The “Delipped ¾”

Here’s an interesting one.  This came to me in its ancient 1930s case, the violin top semi-detached.  What made me leave it in the basement for two years was a piece missing from the top.  But last winter my work table became clear. Rather than save the fiddle for my heirs to throw in the fireplace, I thought I’d give it a shot.

I’d already started working on it before the pics began.  Here the top is off, cracks are repaired, and I’m cleating the cracks.  The rib of the body has been leveled of glue and pieces of the top which stuck to it.

So the top is almost whole. But there is a chunk of the lip missing  😮   (not the saddle notch).  The lip cracked along the purfling channel groove.  The top is perforated in places.  A luthier had a few too many schnapps for lunch, came back, and went to work on this top with a 4/4 purfling channel cutter?  Who knows.  The perforations we fill with glue but the chomp remains; a bit more nibbling is in order.

I find a piece of old spruce with a tight grain.  I made a poor choice with discoloration in the wood but it is covered by a chin rest, as ye shall see.

So it is now hide glue time.  Yum!  I add sifted Appalachian spruce collected from under my table saw.  To cover any shortcomings in my carving.

The patch is in a tricky spot to clamp.  So I wedge the top into a nearby shelf.

The top is reattached. The sound post, saddle, and endpin are installed as well.  The third set of pegs are perfect.  The instrument tone-taps a clean, resonant “F”.

A new ebony fingerboard is installed and planed a little thinner (it could have been thinner still, but I still do not have the right hand plane).  Then a scoop, a concavity along its length, is scraped into the fingerboard.  Under the steel E string, I can make the fingerboard flat (in fact, I do make it flat).  And progress from flat to concave as I move towards the lowest string, which is a wound G.  In addition to the scoop, there is, naturally, a radius to the fingerboard.

Realizing the patch seam may develop a dark line from the pigmented spirit varnish, I cheat a little, extending the purfling groove through the patch, and puddle a bit of varnish into it. Next time, I may use an actual purfling channel cutter.

In the progression of lip images you can see how I tightened the radius, changed the contour, and kept reapplying varnish of differing tint.  In a trick of grain, varnish, and lighting, a integral area of the top adjacent to the patch looks like the patch, and vise-versa.

As my second larger patch job, I have learned to leave it plenty proud;  the finish will never come out right the first few times, and you want something to sand down.  I could have kept at it, but the area is covered by the chin rest, it’s structurally what I wanted, and pursuit of perfection always ends in disaster.

So that’s it.  The fiddle came through surgery with an A+.  It has a deep mature tone, reflective of its 80- or 90-some years.  This violin is destined for a performing arts high school student in Wilmington Delaware.

The work is a collection of 5-minutes-here and 5-minutes-there.  Sometimes a bedtime visit to check the doors and make a cup of tea turns into 90 minutes of quiet progress.  You want a table where everything can be spread out – and remain untouched – for the duration of the project, even if it is two months long.

Aside from the occasional midnight whittling or sound-post fitting, most of the work and photography is done in the mid-morning under natural indirect light.



Later 1800s American Violin

This fiddle came in a package deal from a collector in Simsbury Connecticut.  It was so badly damaged and abused I nearly hung it on the wall for permanent collection of dust.  Here are the chronological images over ten weeks.  As you can see, it was a lot of “back to the table” for this old survivor  …  more text to follow this decade.

click image to open full size in a new window

This violin was a “trade” instrument bought by someone who played in theater pits and gazebos and taverns. Before radio, live music was the standard. And this violin was played until it was falling apart! At some point she was roughly pressed into left-handed action, its pegs rudely swapped into different holes. A proficient yet indifferent repair in the ’20s may have blunted the tone, as we shall see . . .

Here you can see we’ve bushed the peg holes and are touching up the peg box.

We think it is done . . . but it is not.  The tone?  Regrettable.  I’m advised to sand her to wood and practice lacquering.  But I have an idea.  See how shiny it is in these two following images?

Back for round three. Improve the pegs, nut, fingerboard, action. Possibly the sound post and bridge. But the real dirt? In removing impacted dirt from the finish, I discover someone brushed a clear spirit lacquer over the whole thing, probably during repairs in the 1920s. So I aggressively remove this layer of finish, to get down to the original varnish of the late 1800s.

Voilà! Back to a natural look. Like my favorite jeans. The tone? You’re transported to an 1890s music hall. An 1880s tavern. Back when a person could play for their bread and beans, 50 hours a week.

This gem of Americana is in the instrument collection of a prominent rebuilder of guitars. We are flattered to be so included!

1950s “Hillendale ½”

A couple of weeks ago I passed a garage sale. The best kind. Made an offer on two student violins in unplayable condition. A ½ size and a ¼ size. Got the call back and picked them up last week.

I tightened up the old strings on the larger of the violins, liked its tone, so started with that one. Fit a new peg, straightened out the bridge – maybe, and cleaned up the entire fiddle with naphtha, then a Behlen polishing agent.

Turns out, after cleaning off the funk, that the ½ has real purfling, the ebony strips of wood inlaid around the perimeter. Also the two-piece back covers the heel of the neck; there is not a separate heel cap; a good sign.

Looks like we have a special violin here. As Steve Fields says, the better the student, the better the violin they should have when young. Some lucky kid will end up with this violin at a decent price.

The D’Addario Helicores arrived from Johnson Strings Friday, and Saturday afternoon was the perfect rainy day to string a violin and perform final shaping to the bridge. Despite my finest efforts to ruin yet another bridge, everything came out as close to perfect as I dare. This violin, unplayed since the ’70s, is back in fine fiddle. Clear tone, fast action, and LOUD.


Lastly, 1/16″ cork was used to restore the original ebony chin rest.  And a wipe of linseed oil to complete the refurbishment. 

Acquired at the same time,  Hillendale ¼, with a “Made In Germany, US Zone” label,  has amazing tone as well!

Never say lastly;  there is always something else.  Steve Fields played the ½.  It’s original bridge, though tweedled with, was still tweedledum.  And the sound post …  So I fiddled with the sound post and recut the existing bridge.  Olivia tried it the following week;  not enough arc on the bridge, and 1.5mm at the G string.  Wow, we’re not doing the Limbo here, Jim.  Too Low!  Back to the shop.

New bridge fit from a blank.  Perfect.  New sound post.  Splintered!  For the 3rd try, I cut and shaped a piece off an old slab of Adirondack spruce.  Finally finished, with a fine-tuner tailpiece as well.  Wait, never say finished …  ∆

Centenarian Violin “Yorke”

This violin was purchased from a gent in York PA in April 2017. He had a long story attached to it which may or may not be true, so I’ll spare you. But it came to me in a paper bag with twine attaching various broken items, bridge, tailpiece, bows, memories. The top has a nice tight grain. Although makers tool marks are evident, especially on the headstock and peg box, the instrument appears to have been made with good materials and assembled very well.

It appeared to have sat for decades unplayed. Gut string ends were still attached to two pegs. Major exterior grime was carefully removed. The top had detatched on both lower sides, as well as a short area of the back. Exactly as one would hope. All were reattached with hot hide glue. I’d like to think you would have a tough time finding my work.

Other than a buffing compound, the varnish received no especial treatment. I specifically did not perform any cosmetic alterations, like touch-ups.

The fingerboard was cleaned, buffed, and sealed with boiled linseed oil.

The instrument received new: tailpiece with E tuner, bridge, D’Addario Kaplan Vivo strings.

The fingerboard and pegs appear original. I’ve seen ebony this color before but am not 100% positive on the wood type.

The instrument appears to have not received repairs of any kind before my actions.

It’s got excellent tone and volume. The pegs grab wonderfully without chalk. IMHO it would play well without the E thumb tuner.

From the dozens of violins that I’ve refurbished over the last few years, I’m guessing this violin was made in the very early 1900s.

1970s Conrad Banjo

Mom asks me to play the banjo every time I see her.  Just like I did as a kid.  Except that I no longer have a banjo.  Finally I set about to change that situation.

conrad body 2

Scouring hundreds of online advertisements, I settle on a Conrad, build by a rather obscure Japanese company in the 1970s.  The model was a “Masterclone”, a 10.0 pound copy of the famous Gibson Mastertone.

conrad body 1

conrad rosewood headstock overlay

Yes, that is a rosewood headstock overlay.  The tuners are not planetary, but they are a higher quality boxed offset geared tuner with a long ratio.  A friction 5th string tuner has a learning curve, but “it is what it is”.

conrad fingerboard and resonator back

Disassembly and cleaning proceeded normally.  I had a difficult time achieving the correct action;  the neck was not cut quite right.  To join the body at the correct angle would take some fiddling, but was an obstacle one commonly overcomes.

Assembly is completed.  New D’Addario medium nickel strings are installed.  The spa treatment with top-quality Behlen’s Fingerboard Oil upon the rosewood, now over four decades old, ties everything together.

d'addario ej61

behlen fingerboard oil

After playing her birthday party, the banjo went back on the bench to address a wobbling tone.  Its issue?  The neck is not tight enough.  As it wiggles, the banjo tone changes pitch like a Theremin.

The top lag will not tighten correctly because it was placed at the junction of the hoop and the tone ring.  Duh!  I replace that hanger bolt with a longer one, getting a nice tight connection against the heel of the neck.

misplaced neck hanger bolt

The connection between the coordinator rod and the hanger bolt (lag screw, some call it) turns out to be the real issue.  As I tighten the coordinator rod, the lag keeps turning.  Eventually I discover it is not a screw at all!  It is a “full thread stud” – also called a threaded pin, usually used in automotive assembly.  The pin pulls out of the neck heel, as it is threaded into hardwood.

neck to body fit

where's the hanger bolt?

One would think replacing the threaded pin with the proper lag would solve the issue.  It would, except that the coordinator rod has metric threads on the end.  Unless I replace the coordinator rod with common USA-threaded hardware, I need to procure a metric hanger bolt M6 diameter x 1.0 thread pitch, 60mm long.

Found the metric rod hanger online, will calling them on Monday, and this job is nearly a wrap!

hanger bolt

Sure enough, Bel•Metric has the exact part I wanted!

belmetric packaging

Expert packaging!

belmetric hanger bolt

We’re on the home stretch, mamma!

progress on the banjo

Get the new lag in place, tidy up the hoop with a bit of stain …

neck attached

And voilà!  Done!

conrad banjo done
Finally, some info on the company …

Conrad company info

1950s Framus Cello

Steve Fields dumped an armload of broken fiddles in my truck bed in February.  And one cello.  His faith in my abilities far eclipsed my own.  The fiddles were relatively easy, centenarian  to mid-1950s vintage.  The cello required more work.  Someone had tried to repair two top cracks without removing the top.  The first thing I did was pop it off with an 8″ Wüsthof and my Gerber folder.

framus cello 1 remove top

Next, a minor top crack was glued up.  A clamp to squeeze together plus lead weights to hold everything where it is supposed to be.  I’m using Titebond for all top cracks  (and hide glue to reattach the top, bottom, fingerboard, anything which may want to be disassembled).

framus cello 3 repair misc crack

Then I recracked the worse of the top cracks.  This one was all to the f-hole, barely attached.  There was wood missing before I got to it, and more wood damaged by separating the pieces.  Doing the sensible thing, I trued up the mating edges with block and sandpaper until I had a tight fit, losing about an eighth of an inch.

framus cello 2 remove poorly repaired section

Before I reassembled the top, a small lip crack was repaired with glue and 8 pound lead weight …

framus cello 4 repair misc crack

I going to need some cleats to help hold everything together.  Out came Pat Graham’s slab of Appalachian Spruce to make them from scratch.  Cleats were then glued to the underside of the top.  Again the lead weight provided all the persuasion required.  The cleats (“studs”, the Brits call them) were trimmed after the top was together.  Over half a dozen total were installed.

We’re about ready to glue the top back together.  Prepare yourself, it ain’t pretty . . .

framus cello 11 support before clamping

. . . but it appears to work near perfectly well.

framus cello 12 largest crack clamped

So there is our top. Whole again.

framus cello 13 top back together again