until it is dissolved; ad to it also at the same time so much clear incense finely powdered as will impart a pleasant savoir to the whole mixture, stirring it well that it may dissolve, and, if you please, you may also add a sufficient quantity of burnt and pounded roche alum to have a sensible effect on the whole composition; and the addition of the alum will improve the varnish if you stir it until it is dissolved. It should then be strained through a linen cloth, and afterwards exposed to the sun and dew until a sediment is formed, which should be separated by pouring off the clear varnish, after which it will be ready for use’. 

10.399. Item, a varnish which spreads like oil, dries quickly, and is very lustrous and beautiful, appearing like a glass mirror, and which is admirable for adhering firmly and varnishing lutes and similar things. – Take on pound of linseed oil, boil it in the proper manner in a clean glazed pipkin, add to it half a pound of well pulverized clear and fine Greek pitch, and stir and incorporate the hole over a slow fire; then add half a pound of powdered mastic, and the moment you have done so, withdraw the pipkin gradually from the fire, because it swells up, and incorporate the ingredients thoroughly; then replace the pipkin on the fire, and keep it there until everything is dissolved and incorporated. Then take the varnish off the fire and strain it through an old linen cloth. Your varnish is then made, and it will be found to be beautiful varnish for wood, iron, paper, leather, and all kinds of painting and works, and for withstanding water. When you find it too viscous, dilute it with linseed oil in the proper manner’.

11.400. Item, a most excellent varnish of mastic for lutes, leather, panels, cloth wood, and pasteboard. – Take 3 ounces of strained and clear linseed oil, and boil it. Than take half an ounce of mastic pounded and ground, and add it gradually to the oil, mixing it in such manner that it may be entirely dissolved and incorporated with the oil, and that it be properly evaporated and made into a varnish ‘ut scis’; then put in a little pulverized roche alum at discretion, but sufficient to affect all the varnish; keep it over the fire until it is entirely dissolved and incorporated with the varnish and evaporated, after which you may take it off the fire, and strain it through an old and good linen cloth, when it will be finished. But observe that everything should be done over charcoal fire and with great care’. 

12.401. Item. A most excellent mastic varnish. – Take one pound of mastic, half a pound of naphtha, and half an ounce of clear nut oil; melt them together in a bottle or glass over a charcoal fire, and strain through an old linen cloth’. 

13.402. Item. A most excellent clear and drying varnish proper for colours, both in oil painting and other kinds of painting. – Take 2 ounces of clear and good nut oil, one ounce of clear and good Greek pitch, and half an ounce of clear and good mastic; grind the pitch and the mastic [separately] to a very fine powder, and place the oil in a clean glazed pipkin over a charcoal fire, and let it boil gently until it is done sufficiently, that is, until one third is evaporated; then put in the powdered pitch a little at a time, mixing and incorporating well; afterwards throw in the mastic in the same manner, and when it is dissolved, take the varnish off the fire and strain it through a fine and old linen cloth.
And if you wish it to be steel clearer, prepare the mastic with tepid water in the following manner; – Take the largest and clearest teas of mastic that you find, and soak them in tepid water, so that they may become tender; then select the best piece, dry them, and pound them’.
You may also try the effect of adding a little burnt and pulverized roche alum when the other ingredients are dissolved, so that the whole may virtually be seasoned with it, straining it afterwards. This is done in order to purify it better’. 

14.403. Item. A varnish of ‘olio di abezzo’, which must be genuine and not adulterated, and if you wish to know whether it is falsified, distemper it with nut or linseed oil, or naphtha, heating both the oils, etc., and spread it on a work, when, if it is not genuine, it will not dry a long time, and then badly, because it is adulterated with turpentine, but if it is genuine it will dry quickly and perfectly.
If you desire to varnish delicate works which will not be exposed to water, but merely to bring out the colours and show their beauty, distemper the olio abezzo as above. But if you wish to varnish more permanently on works which are intended to resist water, do not distemper the olio di abezzo with other ingredients, but heat it in a vase, melt it , and varnish with it.
When you distemper it with linseed or nut oil, let it be with oil which has been exposed to the sun to evaporate, and the varnish will be much clearer’. 

15.404. A most excellent varnish for varnishing arquebuses, crossbows, and iron armor. – Take of linseed oil. Lbs.2; varnish in grains (sandarac), lbs.1; clear Greek pitch, oz.2.
Boil the oil, then dissolve in it the other ingredients, and strain through a much worn linen cloth, and when you wish to use the varnish, scrape and polish the work, and heat it in a hot oven, because that is the best place to heat it; and when it is of a proper heat, that is, when the varnish adheres to it firmly and does not fry [bubble or blister from too great heat], then lay it on thinly with an instrument of wood, so that you may not burn you r fingers, and it will make a beautiful changing color.
And if you supplied the Greek pitch with naval pitch, I think it would make the iron work black when you varnish it.
When making the varnish you must boil it well, even to such a degree as to make it foam and bubble, if necessary, in order that it may be clear and thick’. 

16.405. Item. An excellent common varnish, good for varnishing whatever you please. – Take 2 ounces of clear and good linseed oil, and one ounce of good and clear Greek pitch, but 2 ounces of latter also will make the varnish thicker and give it more body; boil the oil over a slow fire, and then put in the pounded pitch a little at a time, that it may incorporate well, and add a little roche alum previously burnt and pounded, and when it is incorporated and boiled sufficiently, that is, when you try a little of it in your fingers and find that it is done, strain it and keep it. When it is used it will be beautiful and good; if it is too tenacious you will dilute it with a little oil’.
4.Bolognese Ms, dated 15th c. 

17.204. To make a certain water which is good for applying upon figures and miniatures. – Take oil of aloes, linseed oil , and liquid varnish, of each equal quantities; boil these ingredients together, and put them into a flask. When you wish to use the liquor, anoint with the figures or miniatures when they are dry, and not before, and they will be shining and very beautiful’. 

18.205. To make linseed oil. – Take one quart of clean and pure linseed oil, damp it a little and then put it into a vase over the fire and stir it up with a spoon, and then push the spoon several times to the bottom so as to moisten all the seeds. You must add a little water in order to soften them; then put the seeds into a strong woolen cloth, place it in the press, and the oil will flow out’. 

19.206. To make liquid varnish. – Take of the gum of the juniper [sandarac], two parts, and one part of linseed oil, boil them together over a slow fire, and if the varnish appears to you to be too stiff, add more of the oil and take care not to let it catch fire, because you would not be able to extinguish it, and even if you could extinguish it, the varnish would be dark and unsightly. Let it boil for half an hour, and it will be done’. 

20.207. To make liquid varnish in another manner. – Take 1lb. Of linseed oil, and put it into a new glazed jar, and then take 1/2 a quarter [of an ounce?] of roche alum in powder, and an equal quantity of minium or vermilion ground fine, and 1/2 oz. Of incense also ground fine. Mix all these ingredients together and put them into the oil to boil, stirring it with a stick; and when the oil is boiling, as it is likely to run over, have another glass jar ready, and put it by that which contains the oil, so as to catch the oil that runs over, in order that it may not run on the ground, and in this manner make it boil up 3 or 4 times, and each time pour back what has run over, on that which is boiling the jar. Having done this, set the fire to the oil on the right hand side with a lighted straw, and let the oil burn on the upper part, but so that the jar may not burn on the inside, in account of too great heat, for otherwise the oil would smell unpleasantly. When you light the oil with the straw, remove the jar from the fire, and let it burn while you can say three paternosters, then extinguish the oil with a wooden cover, putting it upon the jar, and when it is extinguish, remove the cover in order to let the vapor escape. Then put it back over the fire; do this three times, and it is done’. 

IV.Paduan Ms, ‘Ricette per far ogni sorte di colore, etc.’, ca.1584.

21.45. A clear and fine varnish. -Take off clear Venice turpentine oz.iij. and of odoriferous oil of spike oz. J, melt them well together over a slow fire, and use the varnish hot, recollecting that if you are using it on wood you must first give it a good coat of glue, or distemper the colours with gum water, in order that the varnish may not penetrate’. 

22.46.A varnish which has been tried. – Take equal parts of white mastic and linseed oil, put them together into a new pipkin over a slow fire, and when the oil is hot, add to it a little ‘olio d’abezzo’, and continue to mix.

23.47. Another good varnish.- Take equal quantities of red mastic well powdered and linseed oil with a little resin; put them over the fire in a new pipkin, stirring the ingredients continually for quarter of an hour, when it will be finished. 

24.49. A varnish which dries directly. – Take equal parts of boiled linseed oil and white mastic, place them over the fire in a new pipkin with a little oglio di abezzo; let them boil while you can say a credo; then add to them spirit of turpentine, equal in quantity to half the oil, mixing it well with the other ingredients.

25.50. Another varnish which dries directly.-Put into a pipkin a proper quantity of mastic, cover it with a somewhat greater quantity of naphtha, and leave the pipkin over the hot coals until the mastic is dissolved. 

26.51. A varnish which does not dry immediately. – Take of white mastic oz. J, of nut or linseed oil; put the whole into a pipkin, and boil over a slow fire until all the mastic is dissolved; then add a little naphtha at discretion.

27.52. A varnish which has been proved to dry instantly. – Take of coarsely pounded white mastic oz.j, of spirit of turpentine oz.j, of naphtha oz j, and of oglio di abezzo oz ij; put all the ingredients into a glass vessel closely covered with paper; then put a tin pot over the fire, to the handle of which the glass must be suspended, being secured to it by a string; and put into the tin pot sufficient water to cover the glass. Boil the water for half an hour, and until the mastic is dissolved, taking care not to take out the glass while the water is boiling, as it would crack.

28.53. Another varnish.- Let any quantity of oglio di abezzo, naphtha, and mastic, be placed in a pipkin in the summer and exposed to the sun, and in this way excellent varnish will be made. 

29.55. A varnish for old pictures.- Take linseed or nut oil, oil of spice, and powdered mastic, all at discretion; put them into a pipkin over a slow fire. This is found to succeed. 

30.57. A varnish which does not dry immediately. -Take a pipkin, and put into it white mastic, linseed, or nut oil, at discretion; then boil it over a slow fire until all the mastic is dissolved.

31.88. To make Indian varnish. First notice. -You must first heat an earthen vase, and while it is very hot put into it the gum lac pounded and sifted through a silk sieve; then add to it about 1/4 of an ounce of colophony, and at the same time, that it may have a body, collect it on the end of a stick in order to present all parts of it to the fire, that it may all be of the same color, and as soon as it is liquefied you will add to it , a little at a time, the powdered colours, observing that t hey must be quite dry when they are put in. 

32.92. An amber varnish. – Take common turpentine, make it to boil for a quarter of an hour, add to it some amber well powdered on a marble, boil it for half an hour until the amber is liquefied, and take it from the fire. As soon as it is cold it will become hard; when you wish to use it, dilute it with oil of turpentine in order that it may liquefy, an it will be better to heat it slightly that it may be more manageable, taking notice that while tit is hot, it should be passed through a cloth, and the part which passes through will be the best part. Apply it with the pencil or with the warm hand. It is necessary to acquaint you that this composition should be washed in hot water, after it has been strained, that it may be clean and pure. 

33.93. Another secret to make the true Indian varnish. -Take gum lac and oil of spike, both of them clean and pure. The oil must be cleansed from its impurities with an equal quantity of litharge of gold; it must then be redistilled and again left to settle until it becomes clear after being passed twice through the still. Another vessel shaped like this must be procured, and for every four ounces of spice must be taken one ounce of gum lac (if it is very yellow and clear there is no doubt of its goodness); the whole is then to be placed over a charcoal fire and to be boiled until the color is changed, and varnish becomes like honey. To know whether it is good, put drop on a knife, and if it remains united it is good; it must afterwards be poured through a linen cloth into a vase of majolica and preserved.
(Following indications on the use of different colours in several coats with this varnish) 

34.94. A very clear varnish for pictures and paper alla Fiamminga. -Take 7 ounces of highly rectified spirit of wine, 2 oz of sandarac, and 2 ounces of olio d’abezzo. The sandarac, which should be very clear must be pulverized and put in a bottle with the olio d’abezzo, which also must be very clear. The spirit of wine must then be added, and whole boiled gently over the fire, until the whole is dissolved, keeping the mouth of the vessel well closed, that the spirit of wine may not evaporate. The varnish must then be strained into a glass vase, leaving the impurities at the bottom. When it is used it must be put into a majolica cup, the picture also must be heated, and the varnish applied with a pencil. 

35.102. To make the finest Indian varnish. -Take oz.8 of gum lac, oz 4 of the white resin of Arabia (Oriental Copal?), oz3 of mastic, and oz 1/2 of borax; liquefy the whole in a glazed basin. When dissolved, strain them through a silk cloth; then take an ounce and a half of the composition, reduce it to powder, put the powder into a receiver, and throw on it half a pound of spirit of wine rectified four times, and put the receiver into hot ashes or a sand bath until the powder is entirely dissolved. The varnish will then be finished. It is then used in the following manner: – Add to it a 6th part, by weight, of Spanish red (The Almagre of the Spanish writers. A pigment which is still sold at Venice – M.P.M.), and with this give 7 or 8 coats to the wood which you wish to varnish, leaving each coat 5 or 6 hours before the next is laid on. After it is quite dry, it must be polished with a small brush and olive oil; then two coats of varnish must be applied, and when it is dry it must be rubbed very softly with goatskin and with a tripoli powder and oil, when it will be done; but I warn you must follow the recipe exactly.

36.103. Another Chinese varnish. – Take of white carabe [amber] oz2, of gum lac oz1/4, and of rectified spirit of wine lib 1. The gums all be pounded, and put into a long-necked bottle, and left infusion for two days, in order that it may be perfectly dissolved, keeping the bottle well closed. The bottle must then be put in a sand bath of such a heat that the varnish will boil. It will then be finished. 

37.106. Varnish is made as follows. – Take one ounce of juniper gum [sandarac], oz1/4 of pure and clear oglio di abezzo, which is called oglio d’abezzo for making varnish, oz 1/2 of the best 7 times rectified spirit of wine. The sandarac must be ground up, and made into a paste with the abezzo. It must then be put into a bottle, the spirit of wine must be added, and it must be placed over a slow fire until it is well incorporated. When it is done, wood or glass which is to be varnished is painted with a tuft of feathers. 

38.107.A varnish for miniatures and picture frames. -Take of spirit of turpentine lib1, of benzoin oz4, and of mastic oz2. Reduce the mastic to a very fine powder, and mix it with the benzoin in a varnished pipkin. Then put the spirit of turpentine into a bottle, which you must heat by means of water-bath, and then mix it with the benzoin and mastic in the pipkin; afterwards incorporating it with the other things over a slow fire, &c.
When this varnish is used on picture frames, you must add to it two ounces of sandarac also well pounded, and you must mix with the varnish the color which you wish to apply on the frames. 

39.143.To polish the work. -Rub it well with new cloth; then take fine Tripoli powder which has been well rasped and pounded finely with goatskin, and rub the work well, so that it will have a lustre; then take white wax, if you wish it to be still brighter, and rub it over the work, which will thus become most beautiful. 

V . Gian Batista Vopalto, ‘Modo de tener nel dipinger’ 

40.F.Varnishes are of different kinds: some we make ourselves, others, such as the ‘vernice grossa’ and amber varnish, we purchase, but I make the mastic varnish myself.
S. Tell me how you make it?
F. I take pulverized white mastic, and put it into a pipkin with spirit of turpentine, or naphtha, in such quantities that the spirit of turpentine may rise two-thirds above the mastic in the pipkin. I then set the pipkin over the fire, and boil it until the mastic is perfectly dissolved, and sometimes add to it a little ‘olio d’abezzo’. This serves for varnishing finished pictures, but if you wish to see divers modes of preparing these varnishes, consult Armenino da Faenza and Rafael Borghini’

VI .Brussels Ms, Pierre Lebrun, painter, 1635.

‘Recueil des essaies des merveilles de la peinture’

41.’To make very good varnish for varnishing gold and all other things. – Take benzoin, and grind it as finely as possible between two pieces of paper, then put it into a phial and pour on it some very good spirit of wine, which must cover the benzoin to the depth of 3 or 4 fingers, and leave it in this state for a day or two; then to half a phial of this spirit of wine you must add 5 or 6 blades of Saffron, slightly bruised, but not broken in pieces. When you have done this, strain it , and varnish with it something that has been gilt, which will then become very beautiful and shining; this varnish will dry very quickly, and will last several years. This varnish is very good for varnishing all things, as well painted s unpainted, such as tables, and boxes of nut tree, ebony, &c., gilt or not gilt, or copper, ‘ 

42.To make a varnish with mastic for oil paintings. -Take 2ounces of hard mastic and one ounce of olio d’abezzo(?)(huile de sapin), put the last into a small new pot, melt the mastic over a slow fire, then add the oil, which must boil when mixed with it, and must be kept boiling very slowly; for if it were to boil fiercely, the varnish would become too viscous. To know when it is done you must dip a hen’s feather in it; if this is burnt, the varnish will have been sufficiently boiled; then pour it into a phial or bottle to preserve it from the dust. When required for use it must be warmed in the rays of the sun.
43.Fine varnish (benzoin) is made with turpentine melted over the fire; when melted, remove it from the fire, and add oil of spike with mastic, and, if required, sandarac.
44.Gros [vernis] is made with turpentine, oil of turpentine, and resin, melted up together.

                                                                                                    Dmitry  Badiarov  


return to Blog

Features and issues in present luthier com- petitions for their objec tivity and ...


Instruments and bows need regular main-tenance to keep in good working condition and to prevent any minor damage...


Old Cremona...
The varnish of the Old Italian violin makers of the period 1550 to 1750 has been the subject of considerable speculation and...


Instruments used...
The reason to write this article is my conversation with Australian musician and teacher who teaches and plays in Germany and at home. I consulted him about the qualities of...