Archive for July, 2012

I started getting to know this instrument about a year and a half ago. One thing I noticed early on was that the neck was rather hefty. I noticed too, that it’s owner was rather small in stature. I suggested that she might consider having the neck reshaped. For a player that requires smooth, fast and accurate shifting into high positions, the shape and feel of the neck can have great consequences. The neck on this instrument measured wide, with quite a bit of excess wood in the neck heel area. We could reduce both measurements, while still working within standard violin parameters, and come up with something much more comfortable for my client to play. Here’s what the  process looks like (you can click to enlarge):

Mostly I work with a knife and flat bottomed finger plane to carve away excess wood.

I use strong directional light to visually check lines and curves. Discrepancies are marked with a pencil. A template is useful as a reference and everything is carefully measured. Files and a scraper help refine the shape. The grain is raised with multiple applications of moisture followed by progressively finer sandpapers.

Next, the wood must be recolored to match. First I use a water stain derived from walnuts. It gives the newly exposed wood a nice brown color and accentuates the grain. I follow that with a vigorous burnishing with a polished boxwood stick. The neck is already very smooth and silky at this point.

An application of boiled linseed oil with a powdered burnt umber earth pigment further deepens the color and starts building a protective coating. After this is dry, I apply a light french polish of shellac. I’ve mixed a small vial of a custom colored retouch varnish and I use this, and my retouch palette to apply some serious varnish coats to the neck heel area and near the scroll. The rest of the neck gets a second french polish.

The difference is noticeable as soon as the player picks up the instrument. With the neck shaped properly, the entire fingerboard should feel more accessible – especially important for players with smaller hands!

Thanks to Debrah Devine, performer and teacher in Oneonta, NY, for participating in this episode of Restorersmind!

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There’s an interesting thing that happens in the course of a restoration. Today it happened subtly, but in a moment. I recognized it as I shifted my tool and repositioned the violin top that I was working on. zzzzzzt! There it was, a sign of life.

I’ve been working on a lovely old violin that has suffered not only the effects of a couple hundred years, but also some serious misfortune at the hands of unskilled violin “repair” hacks. It was a sickening mess or a titillating challenge, you pick.

An instrument with multiple cracks, broken and deteriorated edges, loose bits of wood and a bad history with a glue pot, doesn’t vibrate. It buzzes, rattles, clacks and gasps or simply lies dead on the workbench. With a change of fortune it could become, yet again, a beautiful, healthy, vibrant and participating member of the performing arts scene. That’s my job.

zzzzzt! It’s not a sound, it’s a feel. Gradually, as the cracks are glued properly, and the loose bits are reinforced or replaced, my patient remembers that it was MADE to vibrate. In my hands, it feels like a nicely tightened drum head. Ready. Excitable. Alive.

More on this fiddle another time – stay tuned!

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Sweet Supplication Rain

We are in the midst of a worrisome drought. And although we, here in Holyoke, MA, are not in imminent danger, as our friends and family elsewhere in the States have been due to forest fire, it’s been dry, dry, dry.

Actually, I take back that part about imminent danger: the other night after 20 minutes of smelling smoke that I attributed to the neighbors up the hill, who have a fondness for their fire pit (not to mention an obsession with fireworks), I discovered my next door neighbor’s garage lit up like a jack o’ lantern. An undetected ember from the previous day’s grilling extravaganza had been deposited in their trash can and neatly stowed in the garage (thankfully NOT near the mower and gas can), awaiting our usual weekly trash pick up. Twenty four hours later it was fully aflame before they (and I) realized it. They hosed it down and everything’s fine, except for the molten wad of plastic rubbish bin. I watched.

Anyway, this was not meant to be (overtly) a cautionary tale. I have been thinking about the weather again. In my own way. I was thinking about a friend I had back c 1980 for a short bit. Her name was Vicky and her mother was a landscape artist. Vicky earned extra cash by offering a typing service (now that’s a thing of the past). I thought she was very clever because she called it Alice’s Typing Service and so whenever anyone called asking for Alice, she knew it was a business call. This was long before email, multiple phone lines and voicemail, and long before I had any reason to think about the pros and cons of separating my own business life from my personal life. No further comment.

Vicky’s mother was working in watercolors and had gained herself a reputation as a painter of  Prairie landscapes. Vicky was from Kansas. Maybe this painting of her mother’s was in her apartment (in Northampton, MA)? or maybe it was a framed print? I don’t remember, although there was certainly NOT an internet search involved, which is how I came up with it just now (I’m sorry it’s not a better rendering, it’s a beautiful painting):

Joan Foth
Storm Lifting, 1980
Cloud Light Series
watercolor on paper, 25 x 35″

I’m a native to the Northeast, USA, so this image got my attention. In the New England landscape that I am familiar with, that kind of horizontal just doesn’t happen unless you are standing on the shore of the Atlantic. Thirty two years later, I’m still thinking about this.

There’s an adage around here: if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. It’s changeable. Maybe even more so lately. But I also wonder: here in New England, with our hills and valleys, maybe we just don’t see it coming.

There was one time, when I stood on the cottage porch in Gloucester, MA, with Marianne, and we watched something happening way out on the surface of the ocean, that we didn’t understand, until it was suddenly evident that we were seeing serious weather headed our way. We had barely enough time to drag the porch chairs in (which would have been on their way to Liverpool) and set our shoulders against the casement windows which were already being beset upon by fierce winds and soaking rain. Is this what it’s like to live on the prairie? Is that what I’m missing here in NE – an ability to read the horizon?

This afternoon, we finally had some rain. Last night’s event was mostly a light show – enough thunder to send the dog panting under the bed, but not a lot of real juice. Today, the clouds rolled in and spewed huge drops of soaking rain along their trajectory through my northwestern sky, while the sun shone from the southwest. Sun, rain, shadows.

I’m afraid to wish for more. The last time I attempted to invoke the rain during a heat wave was about a year ago. It rained alright. And the storm drain out in the street backed up into my basement. Didn’t see that coming.

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Owning an older home reminds me of raising my daughter. It also reminds me of running my business. It also reminds me of why I no longer work on double basses (even though I LOVE bass players) and small instruments (even though I LOVE kids)! It reminds me of everything and anything that requires serious prioritizing.

I have been criticized for “wiping up” instead of Cleaning, and power vacuuming the most trafficked areas rather than moving the furniture and creating a completely pet hair and dust free zone, which really only lasts for five minutes, but in my opinion, is still a good thing to do now and then.

Let’s face it. I am one person and I cannot do everything.

This weekend I painted the front door, even though I’d prefer to paint the whole house, which is an adequate, but excruciatingly BORING gray. I removed old, cheesy curtain rod hardware in the upstairs bedrooms, along with the errant THUMBTACK that the previous painters had simply painted over (sin against my very being!)  and then what did I do? Thankfully remembered the can of paint left in the basement by said hosers (painters) and proceeded to slap it on the damage I had created removing said crappy hardware and thumbtacks (even though there is serious adhesion issues at play here)! Hallelujia!  Am I happy about that? NO!

But, I am happy about finding a door in my garage (that’s another topic)  that clearly used to fit at the bottom of the attic stairs. Well, it’s there again (the attic door), even though it meant pilfering hinges from somewhere else. This is important because the attic door opens into an alcove adjacent to the room that WILL be my new workshop. The alcove is to provide light and a needed storage area. I’m imagining  secondary jigs, forms and less frequently used tools and materials. Yes, I have plans.

If you are a person like me, there aren’t too many things that you don’t notice at all. Sometimes this is a great asset. I am a good violin restorer. I was a lousy carpenter. To be kind, I guess I’d say I’m “detail oriented”. So the challenge is always to keep the big picture in mind and allocate limited resources to affect the greatest benefit while  ever moving in the direction of a larger goal. Which means some things must get short shrift, as much as it goes against my nature.

In parent-speak, I think the phrase is “pick your battles” – about the best advice I was ever given (thank you Liz). I asked myself constantly, “is this a big thing or a little thing”? Which meant that plenty of little things worked themselves out, or not, to some degree or other. The daughter has not only become a fantastic adult, but is also my role model in terms of learning to prioritize within seemingly overwhelming circumstances and, btw, making it all happen ahead of schedule. Clearly she didn’t get that from me. She’s 25, and it’s not that she has it all wrapped up. Hardly, but her mo is admirable. I have learned that what I might be inclined to call “cutting corners” is not intrinsically bad, if the corners are well chosen.

To be fair – about the front door? I also admit to having removed the mail slot hardware a few weeks ago, and painstakingly stripping it of a gazillion years worth of paint. Oh and then re-antiqued it – black in the recessed areas. Pretty sweet huh?

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It seemed appropriate somehow, this being Bastille Day.

Late last summer, I planted some little cabbage plants along the driveway. Really, I stuck them in, not  expecting there would be enough growing season left for even a late fall cabbage crop. Indeed. I watched the proverbial snow fall, since we didn’t have much of the real stuff, and didn’t give mes petites choux a second thought.

Then, we had a week of summer-in-March, and I discovered that one little intrepid cabbage had not only wintered over, but had already bolted out of the starting gate! This had promise! I was a proud mama!

I’ve become kind of accustomed by being met in the driveway by Madame La Chou, as she has become known in her maturity. Kind of like having another pet. Since I need that like a hole in the head, I’ve had to deal with the inevitable:

When to do the deed.

All my other cabbages are still (appropriately) babies, so it will be a while before we see another like Mme La Chou. Hers was a story of endurance, tenacity and determination and a grave reminder that it is always possible to wake up on the wrong side of the Revolution.

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Here is a story that no violin restorer in their right mind would share with the public. It may have actually happened to a younger me, or it may have happened to someone else. In either case, the experience was horrifying, but the outcome was actually fortuitous, and certainly edifying. Unfortunately, I have no photos of the actual event, since I may not have been there, but if it seems particularly useful, I will throw in some sketches. Thank you Smith College for the degree in Art.


Some background: woodworms are little bugs; worms, ie before they become grownup bugs, which I think are moths around the time they start thinking of having little bugs of their own (Elizabeth, my friend the biologist, where are you?). Anyway, they are greedy little freeloaders at best. Their favorite meal consists of protein, protein, protein. They will pick all the sausage out of the Jambalaya, so do not invite them over for dinner. Even though they are called WOODworms, they will always eat the horsehair on your bow first. Then, their next favorite thing in your violin case is glue (hide glue, that is) if they can get at it. They’ll eat your violin when they are done with dessert. They can do some serious damage. Take a look at this:


When they get around to eating the wood, they will prefer the tenderest cuts. They will eat their way along the fast lane (soft summer grain) and only make the arduous exit across the hard winter grain to re-enter on the southbound lane if the gastronomical landscape is worth a second visit. Pay dirt is having dessert with dinner, such as when a poorly fitted lining holds a pocket of old glue. Then the whole family comes out. Woodworm heaven: would you like maple or spruce with your ice cream tonight?

The other thing you need to know about is that we violin restorers frequently employ the use of plaster casts to support an instrument top while it’s being worked on. The plaster is poured directly on the instrument with a barrier between, usually a thin layer of latex. There are varying methods for drawing the latex down onto the instrument top, before the plaster is actually poured. These days, thanks to my experience in England with master restorer Jean-Jacques Fasnacht, I use a film of latex thinner than what is commercially available. It is so thin that the weight of the plaster as it’s poured is enough to gently force the latex down, assuring a very detailed cast, indeed.

This is actually a cello top prepared for casting, since I may not have been there for the viola in question (we’re getting to that).

Alternately, one can use some kind of vacuum system. I experimented a lot with this a while back, before I studied in England – some kind of box, a small vacuum of some sort, and holes in the box so you can regulate the suction.

Now back to my story. There was a very old viola having quite a bit of work done –  lots of cracks, including a soundpost crack on the top.  Maybe a little arching correction, possibly some edge doublings. The bass bar, while not perfect, looked adequate, so it was left in place. It made sense to make a cast. So the young, unsuspecting violin restorer made the proper preparations: mixed the plaster, engaged the tried and true vacuum system….and watched horrified as the instrument top collapsed, in a split second, with a crack at the bass bar that ran nearly the entire length of the top! After administering appropriate emergency procedures (fresh air and possibly, a gin and tonic), it became evident that this disaster had been waiting to happen. One might even go so far as to say it was very lucky that it happened under these circumstances, and not, say, while performing the Brahms Sonata No.1 in f minor. Very unromantic.

Once upon a time, some lucky bug found the glue joint between the less-than-perfectly fitting bass bar and the viola top and proceeded to act like it was on the payroll for Boston’s Big Dig. Here is my (extrapolated, of course) rendition:

There was little more than air and sawdust underneath the bass bar. The worm’s front door, and presumably some back door, had been overlooked. In the end, the fatal flaw was revealed and the appropriate repairs were made: a long “finger patch” was fitted, replacing the worm runs with healthy wood, and a new, properly fitting  bass bar installed (no glue-filled gaps). Everyone was happy, including the woodworm who had exited years before, oblivious to the havoc wreaked in its wake.

So what can YOU do to avoid having an inadvertent role in a pathetic story like this? PLAY YOUR INSTRUMENT!!! Or at least look it over regularly. Woodworms, ie the adult moths, are most likely to find their way in to instrument cases that are sitting around neglected for long periods of time. If you see multiple hairs on your bow broken at the same place, check your case for signs of uninvited activity. If you’re still suspicious, vacuum it out, and call the doctor!

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The button is the semi-circular tab at the upper back. It is an extension of the back wood and helps to anchor the neck into the body of the instrument. As one might imagine, the neck joint/back button area must be able to withstand a lot of tension. When this area suffers damage or deterioration (frequently associated with the neck coming loose), the button may crack on either side and along the purfling. Or it may break away completely:

Ouch! This button has actually gone altogether missing and will require a replacement – a related operation perhaps worthy of another post.

Let’s look at this instrument. It’s a 19th century Flemish violin. The button is cracked at the sides and along the purfling. This instrument also had an issue with the center joint, but we can ignore that at the moment.

First the back is accessed by removing the neck, top and interior block. Old glue and dirt are removed from the broken button area and the button is glued to the back as cleanly and evenly as possible. Then the area is to be reinforced with an interior doubling of healthy wood. In this case, maple for the back.

I’ve made a simple mold of the area with a red plastic-like dental compound. The button/back fits perfectly in the mold, which will be of utmost importance as I work the damaged wood down to a thickness of .05 mm at its thinnest. Here, the patch bed is cut down deep enough to reveal the purfling peeking through from the exterior.


The patch bed is concave, like a bathtub, and will be scraped to a clean, uniform surface. I will then shape a new piece of wood to to fit perfectly in the cavity I’ve created. As the fit approaches a finished state, small wooden cleats assure the correct positioning of the new wood. Btw the center joint issue has been corrected and reinforced with long tabs of willow.

Here the new patch wood is glued in.

And here it is after it’s been cut down flush with the rest of the back.

I’ve chosen a piece of European maple that is similar in character. While most of it won’t be seen, I do want the grain lines and medullary rays to be as close to the original as possible. This will be important later.

The instrument is reassembled: ribs returned to the back, a new upper block installed, the top replaced and the neck reset. This instrument required a new neck graft as well, evident in the next photo.

The neck heel and the doubled button will be shaped and revarnished together. I will save my retouch skills for the face of the button and allow my grain matching to help blend the new patch wood into the old. I do not try to make this particular repair invisible, although I do appreciate an end result that is skillfully subtle. I differ from some of my colleagues in this matter. In my opinion, an expert can always tell when the neck has been reset, or a button previously broken. Personally, I would always prefer to see the reinforcement, and see that it was done well rather than wonder if it was done at all.

Finally, button (and center joint) restoration, before and after.


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If you are here because you’ve just visited my website, you might be wondering about Buggy.

Official entry name “Bugzilla” lost mightily in the 2012 Great Holyoke Brick Race. Not surprising given the level of ingenuity and enthusiasm gone into sending those bricks on (mostly) wheels careening down the ramp on Race St, in Holyoke, MA USA on June 9, 2012.



See Buggy’s back end on the far right.

However, the fastest bricks were not necessarily the most notable (imho – ok, I ‘fess up – I lean toward the “be” end of the “be-do” spectrum). For instance, the rolling, bumping  brick in a ball of ice was a dark horse of epic proportion. It was and did, at least for a while. And the brick with loaf of bread – like a still life gone AWOL, well mostly it was, but kind of failed at the do part (ie it didn’t). “Cyclops” and “Grendel” made an appearance -be-ers or do-ers? Maybe you, and hopefully they, will have to show up next year to find out.

It was fairly predictable that Buggy would not get an award for speed. But Buggy gets my vote, because she’s made out of my kinda junk!

Okay, the brick came from the backyard and the wheels from an old pair of skates, but otherwise the wooden bits are all salvaged from the pile of crappy instrument parts that I can’t seem to ditch. I only had to kill one cello top that was lurking in the attic, three warped junky bows too short for tomato stakes, a violin scroll that the maker should have been ashamed of, and my own beautifully cut, but unfortunately no-longer-applicable violin bridge. I consider this experience a great success because Buggy:

1. survived two runs down the ramp
2. did not burn up upon reentry
3. inspired a $10 donation to Goodwill (skates)
4. incited a dopamine riot
5. remained intact to tell the story
6. made some friends
7. and proved, yet again, what a fun and funky place Holyoke is.

Buggy, btw, when not retrieving mail, spends her days lounging on the porch or lurking in the shadows as she likes. She is not allowed on the couch.

See you next year!

(Cyclops was a be-er, Grendel, definitely a do-er).

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Two violins in my workshop this week suggest a topic of study that was addressed recently by the membership of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. Lectures and a collection of instruments for study at the biannual meeting (this year in New Orleans) centered on the influence of the Amati family of makers (17th century), of Cremona, Italy, on contemporary and subsequent makers throughout Europe. Think population centers and European trade routes c. 1700 and one can begin to imagine how instruments may have moved around along with other goods. It’s become clear that the early  Amati models not only made the journey, but were so highly regarded that violin makers throughout Europe copied them.

The first is a violin made by Andrea Guarneri in 1686. I believe it is generally accepted that A. Guarneri, patriarch of the Guarneri family of makers, probably studied first in the workshop of Giralomo and Antonio Amati and then later, in Nicolo Amati’s shop (nephew of G and A). It’s also possible that Antonio Stradivari studied with him there. In any case, it’s obvious that the work of Andrea Guarneri would show the influence of the Amati shop. In the example that happens to be in my shop now, probably the most striking similarity, is the classic geometrically derived model, and the shape of the arching. I had the additional fortune this week of seeing a violin by AG’s eldest, Peter Guarneri of Mantua. Very similar arching, but with a broader, longer, more robust outline. I think the axiom that is evident here (and is true for modern makers as well) is that the best makers do not work in isolation, but build upon the ideas of their predecessors, and even their contemporaries.

So Andrea Guarneri was a local boy working in or near the Amati shop. That all makes sense. But what is more amazing to me is that 1179km away, by modern standards thank you googlemaps, and 50-60 years later, we have Peter Rombouts in Amsterdam making an instrument with an Amati influence. Now Mr. Rombouts married the lovely daughter of violin maker Hendrick Jacobs, whose work was also influenced by the Amatis. Did they have a client in common with a superb example worth studying? Were they “following the money” and answering a demand for Cremonese modeled instruments? Did they recognize an efficacious development in design and tone and seize the opportunity to advance their own work??

Who knows?

For the sake of reference, I’ve dug up a few shots of a 1656 Nicolo Amati violin that I see fairly regularly.  It’s a lovely instrument, exquisitely crafted with all the delicacy one expects from this maker. See the photo at the left and then compare it to this Peter Rombouts from Amsterdam, early 1700’s, on the right.  It’s so hard ( for me) to get effective photos of archings, so here are the ff holes. There are obvious differences, but I hope the similarities in geometry and placement will be evident. If you imagine the “eyes” on the Rombouts enlarged, you come pretty close to the Amati.

Again, a detail in the back corners. The Rombouts corner is quite worn, but still elongated like the Amati example on top. So not Strad.

The Rombouts is having some extensive work done in my shop, which provides a segue into one reason I care about any of this stuff.

As I approach the end of this particular restoration project, I am faced with the possibility of rebuilding some badly worn top corners. The back corners are somewhat worn, but overall, beautifully intact. However, the top corners, only two of which are original, are terribly worn down. Obviously, the back corners will be my primary reference, but as I am trying to recreate the missing bits, having a sense of the larger picture and understanding more about the derivation of Rombouts’ design can only help me.

Above, one can see that the top edges have been fully doubled. I have made a tracing of the back C bout/ corners and shaped the new top wood to this outline. Below, I have cut away the worn wood around the purfling (which is whale baleen by the way, in the manner of this Dutch maker) and added new wood to the outline. From here, I will do some further shaping to emulate an appropriate wear pattern. The “new ” wood I’ve used is very old and heavily oxidised, so hopefully it will require a minimum of retouching to match.

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I realize that I have written next to nothing about violin restoration so far. Oh well. Most of my friends and family think I only work (and work) which is pretty much the way it is if you are self-employed and not married to a software engineer. If I’m missing something, please enlighten me.

I love photography, and have had romances with many cameras. But these days, cameras are fickle and so quickly become passé, even before you have the chance to really get to know them. Maybe I am old school, but I am suspicious of things that are meant to be thrown out before they are broken.

There’s another post here in the works, I can tell, so I’ll stop here, my point being that  – What do I take pictures of? Work, mostly!

And so this is really a post about gardening. It’s the thing I enjoy most that doesn’t really have anything to do with work. Although, I could easily extrapolate a connection…perhaps some other day.

I purchased this house in summer of 2010 and this is what the back yard looked like:

I employed Nancy Howard Landscape and Design to help me get started. Nancy got Mike to come in with some machines to remove a broken up old cement area, and to push some dirt around.

We went shopping, and on  Nancy’s recommendation, came home with  a Yellowwood tree and some beautiful foundation plants. By the end of the summer of 2011, my back yard looked like this:

So this is how I’ve been spending most of my non-work time (notice I didn’t say “free”). On this first day of July 2012, in addition to further work in the shady area by the back fence, I have made three vegetable beds w bush beans, eggplant, tomato, basil, peppers, tomatillos, cabbage, lettuce and brussels sprouts. There are rhododendrons on the NE side of the house now and as of a few weeks ago – a pink dogwood, viburnum and weeping cypress in the front. And more veggies and flowers along the driveway.

It’s happening! It’s feeling like a place. I sit frequently out by the Yellowwood and wonder what it will look like in 50 or 100 years. My kind of time frame. I know…! In the meantime Bailey and I are both happy with the daily dose of fresh lettuce and kale, with the promise of more things to come.

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