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This post could easily be a sidebar to two previous posts. It describes a variation on a button doubling, in this case including an ebony crown and a tricky bit of edge replacement. More importantly, in my mind, as another example of a Disappearing Act, it expresses again the “Restorer’s Mind”.

This fiddle came into my shop after a memorable night of live bluegrass, performed on the stage that apparently ate that little piece of maple, which, in its absence, has inspired this post. “Is it possible that it’s in the case?” I asked my client. Sometimes I get lucky, but not this time. Maybe it was inadvertently kicked off the stage and since swept up by the janitor. Perhaps it landed in the dust accumulating in the open back of the bassist’s amp. Maybe it secreted itself in the upturned cuff of the bassist’s jeans (always blame the bassist if you can, if there is no horn section). In the slim chance that there is a baritone sax around, the likelihood is that the missing piece will end up in the bell. Not likely in a bluegrass set. In any case our little bit was gone, gone, gone.

Being a restorer, I am always thinking about what I might otherwise be throwing away, and if there is any chance it might be useful. Rather than searching through my stores of repair wood, I found the perfect match right under my nose. There is a certain amount of wood that has to be taken away in the course of repairing the back button. With some careful planning and a fine toothed saw, I was able to “harvest” a chip that could be reoriented and fit to fill the gap left by the wayward chip now seeking its fortune in Nashville. Here is a series of thumbnails, any of which can be enlarged. Hopefully, you will get the sense of the procedure.DSCN0311DSCN0320DSCN0324

 

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In my shop, this is a typical approach to assuring a match when some bit of original material is missing. The first thing I think about is what is about to land on the floor. There’s likely to be some good stuff there.

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I’m Nobody…

On most days, I take my Dog for a short hike at the Mount Tom Reservation in Holyoke, MA, a short distance from my home. There’s a loop that we frequently do that takes us up the slope through the woods and then down and over the brook and finally along the edge of Lake Bray. It’s beautiful in any season.IMG_5172

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As is the case in most of these well maintained, and accessible pseudo-wildernesses (aka State Reservations), one is likely to have the most encounters with other humans somewhere not too far from the parking lot. Indeed, yesterday’s walk included an encounter with a couple who were clearly headed back to their car. It was a week day. It was the first surprisingly warm bright spring day at the tail end of an insultingly long winter. The fellow was in shorts and called out to me “Great day, huh? Can you believe it? There’s NOBODY here!”

Well that was pleasant – people getting out in the sunshine, Dog gets to be wiggly and happy as she makes new friends. And I’m thinking, “I’m here, you’re here, I bet that bear and her cub that I saw last time is still here.”

Our walk takes me south and up the slope under the hemlocks where I spotted the emergence of springtails last winter on a warm day after a late December snow. I will have to remember to point the spot out to P, who knows which mushrooms are edible. Apparently, where there are springtails (snow fleas), there are mushrooms. I know little about foraging, but have the pleasure of knowing a bona fide hunter-gatherer, so I hope to learn something eventually. I have an observant nature. I think that might be an advantage.

Dog and I cross the convergence of seasonal streams that I amuse myself by calling Three Rivers. There is actually a town near here that is called Three Rivers. I am sure that “Shorts Man” would conclude that NOTHING happens in either place. This Three Rivers is simply a point in the landscape where water runs off  the slope in three rivulets as it heads inevitably for Lake Bray. In the fall, one might not even notice it. But this spring, the crossing inspired me to get some waterproof hiking boots. There is a vernal pool as well, and I am curious to see what I may see there as the spring progresses.

I am still having a language moment.”There’s NOBODY here!” Interesting choice of words, that.

Dog and I have passed the place, where, on our last walk, we watched a mama bear and her crying cub descend the slope, left of the trail, toward the lake. I was relieved that young Dog neither bolted nor made chase, but stood apprehensively, breathing deeply against the back of my leg. I have raised a cub of my own, and so I know, that if Baby is that whiny, Mama is not to be in a good mood either.

Past Three Rivers, we flush a Pileated Woodpecker. Mostly, I see the flash of red crest. I see a pair of them now and then, and hear their thrumming regularly. This is a bird that is still so amazing to me that it elicits images of mystical majesty tempered by cartoon celebrity. It’s big, but I assume it’s not an Ivory Billed. That is truly the stuff of fantasy. Off to my right, the landscape ascends through a deciduous forest, where I have spotted deer on a number of occasions. Beyond the crest of the trail, I have seen their foot prints in the snow. The snow is gone by now, but still Dog’s interest is piqued.

At the bottom of the hill, there is a small wooden bridge over water that flows year round into the lake. Dog crosses it every time as if it’s her first time. I have yet to really get inside her brain about this one. We head north again. There is one last hill to climb before the trail gracefully descends toward the lake. Dog stops to contemplate the reptilian chorus of peepers off to our left. Not a bear, probably not a predator. What? This is her third spring, her first spring walking this trail. We are approaching the marsh at the upper end of the lake. It’s still too early for turtles sunning themselves on logs. Too early for copperheads. I’m ok with that.

Another bridge and I am on the last stretch of trail heading for the parking lot. The lake is to the right. I am eagerly awaiting signs that someone is inhabiting the new nesting box at the upper end of the lake. I’ve seen a pair of Mallards but I’m not sure if the box is intended for them. Somehow, I don’t think so. I am humbled by my ignorance.

I’m not sure what “Shorts Man” meant by “nobody”. I suspect it’s relative. I am already making a plan for the rest of my afternoon. I don’t have any clients scheduled, which means I will have some concentrated work time . Dog, no doubt, will be napping.

5213e11ae5228adc62d7d4c5a420bf0b      Credit: Tyler Breton, violinist and photographer extraordinaire

Here I Go Again

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.

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

Weekend Interruptus

So my triceps are aching and my hands tingled with “pins and needles” all last night.

Actually, I like shoveling snow. But I’ve had enough of it for the time being. Some young muscle-y young fellow showed up this afternoon and finished shoveling my driveway for the best $15 I’ve ever spent. “Where were you yesterday???”… I was thinking, while being ever grateful that he had spared me this last insult of having to clear a path just enough wider to squeeze the car out onto the street. The Car. Which I stupidly parked way back by the garage, about a mile and a half from the street, in the spot that I know is prone to drifting. By the way, my car is black.

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My first words, Saturday morning, were reiterated a few hours later, by my Puerto Rican neighbor, who, upon opening her front door to discover  snow nearly up to her waist, simply exclaimed, “Oh my God!”

The nice thing about this kind of weather event is that it brings people out. I have noticed, in my neighborhood, a spectacular showing of men and machines. In fact, being the newcomer in these parts, it still surprises me that they all seem to know one another, having attended school together apparently, some time before the middle aged paunch and grey whiskers happened. Then there is the other slice of neighborhood, the one that says all with a keyboard post and shout out (it could be from anywhere in the world, but it’s) from around the corner.

One is concerned about the elder woman that lives across the street. Another is grateful for the refuge offered by a neighbor during a CO scare. Another is trying to find the owner of a trash can gone AWOL. We watch out for each other, and I like this about this multi-layered community. I like getting the (albeit) recorded message from my beloved Mayor, stating the parking updates and a reminder to stay safe and check up on neighbors.

Someone decided to call this snowstorm Nemo, which I think is both preposterous and endearing. Preposterous because Nemo is a name that’s been appropriated by  Disney, and endearing because,… well…! I’ve neglected thus far to mention that my own twenty-five year old daughter hightailed it from Boston, hound dog riding shotgun, to arrive here in Holyoke just before the storm hit. And speaking of Disney, it was this same 25 year old, who at age 5 would not eat flounder unless we called it salmon. Whatever.

It’s been Weekend Interruptus by all accounts. One more day of school is cancelled and with the good graces of our stellar DPW, all should up to speed by Tuesday. With the driveway cleared (and why this seems to me a marker of some sort, I don’t know, since I really don’t go out much!) it will be business as usual. DSCN0218

Oh, and I promise, the next post will be more about serious violin restorer stuff. I may just get out that “Heap of Cello Bits”. I have one more snow day to think about it.

The Old Lady Next Door

Sometimes, the neighbor boy, who I think is now eleven, has his Star Wars gear out. He shoots at me across the driveway, from his upstairs den, while I am washing dishes in my kitchen. Colored lights flash in my direction through the mid-winter gloom.death-star-7

I wave back.

Such is life in a small city neighborhood of Holyoke, MA. Conversations happen on many levels. I thought we had bonded one day last summer as I watered my newly planted dogwood out by the street. W joined me, plastic weapon in hand. I can talk droids, clones and Siths and the familial entanglements that bring classic tales of good and evil into high relief. I thought I was pretty cool, having clearly bested his own mother who, regrettably, knew “nothing” about Star Wars. Two or three minutes into our conversation, I realized that, while I had obliviously turned into an adult, Star Wars had morphed into much more than the six? seven? blockbuster movies that I remember gleefully taking in over the years.

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Oh well, I deserve to be shot at, although I wish for the opportunity to parry with a light saber, and so measure my worth with a true exposé of art and intuition, things I’m good at.

I want to say, “Okay, W – how old were you when the first Star Wars movie came out?!” (1977) But that would be child abuse, so I keep that thought to myself. This kid is obsessed. With what, I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with making sense of the world, and I can’t argue with that. In lieu of a campfire and an ages- old tradition of oral story telling, I am willing to accept yet another installment of a good tale well told. Perhaps it will lead to a “moment” with my neighbor, and precipitate the inevitable conclusion that we are both, indeed, conduits of the Force.images-1

Ugly Is Not an Adverb

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.

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!

Read ’em and Work

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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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