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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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On most days, I take my Dog for a short hike at the Mount Tom Reservation in Holyoke, MA, a short distance from my home. There’s a loop that we frequently do that takes us up the slope through the woods and then down and over the brook and finally along the edge of Lake Bray. It’s beautiful in any season.IMG_5172

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As is the case in most of these well maintained, and accessible pseudo-wildernesses (aka State Reservations), one is likely to have the most encounters with other humans somewhere not too far from the parking lot. Indeed, yesterday’s walk included an encounter with a couple who were clearly headed back to their car. It was a week day. It was the first surprisingly warm bright spring day at the tail end of an insultingly long winter. The fellow was in shorts and called out to me “Great day, huh? Can you believe it? There’s NOBODY here!”

Well that was pleasant – people getting out in the sunshine, Dog gets to be wiggly and happy as she makes new friends. And I’m thinking, “I’m here, you’re here, I bet that bear and her cub that I saw last time is still here.”

Our walk takes me south and up the slope under the hemlocks where I spotted the emergence of springtails last winter on a warm day after a late December snow. I will have to remember to point the spot out to P, who knows which mushrooms are edible. Apparently, where there are springtails (snow fleas), there are mushrooms. I know little about foraging, but have the pleasure of knowing a bona fide hunter-gatherer, so I hope to learn something eventually. I have an observant nature. I think that might be an advantage.

Dog and I cross the convergence of seasonal streams that I amuse myself by calling Three Rivers. There is actually a town near here that is called Three Rivers. I am sure that “Shorts Man” would conclude that NOTHING happens in either place. This Three Rivers is simply a point in the landscape where water runs off  the slope in three rivulets as it heads inevitably for Lake Bray. In the fall, one might not even notice it. But this spring, the crossing inspired me to get some waterproof hiking boots. There is a vernal pool as well, and I am curious to see what I may see there as the spring progresses.

I am still having a language moment.”There’s NOBODY here!” Interesting choice of words, that.

Dog and I have passed the place, where, on our last walk, we watched a mama bear and her crying cub descend the slope, left of the trail, toward the lake. I was relieved that young Dog neither bolted nor made chase, but stood apprehensively, breathing deeply against the back of my leg. I have raised a cub of my own, and so I know, that if Baby is that whiny, Mama is not to be in a good mood either.

Past Three Rivers, we flush a Pileated Woodpecker. Mostly, I see the flash of red crest. I see a pair of them now and then, and hear their thrumming regularly. This is a bird that is still so amazing to me that it elicits images of mystical majesty tempered by cartoon celebrity. It’s big, but I assume it’s not an Ivory Billed. That is truly the stuff of fantasy. Off to my right, the landscape ascends through a deciduous forest, where I have spotted deer on a number of occasions. Beyond the crest of the trail, I have seen their foot prints in the snow. The snow is gone by now, but still Dog’s interest is piqued.

At the bottom of the hill, there is a small wooden bridge over water that flows year round into the lake. Dog crosses it every time as if it’s her first time. I have yet to really get inside her brain about this one. We head north again. There is one last hill to climb before the trail gracefully descends toward the lake. Dog stops to contemplate the reptilian chorus of peepers off to our left. Not a bear, probably not a predator. What? This is her third spring, her first spring walking this trail. We are approaching the marsh at the upper end of the lake. It’s still too early for turtles sunning themselves on logs. Too early for copperheads. I’m ok with that.

Another bridge and I am on the last stretch of trail heading for the parking lot. The lake is to the right. I am eagerly awaiting signs that someone is inhabiting the new nesting box at the upper end of the lake. I’ve seen a pair of Mallards but I’m not sure if the box is intended for them. Somehow, I don’t think so. I am humbled by my ignorance.

I’m not sure what “Shorts Man” meant by “nobody”. I suspect it’s relative. I am already making a plan for the rest of my afternoon. I don’t have any clients scheduled, which means I will have some concentrated work time . Dog, no doubt, will be napping.

5213e11ae5228adc62d7d4c5a420bf0b      Credit: Tyler Breton, violinist and photographer extraordinaire

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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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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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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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When my work apron goes on and the audio book goes in the cd player, the dog knows it’s a good time to settle into her bed for a nap. I don’t think she’s being lulled by the voice coming through the speakers. I think she’s simply read all the signs. She won’t be putting on her walking shoes for a while. She won’t be answering the door (no exciting visitors to sniff). In short, she’s not going anywhere and apparently, I’m not either.

I’ve listened to a lot of books while working. My regular trips to the public library usually result in schlepping four or five audio books home at a time. Most of them I actually listen to. Many prove to be entertaining, engaging, even enlightening. Once in a while, I find a book that just begs to be read in print. I make a note, add it to my “to read” list, and send the audio back to the library. Now and then, a reader just hits my ear the wrong way, regardless of the merit of the writer. The dog lifts her head as I exclaim “Ugh!  I can’t listen to that!”. She’s talking to herself again. 

Since it’s the time of year when everyone is making their Best of Whatever lists, I thought I’d try to call up some recent favorites. For me, the only disadvantage to enjoying a book in audio is that without actually having something to repeatedly pick up and gaze at, I have a hard time remembering titles and authors. I’m forever wishing I’d written these things down. Hmm …I sense a New Year’s resolution in the air! Ho hum…that’s what she said.

Here are ten of the many books that I enjoyed listening to this year, in no particular order. They are simply random picks off my public library’s audio shelves. Most are fiction and all seem to be contemporary. I decided not to consider mysteries (partly because I can never remember which is which and who is whom), and the classics may deserve a future list of their own. I might add that at least a few of these recordings (in particular I’m thinking of A Mercy , Parrot and Olivier in America, and Night Circus) are additionally memorable due to the extraordinary performances of the readers. She forgot about The Art of Racing in the Rain, and that other dog one.

  • Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje, read by Hope Davis
  • A Mercy by Toni Morrison, read by the author
  • Black Swan Green by David Mitchell read by Kirby Heyborne
  • Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey, read by Humphrey Bower
  • Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, read by Jim Dale
  • Fall of Giants by Ken Follett, read by John Lee
  • The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, read by the author
  • Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King, read by Richard Matthews
  • Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon read by Jonathan Davis
  • The Fortune Teller’s Daughter by Lila Shaara, read by T. Ryder Smith

 


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Chopping has come up in a couple of conversations with women friends lately. Yes, chopping, not shopping, thank you. Since I am who[sic] I am, sometimes a word or an image repeated, even in completely different contexts, lights up some mysterious part of my brain. I got to thinking.

The friends in question and I are all artists/artisans. One friend mentioned that after working at a computer for an extended period of time, she needs to go into the kitchen and chop vegetables. Another friend had her work with a cutting tool admonished as being “choppy”, not to mention unbecoming her gender. What? I thought about how I enjoy a job that requires getting out my bamboo froe. More about that later.

In my view, the act of chopping means taking an edged tool in hand and inviting a certain blend of speed, momentum, and larger muscle groups to augment an already practiced partnership between the hand and the eye. For instance, tonight’s butternut squash was bisected with one formidable whack. Had I not spent much of  the day fine-fitting a ridiculously little piece of wood, I may have been happy to simply lean into the vegetable with my biggest knife, rocking with it until the blade hit cutting board. That squash got whacked and it felt gooood!

Now this post, begun in all innocence, is about to take a timely turn. Next Tuesday, we here, in the States, exercise our civic duty to stand behind the candidates of our choice. This is a privilege and, in my view, an obligation of the highest order. I have never missed an opportunity to vote. I consider myself a humanist, sometimes even an optimist. That said, I recognize my not-so-inner curmudgeon. People are basically self- interested and short-sighted jerks. I have been closing my ears against the barrage of measured lies and twisted truths. Unfortunately, there’s not a heck of a lot else to listen to. So I find myself trolling the neighborhood for places to be on Tuesday night, where I might  drink with abandon in case this election heads for the crapper.

The alternate title to this post was “Chopping Therapy 101”, which may help explain why this election digression is not totally a non sequitur. If I were still heating with wood, you can be sure I would be out there with my maul and axe reacquainting myself with my right-side rotator cuff. Instead, I chop vegetables. I use the biggest knife I have. I fit little pieces of wood all day and then split out a bunch of end blocks and bass bars. Whack! Here is the aforementioned bamboo froe: It’s a Japanese tool that is used for splitting bamboo. Someday, perhaps I will understand where it figures in terms of  Japanese craft and construction. It fits nicely in my hand, with a comfortable balance and confidence-inspiring heft. For me, it’s the tool I turn to when I need to be assured that the grain direction in a given piece of wood is appropriate to the purposes to which I am employing it. I use it to split out bass bar stock and also endblocks. I pick up a small hammer, position my froe, and  give it a whack. The split follows the grain line. There is no deception here.

Chopping exposes the nature of a material, the propensity of the tool and perhaps the mindset of the chopper. It’s an activity  that employs a kind of controlled abandon, or calculated wrecklessness. The perfect antidote to a day filled with the questionable minutiae of modern life.

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