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Posts Tagged ‘violin restoration’

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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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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Downstairs, life goes on – including the usual bow rehairs, glueing, sound adjustments, and lost dog placements (I choose not to go into that at the moment). Predictably, I have cycled back into Busy 2, which means more phone calls involving phone solicitations than client inquiries.*  I’m okay with that. It simply means another surge of effort devoted to the work room I’m creating upstairs.

In fact George, the electrician, has come and gone. I gleefully gave him two and a half days of pretending I was twenty-five, while I chopped out floor boards in the attic and ran one end of the wires that would supply a confident and updated source of power to the new workshop. I learned many things, including that walkie-talkies  are now called radios. I suddenly remembered how dirty and exhausting this kind of work is, and how I admire and respect the skill, intelligence and perseverance of professional tradespeople.DSCN0473

Turns out, George plays bass and knew an old mentor of mine, Frank Lucchesi. I make a point of trying to do business with people in Holyoke because there is really so much skill and talent right here. This in itself would explain the connection, since Frank was from Holyoke, but music also provides an extraordinary web of intrigue. If the norm is six degrees of separation, within the musical world, the degrees of separation can amount to no more than three. I invite discussion on this point.

In any case, I now have power for all the lights and appliances I may need.DSCN0471 My body is complaining just enough to register a job well done. Next up, finish some cabinets and set a move in date.

*btw does anyone know who the h&%# Ramone Medina is? I keep getting calls for him. He must owe somebody a lot of money!

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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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Much has happened since I built my first workbench in 1980 at the age of 22. And yet, here I am again, expanding into another space, and staring at the opportunity to create a workspace that I will want to spend much of my waking hours in. The difference is that in 1980, I made do with a flat surface and a shelving unit. Currently I am working on my 7th workshop incarnation, not counting anywhere else I might have worked. In my 18 years as an independent professional, I have revisited this workspace question 5 times. I am old enough to be seduced by the notion that MAYBE this is the last time. Since I expect to drop dead at my bench sometime in the (preferably distant) future, I have to entertain the idea that maybe this workbench is it, since I have no desire to be ANYWHERE else. EVER AGAIN!

When I moved into this house, going on three years ago, I did not have the luxury of an extended move-in period. I hit the ground running, setting up my workspace in the dining room. It’s a lovely space to work in, but I have always considered it “temporary”. My intention has been to outfit a room upstairs as my primary workshop, and retain the downstairs dining room as an area to receive clients, show instruments, and do tonal adjustments. I’ve been slow to make this transition, possibly because of the late afternoon light and the abundance of c1900 oak cabinetry that I enjoy in my current space.

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Well, I may be over it now. I have been hankering for a real dining room, for one thing, and a workshop that is not within sight of the living room couch! Oh, and I am tired of tripping over the new 24″x 84″ Bally Block workbench top that’s been sitting in the hallway since last August.

This weekend was mostly about getting a move-on on that space upstairs. I thought I would start with the perimeter, namely storage, since my primary work surfaces are components that should go together rather quickly. I will have to have an electrician in just before that happens anyway.

So the alcove is painted, prepped and the first shelves gone in. I’ve thought long and hard about how to store a lifetime’s worth materials so that they are accessible when necessary and out of the way when not. I have been modifying some cabinets that I designed years ago, so that I can access storage from the front and back – I will have a work island in addition to a planing bench secured to the wall.

I can get excited about this. It’s spring and many things are possible. More soon.

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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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I have a hard time following directions. Specifically, I fail at following recipes. This is not because: 1. I cannot read  or 2. I have cognitive disabilities. In fact, sometimes I just have a better idea, or an alternate method that works for me. Or maybe there’s no Dutch Chervil in the cupboard (whatever the hell that is). Generally, this truth is an asset for me and not a liability. I suspect it relates to my being self- employed. But more specifically, I think it relates to the nature of my work. There are very few recipes when it comes to restoration work.

For instance, it is impossible to google “restore this heap of cello bits” and get a concise and printable course of action that may result in something worth putting strings on:
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This cello is actually not in such bad shape, since most of its parts, rather ALL of its parts, have literally come apart at the seams. Beyond that, there will be some serious planning, some random moments of ingenuity, and an otherwise brilliant trajectory of skill and awesomeness. All in a day’s work.

This, however, is a challenge:

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http://www.gourmet.com/recipes/2000s/2003/11/brussels-sprouts-maple-hickory-nuts

Here is a recipe that I love, for shredded Brussels sprouts with maple glazed pecans. I can never quite get it right, for all its simplicity. It’s best when the flavors are isolated and the textures are differentiated. I know how good it can be. I excel at soups and stews, or when a visual presentation is required. But the perfection of this particular recipe eludes me. I’m thinking it might take someone who can follow directions.

Happy New Year!

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… or How I “Baroqued” a  Violin That Had Been Previously “Un-Baroqued”.

Try as I might, I could not come up with a catchy phrase that would indicate the opposite of “back to the future”. I love my profession for its fastidious regard for the past, its devotion to the present and its dogged assumption of a future. Because I work with things that are sometimes older than two, three, even four human life spans, I am frequently reminded that the path from here to there is rarely a straight line. In contrast, I think of my beloved Honda Civic which, with 110k miles, is surely headed for the trash heap – a short life lived on a simple trajectory.IMG_0476_3

The inspiration for this post is a violin made by an unidentified member of the  Amati family in Cremona, Italy. That would place its construction probably in the late 1600’s. Perhaps this violin was growing and maturing as Antonio Vivaldi assumed his post at the Ospedale Della Pietà in Venice. Certainly by the time J.S.Bach composed the Brandenburg Concertos, it had found its voice. How it ultimately found its way into 21st century America may never be known, but clearly it would have stories to tell.

My mission was to undo some of what had been done along the way. In the 1800’s many old instruments were retrofitted with a neck in the modern style. The earlier “baroque” style neck, was shorter, shaped differently, and had a ramped fingerboard. At some point, this Amati family violin had been “modernized”. The neck and fingerboard had been replaced with the modern version that we are most familiar with today.

Since my client was a teacher and performer of Baroque music, she wished to have her instrument returned to something approximating its original configuration. A note about early violin construction: originally, the neck of an instrument was secured with a nail driven from the inside of the body through the upper block. The top was glued on last. Here is an example, in this case, an ancient violin from Mittenwald, Germany. IMG_4965

In converting an instrument to baroque, one must decide how far to go. In my client’s case, we wished to change the neck without opening the body. Perhaps in the future, if the instrument needs to be opened for additional reasons, we might discuss changing the bass bar too.

Essentially this job required grafting another new neck. But in this case, a standard modern dovetail joint was modified to achieve the look and feel of a nailed baroque style neck. This is the instrument as it came to me, with the standard contemporary configuration of neck and fingerboard:

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The first few cuts are always made with the door locked and the phone turned off! The neck is removed from the body, and then the scroll is carefully cut away creating a tapered mortise, to which new neck wood will be fitted.

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Here the scroll is ready to receive the new neck wood.

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The joint fits perfectly and can be glued. Later, the peg box will be carved out and the neck shaped in preparation for setting into the body.

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 With the fingerboard temporarily glued on, the neck is set into the body in the usual manner.

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Before gluing, modifications will be made. A cutaway is planned to create a step at exactly the rib height. This will replicate the look and feel of the nailed neck. Also, the underside of the fingerboard will be reshaped in the baroque style.IMG_0555

This is how it looks with the fingerboard removed and the neck pushed back into the dovetail mortise. The top of the violin was cut through to accept the first modern neck. We now have a gap that will be filled with matching spruce, to restore the unbroken perimeter of the upper bouts.

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Fitting this piece of spruce happens before the neck is glued. It will be glued in, shaped, and varnished to match after the neck is installed.

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I use a baroque fingerboard made by Helmut Pöser in Germany. The core is spruce while the playing surface and sides are ebony. The fingerboard comes to me oversized so that it can be shaped and fitted appropriately.

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The underside of the board is precisely ramped to create the correct pitch over the body of the instrument. The length that is suspended is shaped in an aesthetic manner, although in the ancient method of construction, this shape had a practical purpose as well. The bump near the base of the neck provided a positive point to insert a wedge which would exert downward pressure as the top was being glued onto the body.

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The final neck shaping is done with the fingerboard permanently glued on. All new wood has been varnished to match the original.

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The graft blends well into the old scroll.

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The shape of the neck replicates the dimensions of an original Jacob Stainer violin neck c. 1620.

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The new neck is finished! The violin is set up with new baroque tailpiece, bridge and gut strings.

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Now, back to the future? Or would that be forward into the past?

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