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Posts Tagged ‘viola repair’

I was planning to make pickles today, but since my source at the farmer’s market forgot about the request I submitted last week for a pile of cukes and fresh dill, my plan changed around 10 am this morning. I will NOT buy pickling cukes from Stop and Shop. I’ll wait for the next local market. If I’m really smart, I will make a note in my gardening notebook, which I never write in, and make sure that next year, I grow cukes. HOW could I be growing tomatoes, eggplants, greens, beans, peppers, kale, cabbages, brussels sprouts, tomatillos and NO cukes? Frankly, sometime last spring, after digging the second, or was it the third new bed in a relatively uncultivated property – vaguely, I remember flopping in the garden bench and thinking : “That’s it. Screw it!”

Now I’m sorry about the cukes, even though the pass on zucchinis was rather calculated. This time of year, in these parts, it’s almost impossible not to have a run in with a delicious, cheap zucchini that somebody else grew.

So instead of making pickles, which I will hopefully do next weekend, I engaged my tried and true decision making process, which is to seriously ask myself – what’s making me craziest, right now? It was the disarray of jars and varnishes, strewn about my back porch.

Three or four months ago I made fresh retouch varnishes. My own materials were low, but I was also preparing to teach a workshop, and so made up some fresh stuff to share with students. So today I finally  got around to finishing the project, which meant straining and dispensing the remainder in appropriately sized receptacles with labels and everything. The yield: about four times as much as I need. (Thank God I didn’t plant zucchinis).

This stuff is gold. I have about a three year supply, with plenty extra to share or use as leverage. The thing is, successful varnish retouch is largely about knowing your materials, so this is good. A relatively new facebook friend, and member of my community joked “Why 3 years? Is something happening in 2012 I should know about?” Not to worry. This is violin speak. Quintessentially slow art. I have wood in my attic that I bought years ago and may not use for years to come. If I’m smart, I’ll scribble “DO NOT BURN” just in case it outlives me.

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Here is a story that no violin restorer in their right mind would share with the public. It may have actually happened to a younger me, or it may have happened to someone else. In either case, the experience was horrifying, but the outcome was actually fortuitous, and certainly edifying. Unfortunately, I have no photos of the actual event, since I may not have been there, but if it seems particularly useful, I will throw in some sketches. Thank you Smith College for the degree in Art.

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Some background: woodworms are little bugs; worms, ie before they become grownup bugs, which I think are moths around the time they start thinking of having little bugs of their own (Elizabeth, my friend the biologist, where are you?). Anyway, they are greedy little freeloaders at best. Their favorite meal consists of protein, protein, protein. They will pick all the sausage out of the Jambalaya, so do not invite them over for dinner. Even though they are called WOODworms, they will always eat the horsehair on your bow first. Then, their next favorite thing in your violin case is glue (hide glue, that is) if they can get at it. They’ll eat your violin when they are done with dessert. They can do some serious damage. Take a look at this:

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When they get around to eating the wood, they will prefer the tenderest cuts. They will eat their way along the fast lane (soft summer grain) and only make the arduous exit across the hard winter grain to re-enter on the southbound lane if the gastronomical landscape is worth a second visit. Pay dirt is having dessert with dinner, such as when a poorly fitted lining holds a pocket of old glue. Then the whole family comes out. Woodworm heaven: would you like maple or spruce with your ice cream tonight?

The other thing you need to know about is that we violin restorers frequently employ the use of plaster casts to support an instrument top while it’s being worked on. The plaster is poured directly on the instrument with a barrier between, usually a thin layer of latex. There are varying methods for drawing the latex down onto the instrument top, before the plaster is actually poured. These days, thanks to my experience in England with master restorer Jean-Jacques Fasnacht, I use a film of latex thinner than what is commercially available. It is so thin that the weight of the plaster as it’s poured is enough to gently force the latex down, assuring a very detailed cast, indeed.

This is actually a cello top prepared for casting, since I may not have been there for the viola in question (we’re getting to that).

Alternately, one can use some kind of vacuum system. I experimented a lot with this a while back, before I studied in England – some kind of box, a small vacuum of some sort, and holes in the box so you can regulate the suction.

Now back to my story. There was a very old viola having quite a bit of work done –  lots of cracks, including a soundpost crack on the top.  Maybe a little arching correction, possibly some edge doublings. The bass bar, while not perfect, looked adequate, so it was left in place. It made sense to make a cast. So the young, unsuspecting violin restorer made the proper preparations: mixed the plaster, engaged the tried and true vacuum system….and watched horrified as the instrument top collapsed, in a split second, with a crack at the bass bar that ran nearly the entire length of the top! After administering appropriate emergency procedures (fresh air and possibly, a gin and tonic), it became evident that this disaster had been waiting to happen. One might even go so far as to say it was very lucky that it happened under these circumstances, and not, say, while performing the Brahms Sonata No.1 in f minor. Very unromantic.

Once upon a time, some lucky bug found the glue joint between the less-than-perfectly fitting bass bar and the viola top and proceeded to act like it was on the payroll for Boston’s Big Dig. Here is my (extrapolated, of course) rendition:

There was little more than air and sawdust underneath the bass bar. The worm’s front door, and presumably some back door, had been overlooked. In the end, the fatal flaw was revealed and the appropriate repairs were made: a long “finger patch” was fitted, replacing the worm runs with healthy wood, and a new, properly fitting  bass bar installed (no glue-filled gaps). Everyone was happy, including the woodworm who had exited years before, oblivious to the havoc wreaked in its wake.

So what can YOU do to avoid having an inadvertent role in a pathetic story like this? PLAY YOUR INSTRUMENT!!! Or at least look it over regularly. Woodworms, ie the adult moths, are most likely to find their way in to instrument cases that are sitting around neglected for long periods of time. If you see multiple hairs on your bow broken at the same place, check your case for signs of uninvited activity. If you’re still suspicious, vacuum it out, and call the doctor!

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