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Posts Tagged ‘cello’

At one end of the spectrum is the mixed metaphor – relatively harmless, but wrong. At the other end is the potentially deadly* mix of seemingly tame cleaning agents found under many a kitchen sink – ammonia and chlorine. The back story here is that when I was in fourth grade (ancient history, I know), a classmate of mine’s brother landed himself in the hospital, having torched his respiratory system, and not by spouting mixed metaphors.

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum lies the conventional wisdom, luthier version, that if you introduce a metal structural element into the wood and glue universe of the violin, you are asking for complications, eventually. There are inconvenient exceptions, of course, but as far as I know, they appear only rarely in the context of making. Violin making, that is.

As far as restoration goes, screws, nails, metal anything – big no no. For one thing, we don’t want to disrupt the synergy between various parts of an instrument by relying on a material, so radically different, that it won’t move with the wood. Secondly, it’s hell when you hit a screw with the chisel you just honed to a razor edge.img_0676

Recently, a project came to me that might have been a straightforward neck and button graft. Is there something on that Restorer’s Mind page about “a never ending stream of firsts”? I may have to edit, if not. This 18c Testore family cello had at some point had full edging replacements, top and back, attached all around with glue and small nails. It’s possible that purfling (characteristically only etched in) was added to disguise the joint. When I began this project, the neck was broken, the button compromised and the upper back edges were a mess.

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When I started removing deteriorated wood, this is what was left! I found it useful to go exploring with a magnet, before committing my nicely sharpened tools to wood.

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It might not be possible to know the circumstances that resulted in this odd and unlikely wedding of wood and metal elements. The edges were not underlaid, but simply glued and nailed with the aid of some judicious kerfing  on the interiors of the more extreme curves. When? Long enough ago for the upper back edges to deteriorate dramatically.

I replaced those edges with new wood underlaid into the back in a manner that would preempt the need for additional, need I say, nefarious reinforcement. Much more comfortable for the player, I should think, and easier on the sweater, too!

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*I do not, in fact, know if this chemical combo is deadly. But to the 9 year old brain, it was a sensible conclusion.

And about the nails, there are plenty left in the c bouts, and the lower bouts to provide many years of puzzlement and consternation to future restorers.

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Occasionally, I have a job come in that seems to make an extreme sport out of basic violin maintenance. This is the kind of job that I prefer to turn over quickly, since my clients are serious musicians, and most find it difficult to be parted with their instruments for any length of time. Usually, it doesn’t even occur to me to take out my camera, because, let’s face it, fingerboard planing is so “ho humm” for us fiddle fixers. Which is NOT to say that it doesn’t require absolute skill and precision to execute properly! In that it is a basic procedure, it is a little like buying new tires for your car, although having your fingerboard planed will probably cost less and yield results that you will actually notice. I hate buying tires for my car.

I’m making a serious comparison here!  The fact is that driving your car and playing your instrument both impact the surface in play. In the former case, we replace the tires when excessive wear is evident, or else we call the DPW:

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In the latter case, we develop superior finger callouses, and then resurface the fingerboard as needed.

Excessive wear in a fingerboard can manifest as ruts, caused by pressing the strings against the surface of the fingerboard, and as pits between the strings, where the player’s fingers, with their superb callouses, land. A quick sighting down the neck reveals the telltale washboard effect.

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Closer inspection shows serious pitting and string ruts all the way up the fingerboard.

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This is lovely old German cello is a pretty extreme example – perfect for demonstration purposes! The fact is that fingerboard wear happens gradually. Often the player makes subtle adjustments over time to compensate for the discrepancies in the playing surface. The informed player knows to have the board checked periodically, and may even detect the symptoms of a worn board before it becomes unmanageable. Everyone else just blames the soundpost!

It’s true, the soundpost seems to take the blame whenever something mysterious is happening with an instrument. That’s  why a good luthier is also a diagnostician. A worn fingerboard can cause buzzing, obviously, but it can also result in the loss of clarity in tone production. And, it can wreak havoc with intonation. Can’t seem to nail those fifths anymore? Hmmm.

Fingerboards are generally made out of ebony – a very hard, dense wood that is black, sometimes with paler streaks. The fingerboard is meant to be resurfaced as needed. I have some clients that have this done every couple of years. Others go longer. Sometimes, as in the case of my German cello, MUCH longer!

The shape of the fingerboard is carefully calculated. From end to end it has a gentle “scoop” which enables the  string to vibrate freely from whatever point it’s fingered. Too little scoop and the string buzzes, too much scoop and the string is difficult to press down. The arc across the fingerboard is also shaped precisely, using a template. The fingerboard arc needs to correspond properly to the bridge arc, so that the player experiences comfortable and even fingering.

The fingerboard is shaped with a sharp plane. The first few cuts into a badly worn board are always revealing.

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Here, I’m checking the arc against my template.

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To evaluate the scoop, I first use a long straight edge. Then I use a short straight edge to detect any discrepancies. I like to see a sliver of light under the short edge, all along the length of the board. That’s my favorite  plane for the job – it’s a Lie-Nielsen block plane. I start with a heavier cut. Then, as I approach the desired shape, I back the blade off and proceed with a very light cut. This leaves a minimum of finish work to do with a scraper and fine sandpaper.

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The fingerboard is polished with mineral oil and a bit of tripoli for a smooth, consistent surface.

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An accurate fingerboard can make a huge difference for a player. One happy client, Rebecca Hartka, had this to say recently:

Playing in tune is suddenly soo much easier since I just had my fingerboard smoothed down. It’s amazing to me that putting my fingers down over and over again can literally cause dips in my ebony fingerboard! And how much mayhem a wobbly fingerboard can cause in note consistency. Thanks Stacey Styles for the beautiful job! Phew!

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All dressed up now, and ready to go!

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Hah! Discovered this little collection of violin, viola and cello mutes while I was cleaning out some drawers:

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Rosewood, boxwood, ebony, metal, plastic. Waverly, Ton-Wolf, Geschützt, Made in Germany. Some are weighted. One has an A pitch pipe. Arranged on a nice piece of Bosnian maple, hand carried from Ciresa, in the Dolomites. Maybe I’ll make a fiddle out of it someday.

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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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