Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Random Violin Shop Things

I am really wiped out lately.  Lots of house guest stuff, odd weather, kid things, jury duty, Ian off with the Army here and there....  And lots to do at work.

Luckily I like my work, and in the past couple of weeks I've had some fun projects to do.  In case anyone is interested in what typical violin work looks like I thought I'd share a little of what I've been up to on my bench.  (And this is what my bench looks like when there is too much going on and I have to stop and straighten up.)

In repair work I've been getting to learn something new.  My assistant had experience doing soundpost patches before she got to my shop, so when she arrived it made sense (particularly with her schedule) to let her do those jobs when they came in.  But she may be moving on someplace new and I decided before she leaves I should have her walk me through a soundpost patch, because it's very different doing something yourself than trying to learn it through books and occasional observation.  Turns out doing a soundpost patch is really fun.  (In a picky, tedious, luthier kind of way, not in any way normal people think things are fun.)

A soundpost patch is necessary when a the top of a violin cracks under or near where the sounpost sits.  The soundpost is a vertical spruce dowel (6.2mm in diameter for violin) inside the instrument that is positioned behind and inside the bridge foot and transmits vibrations from the bridge and the top to the back so that whole body works as a single vibrating box.  (Without a soundpost a violin lacks structural support and vibrates without focus or purpose.)  The soundpost is not glued in because it needs to be occasionally adjusted or replaced (because as the instrument stretches out over time the post loses tension and a longer one is needed). 

On the instrument I'm working on, the last person to put in a soundpost made it much too long and the top of the instrument was uneven in thickness in that area, so a thin spot gave way and created a crack about two inches long right near the post.  It's not a valuable instrument, and normally such an injury would be a death sentence for such a violin seeing as it wouldn't warrant such an expensive repair, but they have sentimental attachment to this violin and trust we can make it sound good again, so they gave us a green light on the work.

Essentially what happens with a soundpost patch is that we take the top off the instrument, work glue into the crack, scoop out a shallow bowl-shaped depression in the area of the crack and the post, and fit a new piece of spruce there to reinforce the damaged area from inside so it's safe to put a soundpost there again.

(Here's the "topless" violin hanging around.)

To do this, however, you have to make a plaster cast of the top of the instrument to have a perfect counterpart to work against.  The wood is too thin and flexible to withstand all the gouging and fitting and clamping that needs to be done, so a cast provides a solid surface on which to work.

I've watched casts being made, but never done one myself until now.  It's quite a procedure to make sure it's all done safely and doesn't damage the instrument in any way.  The top of the violin is covered in a thin sheet of latex to protect it from the plaster.  This cast came out beautifully where you could even see the grain lines from the spruce when it was dry.

Once the cast was done I chalk fit the patch.  The little blocks of wood (positioning cleats) are temporarily glued around it make sure I put it in the same spot each time I check the fit.  You cover the area you are fitting to with chalk, and each time you press the patch block onto it you can see where the high spots are that need to be cut down with a knife.  When it chalks evenly the fit is good and you can glue the patch in place.  The next steps will be to cut down and smooth out the patch, then put the top back on the violin and set it all up.

So that's been fun.  I don't normally get to work side by side with my assistant Robyn when she's in the shop because the work space is really only set up for one person at a time, and we work on different days.  It's been nice to have the chance to work with her on something.

Less fun has been the more routine work.  Not that I mind it, but cleaning up rental instruments (removing stickers from the fingerboard, scrubbing off tears) gets repetitive.  One of the most basic things I do each week is rehair bows. 

Decent bows are usually made from a Brazilian wood called pernambuco, or from carbon fiber.  The white, Mongolian horsehair on them needs to be replaced on average about once a year.  Some players wear through their hair fast enough that I see them every couple of months, and other players can get away with not rehairing their bows for about two years, but really if the hair is much older than that it should be replaced because it starts to lose elasticity, etc. 

Most players have no idea how the hair on their bows gets replaced.  Sometimes they request things of me when I do a rehair that are incredibly complicated to execute and they don't understand what they are asking.  The most clueless person was a man who had about 50 bows for a school that he wanted rehaired in a day.  Generally I can comfortably do 2 in a day, but I've done as many as 7 (which meant I stayed at work very late), but 50?!  When I told him that wasn't possible he said, "Can't you just put them all in the rehair machine?"  I had to explain that I was the rehair machine.

Rehairing a bow is definitely more art than science.  Every bow is a little different.  Some fight you, some are easy, some you get perfect on the first try, others you have to do over and over until you finally figure them out.

The one part of the rehair process that most people feel compelled to comment on when they see me work is the use of the comb.  What is it for? they want to know.  Well, how else do you detangle hair?  With a comb.  I'm not sure why that's so surprising to everyone, and I can't remember far enough back to when rehairing bows was new to me to recall if I was ever surprised by the idea or not, but it seems logical.

After the hair has been wetted and pulled into place you use the comb to arrange the final spread of the hair.  It's wider at the frog end (the part where you hold it) than at the tip, and the ribbon of hair needs to be even.  You arrange the amount of hair between the different teeth of the comb while the hair dries and make sure nothing is crossed or that no spots are too thin or too heavy.

The last step of the rehair is to cut and install a spread wedge, which is a little piece of wood that fits into the ferrule (the metal part) just under the hair and keeps the spread in position (rather than letting all the hair bunch up).  The spread wedge gets replaced every time you rehair a bow because you have to cut it out in order to take the bow apart.  (So when people come in and say, "Can't you just shorten the hair a little that I've been using?" as if it's some little thing to tweak, I have to explain that, no, we just have to rehair the whole thing because there is no way to get in there without having to cut a piece away, etc.)

I've never met anybody who loves doing rehairs.  Most of us who do it either hate it or don't mind it.  It's fussy, under-appreciated work.  Most of the time it's okay.  On the days your hands are golden it's enjoyable enough.  On rare occasions it's a nightmare.

But on to something truly fun!  I'm starting work on a new violin.  I was commissioned a while back to make an Amati model for an old friend.  This commission is on a long timeline, so I haven't focused in on it very seriously until recently, but now I'm getting down to work.

The first step was to make a template and a mold (or form).  Normally I charge people an additional $500 if they want a model I don't already have a mold for, but I've always wanted to make an Amati model anyway, so I waived that fee.

But then I remembered why I usually charge so much to make a new form!  It's a pain!  Ha!

I cut the brass template out with a jeweler's saw and filed it to match the original (that I borrowed from Robyn).  Then I sawed the plywood form out on a bandsaw a few weeks ago and finally got enough down time at work to start filing it.  (The template is secured with pins into the form and flipped over to make the different sides in order to ensure symmetry.)  Filing the edges of the form flat, smooth, and square takes forever.  Just.... forever.  And at one point I thought I was done and then checked with my template only to discover I was a good half millimeter too big still, and millimeters are like miles in violin making, so I had to dive back in with my file.  Gah.  Anyway, all done now!

So the next step is the blocks.  I'm making mine out of willow, but many instruments have spruce blocks.  There are six inside a violin (go look at that picture of the violin with the top off from earlier--you can see them in there), an upper block, a lower block, and one in each corner.

You split the wood when you start your blocks so you can read the most workable direction to plane them so later they will carve more easily.  Splitting is really satisfying.  When you position the splitting knife well and tap it with a mallet the wood just comes apart and you can see exactly how it should be planed to best effect.

I'm saving the planing step to do at home so I can show the kids how to do it.  Aden and Mona are both old enough I can start building full size violins for them.  When I get a day soon to clean out my home shop (my desk gets covered with toys and household items that need gluing or repair if I leave it unattended too long) I plan to have the girls pick out their wood and give them a lesson on how to use a plane.  They want to help build their violins and I can't wait to show them what to do!

The wonderful thing about learning to build a violin is that the first real step--planing the blocks--is the perfect starter step.  Almost everything you need to know about building violins is there in the blocks and in a compact little lesson.  You need to know how to read the wood, you need to know how to use a plane and a square and a ruler and a knife, and you begin on the quest of mastering "Flat, Smooth, and Square."  Everything in violin making is about Flat, Smooth, and Square.

I once had an apprentice for a summer when Ian was deployed who traded violin making instruction for babysitting, and she hated doing the blocks.  She kept talking about how much she was looking forward to getting past the blocks and getting to the rest of it, but I kept telling her there was no getting past the blocks.  If she didn't like the blocks it wasn't going to get better.  It was going to be more of the same, just bigger and more difficult.  All of violin making is blocks.  (She didn't stick with it.)

I will be curious how my kids do with the blocks.  I will get a good idea of how much of the building process they will be able to be involved with based on how the blocks go.  They can do as much or as little as they like, but either way I think it will be fun for them to play instruments that they had a hand in making.

In any case, my work also involves measuring kids for rental violins, changing strings, gluing seams, carving bridges, fitting soundposts, dressing fingerboards, fixing cases, retouching varnish, and talking to lots of different people.  I never run out of things to do at my store.  (And now I really should get to this rehair that came in today, since strangely writing about violin work doesn't actually accomplish any.)


  1. I know nothing about violins, but that was fascinating anyway. Should I ever (for what reason, I don't know, since I don't own one) need a bow rehaired, I will be sure to allow the shop as much time as they need. :)

    1. On behalf of your hypothetical future luthier, thank you for your patience!

  2. I am absolutely fascinated by what you do.

    1. I forget a lot of the time that my job is unusual to many people since it's just what I do every day. I'm never sure if shop talk will be too boring to post about, but glad to know it isn't!

  3. I saved this post for a time when I could sit and read it at my leisure and fully appreciate all you do. I knew it was going to be a fascinating read and wanted to be able to read it uninterrupted and enjoy it. :o)

    This was delightful and so out of the ordinary for me. I had never given combing the hairs any thought, but of course, it just makes sense.

    I also loved reading about the blocks and planing--your love and appreciation for all you do can be seen in every word you wrote. :o) I loved this, Kory! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Rach. My work is satisfying, and deeply humbling. I love being able to arm musicians with good equipment and make their violins sound good, but there are days it's tough to be in a field where you will never be the best. I think violin making helped prepare me to be a parent because you aim for perfect but must be content with close enough.

    2. Hi ! I'm Le. I living in Vietnam. I very want to learn how to build a violin,violon or guitar classic... Can you help me,Korinthia ?

    3. Do you want to just build one violin or guitar? Then look online for places that have some kind of kit or instrument in the white that you can varnish yourself. Do you want to learn how to actually build instruments as a profession? Then you need to get a good teacher or attend an accredited school. I went to the New World School of Violin Making, but you can also check out the Chicago School of Violin Making, plus any number of fine schools around the world. Do a little more internet research and you should be able to find options.

  4. how interesting! I can't wait until I can afford a violin and bow upgrade, I'm definitely coming to your shop! I also have an old bow I think might be worth rehairing, maybe you could take a look.