The photo below is from an Italian violin made in Milan during the middle of the 18th Century. It’s in our workshop for some major restoration work. On the back the varnish had worn away to show two distinct layers of varnish. I took this close up photo showing some of the worn and chipped varnishes.
Across large areas of the back, the varnish has worn down to what appeared to be just wood. There may be remnants of original varnish or a sealing coat soaked into the wood but to the naked eye it appears to be just polished wood. Together with many marks and scratches, it’s been polished over by violin restorers with thin layers of ‘french polish’. (typically a shellac/resin varnish)
Over the wood, there is a pale, almost clear lower layer of varnish. A likely purpose of this layer would have been to seal the wood before applying the next much darker coloured varnish. Without the pale varnish the coloured varnish would soak into the wood. It could then stain the violin in a patchy, uneven and generally unattractive way.
The final coat is the orange brown coloured varnish which has been applied over the lower varnish. It appears to have gently worn away from the surface over the past two and half centuries, in contrast to the lower layer of varnish which has chipped off from the wood.
Perhaps the coloured varnish was a softer and less brittle varnish? Or perhaps the lower clear varnish didn’t strongly adhere to the surface of the wood and therefore had a tendency to chip off over the years. Either way, it was interesting to see these two layers of varnish still visible, though now only clearly seen on the back of the violin. Overall the look of the worn varnish is now quite beautiful and the ability of these classic Italian varnishes to age gracefully through daily use over the centuries I feel is one of their most pleasing characteristics.