For the last six months I have been involved only in repairs, restorations and resurrections: no new builds.
One was a fairly simple repair job for a man named Gary: he is 82 years old, and had his mother’s violin, which she had gotten from her father, who bought it in Denmark during or before WWI…but, as she quit playing before he was born, he had never heared it play; so he really wanted it singing again…and asked specifically that I would play “Amazing Grace” on it, after the repairs were complete. (Sigh…) I am really not a player, but I agreed, so the deal was a go—annnnd, he was leaving the state, moving to Wyoming, the next Saturday. So it was a “rush” job, with no wiggle room.
Here is how the violin came to me:
The nut was missing, though someone had attempted to replace it with a bone nut, but the bone nut really didn’t fit, so I ended up just making a new one of ebony.
The lower bout treble seam on the back was open for about 5-6″, but there was no crack, so that was an easy fix.
The back was in good shape:
So! Where to start?
The obvious things seemed to be to close the open seam, and to replace the mising nut. As it turned out, the fingerboard was about to fall off, too, so I re-glued it while making the new nut.
Someone had attempted to make a bone nut (popular in some circles, in some periods of history– still the norm for guitars), but it was really not at all the right size…so I just made a new one of ebony.
A Broken Case:
So, while the glue was drying on the fiddle itself, I atempted to close up the gaping cracks in the old wooden case. They had been open a long time, and resented having to mate up again, but with some creative clamping and wedging, I got it presentable on the outside. The inside needed attention as well– the little spacers and dividers were loose, and the compartment for rosin, etc, was falling apart. Annnd, the bow-holders that were left were on opposite sides, so I had to transfer one to match the other.
While the case was drying, I re-haired the bow, and made minor repairs. It turned out OK, but I did not take any photos.
Finally, I was free to replace all the pegs, using a modern taper, and good quality ebony pegs. At that point it was ready for strings and a full set-up, including a new bridge and soundpost.
The case looked pretty good, all things considered, and the newly-re-haired bow and newly-resurrected fiddle looked at home in it.
Gary was pretty tired: he had spent all night packing to leave for Wyoming. But he was delighted with the fiddle.
Tone was not bad, considering the 80+ year enforced silence. It seemed to be “waking up and remembering the good old days,” even in the few hours that I had with it before returning it to the owner. I did play “Amazing Grace” for him, but you will pardon my reticence to display my Non-virtuosity, here, in a public place. 🙂
Thanks for looking.
If you found this post helpful, please share with your friends!
I had several repair projects over the last nine months…a couple of violins, two minor cello repairs, a classical guitar repair and a fairly major cello repair, from which I will eventually share a lot of photos.
One of the violins was pretty pleasant, in that an 82-year-old man brought me his mother’s violin which he had never heard played, and asked me to restore it to playability. There wasn’t a great deal wrong with it, which was fortunate, as he was moving to another state that weekend. I was able to clean it up, hair the bow,make various minor repairs, and have it playable by that Saturday, and he met with me Sunday morning, and was overwhelmingly satisfied. I played “Amazing grace” for him (very poorly– I truly am not a player), and he was pretty choked up.
Another repair was an elderly plywood cello owned by a friend. It had open seams, a missing bridge, and a few other things. Pretty easy stuff, though. Her husband’s classical guitar (also plywood) also had open seams, and very bad old strings, so I glued up the seams, replaced the strings and took both instruments back to them the next week.
My son’s friend brought me her cello, inherited from her grandmother. It was a nice, old Mittenwald carved cello, and she had been told there was a lot wrong with it. I looked it over very carefully, trying to find the things that were so “wrong”, but there was nothing… It seemed to only be missing the bridge. I finally said, “There’s nothing wrong with your cello; it just needs a bridge!” She said, “Oh, the bridge is here!” and produced the missing bridge. Even the soundpost was in place…so I installed the bridge, tuned the instrument, and played a couple of old hymns, just to check the sound. All was in order, and fully functional in about 15 minutes. She went home ecstatic, and I got a big smile, too.
Another was not really a repair, it was the completion of a small viola for a family whose son is a fairly good player, and who wanted to switch to viola, but they could not afford a handmade viola. I proposed that I buy a 15-1/2″ viola-in-the-white, and complete it for them. As it turned out, the projection was way too low, so the job required that I change the neck-set angle before completing the finish-work and set-up. In the end, they got a very good viola for about a third what I charge to make one from scratch. That worked out well for them, and for me as well, which is good, because in the midst of all of the above, a fairly major job came in:
A lady in New Hampshire contacted me to say that her father had begun a cello around 30 years ago, but died without having completed it. The unfinished, unprotected cello had rested in her attic for eight or nine years, and was badly cracked in a few places. It ultimately turned out to be nearly a complete rebuild, but the result was very satisfactory for her and for me. It just took me a lot longer than I had predicted. This job ended up requiring:
Scroll-graft, to salvage the scroll her father had carved, while replacing the damaged neck.
Replacement of both the upper and lower end blocks.
Removal of both upper corner blocks, and reinforcing both areas with false blocks.
Repair of ten cracks, collectively, in the two upper ribs, both caused by wood shrinkage at the upper corner blocks.
Re-establishing the outlines of both front and back plates,
Installing purfling, and a new back button.
Re-checking and graduating the front and back plates,
Re-shaping the bass-bar.
Reassembly of the corpus,
Re-setting of the (new) neck, in the new upper end block.
Installing and dressing a fingerboard,
Installing a uniquely-shaped nut, to match the uniquely-shaped scroll cheeks.
Installing an oversized saddle to fill the oversized cutout already removed from the front plate.
Complete varnish-prep, including correcting damages, as well as cleaning up (most but not all) tool-marks.
Complete varnishing-process, from raw wood.
Installing a Rosewood end-pin assembly.
Installing and fitting a sound-post, as well as a bridge, and a Rosewood tailpiece with four built-in adjusters.
Plugging the original peg-holes, as they were in the wrong places, and establishing correct locations to install the new Rosewood pegs.
Strings, final adjustment and set-up, as well as a week of play-in, and applying a wolf-eliminator.
It was lots of fun…her father had chosen beautiful wood, and the resulting instrument has decent sound, too. It just was far more time-consuming than I had expected, so she patiently waited to get her cello back, and was quite gracious about the extra time involved. Over all, it was a very good experience, and we both went away happy.
The whole saga was posted on Facebook, so I allowed my website to languish during all those months.
I will post photos soon.
Thanks for looking
If you found this post helpful, please share with your friends!
Repair Procedure: “Young Lady from Alabama” Violin 1/2017
This Violin came to me because a young lady in Alabama had read my article on violin repair, and decided she wanted me to fix her fiddle.
She sent me a few photographs to see whether I thought it was repairable and worth repairing. I said yes, on both counts, and she shipped me the violin. She knew that it was not an expensive, high-quality violin, but it was special to her, and she felt that the investment would return a better violin for her to play than the cheap one she was currently playing, and give her more pleasure as well, because of the sentimental attachment.
Here is the original photo I saw:
She sent me the fiddle, carefully packed, and it arrived unharmed. Fortunately, I got home immediately after the FedEx people dropped the package on my porch, as it was raining hard, but the package was nearly completely dry.
But, this is what I found inside:
Starting Condition (as seen from outside):
The neck is separated from the button. (above)
The neck block is broken. (below)
The treble side upper bout rib is damaged at neck joint (and is “re-touched” with red ink).
There is missing wood at the heel of the neck.
There is at least one repaired crack in the top plate.
Remove all the fittings and strings; store them in the case pocket.
Remove the neck.
Make a cork-lined clamping caul, to hold the ribs in proper alignment.
Remove the top plate and inspect all interior conditions.
Crack repair was “OK”, but minimal: add 2 cleats, clean up the three old cleats.
There is missing wood from previous top removal. Repair it, before closing.
The bass-side upper bout rib is cracked. Repair it before closing.
The saddle fell off—re-install after closing.
Remove the old neck-block.
Repair the damaged ribs, and replace the missing wood at the neck-heel.
Install the new block, using hot hide glue and clamping caul.
Level the front of the garland.
Re-install the repaired front plate, including original saddle.
Re-set the repaired neck.
Minimally “dress” the Fingerboard.
Retouch the varnish all over, as needed. (It should look nearly new…the violin was quite glossy before.)
Set-up the violin, using old pegs and chinrest, but replacing all else.
New tailpiece with four tuners (with her approval)
New Dominant strings
New cork on Chinrest clamping surfaces
Add a few business cards
Add an invoice.
Play and adjust for best sound.
Pack and ship to Owner
Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? And, really, that is about how it worked out:
There was also missing wood at the neck-heel: At some point in the history of this fiddle, it had been snapped loose from the neck block, and a piece of wood about the size and shape of a fingernail had chipped out of the gluing surface of the neck. (photo up above) This is a critical joint, so the wood had to be replaced.
I soaked a thin piece of aged maple in hot water until it was flexible, during which time I scraped smooth the scooped out place in the heel. Then I slathered in the hot hide glue, and clamped the now-flexible maple into the “scoop”, using a cork for a clamping block. When the glue was completely dry, I planed the wood flat to match the original shape of the neck heel.
Meanwhile, the inside of the top plate needed attention: there was a (poorly) repaired crack to attend to, several bits of missing wood, etc.
I replaced any missing wood using spruce, cut to fit, and hot hide glue. While I had the top off, I cleaned up the old crack, and added two more diamond-shaped cleats. The importance of this shape is that it minimizes stress on the grain of the undamaged wood. That square, block (center cleat) above could cause a new crack to form along its edge. I eventually carved the old cleats to a thin taper, to minimize the danger.
Finally, the top can be re-installed on the garland. First I leveled the garland, so that any inconsistencies caused by my replacing that neck-block will be eliminated, and the top will fit cleanly. Then I dry-clamped the top in place, and, loosening a few clamps at a time, I inserted hot hide glue all around the edges, especially at all six blocks. As I completed the glue insertion in each area, I replaced the clamps and gently re-tightened them, then cleaned off any glue squeeze-out.
The result? The body is reassembled and the next step is re-setting the neck.
Once the neck is fitting exactly, I double check all dimensions and angles and finally slather hot hide-glue in the joint and ram the neck-heel home, checking rapidly to make sure everything is still correct. Then I clamp it so that it stays secure until that glue is fully set and dry.
So, I have to file and smooth the neck-heel joint, then re-touch the varnish so that the old and new are a close match, at the heel and both ribs. Then re-touch all the varnish, not attempting to make it new, but to cover any bare or damaged wood with varnish that matches the original varnish.
The rib-patch is not invisible, but it is no longer objectionable, so I am satisfied.
And finally, everything is done! The set-up is complete, all the old dings and scuffs have been retouched, and the old fiddle looks and sounds great.
Time for this one to go home.
If you found this post helpful, please share with your friends!
A colleague asked me to document how I evaluate a fiddle for repairs needed. This is my pattern of thinking:
What am I Dealing With?
When I am presented with an old violin, regardless of the origin, there are certain things I am looking for: the very first thing is to determine, in my own mind, whether the instrument is one of the (literally millions of) mass-produced violins that came out of Europe in the late 1800s to early 1900s. If it seems, instead, to be a hand-made instrument, thus possibly of some greater value, then I may need to take it to someone who can appraise it, before I begin work on it. There are some instruments on which I do not feel qualified to work, and which I will not repair beyond minor things like an open seam, etc., though I have occasionally worked on instruments nearly 300 years old.
I look at the general finish (the old factory instruments all seem to have a similar look), the scroll (especially under the throat of the scroll—does the fluting end suddenly at about “6 o’clock”, or does it continue all the way around?), and the f-hole ends (is there any fluting of the f-holes? There usually is not on the cheaper instruments.) I also take a quick look at the purfling, to see if it gives me any clues. Some of the cheaper ones don’t actually have purfling—it is simply painted on, to look like purfling.
I glance at the label, but the fact is, unless it plainly says “Made in Germany” (or Czechoslovakia, or whatever), the label isn’t really going to tell me much, because virtually all of the old factory instruments were apparently made by “Antonio Straduarius” while he was on vacation in central Europe. That label is extraordinarily common, and is only a sign that it is a cheap copy. Some labels make less wild claims, but false attributions are so common as to be the norm. Usually, I am looking at what is effectively a “dead fiddle”, and am hoping to effect a “resurrection” of sorts.
Once I have determined that the old fiddle is not some priceless “Old Master Gem” (not likely), and that I am free to make the repairs needed to make it playable, I have to ask myself:
What Does it Need?
I then look at the general condition. I am looking for:
Cracks, (how severe, and where are they?)
Are the cracks clean, or packed with dirt and/or polish, etc.?
A soundpost crack may be a deal-breaker…same for a bass-bar crack. Most other cracks are workable, so long as you are willing to open the instrument, and know when it is appropriate to do so.
Open seams, (and are they clean or dirty?)
Missing wood, (how much is missing, and where?)
Peg-hole diameters (will they need bushing, re-drilling, etc.?)
Peg Taper: Is the taper of the existing pegs reasonable? Modern pegs are tapered to 1:30 ratio, but there are other ratios. Sometimes they are so steep that they will not reliably stay in tune.
Either of the above (or broken/missing pegs) requires a new set of pegs.
Neck joint: Is it tight, and at an appropriate angle? What is the height of the overstand? What is the height of the end of the fingerboard over the belly?
Fingerboard: Will it need dressing? And is it thick enough to stand being dressed? A new fingerboard is not out of the question, but it is a lot more work.
Nut: Is it serviceable? Sometimes a nut is missing or broken. Sometimes the string grooves are bad (too deep, too wide, or in wrong locations), requiring a replacement nut.
Saddle: Is the saddle serviceable? And, does it need to be re-glued?
End pin: (is it loose, or broken?)
A badly worn end pin hole will probably require reaming, bushing and re-drilling/re-reaming as well as a new end pin.
Interior: Using a light and dental mirror, can I see interior issues?
Soundpost: Is there a soundpost in place? Does it fit appropriately? (I usually assume I will have to fit a new soundpost.)
Bridge: I assume in advance that I will need to cut a new bridge, but if there is a bridge present, and it fits the top exactly, and it is the correct height, etc., I have been known to use them. Bridges don’t wear out, under normal use, provided they are maintained to prevent warping, etc.
Fittings: Are there fittings present? Are they usable? I like to use an old tailpiece, as they frequently have a charming look, but many fiddlers want four fine tuners, and it is usually a mistake to use four steel tuners added to an ebony tailpiece, because the additional weight proves to be parasitic, and diminishes volume. If that is what is there, I mentally add the cost of a new tailpiece with four built-in tuners.
It the tailgut serviceable? The old “genuine gut” tailguts worked just fine, but they will eventually break, so I usually replace them with a modern synthetic.
Strings: New strings are a given. Choose your brand and style according to what the fiddle will be used for. I use Dominants if the violin is to be played in an orchestra or any other traditional venue, but if the player is a fiddler, I will use Helicores. (If there is a customer already involved, I will use their preferred string…these are just the ones I like to use.)
Cleaning and (at least some) polishing are also a given. I do not want to produce a mirror-bright instrument, as a rule: “Old-Fiddle Chic” is the goal. It partly depends upon what the previous condition was. If it has obviously been kept glossy in the past, but is just very dirty, then cleaning and polishing will include bringing it back to the deep gloss that was intended.
What Will It Cost? (And what is the “Cut-off Point?” This is to the repairers, out there…)
This will depend on the shop hourly rate you have set, and, to a lesser degree, how fast you work. In an automobile shop, there is such a thing as a flat-rate book, where the time required for a given task is laid out, and they call out the cost of a job by estimated time and materials. (If they say there is a 2-hour flat-rate charge to replace a radiator, for instance, you will pay for a new radiator plus two times whatever their shop-rate is.) If the mechanic gets the job done more quickly, he gets paid better…if it takes him longer, he loses money. Unfortunately, we don’t have a “flat-rate book” for luthiers, so you have to develop your own. You have to keep track, and see how long repairs actually take you…or should take you. Maybe ask around and find out how long similar repairs take other people, too. There are a few shops online who advertise their prices.
In my own case, for example, it usually takes me about an hour to fit a set of pegs and install them, ready to use…maybe a little less. So, I add the cost of a set of pegs to my shop-rate for one hour, and that is what I charge. The same can be done for all of the above tasks. If the materials don’t cost much, sometimes I don’t even add the materials cost, though I probably should.
I guess I usually estimate about $200 for setting up an instrument, if that is literally all it needs. It will often be less, but sometimes there are more open seams or a peg needs more work than first seemed likely, and it’s nicer to surprise the customer with a lower bill than to wish I could to add to it (which I don’t do…ever.)
If you add together all the estimated repair costs, plus materials, and the “repair estimate” far exceeds the potential value of the instrument after the repairs, then you have to re-think what you are about to do, and decide whether you want to do the job at all.
I do a fair amount of “pro bono” work, and that is my privilege…but I don’t pretend to be a non-profit organization, and there are some jobs I have turned away quite firmly, though politely, and with genuine regret.
On the other hand, if I think “this young player may come back later for a better instrument”, then I may decide to repair the current fiddle, at an extreme discount, to make it play as well as possible, and just count the work as an investment in my reputation and toward future business. Let the customer know what you are doing, but don’t be “pious” about it…explain that, in terms of market value, the instrument does not justify the repair, but that you try to keep people playing when possible, and that you choose to do this particular repair as a sharply discounted rate…and that you hope they will come back to you for a better instrument as their skills advance. (I like to hand them a series of nice instruments to play while they are waiting, and when they take their repaired instrument home, though it probably plays better than ever before, it still is nowhere near the sound of the instruments they were experiencing in my shop.) (Sneaky, huh?)
Sometimes I have done repairs that I knew would exceed the original cost of the (fairly new) instrument, let alone the re-sale value (we are talking cheap Chinese student instrument, here) just because I wanted the experience at performing that particular repair, and I knew I could not hurt anything by the attempt. (The one I am thinking of had a bad soundpost crack, where the post had been driven through the top in an accidental fall. It required a full-thickness inlaid patch. The result was nearly invisible, and it was a very good learning experience for me. I counted the labor time as “tuition” in my learning-curve.)
However! If you know that the amount you will charge for the repair will exceed the value of the instrument after repairs, you mustinform the customer of that, before even considering the work. This is an ethical matter. Don’t do the work without the customer absolutely knowing what they are getting. I have done work of this sort, because the customer wanted “Great-Grandpa’s fiddle” back in playing condition. I explained very carefully that what they were buying would be the nostalgia of having great Grandpa’s fiddle, and that under no circumstances could they hope that it would be salable at that price. They wanted it anyway, so I went ahead and did the work.
Some luthiers will not do such work at all; that is their choice. But people buy very expensive boxes in which to keep their loved one’s ashes: so, what is wrong with an “expensive box with strings on it”, in which to keep the memories, and upon which to play the remembered tunes? It’s your call…. I choose to do the work.
One last thing to consider is “Do I want my name associated with this thing??” That could be the deciding factor: Your reputation could be at risk. I have rejected work due to previous “repairs” done with epoxy. I knew I could not undo the damage, and the epoxy and (very bad) earlier repairs could end up being blamed on me…. So I flatly refused to do the repairs. They were not happy, but better just they were unhappy than them and me, too.
What is the Exception?
What if the fiddle belongs to you, and you are hoping to sell it? Let’s say you have found it at a garage sale, and are trying to decide whether to buy it. Then you have to decide, “Am I willing to work for less money per hour, in this case, just because it is important to me to return this fiddle to the market?” If the answer is “No!” then you simply can’t repair it. And, if you are offered it, you can’t take it…it’s that simple.
There have been instruments that I have acquired, one way or another, and later realized they were so cheaply made, or so badly damaged, that I was simply unwilling to mess with them. In those cases I have either given them away to be used as a decoration, or, in some cases, I simply burned them. Sounds terrible, I know, but there is such a thing as a “violin-shaped-object” (VSO) that was truly junk the day it was brand-new.
Some Final Notes:
There is a pretty wide spread in prices to cut a bridge (and other tasks): Some luthiers offer a “student-cut” and a “professional-cut”. A student-cut bridge has feet that conform to the violin, and it holds the strings at the right heights. Other than that, it is simply cut to a standard set of measurements. A “professional” bridge has more care taken with the fitting, and is cut with the tone of the violin in mind. This may take hours. Also, the bridge blank may vary from as little as 2 or 3 dollars to as much as 20 or 25, or more.
The most expensive blanks are not appropriate on most instruments, but the difference between a $3 and a $10 blank may be quite noticeable, so the range of prices is understandable. I don’t think I can do a “professional” cut well enough to justify the claim, so I charge the same for a bridge, regardless. And I do careful work, regardless.
Your Hourly Rate
Try to be aware of what mechanics shops in your area are charging per flat-time hour. If you know you are charging less per hour than they are, then you can stand by your prices, and your customers can rest assured they are not being overcharged. That should help put the final bill in perspective. This is definitely “skilled-labor”—or you shouldn’t be attempting it. I did not begin charging for my work at all, until after I had repaired more than 50 of my own instruments, which I had bought in various states of disrepair, and used as learning tools. (They were mine, and, whatever I did, they were better off than when I got them. I sold them at low prices when I had them set up and playing well: their owners were delighted with them. It was a “win” all the way around.) Remember that if you are maintaining a shop, insurance, and the like, you must take all that into consideration when setting your shop hourly rate. Otherwise you will be losing money and won’t know where it is going.
I hope this is helpful… If I have a fiddle come in sometime soon, that fits this scenario, I will add photos; but for now, this is the best I can do.
If you found this post helpful, please share with your friends!
We frequently hear the term “basket-case” in reference to one’s mental-state, but it originated in the reality of all the parts of a dilapidated mechanism or household furnishing being literally placed into a basket and delivered to a craftsperson who (it was hoped) could put it back together and make it functional.
There have been a few times when I have received such a violin…usually either having belonged to the customer’s Great Aunt, or Grandfather, or something, or a relic from their own childhood (which they are trying to hang onto.) In some cases it is worse– the customer simply acquired the instrument at a garage sale (or some similar “depository of fine musical instruments”), in pieces, and wants me to make it work.
In all of the above cases, I try to kindly explain that the labor involved will cost far more than the instrument will be worth when completed, and they must decide whether they want the instrument badly enough to pay that much to have it playable. (We are not talking about a full restoration, just bringing a dead fiddle back to life.)
In the particular situation at hand, it was a mix: The violin was coming to pieces, and was literally in a bread-bag, with the mouth of the bag tied off, to prevent the escape of any pieces. BUT, the person who brought it to me was not asking me to fix it for him…he simply offered it as a potential “project” fiddle. I gave him what he had paid for it at a junk-shop (styled “Antique Shoppe”) and tossed the bagged corpse in a box to gather dust, thinking that perhaps someday I could do a photo-story of sorts with it, in a “sow’s-ear-to-silk-purse” type of story. (Given the relative quality, I should probably edit that to say, “calico-handbag” as opposed to silk purse, but that is another matter.)
A few months ago, however, a parent contacted me, asking whether I had an “old fiddle” (full-size) for sale at a reasonable cost, to replace her daughter’s fractional size violin. Initially, I told her I did not, but upon further reflection, it occurred to me that I had the “bread-bag fiddle”. I told her exactly what it was, to the best of my knowledge (I had not opened it sufficiently to see some of the surprises), and suggested that, if I could make it a reasonable player for a price she could afford, that perhaps it would meet her expectations.
I sent her some photos, so she could see that, at least for now, it sort of “put the ugh in ugly”, and that it would never win any prizes for looks, regardless of what I did.
But–some folks like old fiddles! As it turned out, she and her family were pleased with the prospect, and told me to carry on with the “restoration.” (I repeat…this is not a true restoration, but rather a “revival” or “resurrection” of a dead or nearly-dead violin.) I had another commission going at the time, and I let them know that I could not begin immediately, but they were not in a hurry, so it was agreed that their project was next in line. I was able to begin about a month later.
The back had come loose from the ribs, partway around, and the (monstrous) lower block was separated from the ribs, as well, and (despite my best attempts) would not fit together perfectly. (sigh…)
Three of the four corners of the spruce top had missing wood, along with one lower-bout edge. One of the three had wood broken off, not just chipped or worn.
The exterior was bad enough, but when I opened the corpus I found the history, literally written on a label, and proudly claiming responsibility for the carnage within.
And, as usual, the “Tony Stradivari” label is there to confuse things further: I left it there, of course, and glued it down securely, so it would not fall out. 🙂
Here is a photo of the tail-block and loose ribs:
The “repairer-rebuilder-innovator” had removed the normal blocks and replaced them with very heavy, oversized, hardwood blocks. That was bad enough, but he had also (in response to a bass-bar crack) installed a bar at about a 20 degree angle across the longitudinal axis, rather than the 2 degree (or thereabouts) angle that is normal.
One thing to be observed, too, is the peculiar “mottled” look of the inside of the top plate, and how much fresher the wood appears here, than inside the back. From this, I see that this instrument was originally one of the very cheap fiddles for which the maker took not even the trouble of smoothing the inside of the top plate, but left it extremely rough, like chainsaw sculpture, in the knowledge that few, if any, would ever see it, whereas the back was very smooth inside, where any eye could glance inside and see the work. The “re-builder” smoothed all the rough gouge-work, removing the original “integral” bass bar (which had been carved in place, out of the same billet as the rest of the top, not carved separately and fitted to the plate), and had continued by adding the big blocks, slanting bar, etc.
How do I know? Because I have smoothed such an instrument myself, and that is how the top plate looks afterward. The areas where the most wood was removed are quite bright, whereas the places where only a little smoothing was in order are darker, showing the oxidation of the years. No harm done, there, and he did a fair job of it.
The ribs (as they came from the low-end European factory) were 2-3 times the thickness they should have been , in the upper bouts, though pretty close to normal in the lower and center bouts. There were several cracks. Some I had seen from the outside– some became obvious when I opened the box. Inside (due to inexpert top removals over the century or so of the fiddle’s existence), sufficient wood had been lost in the areas of the corner blocks that I felt it was necessary to replace wood there, as well.
First things First
Since the back was relatively undamaged, and it had to be re-secured to the blocks so that I would have a firm foundation from which to build, I reglued the blocks to the back, and
I scraped and scraped the block and ribs, to try to get the loose ribs to fit back in place perfectly, but, in the end, they still were pretty rough. I kept telling myself that this was not a restoration, just a resurrection.
I soaked loose the old, dirty glue in the center seam, and pulled it together as tightly as possible, then re-glued and clamped it. I went ahead and glued as many cracks as I could manage at the same time, wedging them in or out, as was needed to make them flush on the outside and tight, edge-to edge. I added the orange clamps as two pairs of “legs”, so that the plate could stand on edge and not twist under its own weight and that of the clamps.
As you can see, I also began replacing the corners at that time; here is how it works:
There was a third corner needing a minor wood-replacement, and a lower-bout edge worn (and splintered) off, as well. the procedure for replacement was the same in all cases.
After the glue was dry on the replaced corners, I carved and filed the new wood to match the old shape.
One lower bout had a missing edge, too, so I glued new spruce in place, and, after the glue was dry, I carved and filed it to match the original curve.
Later, I will stain the new wood to match the old, using coffee, dirt, and ash, then retouch the varnish to match the old varnish.
The bass-bar had to come out, so, after the glue had dried in the various cracks, I planed out the old bar, (and glued “cleats” on the inside along each crack) and prepared to fit a new bar. The bass-bar was going to have to be shorter than usual, as the huge end blocks crowded the normal position.
You can see that I had already begun replacing the wood missing from the inside corners: I sawed a 1 mm-thick “veneer” of clear, vertical grained spruce, glued it to the smoothed and flattened corners, and later planed it flush with the surrounding areas.
The bass-bar fitting went quite smoothly, using chalk on the inside of the top plate, and pressing the bar against the chalked area to disclose the high spots on the bar. I had it ready to glue in a pretty short time, and trimmed it the next morning, after the glue was dry.
Almost Ready for Re-assembly
Once the entire interior was smooth, with all missing wood replaced, I could start thinking about closing up the body of the violin. I re-fit and glued in place the saddle that had come with the fiddle.
Meanwhile, I had checked the back and ribs for appropriate thickness– a few areas of the back were abnormally thick, so I planed and scraped a millimeter (or so) of wood out of those areas, then even more from the upper bout ribs, where the wood was three times the normal 1 mm thickness. Perhaps it will help….
So, I was ready to close:
I dry clamped the whole corpus (body) in exactly the way I wanted it to go together, using spool clamps, just like the ones used when I was gluing the back to the garland, above.
Then, when I was sure everything was right, I heated hide glue, and, loosening a few clamps at a time, I used a palette knife to carefully insert the thin, hot, hide glue between the front plate and the linings and blocks. Then I re-applied those few clamps and repeated the process with the next few clamps until I had glued all the way around. I seldom think to take photos of thsi process, so…there aren’t any. Sorry.
Once the glue was dry, I could take off the clamps and get ready to begin final touch-up of varnish, and general polishing.
So, I spent a few evenings cleaning, and touching up varnish, so that nothing sticks out as damaged, nor as “new”. Not too shiny, but not too grubby, either. What I am attempting is “Old fiddle Chic.”
New Helicore strings because that is what the customer prefers. (Installed after the photos.)
Looks as though the bridge was a little crooked when I snapped the photos– it was straightened later, as well. 🙂
Not all of the old scars have become invisible (though some have)…some are a permanent part of this old fiddle’s character, and simply show that is has been well-loved and well-played. Future things will undoubtedly include a new fingerboard (someday) and new pegs (eventually). But for now, it is ready to sing.
The old fiddle turned out to have a rich, deep voice, and the new owners are very happy with it. I hope to hear the young lady play someday.
Thanks for looking.
If you found this post helpful, please share with your friends!
I haven’t felt very good for most of this year, but usually nothing very specific– back-aches, belly-aches, indigestion, etc. Nothing that would send me hurrying to a doctor, for sure.
Then, back in May or June, one evening after I had showered and was getting ready for bed, I noticed a definite, thumb-sized lump in my abdomen. I could easily feel it by running my hand across it, and it was quite firm…and hadn’t been there before.
It did not feel like a hernia, so I figured the only two things it could be were a subcutaneous cyst or a tumor. I called in my wife, Ann, to examine the thing, and she could actually see it, poking up when she pressed down the skin. She concluded, too, that it must be either a cyst or a tumor, and insisted that I see a doctor (I would have anyway– I’m not stupid, I just don’t run to the doctor everytime something happens.) So I went off to sleep, intending to call for an appointment in the morning. The problem was that, in the morning, the thing was gone. I mean completely gone! No trace. We marvelled over the disappearance, and figured that it must have been some sort of cyst, and, with our probing, we must have caused it to drain overnight. We shrugged and went on with life…nothing to show the doctor…no other symptoms; no reason for an appointment.
So, last Thursday, after work, I had a fairly severe bout of belly/back pain. It seemed to begin in the solar plexus area and radiate through to the middle of my back so completely that I was really unsure which was the source of the pain…but the pain was severe enough that if I had possessed some type of narcotic pain reliever, I would have taken it (another thing I don’t often do). So I took maximum doses of Tylenol and Advil, and called in sick on Friday. Saturday morning I seemed to be a little better, but it began to get worse again, and Ann prevailed upon me to call the doctor. So I did, and ended up, an hour later, at the St. Vincent Providence Hospital ER.
By the time I got there, the pain was much more severe, and had moved around to where I had a band of pain all the way around my waist at the level of my solar plexus. They immediately ran test after test, and within an hour had it pegged as the gall bladder. The surgeon came in Saturday night and palpated my abdomen, and she commented on how rare it was to be able to feel the gall bladder through the abdominal wall. (?) I reached down, and, sure enough, there was that “cyst” again!
10:15 Sunday morning, they took the thing out. They were able to do it Laparoscopically, so I have four tiny incisions instead of one large one, and recovery is two weeks, not six. They said they had to partially empty the monster before they could get it out, as it was the size of a small squash. That’s hard to believe…I had no idea they could be that size…but they said it was completely blocked, and filled with “sludge” (their word). They emphasized several times how unusually enlarged it had been.
The hospital stay was extremely positive. Every single member of the medical team, care staff, orderlies, radiologists (or whatever the correct term is) and other technologists…EVERYone was completely kind, compassionate, helpful, professional and supportive. I always felt completely surrounded by care, not criticism, or anything negative.
I was home by Monday evening, and am feeling pretty good, all things considered. There are not even any stitches to remove– the stitches inside are the kind that eventually are absorbed by the body, and the outside incisions were closed with superglue. (I love it!)
I hope that all the general malaise had been caused by the one incipient source, and that I will enjoy good health again. I had gotten pretty discouraged for a while, and was losing interest in lutherie (as well as most other things), so I hope this will improve my outlook a little.
I did sell four (cheaper) student violins this past month, so at least I am getting rid of old stock, if not selling my better instruments. Product flow is product flow. I’m not complaining.
I need to get back into the shop and get building again.
Update, November 10th: I ended up back in the hospital last Thursday. It turned out that there was a small (6mm diameter) stone that had already moved down into the bile duct before they removed the gall bladder, so I was plugged again within about two weeks, and had exactly the same symptoms again. I was pretty despondent about it, as I really did NOT want more surgery, but as it turned out, they were able to remove the stone using a special type of endoscope, without surgery at all. What a relief! I came home Saturday afternoon, and I really do hope I am finally on the mend now.
My thanks to all who have extended friendly wishes.
If you found this post helpful, please share with your friends!
This was only intended to be a functional repair, not a full “restoration”. It turned out to be quite extensive, though, and somewhat intimidating at times. The owner is very happy with her “resurrected” violin, so all is well.
The violin came to me after a mishap involving a water-heater failure, which had resulted in a heavy steaming of an already fragile, old violin.
The violin had several open seams, obvious from the outside, and numerous older repairs. Some of the repairs were done in a workmanlike manner—some were not. (I am not pointing fingers; just stating a fact…it is a very old violin, and has had encounters with a variety of repairmen.)
I could see that the pegbox had sustained some pretty severe damage, but did not immediately detect the cause: as it turned out, the scroll had been grafted (guessing around 1850, just because so many were done about that time, and this fiddle is old enough to have been around for that), and it was/is the poorest job of a scroll-graft that I have personally ever seen. Someone tried to correct it with some patches, but it was in pretty sad shape. I wasn’t sure I could do much to help it.
The peg-holes were so badly worn that they absolutely required bushing and re-drilling, reaming, and installing new pegs. (As it happened, the old pegs were in fair condition, so I simply shaved them to the correct size after all the pegbox repairs were completed, and so maintained some small sense of continuity.)
When I opened the body (by removing the top/front) I found that there were nearly 50 cleats inside, each to help reinforce the various cracks that had been repaired over the life of the instrument. The entire area around the neck block simply fell off. Some of the old cracks had re-opened because of the steam-bath, but most were holding, it seemed. The whole area under the soundpost area had (and still has) a patch about a millimeter thick, and 35mm by 50mm. Missing wood had been replaced haphazardly in many places, including the entire edge of the plate all the way around.
Same on the back plate, though not quite so severe:
The neck was set incorrectly, with an extremely high overstand (10mm), and low projection, as well as being quite crooked. The ebony crown on the heel of the neck was broken, and simply crumbled, necessitating making a new one.
I am not sure what the rationale was with the insert up the back center seam, nor why it had been relocated so far off center. I wonder whether the instrument was originally something larger and was cut down to be what we see today, especially because the f-holes are so far apart.
The button was broken off at the purfling line, which seriously weakened the neck, so, after complete repair of the front plate, I removed the back plate and patched the button by removing a section of wood across the break and replacing it with a perfectly fitted patch, restoring strength to the joint. (Explained later)
The Repair Process:
(Forgot to take pictures of the actual process…wasn’t in “Photography Mode”… sorry.)
First, I re-glued the section around the neck block which had dropped out—there were several patches from previous repairs that had come loose, but I glued them all back in just as they had been originally, and the joint now seemed secure. There were also some missing sections of spruce, so I replaced them, gluing in new wood. That also seemed to stiffen the area a good bit.
The cleats along the longest cracks were still holding, though the cracks had opened, so I cleaned the cracks with water, then worked hide-glue through the cracks and clamped the plate flat, so that the cleats forced the cracks shut, squeezing out the excess glue. I cleaned off the excess with a warm damp rag, and let it all dry.
Then I could tap the plate and listen for buzzes. There were lots of them! I would tap and listen, tap and listen, and then use a thin blade (palette knife) to pick at various things to find out what was moving. To begin with I found that many of the cleats were only barely holding, and were starting to come loose, so they were vibrating. I glued all the loose ones, one by one. Then I found cracks around the edges, and loose purfling, etc. and glued all of those sources. Finally I found enough of them that the buzzing stopped, and I glued the top back on the violin, after first removing the neck which I had determined to be crooked.
Once I had the body closed, I re-set the neck correctly and straight, ending with a 6mm overstand and a standard height (21mm) at the end of the fingerboard. The result is that I could not use the original bridge (not a surprise), so it got a new (taller) one. As I said, the ebony crown on the neck heel was very thin and cracked, so it simply crumbled off in pieces. I made a new one. It is also very thin, but not broken. At some point in the violin’s lifetime, someone decided to move the neck (or the back plate?) off to one side…I can’t change that, but you can see the effect at the button—the center line seam is no longer in the center.
After setting the neck, I removed the back so that I could repair the broken button. I carved out a shallow curved scoop almost the full width of the button, and all the way through the neck-block gluing surface—about 1-1/4” long and almost ½” wide, by about 1/8” deep at the center. I used a curved scraper to perfect the shape, then chalk-fit the patch to match it perfectly, and glued it in place with hide-glue. After the glue was fully dry, I planed the patch down to be absolutely flush with the surrounding wood of the back plate. This patch restored the strength of the button, which (unknown to many) is the main strength of the neck joint. (Forgot to take a photo of this—too bad; I was very pleased with it.)
I reamed the peg-holes far enough to get into clean wood, then shaved down some tight-grained Eastern Red Maple into tapered pegs to plug the holes. Once they fit perfectly, I glued them in place with hide glue, and allowed them to dry. Then I cut them off inside and out, using a tiny saw, and shaved them flat with a small carving gouge. I stained the inside with dark brown spirit varnish to match the existing color, and matched the color of the outside of the box to the best of my ability, sanding between coats, and trying to make the patches as nearly unnoticeable as possible. (Bushed peg-holes are always visible, but they don’t have to look terrible. Many older violins have had the holes bushed more than once. This is a first for this fiddle.)
I re-drilled the peg-holes, shifting them a little, to establish a more normal location for each, then reamed them to a small size, and shaved the original pegs down to match the new holes.
I got looking at some of the gaping cracks in the pegbox, and decided I wanted to try to repair them, so I cleaned them out with a small knife and then shaved a small piece of red maple to fit and glued it into the crack. It worked surprisingly well, and I was pretty pleased with the results. Naturally, that required smoothing the patch down to be flush with the original surface, and retouching to match the varnish as best I could.
The original saddle and endpin were still useable, so they are in place—I think I probably could have used the original soundpost, but I made a new one before I thought of it, so, for the moment, it has a new soundpost. But I suspect that the original is nearly identical, though I used a very thick soundpost. Perhaps later a thinner one could be put in, if it seems too dampened by the thick post.
The nut, however, was very poorly made, and cut so deeply at the E-string that the string rested on the fingerboard. It broke when I tried to re-shape it, so I simply made a new one.
I was able to use the original fingerboard, though it had been coming off, and required some re-work to get it to fit well. I had to do extensive re-shaping and dressing of the surface, too, as it had a very round contour close to the neck, though normal at the wide end. Whoever originally put that fingerboard on did the violin a real disservice: there is a deep gouge of wood missing from the neck itself, all the way up the middle, and a similar deep gouge out of the inside of the fingerboard, so only about the outer third on each side has any contact. This wasn’t something I could change, so I cleaned it up and glued it back together. I assume they thought they were making the instrument lighter. (Not Good.)
Finally, I retouched the varnish anywhere it had been damaged, and tried to give it a good (gentle) polishing all over. I think it looks pretty good, but I never saw it in its “glory days” so I have no idea how that would compare.
The owner has a playable violin again. It still has many repairs, some dating before any of us were born, some more recent. I have no idea of its market value, and, in my opinion, that is not important. Its value is primarily that it is cherished by the owner because of who she is and from whom she got it. As long as it is well cared-for, it should still give many years of service.
I uased the original fittings except for the bridge and soundpost, so it looks essentially unchanged from before the damage, except for the peg-hole bushings and repaired pegbox cracks, which she assured me were there when she got the violin originally, nearly 50 years ago.
I never heard the instrument before the damage, so I can’t compare that, either: all I can do is adjust it to what seems optimal now, and trust that, as the owner plays it, it will settle in to sound as good as she remembers it to have sounded. To me, it sounds pretty good, and well balanced.
(Later footnote: The owner contacted me and is thrilled with her violin. She swears it sounds better (and brighter) than she remembers it ever sounding before it was damaged, and she is again playing it in her local orchestra. That is nice to hear…)
If you found this post helpful, please share with your friends!
When my maternal Grandfather (Dr. L. E. Green, of Mississippi) was nearing death, he gave me his Grandfather’s (hence, my great-great-grandfather’s) fiddle. It was, coincidentally, the violin on which my mother had also learned to play. She had later been given a much better violin when she graduated from college, but this is the one her great-grandpa Gray played, and the one she learned on. I had been told about it, but had not seen it until it arrived at my house.
I knew nothing about violins, at the time, so I strung it up, and wondered why it sounded bad. I noticed there was a little piece of “dowel” rolling around in the case, and asked around…it turned out, of course, that the soundpost had been removed, and that was it. I took a stiff piece of fencing wire and sharpened it, bent it into an appropriate curve, and taught myself to set a soundpost. It still didn’t sound great, but it was great-great-Grandpa’s fiddle: thus, precious in its own right.
Grandpa Green had sent me the original bow (repaired by some well-meaning amateur– (bullet-casing reinforcement around the shank where the button screws in, because of a crack, etc.), but it had no hair, and was unusable at the moment, so he had bought an (extremely) cheap bow, and sent it along, as well. The case was just a typical, worn-out molded wood and fabric hard-case.
All we knew about the history of the fiddle was that great-great Grandpa Gray had bought it second-hand, in New Orleans, in 1900. I did enough snooping around to figure out that it had probably cost $2-3 or thereabouts, 5-10 years earlier, brand-new, being imported from Germany among hundreds of thousands of others, in the late 1800’s. The only things that made is “special” were the fact that it had been Grandpa Gray’s fiddle, and the fact that the back had an unusual inlay pattern involving a very fine “weave” of purfling with chips of abalone shell adorning the spaces between them. The gaps around the chips of shell were filled with a mastic evidently composed of hide-glue and ebony dust, or the like…possibly just charcoal dust and glue. It was somewhat crudely made, of mediocre to poor wood with a prominent knot in the soundboard (!) and a typical cheap 19th century German trade-fiddle finish. (see Photos)
Waking Up to Sing Again
I played that fiddle off and on (mostly off) for a while, and the sound didn’t improve a lot, but it was acceptable, because…it was Grandpa’s fiddle. During that time, all three of my chidren were learning to play, as well.
About a year and a half later, I heard my daughter playing a tune in the kitchen. The music was the same as she always played on her own violin, but it sounded different–considerably better, actually. So I walked in to see what violin she was using. It was Grandpa’s fiddle!
I couldn’t understand why it suddenly sounded so good, so I took it from her and I tried it myself, thinking that it must simply be that she was a better player than I; but it sounded good for me, too. Evidently, part of the problem had been that the poor thing had sat neglected for 50 years, and had never been played at all during those years, so it took over a year of being under full string pressure, and sporadically played, for it to “wake up” and “remember that it was a violin.” It was quite an eye-opener. I had heard about the need for violins to be “played in”; probably had I played it more aggressively and much more frequently, the change would have come sooner. Good lesson there, somewhere.
A Little More History:
Years later, after I had begun building violins and other instruments, I took Grandpa Gray’s fiddle to Paul Schuback, a local expert (“local”, only in the sense that he lives and works near me– he is internationally reknowned as a violin expert), to see if he had any insight into the background of the instrument.
When I opened the case, Paul’s eyes lit up. He exclaimed, “I know exactly where that came from…I’ve been there, many times.” He went on to explain that the cow-herders near Mittenwald, Germany, had nothing much to do in winter (as the cattle were safe in their lowland pens and barns for the season) so they made violins as a “cottage industry”. He had been there, personally, in the 1960’s or 70s, when the modern heirs of the practice brought in a gunny-sack (literally) full of unvarnished violins they had built during the winter months and sold them to the lutherie school at Mittenwald. The students there would complete the instruments, varnish them, set them up, and ship them to the USA for sale. The cow-herd made a little money, the school made a little money, the importers and dealers in the US made a little money, and the buyer got a cheap fiddle. Everyone benefited.
I have seen many of these instruments, as they seem to be about as common as houseflies, but this is the only one I have personally seen that had this specific inlay pattern on the back. (I’ve seen similar ones on the internet.)
I have no doubt that, if I opened the corpus, I would find that the front plate was extremely rough on the inside (“rough”, as in, “looks like chainsaw sculpture”) and that the bass bar is carved as part of the plate, rather than glued in separately. (As I say, I have met with this sort many times, over the last decade.) But I have no call to remove the top plate; only to repair the cracked pegbox…which I did do, eventually, and spiral bushed the peg-holes, so that I could intall new, better-quality tuning pegs. Other than that, I intend no changes. It is what it is… Great-great Grandpa’s Fiddle…and I’m the “Keeper of the Fiddle” for this generation.
In Imitation of the Original
When I began building instruments, my first was a small viola, for my son, Brian. I knew that he especially liked Grandpa Gray’s fiddle, and I thought that the inlay was what he particularly liked. So I carefully copied the inlay pattern, and even took it a step further, cutting the abalone shell to fit the spaces, and filing them flush, rather than just jamming chips into glue, and filling the gaps with mastic. Added an abalone cap to the button, too. Lot’s of peculiarities, due to ignorance and inexperience. But it played well, and sounded pretty good…and it is a pretty thing, even with all the amateurish “oddness-es”.
After I was nearly done, Brian was lovingly handling Grandpa Gray’s old fiddle, turning it in his hands and admiring its simple, rustic beauty. He said, “You know what I really like about this violin?” I said, “What?” and confidently waited to hear that it was the inlay….
He turned the violin face up, and tapped with his finger: “This knot, in the front…”
If you found this post helpful, please share with your friends!