Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Interview with Joe Robson, Part 1

Photo courtesy of Tried and True Wood Finishes.

 Joe Robson might know more about traditional finishes--especially natural resin varnishes--than anyone alive. He started cooking up his own finishes for his cabinetmaking business in the 1980s, then went on to found Tried and True, which (as far as I know ) was the first VOC-free natural finish manufacture in North America, and is still going strong today. After 20 years, he sold the business to focus on his real passion: Making violin varnish. Today, these varnishes are highly sought after by violin makers. 

This summer, I drove up to Joe's workshop in Trumansburg, NY to interview him. Part 1 of our interview is general in nature, while part 2 will delve into the specifics of oil, resin and solvent--the three main ingredients of traditional varnish.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Steve Voigt: Joe, thanks so much for agreeing to talk about your work. I read somewhere that you were a philosophy major in college. How did you go from philosophy major to running a cabinet shop?

Joe Robson: It was kind of a two sided coin, as most things are. I went to college and discovered that I had to eat. And although I had a good scholarship, I had to pay for the rest of my life. And I got started, as a lot of people do, painting houses, and that painter’s trade turned into taking carpentry jobs. By the end of college, we had built 28 houses. So I learned to be a carpenter the hard way. And the other half is I was sitting in a philosophy of religion class. And I'd been doing carpentry for a couple of years and reading about the American Shakers, and I'm supposed to be paying attention to the text but instead I'm looking at the furniture and thinking “I could do that.” I mean, I had no skills, none whatsoever that way. I could barely use a hammer and a saw at that point. But it was like a lot of other things; It was a question I couldn't answer until I tried it. And I ended up building a lot.

SV: How long did you work as a cabinet maker, and what kind of cabinet work did you do?

JR: I started the cabinet shop around 1976, I think. It was all, you know, all transitional; I was doing carpentry and somebody needed a kitchen and I said oh, I can build you a kitchen. So I built the kitchen. And then somebody else asked me for a kitchen and I started acquiring tools. And I did a lot of kitchen cabinets, I mean acres of kitchen cabinets. And probably had I been intelligent and resourceful I would have stayed in that business, probably would have retired in that business, but I wanted to be a better and better woodworker all the time. And so I sought out commissions that were beyond my kitchen cabinet work and had some failures and had some successes, and thought I should be God's gift to woodworking and that was wonderful. But it was a very difficult way to make a living in Trumansburg New York and raise children and be a dad and all those things.
So I had the cabinet shop into the mid 1990s. Then in 1992 we started Tried and True Finishes. And eventually the tools got pushed into what used to be the lumber shed and Tried and True took over and we did that for 22 years out of the two car garage next to the house.

SV: How did you get started making your own finishes?

JR: Actually we're running up on my 40th anniversary of making varnishes--it was June of 1982.
I was doing a lot of shaker furniture, all that I could get commissioned at that point. And there was a show in Washington at the Corcoran Gallery called Shaker Design. And a number of us (cabinetmakers) who were doing modern work were invited to bring a piece down to Washington, so that people who exited through the Shaker Design show would walk through a room of new work. And one of the perks of having a piece in that show was to go down to the opening, and get to look at all this furniture that I'd only seen in books or in museum settings, crawl around it, look at it, pull the drawers out. I was quite happy with my woodwork, but I knew my finish was not going to look like that 150 or 200 years.

SV: What were you using?

JR: Linseed oil, beeswax, things that were labeled linseed oil. What I realized is that they were those products in name only. And I realized that what I was using was not going to do what those finishes did. And it just kind of created an itch, and I never stopped scratching. So I started experimenting soon after that show, making combinations and trying to cook my own oils. And then about a year into that, one of the guys in the shop bought a book called German and American Varnish Making by Max Bottler. And it was just like, somebody had opened a door. For me, all of the things that I was suspicious about now had names, and processes now had names. And that just gave me the springboard to try and experiment and put these things together. And I started cooking and buying resins and processing oil, much to my financial degradation. But yeah, that was the jumping off point.

SV: Yeah, I can relate to the money pit part of it.

JR: Many times I have told violin makers that I have thrown away more varnish than all the violin varnish that's ever been made or put on an instrument or spilled by at least 10 times. But it’s been an interesting journey, because basically, in the cabinet trade and in the varnish trade, my generation thought we were reinventing the wheel. And it wasn't until I was far more into the trade that I realized the problem was World War Two, that the cabinet makers of my parents generation died in World War Two. And the varnish makers of that generation and the prior generation died and got bought out by the war because from 1933-1936, the petrochemical industry went into the American varnish industry and decimated it, they fired all the cooks like me, they replaced them with inorganic chemists, they replaced the natural materials with petrochemical resins and petrochemical solvents, and the craft part of it died. And those that didn't get fired, died in the war. So there was this huge gap in understanding and it took a while to uncover the information and then to realize that you didn't have to reinvent everything, but you had a lot of learning to do.

SV: You mentioned linseed oil and wax finishes; were you also making varnishes at this time?

JR: Yes, other types of finish to begin with, and then varnish in later years.  

SV: In 1992, you started Tried and True finishes. How did that come about? And what was it like to go from being a cabinet maker to being a finish manufacture?

JR: It came out of all this Shaker research, that I understood that these were linseed oil based finishes. But what I was buying in the can, at the hardware store, did not behave in the way that those finishes did, or last in the way that they did. And the whole market was saturated with products that were giving me headaches and making me sick. And I had to stop using them. And I started processing oils, until I found a group of oils that were actually predictable in drying, predictable in their long term use. And I started giving it away. I mean, guys would come visit the cabinet shop, leave with a mason jar full of this stuff. And you know, I'm not much of a businessman, but it hit me over the head enough times. And I sat down with my wife and I said, I can't do this by myself--do you want to do it together? So we wrote some rules and put it together and we had the first linseed oil-based, totally non-toxic finish company, probably in the world.

SV: Well, I'll just note parenthetically that although you sold the company in 2004, Tried and True finishes is still going strong.

JR: Yes, and I'm glad it's still available. I still occasionally get phone calls from customers!

Violin Varnishes

SV: How did you get started making violin varnishes?

JR: I was selling a jointer, and a local violin maker (Ben Ruth) came in to look at the jointer because he wanted something big enough to flatten cello plates on. And he noticed I was cooking varnish and said “why aren't you making this for us?” I didn't even know who “us” was. So I began making violin varnishes very soon after we started Tried and True. Profit margins were nice, and I liked the people I was working with. But it was just a sideline.

SV: And that was just from word of mouth from the violin maker who came to buy the jointer?

JR: Yes, he introduced me to his world, and it kind of went on from there. And after twenty years of making Tried and True, we were ready to sell. Twenty years is a long, long time to be throwing five gallon pails of oil around!

SV: What are some of the ways in which violin varnish  differs from furniture varnish?

JR: It's mostly a matter of stability and hardness, but that stability and hardness goes back to the way the varnish is made. When Antonio Stradivari, the greatest maker of all time, was working, the modern resins were copals and amber. They were the hit of Europe at the time. In the 1720s, there were two cabinet makers in France, the Martin brothers, and they became varnish makers and cabinet makers to the king. Some of the furniture is still in the palace, as perfect as the day it was made. Stradivari and his predecessors in the Amati family were exposed to those varnishes. They could have gotten on that train and ridden it, but they didn't. They stuck with tradition.
See, violin varnishes are poor quality varnish that relate mostly to what in the 19th century was called chair varnish. In chair manufacturing, they'd have these long tables, and the guy with a chair would stand at one end, and the varnish would spray up at the table. And they would just turn the chair quickly through all of these sprays and set it down to dry at the other end of the table. And these were rosin based varnishes that dried fast. Yes, they were chippy. And yes, they didn't hold up to sweat, but they were pretty, and they got done fast. And that transition between the furniture world and the violin world was something for me to understand. Because what furniture makers saw as a fault, violin makers saw as a feature.

SV: That's an interesting comparison. When you say it’s poor quality varnish, what you mean, if I understand you correctly, is that it's built to wear out.

JR: Built to wear in a particular way, at a particular rate for particular reasons. They all wear in different ways. But violin varnish at its best is a very narrow road. And it doesn't follow the rules of commercial varnish making.

SV: For someone who's not in the violin varnish world, can you describe, in general terms, the multi-step system that you and other people use for varnishing a violin?

JR: Well, we start with the ground. And there are many types of those.

SV: What is the purpose of the ground?

JR: Ground in its least form seals the wood, particularly with spruce, so that the varnish doesn't over absorb and give you an uneven finish. But beyond that, there are properties, particularly of the Cremonese instruments, that are very brilliant. And it has to do with how we control the light that goes into the wood. So beyond the practical there is an artistic factor there about how much sparkle can we get underneath the varnish before we start. I mean, there are optical properties of these great instruments that basically have to be in place prior to varnish to get the right look.
How the old instruments were originally done, nobody knows. And for me, personally, I don't really care. It's interesting. But what I'm looking for is results.  So, the degree or the amount of light that gets into the wood and gets bounced around and comes back is a factor in how the varnish behaves, once the varnish and color are on. So you have to be able to control that prior to varnishing, if these are the effects you're looking for,

SV: How does the ground differ from a varnish in terms of what it's made of, or its properties?

JR: Well, some people use varnish for the ground. Some people will use a protein like egg white, or casein, the stuff that hide glue is made out of. Many proteinaceous materials can be used as a sealer. Some people use shellac, or water glass. I mean, it's an endless, endless discussion.

SV: Is there a difference between a ground and a sealer?

JR: What remains popular with some people in the violin world is what’s called a mineral ground, basically something like Plaster of Paris or a mixture of minerals made up in a paste with varnish that goes on like toothpaste. Not that much different than the way one would seal oak on an oak floor. You know, you put this paste on, you let it dry, you scrape it off, and what's left in the woods seals up the pores.


Joe Robson's Ground.

SV: What comes after the ground?

JR: In my own work, I'll generally put down a coat of clear varnish after the ground. Because I think that the light reactions are better, and closer to what I'm looking for, like the old instruments, if there's a clear layer down first. And then we'll apply color, either colored varnish or pigments or whatever you choose to color the varnish. And generally that's two or three, or maybe four applications, again, depending on your style and your experience. And then a coat of clear over that. So the color varnish ends up being sandwiched between two layers of clear.

SV: Let’s talk about the color layers. You’ve written about two ways you make colored varnishes. The first way, which seems to be widely used by violin makers, is to cook resins, primarily colophony but also sandarac, until they lose 75-90% of their weight, which gives the varnish a deep, reddish brown color.
The other way, which you described in the article “Scarlet Fever” (The Strad, September 2018), is to attach a cochineal lake to linseed oil. Can you tell me a little about that? (Note: Cochineal is a red dye derived from an insect. A lake is a dye that has been precipitated onto a substrate such as alum to make it insoluble in water).

JR: My claim to fame, if you can call it that, is that I figured out how to attach a lake to linseed oil without making a particulate. And that is the root of my colored varnishes. It's a process that I figured out, but I didn't invent it. It's been around for centuries, but nobody else does it, at least not in public, not that I know of.

SV: What did you mean when you said “without attaching a particulate”?

JR: I'm making a lake which is truly a lake in all other ways, except that instead of becoming crystalline, it attaches itself to the linseed oil.

SV: So you're not using alum or something like that to precipitate a powder?

JR: I'm using all of the same materials and the same process, but I’m doing it in a way which does not precipitate a crystal; it precipitates the coloring process onto the linseed oil molecule. So it's a transitional process. It's always liquid, and it's always attached to the oil. So you get a very intense color, but a translucent medium with no particulate.

SV: And how does the result differ from other processes, like cooking resins for color?

JR: You get the red color, you just don't get the right optical properties of the varnish. Other approaches, like making rosinates, make beautiful varnishes, but they don't do the things that the Stradivari varnish does optically.

SV: I think in the article you described these other approaches as monochromatic.

JR: Yeah, monochromatic, more metallic in their color. The varnish takes on the optical properties of the resin, so there's a metallic sheen to it. When you attach the lake to the oil, you get that softer, multifaceted reflection that you get from oil.

SV: Reconstructing Stradivari’s varnish, as you believe you’ve done here, seems like a monumental achievement. How long did it take you?

JR: It was years of failure, Steve. I'm trying to remember how many years at the moment, but it was a long time ago. I understood how to do this when I reached the point in the Stradivari research where I finally had usable materials to work with, in terms of scientific and historical information. And from that point forward, it was still seven years between having the information and having a varnish that I would be willing to put up in public.

SV: That’s an amazing amount of persistence. Are you no longer cooking resins for color, now that you have this other process?

JR: Oh, no, I'm doing it all.

SV: So why would someone choose to buy your colored resin varnish, versus buying the cochineal varnish?

JR: Well to start, there's a big price difference. But the other factor is that violin makers have their own ideas. And I'm a tool guy, and I've been providing tools to violin makers for over 20 years. So when somebody develops a method, they want to come back to me and be able to buy the jars that they bought last time, and have it all work. There are a lot of people who aren't particularly interested in the historical correctness of their varnish–they do things their own way artistically or for whatever reason. And then there are people who follow that crazy little narrow road to Cremona, and those are the people who will latch on to the cochineal varnish and stay there.

Joe's cochineal varnish.

General Varnish Making

SV: Today, the dominance of synthetic varnishes is such that most woodworkers will go their whole lives without ever using a traditional oil resin varnish. What are they missing? What qualities do traditional varnishes have that are absent from synthetic varnishes?

JR: Synthetic varnishes are basically plastics dissolved in solvent. They're not cooked resin. So the optics are completely different. The clarity, the depth of reflection, the ability for a varnish to pull varied colors out of the wood, is completely lost. Synthetic varnishes are basically made like paint–their effectiveness is based on opacity rather than clarity. So the image that always comes to my mind is taking an old piece of Plexiglas from your storm door, and running it through a grater and taking that stuff and dissolving it in mineral spirits. And then maybe you dump a little bit of raw oil into it, it's probably raw tung oil, which doesn't really like to be there with the mineral spirits, but it gets in anyway. And you mix it up, and you put it in a can and you call it varnish. I mean, this is what happened to the industry in the 1930s. This is when cooking varnishes went away and inorganic chemists took over the game. And it was basically to supply World War Two with cheap varnish.

I think that it's a true tragedy in our trade as woodworkers, because the experience of actual finishing is a tremendous addition to the art that we do. This bench (motions to the beautiful old workbench we’re sitting at) came out of my wife's great grandfather's house. That house was finished in 1907. The varnish in the house was two coats of shellac, and three coats of copal varnish. And the day they sold the house the finish looked as good as the day they put it on. So the durability factor is huge. But look, I'm in this for the optics, and what you draw out of your work with a real oil varnish can't be done with plexiglass and mineral spirits.

I'm working with a guy out in Ohio who is a great mandolin maker and he's restoring a 1920 Lloyd Loar mandolin. And he called me and said, “this is what it looks like, tell me what they did.” Well, somebody sprayed this thing with one of those early pre catalyzed lacquers. And they get milky, and they have no adhesion. And that's a big difference between modern and old varnishes, the adhesion factor, and he was able to pull that new laquer off with a razor blade and just scraping. And under it was the copal varnish that they used on the older instruments. This is damn tough stuff. And we still polished it after that. I mean, I could keep going on about this subject, because I just think it's a sorry thing that the woodworkers of today don't have access to these varnishes.

SV: Do you cook the varnish in cast iron?

JR: I cook the resins in cast iron, and I cook the varnish in stainless steel, but the cooking of the varnish is such a tiny part of the procedure. I mean, at best you're talking 20 minutes.

SV: Really?

JR: Yeah. My theory behind all of this is the faster you bring the resin and oil together and have the varnish made, the more clarity you get out of varnish, the more translucency you have. The longer you cook, the less translucent the varnish becomes, and it may have other qualities which you may or may not like. But if you're cooking for clarity, bring your materials to the point where they want to be together as fast as possible, and be done with it. The preparation is key; there's far more time and effort put into the preparation of the materials than the actual varnish making, the actual varnish making is almost an afterthought.

SV: Wow. That's not how I was thinking about it. That's quite a revelation.

SV: Is a thermometer necessary?

JR: I think it's necessary to learn. One big factor is if you have pine resin or colophony that was harvested in North America, it has abietic acid in it. And for linseed oil and abietic acid to combine properly, they have to hit a minimum of 150° C. See the old trick about putting a goose feather in it, goose feathers melt at 150° C. So you need to learn where those thresholds are. The only time I use a thermometer now is when I'm preparing my oil. Because I want to see exactly where the temperature thresholds are. And I'm preparing it in fairly large batches, probably three gallons at a time. But for preparing resins, I don't use it at all anymore. Because again, every batch is slightly different. So I operate more by smell and sight. As the resins cook, they will change. The odor will change and the color of whatever's coming off as smoke or moisture will change and those are far better controls than temperature, because again, materials may start off in a slightly different place. So when the smell changes, you know what to do. When the smoke changes, you know what to do.

SV: Learning to make varnish can be daunting. What qualities enable one to have some success at it?

JR: Observation, the willingness to fail, and a certain amount of curiosity are all important. I would say the ability to observe accurately without prejudice is probably most important.

SV: Without prejudice. That's a good phrase.

JR: Yeah, you know we all have preconceptions we bring to the process. The fewer of those you have, the more likely you are to succeed.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! However much the process and knowledge of that process is, I won't be cooking up my own varnish. I think I will just buy a can of T&T respecting its price.