Saturday, July 30, 2011

You or Your Luthier?

 Written by: Amy Tobin

Violins, violas, and cellos, because they are made from wood, can change. In fact, they are designed to do so. That way, when the weather changes, and the wood shrinks or swells, it protects the main body of the instrument from cracking. So, when things happen to your instrument and it ceases to operate smoothly, which things can you do yourself, and which things should you bring your violin in to your luthier to take care of?

One of the most common things that can happen is a tuning peg that either slips or sticks.
In this situation, you have two different ways of taking care of it. When your peg is slipping (e.g. the string keeps going slack and the pitch goes down when you tune), you can fix that at home. A simple solution is to unwind the string, slide the peg out of the peg box, coat the peg (where it comes in contact with the peg box, or scroll) with blackboard chalk, put it back in firmly, and rewind the string. This usually fixes the problem. Most importantly, DO NOT EVER GLUE YOUR TUNING PEG IN PLACE! The pegs are made to move, and you would find it impossible to change your string after doing this.

If your peg is sticky, meaning you have difficulty turning it to tune your string, you first have to gauge how sticky it is. If it is just tight, but you can still turn it with a little bit of effort, there is something called W. E. Hill Peg Compound that you can apply to the peg the same way you would the blackboard chalk. You can definitely do this at home, although your luthier will have the peg compound on his workbench and can do it for you as well. If, however, you absolutely cannot turn your peg, DO NOT FORCE IT!!! Forcing the peg, when it is stuck, can break it. Tuning pegs are not generally interchangeable, so a new peg would have to be shaped and fitted to your instrument. This can be costly. Bring your instrument in to your luthier and see if he or she can fix it for you. They might suggest, in the summer especially, that you put the instrument in an air-conditioned room for a couple of days to try and shrink the wood a bit.

If you notice that your bridge is leaning one direction or the other (towards the fingerboard or towards the tailpiece), or that it is a little askew, as long as you are careful, this is another thing you can do at home. Keeping the tension on the strings, you will find that, using gentle pressure, you can move the bridge backward or forward. If you need to move its position entirely, you might want to loosen the tension of the strings SLIGHTLY to do so. Of course, if you are trying to do anything with your bridge, please make sure to put a thick piece of cardboard or a thick cloth under the tailpiece in case the bridge falls. This will protect the top of your instrument, and will help to cushion the blow so your soundpost does not fall. As always, if you are at all uncertain about doing this, your luthier will be happy to do it for you.

If you pick up your violin and you hear something rolling around inside, then your soundpost has probably fallen. This is not an at-home fix no matter how you look at it. The violin maker has a special tool and technique that he or she uses to reset the soundpost. Many times, when the soundpost falls, it is because it doesn't fit properly anymore and needs to be replaced altogether.

If your tailpiece comes off, bring the instrument in to your luthier. Sometimes, the wire that hold the tailpiece around the button at the bottom of the instrument can give. This is not something that you can fix at home. It needs to be taken care of at your violin shop.

If you notice an open seam or a crack developing on your violin, viola, or cello, again, DO NOT try to fix this at home. The type of glue that is used on stringed instruments is not your typical Elmer's or Gorilla glue. It is a special type of glue that allows for the instrument to be disassembled when necessary without any structural damage.

As for the bow, most of the time, anything that goes wrong with it will have to be evaluated and repaired by your violin maker. I have a lot of information about things that can go wrong with your bow, and how it would be fixed, at my blog post "What's Wrong With My Bow?"

Always, if you are in doubt as to whether or not you can fix or adjust something on your instrument at home, take it to your luthier. With something as important, and valuable, as your violin, viola, or cello, it's better to be safe than sorry.

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