Posts Tagged ‘violin making’

Most of my friends know I’m not a big talker. If I had two dozen words to spend in a day, I would probably make do without serious hardship.  There are those I know, who would spend that just saying hello. This is not a judgement, just an observation. I have even gone so far as to exclaim in the midst of an emotional argument: “Words are NOT my friends!”  The irony is that I find words, and language, fascinating.

Today, for instance, I had occasion to order a specialty product from a small company with the word “University” in its name. So when the person taking my order said something like “sorry, them are on back order, we ain’t gonna have them for a couple of weeks”, I sat up straight. Seriously? She was. Serious.

Sometimes I wonder how anyone ever understands anything anyone else is saying. The truth is, I completed this particular transaction in short order: no problems, no misunderstandings. Absolutely pleasant. Would I do business with them again? You betcha!

It occurs to me that, in the Language Arts, there is nothing even so definitive as a color wheel. As a child, my fifth grade classroom played Mad Libs:

Teacher: “We need an adverb, a word that ends in ‘ly'”!

Student: “Ugly”!

No, I scream inside, that won’t work! But it follows the rule. “Ugly” it is.

I was an early reader, and left to my own devices, I formulated plenty of language “truisms” that haven’t held up over the years. For instance, the word “misled” in my child’s mind was pronounced ‘mīzeld, rather than mis’led. DownloadedFileWell, anyone can be misled, including me. So imagine my delight when I heard this on New England Public Radio recently. It’s worth listening to all the way.

If language is an art, then surely that implies, at the very least, a certain amount of malleability. These days, friend is a verb, and even more recently, I’ve discovered that creative is a noun. Not only that, but I, apparently, am one. A creative, that is.

In my role as a creative, I friend numerous violinmakers and restorers from other countries. I like this about my chosen field. But, as one can imagine, from the difficulties arising from speaking English amongst English speakers, another layer of fascination and delight arises in the attempt to communicate with speakers of other languages.

Once, in Trieste, we had planned  a visit to Gorizia, to see a retrospective exhibit of the work of a famous Italian fashion designer. As we left our twittering Italian comrades, Leslie said, “I think I just said we are going to see an exhibit of cabbages”. Mi dispiace, Signor Capucci!42570721Roberto-Capucc

In England, where I have now three times attended a violin restoration seminar, I once found myself perusing the aisles of a DIY franchise with three German colleagues, one of whom emphatically announced she was going to look for something with which to “clean out her crack”! That was funny enough but even funnier was the moment of enlightenment when her knowledge of English colloquialisms was enhanced just a notch.

For someone somewhat spare on words, I listen a great deal. It is one of my joys. I can only imagine that this is only the first of many posts to explore the grace and foibles of communicating with other humans.  Stay tuned. And please forgive my punctuation.

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My life improved dramatically the day Mr. G moved in.

If you are a violin restorer, you probably have all the clamps required to make a violin, plus a plethora of other specialty gadgets for holding and clamping every finished part of an entirely curvaceous instrument. Multiply this by x if you work on cellos, too. If you work on viols, you are probably smart to specialize and outfit accordingly. If you work on basses, there is no hope. Usually the violin clamps work for violas, but the cello clamps are, of course, a lot bigger, generally used less frequently, and that much more of a pain to store.

One truism of violin making/restoring seems to be that there are never enough clamps. At least that’s the way it always feels. My answer to this mental state (besides buying more clamps) is to make sure that the ones I have are accessible. Even that thing that I use maybe once every three years. Even that thing I bought because it looked like a good idea at the time, but I still haven’t used it. If I were to put it REALLY away, I would forget that I have it, and then I would need it. And, having forgotten all about it, I would have to suffer hearing myself whine, yet again, about not having enough clamps.

So when I saw Mr. G in a fancy woodworker’s catalog, I thought: “He ain’t cheap, but he might be worth it”! The big question was: “Are we truly a good fit”? Well, Mr. G has exceeded my expectations, so I think I’ll keep him.

I know it would be hard for the general public to understand what’s at issue here. So here is a sampling of some of the clamps I use  on a regular basis:

Now imagine a pile of these oddly shaped objects jamming up your drawers:

I like neat. And I like being able to pick up one clamp up at a time, without a snaggly bunch of hangers-on coming along for the ride. And that’s why Mr G and I get along so well. Look at this:

And this:

And this:

Wait, I’m not done…this:

And finally, this:

Yeehaaw! That just about takes care of everything. ‘Til death do us part!

Did I mention he comes with wheels and is great at holding a glue pot?

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The button is the semi-circular tab at the upper back. It is an extension of the back wood and helps to anchor the neck into the body of the instrument. As one might imagine, the neck joint/back button area must be able to withstand a lot of tension. When this area suffers damage or deterioration (frequently associated with the neck coming loose), the button may crack on either side and along the purfling. Or it may break away completely:

Ouch! This button has actually gone altogether missing and will require a replacement – a related operation perhaps worthy of another post.

Let’s look at this instrument. It’s a 19th century Flemish violin. The button is cracked at the sides and along the purfling. This instrument also had an issue with the center joint, but we can ignore that at the moment.

First the back is accessed by removing the neck, top and interior block. Old glue and dirt are removed from the broken button area and the button is glued to the back as cleanly and evenly as possible. Then the area is to be reinforced with an interior doubling of healthy wood. In this case, maple for the back.

I’ve made a simple mold of the area with a red plastic-like dental compound. The button/back fits perfectly in the mold, which will be of utmost importance as I work the damaged wood down to a thickness of .05 mm at its thinnest. Here, the patch bed is cut down deep enough to reveal the purfling peeking through from the exterior.


The patch bed is concave, like a bathtub, and will be scraped to a clean, uniform surface. I will then shape a new piece of wood to to fit perfectly in the cavity I’ve created. As the fit approaches a finished state, small wooden cleats assure the correct positioning of the new wood. Btw the center joint issue has been corrected and reinforced with long tabs of willow.

Here the new patch wood is glued in.

And here it is after it’s been cut down flush with the rest of the back.

I’ve chosen a piece of European maple that is similar in character. While most of it won’t be seen, I do want the grain lines and medullary rays to be as close to the original as possible. This will be important later.

The instrument is reassembled: ribs returned to the back, a new upper block installed, the top replaced and the neck reset. This instrument required a new neck graft as well, evident in the next photo.

The neck heel and the doubled button will be shaped and revarnished together. I will save my retouch skills for the face of the button and allow my grain matching to help blend the new patch wood into the old. I do not try to make this particular repair invisible, although I do appreciate an end result that is skillfully subtle. I differ from some of my colleagues in this matter. In my opinion, an expert can always tell when the neck has been reset, or a button previously broken. Personally, I would always prefer to see the reinforcement, and see that it was done well rather than wonder if it was done at all.

Finally, button (and center joint) restoration, before and after.


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