Madder Root

Posted by Michael Doran on Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

Madder root is a traditional material used for dyeing. Madder root has been used by people for thousands of years, most famously perhaps to dye Turkish carpets their distinctive red. The plants grew originally in what is now Afghanistan and now have been spread and cultivated all over the world. Producing madder was a huge industry, with families making the pigment and passing down the traditions from generation to generation. Madder red was so valuable and sought after that when a red article dyed with madder was worn out, the cloth was dissolved and the color extracted to dye a new piece of clothing. Madder pigment would have been accessible to Stradivari, Guarneri and other artisans of the 18th century certainly. In the late 19th century a process was developed whereby the principal chemical component of madder root could be synthesized. Alizarin, which was cheaper to manufacture, was the cause of the rapid collapse of the madder root market. But alizarin is not the only component of madder, purpurin is the other chemical component which has never been synthesized. Discerning eyes can see the difference between real madder which is a complex color and alizarin which is somewhat flat.

Many violinmakers today use pigments to color their varnish, and there is historical evidence to support that classic makers did the same. I make my own pigment, starting with the raw roots of the madder plant. It is an incredibly time-consuming and labor intensive process. For each kilogram of roots that I start with I get roughly 30 grams of pigment by the end, a 3% yield. I use around 25-30 grams of pigment of a single cello. Each batch takes 3-5 months to complete the process.

I choose to make my own varnish and pigments because I want the highest quality materials I can obtain. When I make pigment it is with the aim of crafting a small amount of the most transparent and rich color possible. I also enjoy that because I make the color myself it gives my instruments a distinctive look. In a business where it can be hard to distinguish yourself from the crowd varnish is the most visible signature available. I also enjoy the process. It has been fun calling on my chemist friends and asking them obscure questions about how to recreate a 16th century process today.

After I have completed the pigment it is stored as a powder. The powder must then be ground into the finest particles possible  and then added to my varnish for each coat. To grind the pigment I use a glass muller and a flat glass plate.