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Posts Tagged ‘violin 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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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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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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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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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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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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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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This is a follow up to my last post, Not Just Any Open Seam.

Helen commented: “In Australia, we experience very hot summers. Is it more likely for my violin to experience seam bursts”?

Hmm… I live at 42˚N. Helen, if I were to take a random guess, might live at 27˚S, which would place her in or near Brisbane. Please forgive me , Helen, if I’ve got it all wrong! In any case, I think we can explore this topic by making some generalizations, even if she is heading into a prodigal summer while I am inevitably crashing into a long desolate, lonely, cold and miserable winter. No hard feelings.

My initial response to Helen’s query is, “not necessarily.” A basic overview can be helpful in establishing a maintenance plan that may help in troubleshooting some of these seasonal headaches.

My first piece of advice is to find, if possible, a local (to you) violin restorer/maker with a good reputation and establish a rapport. It’s like finding a good doctor or car mechanic – you hope you never really need them, but if or when you do, it’s nice to have a relationship already established. By the same token, it may be smart to schedule a yearly check-up even if you don’t notice that anything is wrong. Your local luthier will have an opportunity to establish a “baseline” for your particular instrument. She or he  will also have insights into local climate-related issues and possibly a sense of what other string players in your area experience as a result.

Beyond that, it’s good to be educated! Here in New England, USA, we have hot humid summers and cold dry winters. Rapid changes in climate conditions, especially humidity, can be stressful for wooden instruments. Your instrument will be happiest if you can protect it from sudden and extreme changes in temperature and humidity. Frequently, I tell my clients “if you are comfortable, your instrument is probably comfortable.” The thing to remember is that humans adjust more quickly to environmental changes. Your instrument may need a little more time and coddling than you are likely to allow yourself.

Your instrument case is a micro-environment. Take advantage of it! Arrive at your destination 15 minutes early and allow your instrument to warm up or cool down in its case before you introduce it to a radically different environment. If you are experiencing dry weather, or if you are moving into a dry environment, add a case humidifier.

The interior of an aircraft, for instance, is notoriously dry. Use a case humidifier! If you are getting onto a plane in Brisbane, in January and landing 24 hours later in Boston, be sure to have a humidifier in your case to help mediate the transition. And keep that humidifier moist. Boston is cold and dry in January! So, a case humidifier can be a very useful tool for mediating cold and/or dry conditions. By the way, anyone who knows me, knows I am not crazy about the kind of humidifier that is inserted into the f hole of an instrument. I see too much interior water damage in instruments.

The trip from Boston to Brisbane in January might be a little safer. Generally, moving from a dry environment to a humid environment is less traumatic in terms of structure, although there can be tonal ramifications. Generally speaking, if I am executing an important gluing operation, eg assembling the top of an instrument, I will want to do it in a dry environment. When humidity is introduced, I may be in for an adjustment, but I will have most likely avoided the possibility of wood cracking.

So what about in the summer? Instruments seams are more likely to open up when the wood dries out in the winter. However, wood moves both ways. I’ve seen seams open up in the summer, too. Also, hide glue can soften in the heat. Consider where you store your instrument – hopefully away from a heat source and out of direct sunlight. An instrument should NEVER be left in a hot car in the summer. If it has to be in the car for a while in moderate but sunny weather, throw a white sheet over it. There is sense in keeping your instrument in a white case.

In the summer, I advise my clients to air condition the room in which their instruments live most the time, if possible. Similarly, in the winter, humidify. Don’t go crazy! Most of us move in and out of different environments and the idea is to MEDIATE, not control everything. Which is impossible anyway.
Mediate, mediate, mediate!

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