By HENRY FOUNTAIN Published: December 4, 2009 In a finding that is sure to add to one of the longest-running debates in music, a detailed analysis of the varnish on five instruments made by Antonio Stradivari reveals that he coated the wood with a rather humdrum mix of oil and resin. Those looking to the varnish as the secret to the master Italian violin makers renown, the study suggests, had best look elsewhere. Its a very basic recipe, said Jean-Philippe Échard, a chemist at the Musée de la Musique in Paris, who, with other researchers in France and Germany, analyzed tiny samples of wood and varnish from the museums Stradivarius collection, four violins and a viola damore dating from 1692 to 1724. Their study, published online on Thursday by a German chemistry journal, Angewandte Chemie International Edition, found that a drying oil, linseed or walnut, was used as a first coat to seal the wood. That was followed by a coat of oil and pine, fir or larch resin, with red pigments added in all but the earliest instrument. The recipe was probably little different from that used by others in the town of Cremona. The ingredients were simple, so probably the skill was in his hand and eye, Mr. Échard said. In the centuries since Stradivaris death, musicians, critics and luthiers makers of stringed instruments have debated what gives many of his 600 known instruments their brilliant tone. Perhaps it was the wood he used or the patterns he developed, which are widely copied today. Or perhaps, some suggested, there was a secret ingredient in his varnish egg or animal-hide proteins in the base coat, and amber, myrrh or some other more exotic substance in the top coat that stiffened the wood just so. Earlier studies had found traces of minerals and proteins in the wood, fueling the debate. One group found evidence of volcanic ash; another suggested that bacteria or fungi played a role. In a study published in the spring in The Strad magazine, Stewart Pollens, a former conservator of musical instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, found evidence of proteins and gums, although, like the European group, he suggested the varnish was largely oil and resin. But studies of Stradivaris varnish have been hampered by the lack of samples, which is understandable given the rarity, and value, of the instruments. Most researchers have relied on a single sample, or on surface measurements of an intact instrument, although Mr. Pollenss studies included three samples of wood taken from instruments that were restored. Joseph Nagyvary, a retired professor at Texas A&M University who created an outcry several decades ago when he suggested that there were minerals in the varnish of old Italian instruments, used samples from cellos by other makers. We never had the privilege of getting a sample from a Strad, he said. I tried that for 30 years and got nothing but insults. Dr. Nagyvary, who has experimented with varnishes of his own, using ingredients like shrimp shells to add protein, said the new findings were something of great interest. We have to take them seriously, but there are many other claims, he said. Mr. Échards group had access to the museums collection, but even so it took days to decide where on each instrument to take its samples. Often this was from an area under the tailpiece, which was both unobtrusive and less likely to have been retouched. What we are sure is that what we have sampled from the violin are the best representative samples from Stradivaris technique, Mr. Échard said. If weve missed things, its maybe because they are not there anymore, or theyve never been there. Douglas Cox, a violin maker in West Brattleboro, Vt., said he was not surprised by the findings. The simplest explanation is most likely to be true, he said. The recipe is not all that different from varnishes found on fine furniture from the same area. Mr. Échard said Stradivari took a painterly approach to finishing his instruments. The pigmented top coat, he said, may have been applied much the way Rembrandt or Titian applied glazes to soften flesh tones. Perhaps that, Mr. Échard suggested half-jokingly, is what makes some of Stradivaris violins special. Maybe a player, when seeing a beautiful instrument, he plays better, he said. Maybe this is the secret. Original link with pictures here.