Posts Tagged ‘violin restoration’

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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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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Two violins in my workshop this week suggest a topic of study that was addressed recently by the membership of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. Lectures and a collection of instruments for study at the biannual meeting (this year in New Orleans) centered on the influence of the Amati family of makers (17th century), of Cremona, Italy, on contemporary and subsequent makers throughout Europe. Think population centers and European trade routes c. 1700 and one can begin to imagine how instruments may have moved around along with other goods. It’s become clear that the early  Amati models not only made the journey, but were so highly regarded that violin makers throughout Europe copied them.

The first is a violin made by Andrea Guarneri in 1686. I believe it is generally accepted that A. Guarneri, patriarch of the Guarneri family of makers, probably studied first in the workshop of Giralomo and Antonio Amati and then later, in Nicolo Amati’s shop (nephew of G and A). It’s also possible that Antonio Stradivari studied with him there. In any case, it’s obvious that the work of Andrea Guarneri would show the influence of the Amati shop. In the example that happens to be in my shop now, probably the most striking similarity, is the classic geometrically derived model, and the shape of the arching. I had the additional fortune this week of seeing a violin by AG’s eldest, Peter Guarneri of Mantua. Very similar arching, but with a broader, longer, more robust outline. I think the axiom that is evident here (and is true for modern makers as well) is that the best makers do not work in isolation, but build upon the ideas of their predecessors, and even their contemporaries.

So Andrea Guarneri was a local boy working in or near the Amati shop. That all makes sense. But what is more amazing to me is that 1179km away, by modern standards thank you googlemaps, and 50-60 years later, we have Peter Rombouts in Amsterdam making an instrument with an Amati influence. Now Mr. Rombouts married the lovely daughter of violin maker Hendrick Jacobs, whose work was also influenced by the Amatis. Did they have a client in common with a superb example worth studying? Were they “following the money” and answering a demand for Cremonese modeled instruments? Did they recognize an efficacious development in design and tone and seize the opportunity to advance their own work??

Who knows?

For the sake of reference, I’ve dug up a few shots of a 1656 Nicolo Amati violin that I see fairly regularly.  It’s a lovely instrument, exquisitely crafted with all the delicacy one expects from this maker. See the photo at the left and then compare it to this Peter Rombouts from Amsterdam, early 1700’s, on the right.  It’s so hard ( for me) to get effective photos of archings, so here are the ff holes. There are obvious differences, but I hope the similarities in geometry and placement will be evident. If you imagine the “eyes” on the Rombouts enlarged, you come pretty close to the Amati.

Again, a detail in the back corners. The Rombouts corner is quite worn, but still elongated like the Amati example on top. So not Strad.

The Rombouts is having some extensive work done in my shop, which provides a segue into one reason I care about any of this stuff.

As I approach the end of this particular restoration project, I am faced with the possibility of rebuilding some badly worn top corners. The back corners are somewhat worn, but overall, beautifully intact. However, the top corners, only two of which are original, are terribly worn down. Obviously, the back corners will be my primary reference, but as I am trying to recreate the missing bits, having a sense of the larger picture and understanding more about the derivation of Rombouts’ design can only help me.

Above, one can see that the top edges have been fully doubled. I have made a tracing of the back C bout/ corners and shaped the new top wood to this outline. Below, I have cut away the worn wood around the purfling (which is whale baleen by the way, in the manner of this Dutch maker) and added new wood to the outline. From here, I will do some further shaping to emulate an appropriate wear pattern. The “new ” wood I’ve used is very old and heavily oxidised, so hopefully it will require a minimum of retouching to match.

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