Monday, November 15, 2010

Violin Restoration

One of my efforts this past s
ummer was a continuation of the previous summer’s project, this time restoring a 200 year old violin from Saxony which had fallen into significant disrepair. My mentor once again was the well respected professional luthier, Harold Golden. The violin had recently been inherited by my brother-in-law, Jim Ridl, but it needed a great deal of serious attention.

The finish on the tavella (top plate) was nicked, gouged, and stained from 200 years of rosin dust and dirt. The first step was to use steel wood to remove several layers without taking away the character of an old instrument. The following photos are of the fando (bottom plate), which had been dramatically abused with

a former owner who had painted household varnish on top of the aging finish. This required a major effort to remove.

Then the entire violin needed to be taken apart in order to check the thickness of the wood and the smoothness of the interior, both major factors in the resultant sound. This process of taking the instrument apart was once again far more difficult than anticipated. Luthiers traditionally use hide glue (from the scrapings of animal skin) which makes it easier separate the various components of the instrument. This violin had been put together during the last time it was repaired with a type of household glue. Getting the instrument apart, a job which normally takes 15 minutes, took over four hours. First, I had to use a razor to cut the glue seam, and then a special knife that was gently tapped into the seam with a small hammer. To move too fast would risk splitting the actual 200 year old wood and ruining the violin for good.

Finally, the violin was apart and the actual restoration work able to begin. First, both plates had to be measured with a caliper to ascertain their thicknesses. At every square inch, the thickness must be listed in pencil right on the wood. Since the job of the top plate is to vibrate to create sound, being too thick is an impediment to rich tone quality. Both plates measured over 5 mm, and I needed an average of 2.5 mm in order to follow the designs of the great violin makes throughout history, e.g. Stradivarius.

A tiny plane which you hold with your finger tips is the main tool for thinning wood. Following the measurements on the wood, I planed the wood until all the pencil writing was gone, and then measured every inch again of the plate again. Then it was back to planing…and so forth for a couple of days. Once the wood was thin enough, each plate was tested on a sign wave generator to analyze the ability of the wood to vibrate. If the results are not good enough in this procedure, you plane more wood off.

After re-graduating the wood to 2.5 mm, it was time to re-glue the components using fancy braces that are color coded according to the angle into which they fit. This time we used professional hide glue.

Once the violin was back together, Harold held it up to the light and looked through the button hole at the base of the violin to see if there were any separations where light gets through. There were, and these seams needed additional gluing. Such separations compromise the resultant sound quality unless corrected.

After the re-gluing was accomplished and re-braced with a long, curved metal tool and a wooden press, the ebony fingerboard still needed serious attention. In its 200 years of being played, the violin strings had created groves which now needed to be filed away.

The old sound post was of poor quality wood and placed incorrectly, and this now drew our attention. A new sound post needed to be made and placed into just the right place.

The sound post, a precision designed dowel rod, is placed between the top and bottom plates, right underneath the top string and underneath the edge of the bridge. It was invented in about 1575 by Nicolo Amati and to this day has never been changed in design. Its job is to greatly increase the volume of sound by directing the sound throughout the instrument.

Finally, the restoration was complete. Harold Golden estimates that when the violin came to us, it was worth $500. It is now worth $8,000. The sound is rich and warm and the violin looks beautiful.

These are all of the instruments I have either built or restored. I am currently working on a viola I bought when I was in the army in Germany. Its sound could compare with these other instruments I have already worked on, so I will begin this whole process yet again...another day.