The Ground is a formulation that goes on the bare wood to seal it and keep subsequent layers of finish from soaking into the wood, which could dampen the sound. There is constant and considerable debate about the “proper” and “traditional” materials to use for the ground coat, the theory being that the ground and varnish could be the “secret” to why old instruments sound so much better than newer instruments. I am reluctant to delve into the mysteries of various varnish formulas and processes – it seems like a great place to get lost and procrastinate away years of one’s life while the fiddles remain “in the white.” 

At the risk of raising the ire of truly fabulous makers, I’ll share my personal beliefs* about violin finishing –

I don’t believe that a varnish finish needs to be sprayed on (or applied with other exotic techniques that may only be attempted after years of study at an accredited school for luthiers) to look good – I see wonderful varnish work at home and know the process that put it there, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy 😉

I don’t believe in “gassing” an instrument with toxic chemicals as some makers do – I don’t believe that The Masters would have entertained such ideas.

I don’t believe that a finish formula has to be complicated, made of exotic ingredients, or necessarily toxic.

I do believe that The Masters used something common and simple – the micro-analysis that some people are engaging in to try to discover the “secret” is a waste of time.** Strad is probably laughing his ass off in some other dimension.

Moving on. This is going to get long, but there will be pictures, so hang in there.

Back in March there was a discussion on the Maestronet Forum about an unconventional idea for a ground coat for violin making – sugar water. The idea was brought up by Jessupe Goldistani, a builder of unconventional fiddles (and other Top Secret projects) in California, whose work I first admired on The Fiddle Hangout. Take special notice of the “Cat Fiddle” – I love it!

I won’t re-hash the Maestronet discussion except to say that Jesse “discovered” using sugar as part of a Ground Formula while developing a non-toxic floor finishing system. Do go read the thread – all 19 pages of it – and see for yourself what kind of controversy can arise from one simple “hey, I tried this, it’s non-toxic, has held up well over several years, looks great, and it works from every angle I can see” from an established maker and you’ll understand my reluctance about making any sort of claim on this here little blog. A Google search will not yield much on sealing wood with sugar, either.***

Being an intrepid adventurer, and liking the non-toxic aspect of the sugar system, I decided to give it a go. Not having any suitable test wood lying around, the kit fiddle became my experimental canvas. At first, the results were not what I would call outstanding – here is the back after a couple coats of very thin sugar water (1/2 cup tap water (no need to get all fancy with distilled) and 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar) –

Splotchy and streaky. I did not panic. After re-reading the MN thread, more sugar was added to the water (I did not “cook” the mixture at any point, but did heat it up in the microwave to get it warm) and more coats brushed on with ample time to dry between coats and a very light sanding with 600 grit paper. It got better –

The wood became more finished looking with each coat, but still nice and blonde. The grain did not rise to any appreciable extent. The front looked rather strange, with a darkening on each side showing very clearly how the two halves have opposing grain direction, and frankly, it’s worrisome –

The grain is nicely defined and some shine is starting to build, but the front still looks weird. I was beginning to think that I’d made a mistake in trying something unconventional, but the back sure looks great –

The scroll has a lovely color, too –

I did not do any in-depth shaping/sanding of the scroll, electing to leave it rough as some of The Masters did – not that it would ever be mistaken for anything more than it is 🙂

Step One of the Ground is complete and Step Two is well under way – more in the next post.

* I am not, nor do I in any way claim to be an “expert” on anything. I am strictly a regular, run-of-the mill beginning fiddle player who has an interest in building a fiddle for my own use. I have no intention of trying to make a living as a luthier, nor do I plan to sell an instrument (although I will entertain all reasonable offers 🙂 I make no claims about the efficacy of any of the techniques, materials or procedures that are discussed on this blog. Build at your own risk! Be bold – try it for yourself!

** All opinions expressed are my own and are not meant to insult anyone. Remember – neophyte here! Your methods work for you, my methods work (or not) for me. Let’s not waste time arguing.

*** Stephen  Shepherd, another member of MN, writes at Full Chisel Blog about using sugar water to make the grain pattern pop and calls it a common historical method – he has even written a book – “Shellac, Linseed Oil & Paint” about historic wood finishes and their applications.