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Cello repair gone bad? (and what to do about it)


Up-Bow
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I'll appreciate some good advice on the following problem, see following schematic.

Cello is very stable dimensionally and in terms of sound, have had it for 15 years, bought it used from another musician and according to its label is 1897 French instrument, although may be a 70's knock off. Beautiful sound and aesthetics, so history doesn't matter. Wood is in excellent condition, no distortions, creep, humidity problems etc and sound is consistent.

Main flaw was what seems to be an original construction defect: The neckpiece projects too low onto the bridge. It had been bypassed by considerable trimming of the bridge, but with the usual downsides (see "original condition", thin black line shows theoretical optimal geometry, red lines how real situation, green numbers show string height for A-string, which was comfortable to play at 5mm). So I decided to bring it in for a substantial repair to place an all-new bridge and adjust the neck/ fingerboard as needed.

The luthier I took it to replaced the bridge, kept the neck as it was, introduced a thin wedge to raise the fingerboard and delivered the instrument in a pretty unplayable state, with the strings far too high above the fingerboard. I measured A at 8mm. Forgetting the issue with the string height for a moment, the thickness at the neck has increased to a point that playing in the 5-6th positions is difficult and awkward. So even the thin wedge was not a good idea. Now she proposes to plane the fingerboard, making the neck thinner and lower the bridge for a few millimeters. In fact that's going to amount to several mm off the bridge (working out the projections, I estimate about 7-8mm minimum). I think these interventions are coming back full circle to the original condition, more or less, while turning a pretty instrument into Frankenstein's monster.

Considering other red flags, such as two scratched(!) crosses on the top sounding board to mark the location of the bridge (admittedly an accident, but still...), advice such as "play on the instrument and see how it will settle" (which is fine, but not with an A string height of 8mm to hurt one's hand...), and overall attitude of not caring about the result, quality or the client's experience, I am certainly moving on to another luthier. But this is not why I made this post:

At this point I am thinking that I should a) have the wedge removed (clearly this intervention created some new problems and did not solve the original problem -it's clear that it cannot without making the neck unacceptably thick) and to instead b) reset the neck, to allow both a proper projection of the fingerboard onto the bridge and a comfortable string height simultaneously. I like the new bridge and don't want to shave it off (except for a couple of mm for fine adjustments that may be needed at the end of any other major intervention). Money is not the issue; mostly I'd like to preserve the beautiful original aesthetics and playability of my instrument and its newfound sound projection. I am looking for a clean, elegant solution. This recent luthier refused to reset the neck, saying that this intervention might also fail (i.e. might still result in high strings, in spite of accurate measurement prior to and during the intervention), but I'd like to get some neutral opinions, so that I can know better what to expect and articulate what I want to my next luthier with confidence. Is it not possible for a luthier with skill and care to pull it off well?

I'll appreciate the kind input from anyone who might like to share.

 

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Edited by Up-Bow
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A wedge is a perfectly reasonable way to increase the projection, but they should have discussed the increase in neck thickness so that you could be prepared for that. No, shaping the fingerboard board to a wedge just means that when you get the neck reset, then you would have to replace the messed up board.

What is the new projection with the wedge and how thick is the fingerboard edge?

 

p.s. I wouldn't call the repair "gone bad". It looks well done. I retired MD friend recently told me that violin makers/restorers have a lot in common with Plastic Surgeons. He said that it is all about managing expectations.

 

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1 hour ago, Up-Bow said:

 Wood is in excellent condition, no distortions, creep, humidity problems etc and sound is consistent.

 advice such as "play on the instrument and see how it will settle" (which is fine, but not with an A string height of 8mm to hurt one's hand...), 

Firstly, the only thing I know about cello's is that their music is written in bass clef so read my thoughts with a grain of salt.

I see where she's coming from with the wait it out a while bit - wood does move.  Who to say that the belly is strong enough in the first place hence the downward movement?  

A weak back or weak ribs could contribute movement too.  Play the cello aggressively for a few to see if there can be movement thus some lowering of the neck. 

In a situation like this with a cello is the customer right saying this is what they'd like or is it the luthiers call saying this is what really needs to be done?

 

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4 minutes ago, Strad O Various Jr. said:

Welcome to the Twilight Zone, Maestronet edition!

No, it's just some members getting used to the new, "upgraded", posting tools.  Either that, or it's a purely mundane phenomenon that the Finns are notorious for.  :ph34r:  :lol:

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If I understand the original post, the luthier did this modification without talking to you first, which is a hanging offense in Texas.

I have a cello that also needs a neck reset, right now the fingerboard is about 5 mm low which is quite a bit, and Luthier are suggested a shim Under the fingerboard, on the grounds that a neck reset would be very expensive in the instrument is it worth it. So I stuck it in the closet and I’ll let the heirs worry about it.

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I would definitely get rid of the wedge under the fingerboard unless the neck is too thin without it. Then the projection can be re-evaluated. If it’s considerably low, a full neck reset is in order. If it’s not too far off and there’s enough edge overhang, a New York neck reset would be a good fix.

If the neck has been dropping, try to find out why. Is the cello going through significant changes in humidity? Is there a weak glue joint at the top block? Was a different kind of glue used to put the top on that might creep over time? Is the neck solidly in its mortise? Any of these things could cause a neck to move.

It is up to the customer to decide what work should be done. If the luthier is good, I would recommend the customer consider any advice given for a solution, but work shouldn’t commence until there’s a clear agreement.

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Taking out a neck is always a somewhat risky operation, but I just fail to see how a neck reset could go wrong the way your lutier described it. Coupled with the damaged varnish, and the (to my eye) somewhat clunky looking new bridge, I'd say go find a lutier with a good reputation and discuss this with them. A new york style neck reset (actualy a pull-back o the neck) might have done the trick in its original state, though it can only do so much. The better the instrument originally was made, the less space you'll have for such an operation without it looking ridiculous (unfortunately I'm talking from experience as a customer). Now that you want to get rid of the wedge etc, I think it is likely a proper reset will likely be your best option. 

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Before one adjusts a sunken “neck set” The first thing one must do, is to establish a diagnosis as to why the neck has sunk in the first place, and if one will have to expect the neck to sink more in the future. There are several things to check, none of which can be seen in your pictures. A picture of the button would, for instance, be neccesary

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I'm glad to hear that money is no object for you, because if you are looking to remove the wedge (I'm pretty sure that wasn't cheap), and reset the neck, you are talking thousands of $. The wedge under the FB was a reasonable thing to do, and looks to be well done. A neck lift might be a reasonable thing to try at this point. Just don't bring it to my shop (I don't work on cellos).

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This entire story seems extremely odd.

A projection (neck angle in relation to the top at the bridge position) which is too low is one of the most common of issues with cellos. There are a number of possible causes which as Jacob pointed out must be determined before any thing else. Assuming nothing horrible is happening such as the button pulling off of the back there are several ways to adjust the pitch ranging from loosening the top at the upper bouts and block and lifting the neck with a small and fairly invisible shim, to wedging the fingerboard or actually resetting or grafting the neck. All of these should be done to achieve a predetermined measurement appropriate to the instrument and then a new bridge made if needed to achieve a correct string height off the board. 

 All of these options including side effects such as a smaller upper edge in the case of the neck lift and the thicker neck in the case of the wedge should have been discussed with you before work commenced and a decision should have been made based on price, aesthetics and your ability to adapt to slight changes in the feel of the neck. All of these methods should  result in hitting the target projection within 1/2 a mm. and the string height off the board can be adjusted within 1/4 mm. by any competent luthier.

You did not say whether the high string heights were like that when the cello was delivered to you or if they changed over a period of time but assuming there is not some dire issue with the instrument which has not been discussed any changes in projection should be fairly minimal. Certainly not more than a mm. or so over the calendar year due to seasonal humidity changes.

I would recommend taking the cello to some one who can assess the situation as it stands  now so you can make a decision with all the pertinent information in hand including the monetary value of the cello which could be from tens of thousands to just a few thousand depending on what it is. By the way the term you used of a "70s knock off" is nonsensical and if some one told you that I think you can safely discount their opinion.

 

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1- remove the wedge & do a neck lift... https://trianglestrings.com/raisingtheprojection/

2-the scratched cross... Although I don't do it for many reasons, It is my understanding that making a pin prick in the varnish to mark the bridge is acceptable in some circles. Are you sure the cross was not there before and you just did not notice it?

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Not that simple. The app

6 hours ago, Mat Roop said:

1- remove the wedge & do a neck lift... https://trianglestrings.com/raisingtheprojection/

2-the scratched cross... Although I don't do it for many reasons, It is my understanding that making a pin prick in the varnish to mark the bridge is acceptable in some circles. Are you sure the cross was not there before and you just did not notice it?

Not that simple. The appropriate repair depends on many factors which the OP has not provided and which it sounds like he doesn't understand. A competent professional with access to all the facts is definitely required to determine the best course of action and execute the repair.

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Thank you all for your very helpful replies. I feel more confident in my understanding of the options and what might be reasonable expectations (with all the caveats mentioned in your posts) and I'll make sure to discuss in depth with my next luthier.

While I can't say what happened prior to 15 years ago that I acquired this cello, it has been a very stable instrument and hasn't shown any sign of creep with the passage of time (see string height measurements in my original post -and they all remain constant) and doesn't go out of tune either when left for considerable periods of time. I just measured again the string height with very low string tension (=out of tune) and when fully tuned at 440Hz and the difference was 1mm (6.5mm vs 7.5mm for the A-string), so I suppose this is the actual elastic compliance of the instrument. My feeling is 1mm of elastic deflection under full tension is normal -or please let me know otherwise.

Of course it remains a question why the projection was low in the first place, so I am posting a few more pictures in case they might provide some insight.

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Posted (edited)

Thank you, Jakob, I hope I got this right. Else, please let me know.

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Update: Seems two posts is the limit per day, so find below the right photos in this edit. Sorry for the confusion, I thought button was another term for some part of the end pin subassembly. Thank you, Shelbow.

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Edited by Up-Bow
posted wrong picture originally -limited by two posts per day, so adding the right pictures here
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Based on the pics, the overstand looks too high (as a result of the wedge and reinforced by you annoyance of the thickness), hence, I would have (and still recomend) a full neck reset. No reason to do anything else, other than having to pay for it.

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23 hours ago, nathan slobodkin said:

This entire story seems extremely odd.... the term you used of a "70s knock off" is nonsensical and if some one told you that I think you can safely discount their opinion.

 

So? If it's not a 1970s cello, what is it?

Is it an 1898 French cello?

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