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Posts Tagged ‘viola’

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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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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