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Archive for the ‘Tools and the Trade’ Category

Much has happened since I built my first workbench in 1980 at the age of 22. And yet, here I am again, expanding into another space, and staring at the opportunity to create a workspace that I will want to spend much of my waking hours in. The difference is that in 1980, I made do with a flat surface and a shelving unit. Currently I am working on my 7th workshop incarnation, not counting anywhere else I might have worked. In my 18 years as an independent professional, I have revisited this workspace question 5 times. I am old enough to be seduced by the notion that MAYBE this is the last time. Since I expect to drop dead at my bench sometime in the (preferably distant) future, I have to entertain the idea that maybe this workbench is it, since I have no desire to be ANYWHERE else. EVER AGAIN!

When I moved into this house, going on three years ago, I did not have the luxury of an extended move-in period. I hit the ground running, setting up my workspace in the dining room. It’s a lovely space to work in, but I have always considered it “temporary”. My intention has been to outfit a room upstairs as my primary workshop, and retain the downstairs dining room as an area to receive clients, show instruments, and do tonal adjustments. I’ve been slow to make this transition, possibly because of the late afternoon light and the abundance of c1900 oak cabinetry that I enjoy in my current space.

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Well, I may be over it now. I have been hankering for a real dining room, for one thing, and a workshop that is not within sight of the living room couch! Oh, and I am tired of tripping over the new 24″x 84″ Bally Block workbench top that’s been sitting in the hallway since last August.

This weekend was mostly about getting a move-on on that space upstairs. I thought I would start with the perimeter, namely storage, since my primary work surfaces are components that should go together rather quickly. I will have to have an electrician in just before that happens anyway.

So the alcove is painted, prepped and the first shelves gone in. I’ve thought long and hard about how to store a lifetime’s worth materials so that they are accessible when necessary and out of the way when not. I have been modifying some cabinets that I designed years ago, so that I can access storage from the front and back – I will have a work island in addition to a planing bench secured to the wall.

I can get excited about this. It’s spring and many things are possible. More soon.

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Years ago, I opened an instrument for repair. I was not the first to do so. I was not even the second. My most recent predecessor had not only signed his name, but also left a numbered legend with corresponding arrows clearly identifying his contribution amongst the multiple repairs in the old fiddle. To seal the deal, he used a blue ball point pen, further distinguishing himself from the mere mortals who had signed previously with a lowly pencil. I’m sorry this was before my obsessive picture taking days.

Sometimes, when I open an instrument and see a repairer’s signature/label, I hear myself thinking: Ah, Kilroy was here. Kilroy? Who the heck is Kilroy?  This was an amusing lunchtime digression. Here is a little bit of Americana from urbandictionary.com:

 
In December 1946 the New York Times credited James J. Kilroy, a welding inspector at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, with starting the craze. Usually, inspectors used a small chalk mark, but welders were erasing those to get double-paid for their work. To prevent this, Mr Kilroy marked his welding work with the long crayoned phrase (“Kilroy was here”) on the items he inspected. The graffito became a common sight around the shipyard and was imitated by workers when they were drafted and sent around the world. As the war progressed, people began opening void spaces on ships for repair, and the mysterious Mr Kilroy’s name would be found there, in sealed compartments “where no one had been before.”
“Kilroy was here…”

So today I decided to put the infamous “Heap of Cello Bits”, which I own, back in the drawer, since I just had another substantial cello job come in that I will actually get paid to do. Instead, I decided to pull out a violin of mine, 19th century French something or other, which I think may be a good candidate for a restoration workshop I may attend this summer. My thinking is that if I can get the cracks repaired ahead of time, I can spend my week away grafting the neck and doing some retouch. I find both of these activities good “travel tasks” because they require a relatively finite set of tools and materials. Retouch is a never ending area of exploration and will always inspire good exchanges with colleagues. And if I can get a graft done too, then I return home with a project solidly moved along.

It’s always a minor thrill to open an instrument. Tonight it was the French fiddle and while there were no serious surprises, good or bad, it was definitely one of those “Kilroy” moments. Kilroy, Kilroy, and Kilroy.DSCN0352DSCN0349

What’s with all the labels? I thought, and then realized that they were all identical except that the handwritten dates spanned 30 years. Our Kilroy in this case is Milton O. Wickes, in case that’s not clear yet.

Currently, the accepted practice among professional restorers is to do the work that needs to be done, be as subtle and/or as eloquent as one can, and leave as little extraneous evidence as possible. My own practice adheres to this principle. Because, in another lifetime I may have been a fantastic spelunker, I conjure images of a pristine, never been explored cavern. Go in, have fun, and pack your crap out.

Still, when I encounter these “indiscretions” in the form of signatures, labels, narratives and veritable road maps, perpetrated by someone other than the original maker, I admit to feeling a little guilty pleasure. Can I puzzle out the whys and wherefores of Mr. Wickes’ three major encounters with this violin? What about that fiddle I had years ago with the simple inscription “do not scrape?” That was a puzzler. Or the Simoutre family history inscribed in a fiddle. Or my favorite, the handwritten apology from a noted Italian maker, for his sloppy repair work: “Repairs according to the price paid.”

Like so many things, I guess it’s a matter of degrees and context. I’m glad Mr. Wickes didn’t plaster his labels all over the inside of a real Joseph Guarnerius, although that would have been the least of it. Labels are removable. Pencil lead is easily washed off. Ballpoint pen, not so much.DSCN0359

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Most of my friends know I’m not a big talker. If I had two dozen words to spend in a day, I would probably make do without serious hardship.  There are those I know, who would spend that just saying hello. This is not a judgement, just an observation. I have even gone so far as to exclaim in the midst of an emotional argument: “Words are NOT my friends!”  The irony is that I find words, and language, fascinating.

Today, for instance, I had occasion to order a specialty product from a small company with the word “University” in its name. So when the person taking my order said something like “sorry, them are on back order, we ain’t gonna have them for a couple of weeks”, I sat up straight. Seriously? She was. Serious.

Sometimes I wonder how anyone ever understands anything anyone else is saying. The truth is, I completed this particular transaction in short order: no problems, no misunderstandings. Absolutely pleasant. Would I do business with them again? You betcha!

It occurs to me that, in the Language Arts, there is nothing even so definitive as a color wheel. As a child, my fifth grade classroom played Mad Libs:

Teacher: “We need an adverb, a word that ends in ‘ly'”!

Student: “Ugly”!

No, I scream inside, that won’t work! But it follows the rule. “Ugly” it is.

I was an early reader, and left to my own devices, I formulated plenty of language “truisms” that haven’t held up over the years. For instance, the word “misled” in my child’s mind was pronounced ‘mīzeld, rather than mis’led. DownloadedFileWell, anyone can be misled, including me. So imagine my delight when I heard this on New England Public Radio recently. It’s worth listening to all the way.

If language is an art, then surely that implies, at the very least, a certain amount of malleability. These days, friend is a verb, and even more recently, I’ve discovered that creative is a noun. Not only that, but I, apparently, am one. A creative, that is.

In my role as a creative, I friend numerous violinmakers and restorers from other countries. I like this about my chosen field. But, as one can imagine, from the difficulties arising from speaking English amongst English speakers, another layer of fascination and delight arises in the attempt to communicate with speakers of other languages.

Once, in Trieste, we had planned  a visit to Gorizia, to see a retrospective exhibit of the work of a famous Italian fashion designer. As we left our twittering Italian comrades, Leslie said, “I think I just said we are going to see an exhibit of cabbages”. Mi dispiace, Signor Capucci!42570721Roberto-Capucc

In England, where I have now three times attended a violin restoration seminar, I once found myself perusing the aisles of a DIY franchise with three German colleagues, one of whom emphatically announced she was going to look for something with which to “clean out her crack”! That was funny enough but even funnier was the moment of enlightenment when her knowledge of English colloquialisms was enhanced just a notch.

For someone somewhat spare on words, I listen a great deal. It is one of my joys. I can only imagine that this is only the first of many posts to explore the grace and foibles of communicating with other humans.  Stay tuned. And please forgive my punctuation.

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I have a hard time following directions. Specifically, I fail at following recipes. This is not because: 1. I cannot read  or 2. I have cognitive disabilities. In fact, sometimes I just have a better idea, or an alternate method that works for me. Or maybe there’s no Dutch Chervil in the cupboard (whatever the hell that is). Generally, this truth is an asset for me and not a liability. I suspect it relates to my being self- employed. But more specifically, I think it relates to the nature of my work. There are very few recipes when it comes to restoration work.

For instance, it is impossible to google “restore this heap of cello bits” and get a concise and printable course of action that may result in something worth putting strings on:
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This cello is actually not in such bad shape, since most of its parts, rather ALL of its parts, have literally come apart at the seams. Beyond that, there will be some serious planning, some random moments of ingenuity, and an otherwise brilliant trajectory of skill and awesomeness. All in a day’s work.

This, however, is a challenge:

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http://www.gourmet.com/recipes/2000s/2003/11/brussels-sprouts-maple-hickory-nuts

Here is a recipe that I love, for shredded Brussels sprouts with maple glazed pecans. I can never quite get it right, for all its simplicity. It’s best when the flavors are isolated and the textures are differentiated. I know how good it can be. I excel at soups and stews, or when a visual presentation is required. But the perfection of this particular recipe eludes me. I’m thinking it might take someone who can follow directions.

Happy New Year!

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When my work apron goes on and the audio book goes in the cd player, the dog knows it’s a good time to settle into her bed for a nap. I don’t think she’s being lulled by the voice coming through the speakers. I think she’s simply read all the signs. She won’t be putting on her walking shoes for a while. She won’t be answering the door (no exciting visitors to sniff). In short, she’s not going anywhere and apparently, I’m not either.

I’ve listened to a lot of books while working. My regular trips to the public library usually result in schlepping four or five audio books home at a time. Most of them I actually listen to. Many prove to be entertaining, engaging, even enlightening. Once in a while, I find a book that just begs to be read in print. I make a note, add it to my “to read” list, and send the audio back to the library. Now and then, a reader just hits my ear the wrong way, regardless of the merit of the writer. The dog lifts her head as I exclaim “Ugh!  I can’t listen to that!”. She’s talking to herself again. 

Since it’s the time of year when everyone is making their Best of Whatever lists, I thought I’d try to call up some recent favorites. For me, the only disadvantage to enjoying a book in audio is that without actually having something to repeatedly pick up and gaze at, I have a hard time remembering titles and authors. I’m forever wishing I’d written these things down. Hmm …I sense a New Year’s resolution in the air! Ho hum…that’s what she said.

Here are ten of the many books that I enjoyed listening to this year, in no particular order. They are simply random picks off my public library’s audio shelves. Most are fiction and all seem to be contemporary. I decided not to consider mysteries (partly because I can never remember which is which and who is whom), and the classics may deserve a future list of their own. I might add that at least a few of these recordings (in particular I’m thinking of A Mercy , Parrot and Olivier in America, and Night Circus) are additionally memorable due to the extraordinary performances of the readers. She forgot about The Art of Racing in the Rain, and that other dog one.

  • Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje, read by Hope Davis
  • A Mercy by Toni Morrison, read by the author
  • Black Swan Green by David Mitchell read by Kirby Heyborne
  • Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey, read by Humphrey Bower
  • Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, read by Jim Dale
  • Fall of Giants by Ken Follett, read by John Lee
  • The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, read by the author
  • Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King, read by Richard Matthews
  • Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon read by Jonathan Davis
  • The Fortune Teller’s Daughter by Lila Shaara, read by T. Ryder Smith

 


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… or How I “Baroqued” a  Violin That Had Been Previously “Un-Baroqued”.

Try as I might, I could not come up with a catchy phrase that would indicate the opposite of “back to the future”. I love my profession for its fastidious regard for the past, its devotion to the present and its dogged assumption of a future. Because I work with things that are sometimes older than two, three, even four human life spans, I am frequently reminded that the path from here to there is rarely a straight line. In contrast, I think of my beloved Honda Civic which, with 110k miles, is surely headed for the trash heap – a short life lived on a simple trajectory.IMG_0476_3

The inspiration for this post is a violin made by an unidentified member of the  Amati family in Cremona, Italy. That would place its construction probably in the late 1600’s. Perhaps this violin was growing and maturing as Antonio Vivaldi assumed his post at the Ospedale Della Pietà in Venice. Certainly by the time J.S.Bach composed the Brandenburg Concertos, it had found its voice. How it ultimately found its way into 21st century America may never be known, but clearly it would have stories to tell.

My mission was to undo some of what had been done along the way. In the 1800’s many old instruments were retrofitted with a neck in the modern style. The earlier “baroque” style neck, was shorter, shaped differently, and had a ramped fingerboard. At some point, this Amati family violin had been “modernized”. The neck and fingerboard had been replaced with the modern version that we are most familiar with today.

Since my client was a teacher and performer of Baroque music, she wished to have her instrument returned to something approximating its original configuration. A note about early violin construction: originally, the neck of an instrument was secured with a nail driven from the inside of the body through the upper block. The top was glued on last. Here is an example, in this case, an ancient violin from Mittenwald, Germany. IMG_4965

In converting an instrument to baroque, one must decide how far to go. In my client’s case, we wished to change the neck without opening the body. Perhaps in the future, if the instrument needs to be opened for additional reasons, we might discuss changing the bass bar too.

Essentially this job required grafting another new neck. But in this case, a standard modern dovetail joint was modified to achieve the look and feel of a nailed baroque style neck. This is the instrument as it came to me, with the standard contemporary configuration of neck and fingerboard:

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The first few cuts are always made with the door locked and the phone turned off! The neck is removed from the body, and then the scroll is carefully cut away creating a tapered mortise, to which new neck wood will be fitted.

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Here the scroll is ready to receive the new neck wood.

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The joint fits perfectly and can be glued. Later, the peg box will be carved out and the neck shaped in preparation for setting into the body.

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 With the fingerboard temporarily glued on, the neck is set into the body in the usual manner.

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Before gluing, modifications will be made. A cutaway is planned to create a step at exactly the rib height. This will replicate the look and feel of the nailed neck. Also, the underside of the fingerboard will be reshaped in the baroque style.IMG_0555

This is how it looks with the fingerboard removed and the neck pushed back into the dovetail mortise. The top of the violin was cut through to accept the first modern neck. We now have a gap that will be filled with matching spruce, to restore the unbroken perimeter of the upper bouts.

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Fitting this piece of spruce happens before the neck is glued. It will be glued in, shaped, and varnished to match after the neck is installed.

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I use a baroque fingerboard made by Helmut Pöser in Germany. The core is spruce while the playing surface and sides are ebony. The fingerboard comes to me oversized so that it can be shaped and fitted appropriately.

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The underside of the board is precisely ramped to create the correct pitch over the body of the instrument. The length that is suspended is shaped in an aesthetic manner, although in the ancient method of construction, this shape had a practical purpose as well. The bump near the base of the neck provided a positive point to insert a wedge which would exert downward pressure as the top was being glued onto the body.

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The final neck shaping is done with the fingerboard permanently glued on. All new wood has been varnished to match the original.

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The graft blends well into the old scroll.

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The shape of the neck replicates the dimensions of an original Jacob Stainer violin neck c. 1620.

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The new neck is finished! The violin is set up with new baroque tailpiece, bridge and gut strings.

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Now, back to the future? Or would that be forward into the past?

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Chopping has come up in a couple of conversations with women friends lately. Yes, chopping, not shopping, thank you. Since I am who[sic] I am, sometimes a word or an image repeated, even in completely different contexts, lights up some mysterious part of my brain. I got to thinking.

The friends in question and I are all artists/artisans. One friend mentioned that after working at a computer for an extended period of time, she needs to go into the kitchen and chop vegetables. Another friend had her work with a cutting tool admonished as being “choppy”, not to mention unbecoming her gender. What? I thought about how I enjoy a job that requires getting out my bamboo froe. More about that later.

In my view, the act of chopping means taking an edged tool in hand and inviting a certain blend of speed, momentum, and larger muscle groups to augment an already practiced partnership between the hand and the eye. For instance, tonight’s butternut squash was bisected with one formidable whack. Had I not spent much of  the day fine-fitting a ridiculously little piece of wood, I may have been happy to simply lean into the vegetable with my biggest knife, rocking with it until the blade hit cutting board. That squash got whacked and it felt gooood!

Now this post, begun in all innocence, is about to take a timely turn. Next Tuesday, we here, in the States, exercise our civic duty to stand behind the candidates of our choice. This is a privilege and, in my view, an obligation of the highest order. I have never missed an opportunity to vote. I consider myself a humanist, sometimes even an optimist. That said, I recognize my not-so-inner curmudgeon. People are basically self- interested and short-sighted jerks. I have been closing my ears against the barrage of measured lies and twisted truths. Unfortunately, there’s not a heck of a lot else to listen to. So I find myself trolling the neighborhood for places to be on Tuesday night, where I might  drink with abandon in case this election heads for the crapper.

The alternate title to this post was “Chopping Therapy 101”, which may help explain why this election digression is not totally a non sequitur. If I were still heating with wood, you can be sure I would be out there with my maul and axe reacquainting myself with my right-side rotator cuff. Instead, I chop vegetables. I use the biggest knife I have. I fit little pieces of wood all day and then split out a bunch of end blocks and bass bars. Whack! Here is the aforementioned bamboo froe: It’s a Japanese tool that is used for splitting bamboo. Someday, perhaps I will understand where it figures in terms of  Japanese craft and construction. It fits nicely in my hand, with a comfortable balance and confidence-inspiring heft. For me, it’s the tool I turn to when I need to be assured that the grain direction in a given piece of wood is appropriate to the purposes to which I am employing it. I use it to split out bass bar stock and also endblocks. I pick up a small hammer, position my froe, and  give it a whack. The split follows the grain line. There is no deception here.

Chopping exposes the nature of a material, the propensity of the tool and perhaps the mindset of the chopper. It’s an activity  that employs a kind of controlled abandon, or calculated wrecklessness. The perfect antidote to a day filled with the questionable minutiae of modern life.

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My life improved dramatically the day Mr. G moved in.

If you are a violin restorer, you probably have all the clamps required to make a violin, plus a plethora of other specialty gadgets for holding and clamping every finished part of an entirely curvaceous instrument. Multiply this by x if you work on cellos, too. If you work on viols, you are probably smart to specialize and outfit accordingly. If you work on basses, there is no hope. Usually the violin clamps work for violas, but the cello clamps are, of course, a lot bigger, generally used less frequently, and that much more of a pain to store.

One truism of violin making/restoring seems to be that there are never enough clamps. At least that’s the way it always feels. My answer to this mental state (besides buying more clamps) is to make sure that the ones I have are accessible. Even that thing that I use maybe once every three years. Even that thing I bought because it looked like a good idea at the time, but I still haven’t used it. If I were to put it REALLY away, I would forget that I have it, and then I would need it. And, having forgotten all about it, I would have to suffer hearing myself whine, yet again, about not having enough clamps.

So when I saw Mr. G in a fancy woodworker’s catalog, I thought: “He ain’t cheap, but he might be worth it”! The big question was: “Are we truly a good fit”? Well, Mr. G has exceeded my expectations, so I think I’ll keep him.

I know it would be hard for the general public to understand what’s at issue here. So here is a sampling of some of the clamps I use  on a regular basis:

Now imagine a pile of these oddly shaped objects jamming up your drawers:

I like neat. And I like being able to pick up one clamp up at a time, without a snaggly bunch of hangers-on coming along for the ride. And that’s why Mr G and I get along so well. Look at this:


And this:

And this:

Wait, I’m not done…this:

And finally, this:

Yeehaaw! That just about takes care of everything. ‘Til death do us part!

Did I mention he comes with wheels and is great at holding a glue pot?

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This is a follow up to my last post, Not Just Any Open Seam.

Helen commented: “In Australia, we experience very hot summers. Is it more likely for my violin to experience seam bursts”?

Hmm… I live at 42˚N. Helen, if I were to take a random guess, might live at 27˚S, which would place her in or near Brisbane. Please forgive me , Helen, if I’ve got it all wrong! In any case, I think we can explore this topic by making some generalizations, even if she is heading into a prodigal summer while I am inevitably crashing into a long desolate, lonely, cold and miserable winter. No hard feelings.

My initial response to Helen’s query is, “not necessarily.” A basic overview can be helpful in establishing a maintenance plan that may help in troubleshooting some of these seasonal headaches.

My first piece of advice is to find, if possible, a local (to you) violin restorer/maker with a good reputation and establish a rapport. It’s like finding a good doctor or car mechanic – you hope you never really need them, but if or when you do, it’s nice to have a relationship already established. By the same token, it may be smart to schedule a yearly check-up even if you don’t notice that anything is wrong. Your local luthier will have an opportunity to establish a “baseline” for your particular instrument. She or he  will also have insights into local climate-related issues and possibly a sense of what other string players in your area experience as a result.

Beyond that, it’s good to be educated! Here in New England, USA, we have hot humid summers and cold dry winters. Rapid changes in climate conditions, especially humidity, can be stressful for wooden instruments. Your instrument will be happiest if you can protect it from sudden and extreme changes in temperature and humidity. Frequently, I tell my clients “if you are comfortable, your instrument is probably comfortable.” The thing to remember is that humans adjust more quickly to environmental changes. Your instrument may need a little more time and coddling than you are likely to allow yourself.

Your instrument case is a micro-environment. Take advantage of it! Arrive at your destination 15 minutes early and allow your instrument to warm up or cool down in its case before you introduce it to a radically different environment. If you are experiencing dry weather, or if you are moving into a dry environment, add a case humidifier.

The interior of an aircraft, for instance, is notoriously dry. Use a case humidifier! If you are getting onto a plane in Brisbane, in January and landing 24 hours later in Boston, be sure to have a humidifier in your case to help mediate the transition. And keep that humidifier moist. Boston is cold and dry in January! So, a case humidifier can be a very useful tool for mediating cold and/or dry conditions. By the way, anyone who knows me, knows I am not crazy about the kind of humidifier that is inserted into the f hole of an instrument. I see too much interior water damage in instruments.

The trip from Boston to Brisbane in January might be a little safer. Generally, moving from a dry environment to a humid environment is less traumatic in terms of structure, although there can be tonal ramifications. Generally speaking, if I am executing an important gluing operation, eg assembling the top of an instrument, I will want to do it in a dry environment. When humidity is introduced, I may be in for an adjustment, but I will have most likely avoided the possibility of wood cracking.

So what about in the summer? Instruments seams are more likely to open up when the wood dries out in the winter. However, wood moves both ways. I’ve seen seams open up in the summer, too. Also, hide glue can soften in the heat. Consider where you store your instrument – hopefully away from a heat source and out of direct sunlight. An instrument should NEVER be left in a hot car in the summer. If it has to be in the car for a while in moderate but sunny weather, throw a white sheet over it. There is sense in keeping your instrument in a white case.

In the summer, I advise my clients to air condition the room in which their instruments live most the time, if possible. Similarly, in the winter, humidify. Don’t go crazy! Most of us move in and out of different environments and the idea is to MEDIATE, not control everything. Which is impossible anyway.
Mediate, mediate, mediate!

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Today I had a client in with a violin in need of gluing. While that in itself is nothing notable, there is an aspect of this encounter that may qualify as a teaching moment, especially apropos to those of us in the Northern Hemisphere who are heading into the heating season.

Violin family instruments are put together with hot hide glue, which has unique properties that are particularly advantageous in some circumstances. I’m not a “science guy” so I can’t answer questions about crystalline structure or tensile strength as opposed to other kinds of strength. I do know, for instance, that drywall screws have incredible holding power unless you whack’em sideways with a hammer, and for some reason, I am reminded of this when I think about violins and hide glue.

Hide glue, made from animal byproducts, is essentially the same friggin’ stuff that’s been used for hundreds of years in the assembly and repair of violin family instruments. The remarkable characteristics of this adhesive include its strength and its weakness. We have a wealth of instruments with top and back center joints that have retained their integrity for hundreds of years. Be thankful. Then we have the treble side upper bout and the lower bass side seams that, on so many instruments seem to open up on a regular basis. Again, be thankful.

Wood moves seasonally, especially here in New England. In moist weather, it swells. In dry weather it shrinks. Plain and simple. In my house here in Holyoke, the oak floors creak in the winter and in the summer, I can’t close the doors on the antique cherry corner cupboard without risking not being able to open them again until October. In my last house, the oak floors in my living room developed summer speed bumps that would have been the envy of any gated community.

An instrument seam glued with hide glue will break apart when stressed. This is a good thing in mid-winter when the heat’s been on and the wood shrinks. It’s preferable to having the wood itself crack. Having open seams glued is a normal part of violin/viola/cello maintenance. This characteristic of hide glue is also the reason that it is even possible to disassemble an instrument to do interior repairs. So we’re thankful, right?

That said, if a violin maker/restorer is smart, and skillful, he or she will take advantage of the properties of the materials at hand, in this case I’m considering the glue. Hot hide glue can be mixed in ways that varies its strength. A fresh pot of glue will be strongest. With repeated heatings, its strength diminishes. The strength can also be altered depending on the proportion of  water used in the batch. Theoretically, one would be very smart to use the strongest glue, say, for the center joints in the top and back, for setting the neck joint, and for joining fresh cracks. It may be smart to use a weaker glue mix for securing the fingerboard, and assembling the top, which could be subject to seasonal stresses. Remember, an open seam is preferable to a crack.

Speaking as a restorer, we like the fact that hide glue is reversible. It may seem counter intuitive, but the reversibility of hide glue actually increases the chance that an instrument will live a very long life.

Back to my client, who was smart to call in an emergency. She was concerned with the lower block area of her violin, which looked like this (violin is viewed with the back up, so we can see the area where the tailpiece is anchored by the end button):

Indeed, the glued seam had released, but in this case, the loose seam extended over the lower block, leaving the body of the instrument vulnerable to the longitudinal string tension. I suspect that the end grain of the lower block was improperly sized on this relatively “new” instrument, before the top was glued on, causing the area to seperate.

One can see from the photo how the string tension has compressed the body from end to end, and the button/rib assembly has abandoned the original glue line. The lower block is no longer secured to the top, and the spruce top is now bearing more than its share of structural tension. Not a good scenario, structurally speaking, BUT one that is easily remedied at this stage. When I loosened the string tension, my client and I both heard the lower rib/block area pop back into place.

This story ends with a simple gluing and a happy violinist! The moral of the story is that all open seams are not created equal. This particular seam opening demanded immediate attention due to the structural issues it presented.

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