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The Violin Beautiful

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  1. Maybe I’m the outlier, but I usually consider anything from 348-352 to be 7/8. There’s no absolute rule, but I’ve seen plenty of violins in that range called 7/8. Body length isn’t the only thing that can make a violin feel smaller, though. A narrower neck, a shorter scale length, narrower bouts, or sloping shoulders can all contribute. It’s not uncommon for people to try some Guarneri models and think they must be shorter until they see the actual back length on a measuring tape.
  2. Sean Peak is a real maker who made his career in the Chicago area. He worked for some time at the W.H. Lee workshop alongside Tetsuo Matsuda before going out on his own. He keeps to himself and doesn’t advertise because he has no need to do so and so that he can devote all his working time to the wood. After finishing his instruments in the white, he delivers them to The Violin House of Weaver, where they’re varnished by Bill Weaver. Each one bears Peak’s signature on its back. For a long time he made only the Gofriller model, but a year or two ago he began making copies of a great-sounding viola by Luigi DiGiuni as well.
  3. It’s a small shop (only 7 people total), but we do a lot of wholesale business with about 50 different shops around the country. Two of us do the bass bars. In the lower end we import primarily new European instruments in the white and work on them to get them sounding better, then Mr. Weaver varnishes them. The same shops that order the new instruments typically want some good old instruments to sell to their customers when they get to a higher level, so we always keep a wide selection of old German, French, and Italian instruments. The nicer French and Italian instruments tend not to need as much to get them playing well, but the German trade violins almost always need more work because they’re very thick and have weak bass bars that make them sound terrible. With some care they can be made into good intermediate instruments.
  4. You’re right, words do matter. I chose mine carefully and did not use hyperbole. For a while I was doing at least four a day. The owner’s daughter, who has been working for the shop over 20 years works on bass bars exclusively and puts in 6-8 every day. Just imagine how many she’s done in that time. Please refrain from accusations without any actual basis.
  5. In addition to my repair and restoration business, I work half the week at the Violin House of Weaver. There we work on quite a lot of new and old violins, violas, and cellos. Haha, not at all. I quite enjoy it.
  6. When everything is going smoothly, it takes me about 10-15 minutes to lay out the bar’s position, 30-45 minutes to fit the bar, just a minute to glue it in, and about 10 minutes to shape it after the clamps come off. I’ve put in thousands of bars, so I’ve developed some speed. Some violins are just more difficult to work on because of the shape of the arching or the graduations. Especially when working on old violins, I’m often working around eccentricities. From time to time I hear this argument against replacing bass bars, and it seems to hinge on the idea that doing that kind of work is a new trend that clashes with historical precedent. It doesn’t make any sense to me because there’s plenty of evidence of the practice being done at least as early as the time of the Mantegazzas. Putting a new bar in is very common when doing restorations, as it’s necessary to remove the original to access cracks and/or accommodate large patches. I would want to keep the original bar where it’s practical to do so, but it’s just not realistic to insist that no one should ever put a new bar in.
  7. I was thinking about water contamination, too. If the alcohol is drawing moisture from the air or if it has evaporated too much, the water content might be too high. You mention isopropanol, which is a form of alcohol that’s different from what I use (ethyl alcohol). When I get the chance, I prefer to use the purest food-grade alcohol I can get (preferably 190-proof Everclear), but since this isn’t easy to get, I ration it and use denatured alcohol more frequently. I’ve always found that denatured alcohol was less “clean” than Everclear. I suspect that the denaturing additives cause there to be some residue, which seems to clog the brush more easily. If I have a clogged brush, I can often unclog it by letting the denatured alcohol dry and putting a drop of Everclear into the palette. Also, you may want to check the data sheet for your pigments (if one is available). Not all pigments are intended for solubility with isopropyl alcohol.
  8. Nelson Hobby has some really useful small plastic C clamps. They were designed for model makers. I bought some years ago and use them all the time. The body is plastic but the screw is aluminum. They weigh almost nothing but work excellently. As I recall, they were not expensive at all, either. The owner of the company said he was having a hard time keeping them in stock when I called because luthiers were constantly putting in orders. They’re 1/2” x 1/2” and come in packs of 2, made in New Zealand. It’s been a while since the last order (probably 2019 or 2020), so I can’t say for sure if the company is still in business. Failing that, you might have luck finding a clamp that could be 3-D printed.
  9. I would say 16” is the size that is most in demand currently. Taller players will often ask for larger models, although shorter players are more likely to play violas that many would consider too big for them. Last year a customer not much taller than 5 feet came in with a 17” viola she’d been happily using for a rather long time.
  10. They have more wood left in them than Aubert bridges, so there’s more to carve away. They’re a little harder than Aubert, but not so rock-like as Despiau. The appearance of the wood itself is often quite nice aesthetically. I think they’re decent quality, but not good enough to make me switch from Aubert. They are more expensive.
  11. What I think of as the traditional American shop attire (at least for the major shops) is a smock (commonly blue) over a white Oxford shirt with a tie. The lumberjack thing seems to me to be more emblematic of hipster culture than of the trade. There’s a cliche that anyone who works with hand tools, operates a small business, and likes to be called a “maker” will wear flannel, a custom leather apron, and have an impressive beard. Extra style points for forearm tattoos with a personal story and/or shaving the sides of your head. I like an apron. Smocks just seem a little too awkward to me, and I don’t really need my sides and back covered while I work (unless I get off my bike and realize I’ve left my work clothes at home). I like flannel in the winter, but more for warmth than anything else.
  12. It really comes down to managing expectations properly. If there is something awry with the instrument, I consider it part of my responsibility to explain it to the customer. Whether or not the issue is addressed by changing anything is at the discretion of the owner. Doing work without approval could have serious repercussions, so I strongly advise against it. Having an in-depth conversation with the customer and providing documentation of the problem or at least a detailed explanation are crucial, especially as the value of the instrument reaches considerable heights. If the customer isn’t comfortable with making the changes you propose, be clear about the potential issues with sound or functionality. If the instrument needs something you consider controversial in order to perform well, it may be better to pass on the project. Choose projects in which you can be confident. Getting into questionable ones can damage your reputation.
  13. I would be concerned about degraded carbon fiber getting onto players’ fingers. It’s a great material for many things, but it’s messy and not especially easy to work with. I much prefer a wood fingerboard that can be shaped and reshaped easily with a normal block plane. Having to buy extra tools just to make or fit a fingerboard would be more hassle than help. I like the idea of having a smaller number of tools that can be more versatile. The idea of a coating could be practical. It’s already common practice among some luthiers to French polish fingerboards, which adds a layer of varnish that may protect a bit.
  14. I agree that it’s good to keep the top on if possible, but long cracks, especially poorly repaired ones, call for a top-off repair. I wouldn’t feel right handing an instrument to a customer if I couldn’t guarantee the repair.
  15. If the violin is decent and the cracks are long, it’s worth it to take the top off and repair them properly. Assuming the repair work was bad before, there may be a lot of debris/old glue to clean out anyway; it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to properly clean the damaged area from outside. If you use good cleaning products and methods, there shouldn’t be any harm to the varnish.
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