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Posts Tagged ‘repair’

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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Recently, an opportunity presented itself and this restorer’s mind had to say yes.

On a chilly Saturday morning in late September, a handful of adventuresome photo nerds (including myself) were granted access to the long abandoned Victory Theater in my home city of Holyoke, MA. The event was offered by MIFA (owners of the property), Matt Christopher’s Abandoned America and Matt Lambros’ After the Final Curtain. Access to the building was intriguing enough, but tutelage from a couple of fine photographers made it a rare deal. My motivation was to learn some new things about my camera, the same one that I use regularly in my workshop. I have long been convinced that my little Nikon Coolpix is smarter than I am and anything I can do to reduce the disparity is valued highly. The venue was a real bonus, appealing at once to my odd attraction to decrepitude and the promise inherent in a possible restoration. Throw in a little Nancy Drew, a little Doctor Who, a fascination with urban spelunking and love of alternate realities, and you have a stew that pretty much describes my morning. I had fun.

The Victory Theater is thrice renowned for what it was, for what it currently is not, and for what it might still become. Opened in 1920, it was a vaudeville house in a thriving manufacturing city. By the time it was condemned in 1979, even its life as a movie theater was over as Holyoke suffered a huge economic decline, along with too many other post-manufacturing cities in America. The Victory is currently owned by the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts and there is a campaign in place to procure funding to restore this cultural/architectural treasure. Take a look. If you’re curious, check out the links. Think about contributing.

Click on an image to start the show. And thanks for indulging me. More about fiddles next time.

 

 

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Being a restorer is a little like jumping into a movie mid way. First, you have to figure out what’s going on. Then you have to keep the plot interesting, the characters viable, the scenery and costumes true and the concept and signature in line with the filmmaker’s. All this without knowing for how long, or to what outcome, because you’ll be jumping out again before the credits. Hopefully, no one will know you were even there, but in your old age, perhaps you will be lucky enough to lean back and in your mind’s ear hear that resounding chorus, “Wow that was a great flick!”, and know you had some small part in it.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RaxVwD-HvNU

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

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

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

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

More on this fiddle another time – stay tuned!

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