Stay in Tune vol#63
By Luthier Patrick Podpadec
The other day I decided to look back on many of the past articles to see if I could come up with one I haven't talked about before. Then I realized that I have not spoken much about repairing stringed instruments in the “bow” family. That would include violins ,violas, cellos, basses, etc. Even though these types of instruments are not my main stay, I find myself fixing and setting up on an average of two or three a month. Sometimes a few more. I just fixed three of them last week so that is why I'm probably wanting to write about them.
The nice thing about the bowed instruments is that they have been “standardized”. This means that all of their dimensions have been set to a very strict standard so that the sizes of each instrument, starting with the ½ size violin all the way up to the 4/4 Bass have had specific dimensions dedicated to each size in the family. The length of each fingerboard to the height of each string to the proper placement of the bridge to the height of the string of the nut , so on and so on. So, by having access to these measurements and doing a few simple repairs it is easy to become a violin expert. (Not really) The study of these beautiful instruments could easily take several lifetimes.
One book that has been an indispensable tool for me is “Useful Measurements” by Henry Strobel. This author has a series of great books on the different methods of construction and countless repair techniques of all of the bowed instruments including cellos and basses. There is also a boat load of good reference books on methods of construction from the violin makers of the 17th to the 21st century “Masters”. Such as Amati. Guanarei, and of course Stradivarious and many others. After spending hundreds of dollars and lots of time reading these books I felt it was time to get my hands dirty with some repairs. I had two older violins in need of repair and decided to use these as my “Guinea pigs”
One of the most common repair that I see a lot of violins suffer from is the tuning Pegs. After long periods of constant tension the pegs tend to pull the hole in the headstock out of round . The constant tuning and pressing the peg too hard into the peghole can eventually wear it out. What must be done is that the hole must be reamed out to make the holes on either side of the peghead to be perfectly matched with a tapered reamer. These tools are not cheap. They usually start at about 100.00 dollars. Then the peg must be run through a matching “peg shaper” which cost's another additional $100.00 and after about 3-4 violins ( or 8-12 pegs) you can start to get the feel for how the peg is to fit properly in the peghead so that it doesn't slip or bind while tuning the strings. I don't know of any other method, other than spending the money for the proper tooling to do the job correctly. It also takes some patience and some learned dexterity to not overdo the reaming process because it is all too easy to ream the peghead out to large and then you would have a new problem to deal with. I have done done this process to well over 30 violins, about 8 violas and a few cellos. I actually really enjoy the process and the end result of producing a beautifully fitted peg. When a violins' pegs are operating correctly there is really know need for the small “fine tuners” that are commonly found on some new and inexpensive violins. There is nothing wrong with using these , because they are much easier to use than the pegs if your just slightly out of tune. It's just in the old days it was looked down upon because the student should have the knowledge and experience to tune his or her instrument the “proper” way. The instrument was to always be in tip top shape. This “old school” of thought was usually easier to accomplish on a well made, expensive violin, but it is not the case with the vast majority of student quality instruments.
Another common repair is the proper fitting of a new bridge. Often the small, thin maple bridges will give way to the pressure and constant vibration of the string movement and either warp badly or even snap in two. If you can imagine the energy that is transferred from the strings to the body of the violin with every stroke of the bow it is easy to understand why they need replacing every so often The many different time signatures and variable pressures that each stroke of the bow must perform to be able to create the beautiful tones that the violin and cellos produce plays hard on the bridge. This is the heart of the instrument . Without it's proper placement and fitting it is very difficult to get a quality tone out of even the best instruments. It is critical that the feet of the bridge fit firmly on the belly of the violin. This is how the sound is transferred to the body through the soundpost, to the back and then back out the f holes. We will discuss the fitting and shaping of the bridge in the next issue of the Voice.
I would like to remind everyone about the upcoming “Repair Classes” that are starting in March . Please check for more info at www.wood-n-strings.net. Classes are starting to fill up and there is limited space per class call (440-474-2141) or sign up on the website for registration.
Patrick from Liam Guitars / Wood-n-Strings