Thinking and Experiencing ‘Techne’: the Finished Varnishes

This post was written by second-year student, Rebecca Goozee, one of a group of V&A/RCA History of Design MA students participating in the ‘Thinking and Experiencing Techne’ seminar/lab.

The final lab session of the V&A/RCA History of Design MA course’s ‘Thinking and Experiencing Techne’ class took place in the relative comfort of the Blythe House conservation studio rather than in the outdoor ‘lab’ space, where we had been re-creating sixteenth-century varnish recipes over the previous weeks. There was a sense of excitement and trepidation as we examined the contents of the jars holding the four different varnishes we had made. It was time to ‘brush out’ our varnishes on to untreated wood, to see if they would cure and set as a lacquer. This would be the final test of whether or not we had produced anything resembling a suitable wood varnish.

Our varnishes ready for brushing out

Different varnish samples in preparation for brushing out

The making of the varnishes had been an arduous task. By comparison, the process of brushing out seemed delicate. At first, the varnishes appeared far too thick and gloopy for spreading, so we thinned them with turpentine, lavender oil and methylated spirit, all substances that were appropriate for the time period of our recipes. The mastic and aspic oil vanishes we had made were a honey colour, leaving a light hue on the wood. Our amber varnish was still a little gritty as the amber had not dissolved completely. Our final varnish, one made of linseed oil and copal (a substance similar to amber), was the most successful. It was much thicker, darker and it felt most like a modern varnish, almost gluey in its application.  We all propped up our plywood in hope of it drying and producing the results we so desperately want. Only time will tell if the varnishes will dry properly and ‘behave’ like varnishes, as they take up to a week to cure.

Different varnishes

The different shades of the ‘brushed out’ varnishes

Brushing out marked the end of our experiment with making sixteenth-century varnishes. The experience taught us that the likelihood of success gained by following the recipe books was initially low because of our lack of understanding of how different materials will interact, but would grow with time. Although the experience was – overall – uncomfortable (largely because of the fumes!), we gained a very useful insight into processes of making and knowledge generation.

Click here for the previous blogs from the Techne seminar/lab series.

To see what else V&A/RCA History of Design students have been up to, read our other blog posts, check our pages on the RCA website and take a look at Un-Making Things, a student-run online platform for all things design history and material culture.

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