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. 🙂
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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.
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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.
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