Posts Tagged ‘violin restoration’

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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Today I had a client in with a violin in need of gluing. While that in itself is nothing notable, there is an aspect of this encounter that may qualify as a teaching moment, especially apropos to those of us in the Northern Hemisphere who are heading into the heating season.

Violin family instruments are put together with hot hide glue, which has unique properties that are particularly advantageous in some circumstances. I’m not a “science guy” so I can’t answer questions about crystalline structure or tensile strength as opposed to other kinds of strength. I do know, for instance, that drywall screws have incredible holding power unless you whack’em sideways with a hammer, and for some reason, I am reminded of this when I think about violins and hide glue.

Hide glue, made from animal byproducts, is essentially the same friggin’ stuff that’s been used for hundreds of years in the assembly and repair of violin family instruments. The remarkable characteristics of this adhesive include its strength and its weakness. We have a wealth of instruments with top and back center joints that have retained their integrity for hundreds of years. Be thankful. Then we have the treble side upper bout and the lower bass side seams that, on so many instruments seem to open up on a regular basis. Again, be thankful.

Wood moves seasonally, especially here in New England. In moist weather, it swells. In dry weather it shrinks. Plain and simple. In my house here in Holyoke, the oak floors creak in the winter and in the summer, I can’t close the doors on the antique cherry corner cupboard without risking not being able to open them again until October. In my last house, the oak floors in my living room developed summer speed bumps that would have been the envy of any gated community.

An instrument seam glued with hide glue will break apart when stressed. This is a good thing in mid-winter when the heat’s been on and the wood shrinks. It’s preferable to having the wood itself crack. Having open seams glued is a normal part of violin/viola/cello maintenance. This characteristic of hide glue is also the reason that it is even possible to disassemble an instrument to do interior repairs. So we’re thankful, right?

That said, if a violin maker/restorer is smart, and skillful, he or she will take advantage of the properties of the materials at hand, in this case I’m considering the glue. Hot hide glue can be mixed in ways that varies its strength. A fresh pot of glue will be strongest. With repeated heatings, its strength diminishes. The strength can also be altered depending on the proportion of  water used in the batch. Theoretically, one would be very smart to use the strongest glue, say, for the center joints in the top and back, for setting the neck joint, and for joining fresh cracks. It may be smart to use a weaker glue mix for securing the fingerboard, and assembling the top, which could be subject to seasonal stresses. Remember, an open seam is preferable to a crack.

Speaking as a restorer, we like the fact that hide glue is reversible. It may seem counter intuitive, but the reversibility of hide glue actually increases the chance that an instrument will live a very long life.

Back to my client, who was smart to call in an emergency. She was concerned with the lower block area of her violin, which looked like this (violin is viewed with the back up, so we can see the area where the tailpiece is anchored by the end button):

Indeed, the glued seam had released, but in this case, the loose seam extended over the lower block, leaving the body of the instrument vulnerable to the longitudinal string tension. I suspect that the end grain of the lower block was improperly sized on this relatively “new” instrument, before the top was glued on, causing the area to seperate.

One can see from the photo how the string tension has compressed the body from end to end, and the button/rib assembly has abandoned the original glue line. The lower block is no longer secured to the top, and the spruce top is now bearing more than its share of structural tension. Not a good scenario, structurally speaking, BUT one that is easily remedied at this stage. When I loosened the string tension, my client and I both heard the lower rib/block area pop back into place.

This story ends with a simple gluing and a happy violinist! The moral of the story is that all open seams are not created equal. This particular seam opening demanded immediate attention due to the structural issues it presented.

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By the time a restoration project is complete, it’s sometimes hard to remember what it looked like to begin with. I try to take lots of pictures, especially when I expect the transformation to be dramatic. Working with a camera and lighting is an ongoing adventure for me and my success rate is not as consistent as I would like it to be. I do not manipulate my photos with the exception of occasionally adjusting the tint or color saturation so as to come closer to the original.

Violins come in a million subtle shades of…well, brown. Red brown, black brown, yellow brown, orange brown and green brown. That almost covers the spectrum. Blue is probably the least used color in my retouch palette, although it’s occasionally useful to push a reddish brown toward a deeper purpler red brown. I have a 19th century Parisian instrument that may go in that direction.

Here are some sets of sequential photos that show a recent project undergoing extensive retouching of the varnish. If the color of the instrument  seems inconsistent from photo to photo, it’s because the photographer is inconsistent! If there happens to be a digital photographer out there with a busted fiddle, I’d consider trading for some lessons!

I repaired a bad break near the left f hole. The lower right corner has been rebuilt and there was extensive wear and tear to consider. Click on the thumbnails to enlarge.

Here is the finished front:

Here’s a close-up of that f hole break before, during, and after:

Here’s an area of the back:

Finished, the back looks like this:

This is a rather dramatic example of varnish retouching as part of a larger restoration project. Retouching on a small scale is also part of a regular maintenance plan. We use our instruments, and as a result, they suffer some wear, and the occasional hit. Retouching is a way to assure that they age gracefully!

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Okay, I can see where North America may have been conjoined to Eurasia. That would have been a looong time ago.

Ooops! and here’s where prodigal South America tries to patch up a bad break with Africa. Clearly, neither party was thinking straight that day:

There are times when you just have to revisit an old break up, and see what you can do. Joking and scotch tape aside, here is our intrepid fiddle again.

In previous posts about this violin, I’ve replaced a missing bit in the scroll, and described the sensation of feeling the top becoming a healthy vibrating entity. Here, my mission is to rejoin, or in the case of the second photo, reposition a chunk of top wood that was previously rejoined badly. Obviously, my posting chronology is off. This operation would have happened long before “Signs of Life.”

I don’t like to think about what this fiddle has been through in its 200+ years, to have arrived at my bench in this condition. I do know, upon examination, that the purfling channels were cut so deeply that the strength of the edges may have been compromised from the get go. That would account, in part, for the rift in photo one. I say in part, because plenty of instruments are constructed this way without serious repercussions.

If I’m “reading” this instrument properly, this fiddle has some story to tell. Someone put their left thumb through the bass side f hole. Said someone decided he was handy enough to fix it himself. Said someone ripped the top off, shredding the edges, realigned the broken piece badly (scraping it flush on the INSIDE which was the only saving grace), then glued the top back on with gobs of casein glue, assuring that fifty years later when the top has to come off again for repairs, the edge is ripped away. Thankfully, I wasn’t there for any of that.

Not to dwell on it, but here are some more before shots (click to enlarge):

Our wayward edge required a relatively simple gluing operation since most of the surfaces were free of old glue: careful positioning and something only slightly ingenious to hold the pieces in place, then an application of thin, strong hide glue followed up by an interior reinforcement and that headache was history, mostly. The f hole break was a different matter. It required serious soaking to separate the pieces and the removal of old glue and retouch varnish. Bringing the errant piece flush to the varnish side revealed how our handy man scraped wood away from the inside – a minor crime, all things considered. There were splinters missing from the varnish side too, and that was more of a problem. This repair would have structural integrity, but I would also prefer that it not visually scream through the Bach Partitas.

By inlaying some slivers of soft-grained summer wood, pilfered from the inside of the top in areas that would be otherwise sacrificed to doublings, I was able to create some visual “bridges” that would preserve the continuity of the  exterior appearance where wood was missing. The rest would be taken care of by some clever varnish retouching.

The varnish work on this instrument will deserve a post of its own.

By the way, the super continent of Pangaea rifted apart 200,000,000 years ago:


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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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While not technically a sign of life, it is a small milestone on the way to looking and feeling like a healthy violin.

Here’s our poor little fiddle again. If there is a technical term for this part of the scroll, I don’t know it. It doesn’t have a structural role so much, but it is the terminus of a divinely inspired design. I have heard it called, among other things, the monkey butt. How droll.

Whatever it’s called, in this condition it was a poke in the eye every time you picked this fiddle up.

So here’s what I did about it:

The most crucial part of this operation was finding just the right piece of wood – something that would match the original in color and grain orientation. If ever there were a repair I would like to “disappear”, this would be it. The damaged area is excavated, removing as little of the original as possible, to create a viable gluing surface. The new wood, actually a piece of very old wood, is oriented properly, fitted exactly and glued. It is then carved down in the manner of the original, and varnish applied to match.

Halfway there… and now:

Voilà! How’d I do?

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I started getting to know this instrument about a year and a half ago. One thing I noticed early on was that the neck was rather hefty. I noticed too, that it’s owner was rather small in stature. I suggested that she might consider having the neck reshaped. For a player that requires smooth, fast and accurate shifting into high positions, the shape and feel of the neck can have great consequences. The neck on this instrument measured wide, with quite a bit of excess wood in the neck heel area. We could reduce both measurements, while still working within standard violin parameters, and come up with something much more comfortable for my client to play. Here’s what the  process looks like (you can click to enlarge):

Mostly I work with a knife and flat bottomed finger plane to carve away excess wood.

I use strong directional light to visually check lines and curves. Discrepancies are marked with a pencil. A template is useful as a reference and everything is carefully measured. Files and a scraper help refine the shape. The grain is raised with multiple applications of moisture followed by progressively finer sandpapers.

Next, the wood must be recolored to match. First I use a water stain derived from walnuts. It gives the newly exposed wood a nice brown color and accentuates the grain. I follow that with a vigorous burnishing with a polished boxwood stick. The neck is already very smooth and silky at this point.

An application of boiled linseed oil with a powdered burnt umber earth pigment further deepens the color and starts building a protective coating. After this is dry, I apply a light french polish of shellac. I’ve mixed a small vial of a custom colored retouch varnish and I use this, and my retouch palette to apply some serious varnish coats to the neck heel area and near the scroll. The rest of the neck gets a second french polish.

The difference is noticeable as soon as the player picks up the instrument. With the neck shaped properly, the entire fingerboard should feel more accessible – especially important for players with smaller hands!

Thanks to Debrah Devine, performer and teacher in Oneonta, NY, for participating in this episode of Restorersmind!

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There’s an interesting thing that happens in the course of a restoration. Today it happened subtly, but in a moment. I recognized it as I shifted my tool and repositioned the violin top that I was working on. zzzzzzt! There it was, a sign of life.

I’ve been working on a lovely old violin that has suffered not only the effects of a couple hundred years, but also some serious misfortune at the hands of unskilled violin “repair” hacks. It was a sickening mess or a titillating challenge, you pick.

An instrument with multiple cracks, broken and deteriorated edges, loose bits of wood and a bad history with a glue pot, doesn’t vibrate. It buzzes, rattles, clacks and gasps or simply lies dead on the workbench. With a change of fortune it could become, yet again, a beautiful, healthy, vibrant and participating member of the performing arts scene. That’s my job.

zzzzzt! It’s not a sound, it’s a feel. Gradually, as the cracks are glued properly, and the loose bits are reinforced or replaced, my patient remembers that it was MADE to vibrate. In my hands, it feels like a nicely tightened drum head. Ready. Excitable. Alive.

More on this fiddle another time – stay tuned!

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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.


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:


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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