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Soundpost patch? Huh?

Whenever I have to tell a client that their instrument is in need of a soundpost patch, I am prepared to provide an explanation. Usually that means pulling up a portfolio of photos, or even reaching for an actual project undergoing the procedure.

A patch is the correct repair for a crack running through the soundpost area. For the purpose of this essay, I’m referring to a crack in the top of the instrument. Cracks in other areas of the top may be reinforced by the installation of small cleats to the surface of the wood, like this:

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A patch is a more invasive procedure, but the location of a crack in the soundpost area necessitates its implementation. Wood that is compromised by a crack or, as we will see, worm damage, will be vulnerable as it’s subjected to the downward pressure of the bridge, and the upward pressure of a properly fitted soundpost. In addition, the area must be free of protruding cleats so that a soundpost can be installed and its placement adjusted as necessary.

A patch requires removing damaged wood and then inserting healthy wood which is shaped flush to the surrounding area. In the end it looks like this:

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A recent project of mine provided an opportunity to take some illustrative pictures. This violin did not have a crack so much as it had a concentration of worm runs in the soundpost area. Thankfully, this little worm exercised its voracious appetite mostly below the varnished surface, so a patch was the appropriate remedy. As an aside, remediating worm damage is a topic that inevitably provokes animated, or shall I say agitated, discourse among my colleagues, frequently followed by the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol.

Careful planning is the first step in assuring a successful repair (violin restorer Truth #1). I have seen patches fail because they were poorly planned and/or poorly executed. Here’s one that suffered on both accounts:

 

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The forward edge of the patch did not hold, leading to serious sinking in the bridge area.

So back to my current project. Here is how I planned the patch, so that the bridge and post would be situated at the strongest point. Some of the worm runs are visible where they had been filled by a previous repairer.

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With the top of the instrument fully supported by a plaster cast, damaged wood is carefully removed, creating a kind of bathtub shaped concavity. When I’m done, it measures .5mm at it’s thinnest in the center – thin enough to see light radiate through when held in front of a lamp. Photo bomb by the ex-worm that shall not be named.

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New wood is chosen to match the old. The patch wood is oriented so the grain lines up nicely with the original. Rough fitting of the new wood is done with a sharp knife or chisel. A dusting of chalk in the patch bed helps reveal high spots as the patch approaches its final fit. Final fitting is done with a very sharp scraper, eliminating any ridges or high spots left by the knife. Small cleats, temporarily glued to the instrument top ensure that the patch is placed in exactly the same position as it’s being fitted and then, as it’s glued in.

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When the patch is fitting perfectly, the surfaces are brushed free of chalk and it’s glued in with hot hide glue. Later, the cleats will be removed and the new wood will be shaped down to a thickness consistent with the surrounding area. Here’s the finished patch. I’ve added a couple of  cleats at either end where the grain runs out, for extra reinforcement.

 

 

 

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This is a very straightforward sound post patch. Since the damage did not migrate through to the varnish side, there was only a small bit of filling and retouch to achieve an excellent result.

Just a few last words about soundpost patches in violins. An instrument with a well-executed patch in the top can be a very healthy instrument indeed. (Please note – a patch in the back may warrant a different kind of consideration, but that’s another topic). An instrument with a soundpost patch in the top is not going to suffer tonally. If anything, healthy wood where there was once deterioration and/or damage is more likely to restore the integrity of the structure, and hence, facilitate a favorable tone production.

 

 

 

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While I am upstairs reading a post from a friend whose dog just “discovered” the Christmas ham as it was  stored out on the porch, my own Dog is downstairs hovering over the remnants in the cat dish. Dinner has already been served, and yes, I am distracted, especially since it’s Christmas Eve and I don’t want to find in June, the stocking stuffers that I am dangerously close to forgetting about right now.

And there was something that desperately needed to go in the attic. And, in fact, something that wanted to come down, but I can’t remember what.

So when I finally return to the kitchen, Dog is still engaged in the waiting game. She stands over the cat  dish, her head hanging and her eyes somewhat glazed. Her eyebrows bob. This has nothing to do with any rules I am aware of. She will wait until I spoon the leftovers into her own dish, and then have at it like the scavenger that I know she is. This behavior has always bewildered me, but I happily go along with it.

I’ve had dogs before, and I’m reminded in particular of a dear Golden Retriever who would cozy up to a dumpster as soon as she would hop onto the couch. This dog of mine right now, Saint Dog, as I imagine her because of her unworldly display of “patience”, is a different sort.

It’s true that, I myself have been accused of having the “patience of a saint”. I have a long history with Catholicism, so I should know what that means. However, a moment of doubt (!) sends me to the dictionary. A quick search reveals only a reference to Job and his nagging wife. Well, screw that.

If I were to attempt to boil my observations down to something meaningful (in fact this is what I try do every day), today’s lesson would be that Patience = Faith in a Positive Outcome. As an alternative, Grab the Ham!

Have a Merry Christmas Everyone, wherever you are!

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Three things have engaged my attention this week. Granted: I am easily overwhelmed by the state of the world, and though I do my best to keep myself generally informed, I find that I function best when I am able to concentrate my energies and my attention on my community, my friends and loved ones, and my work.

This perhaps belies my past as an activist. While my stance on social change has not wavered, my personal approach has, in fact, changed.  Lest my intentions be deemed petty, or trite, I would challenge anyone to grasp the correlation between these 3 items of interest:

1. My city of Holyoke, MA opens a brand new skateboard park. Btw – Holyoke’s new skate park also happens to be situated in Pulaski Park, designed at the turn of the 20th century, by Frederick Olmstead :

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2. Residents and friends of Holyoke petition to save an historic building:

The Farr Mansion then:

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And now:

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3. I spend the better part of three months working on a 17th century fiddle:

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Clearly, this is not simply a pedantic interest in saving old stuff. I like old stuff. But more importantly, I see that an investment in the future is predicated by carrying the past forward. I am never more in touch with this truism than when I am at work. While my current patient was created while Monteverdi was still freshly in his grave, I am aware that, in its reincarnation, it will just as likely be called upon to perform Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No.1 .

And so, a skate park, in some odd way, makes good sense to me: an underutilized and yet historically significant park becomes a hot spot for serious play. Our kids. Our future.

As for the Farr Mansion, that is yet to be determined. My hope is that Holyoke with grasp it in its hands and bring it, too, into the future.

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Thanks:  Rob Deza Photographer

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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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If only I could do as fast as I think. I have always wished for this particular super power. I would forego extraordinary strength, or the ability to shape shift, although that sounds like fun. I have NO interest in reading other people’s minds, and living with any kind of super hypersensitivity sounds like an incredible burden. Perhaps I would enjoy being able to control the weather, but I’m afraid I would only screw it up for somebody else. But if I could execute an idea as fast as I could think it, now that would be something.

Even as I say it, I sense the fatal flaw. I can see how my “see how it goes” approach to so many things would instantaneously become “see how it went”. Fine, perhaps, as I’m screwing together shelves and racks in the new workspace upstairs. Not so fine as I take the top off a two hundred year old fiddle.

In my work life, there are two kinds of “busy”.

DSCN0488 One kind of busy involves lots of phone calls, emails, client visits, adjustments, bow rehairs, seam glueing, general maintenance and repair work that has to happen before the dress rehearsal/recital/audition/studio session.

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The other kind of busy is when the traffic through the door abates and I am able to get on with everything else – the larger restoration projects, work on instruments that I own, business projects that require a more expansive brain wave, including designing and building that new workshop. Balancing “Busy 1” and “Busy 2” has been one of the more difficult things that I have had to learn, as an independent violin restorer.

Lately, I’ve been riding a wave of Busy 1 and only thinking about Busy 2. I have no real superpowers, but I have the ability to sit at my bench and, while I work, think hard about what does and doesn’t work for me in a workspace. For instance, things that I require include, in no particular order:

1. Access to tools, priority given to those I use all the time.

2. Clear horizontal surfaces where I need them.

3. Ability to move about freely, without tripping over things. I HATE tripping over things.

4. Orientation toward natural light, without being subjected to glare or intense shadows.

5. A means to store tools without compromising their care and maintenance.

6. Ability to readily sort through parts and material especially repair wood.

7. Adequate electrical sources

8. Ability to shut the door on the workshop.

Things that will make me crazy and so are to be avoided at all costs:

1. Not being able to see what’s at the back of the shelf.

2. Having to get  down on my knees.

3. Backing my chair up into an open cabinet door.

4. Having to get out a flashlight.

5. Tripping over things. I HATE that.

6. Having to remove screws, as in having to access something that’s dropped behind the bench.

7. Not being able to readily sweep out the corners.

8. Having to move X, in order to set  down Y.

I don’t mind getting out the step ladder now and then, and I don’t mind the occasional trip to the attic to pick through the wood pile. And the occasional trip to the basement to use the big band saw or the tool grinder is just fine with me. But I don’t like things that land on the bench top because they have no other place to live. I dislike clutter, but I like a happy, reasonable mess.

Probably, by the time I actually post this, I will back in the Busy 2 groove, which will place me upstairs finishing some cabinets and hanging a door. My clients, with their freshly maintained and adjusted instruments will be in the throes of their own Busy 1 cycles. So it goes.DSCN0462

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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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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

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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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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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