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May 14

Common String Instrument Repairs

 

Photo by Isabelle Plante

The first time I was traumatized by a broken instrument was in the third grade. My dad propped my rental bass up, leaning it standing on its endpin against the side of our van on the morning of a performance. Propping a bass up standing like that is like asking for a death wish. He walked away, only leaving it to slide over, slamming on the concrete.  The entire neck snapped off. I thought it was finished, completely totaled, and ready to throw in the scrap pile only after we paid thousands of dollars for the irreparable damage.

Well, little did I know that the neck could be glued back on with a seam barely visible to the eye. What I thought was a complete catastrophe turned into no big deal. Well. It was a big deal. It was a miracle in my eight-year-old eyes.

 

Wood: The Ideal Medium

Over the years as I’ve done string instrument repair and setup, I’ve come to appreciate the brilliance in making objects out of wood. Almost anything made of wood can be easily repaired or cosmetically restored with the right tools and materials: a little glue, micromesh, sandpaper, a variety of wood stains, varnishes, replacement parts, and the like. Some repairs are trickier than others, but most are far, far from impossible, and usually fairly simple.

So if something breaks on your instrument, it’s likely not the end of its life. Keep in mind, violins are like legos with parts that can be either repaired or replaced.

 

Hypochondriac Instrumentalists

As I’ve become more familiar and comfortable with these common “injuries” inflicted upon stringed instruments, the less they freak me out. In fact, they don’t freak me out at all because we work with them every day. I noticed that people tend to be hypochondriacs when it comes to their personal instruments, especially when they don’t know what the cure or fix is for the damage done. You can take comfort in the fact that your violin like an organic piece with the ability to heal with a simple cast, like for a broken arm, or some basic “surgery.”

Take furniture for example. It can last for hundreds of years when made well and maintained. I was thinking the other day, it seems people are really comfortable glueing a table leg back on or assembling their own IKEA furniture, but if something happens to their violin (which is made of the same basic substance: wood), they panic.

 

Common String Instrument Repairs

So to shed a little light on the subject, here are some of the most common repairs we deal with in the Kennedy Violins instrument shop including a) the problem, b) how serious it is, and c) how it might be fixed.

 

  • Open Seams: An open seam is simply an opening somewhere between the ribs (the sides) of the instrument and the face and/or back. Open seams are one of the most common repairs and are usually VERY simple and relatively quick repairs when done correctly. Open seams are fixed with melted hide glue, an extremely strong and water-soluble substance that allows for instruments to be easily taken apart and put back together. Hide glue can set in as few as 4 hours, although leaving clamps on for 24 hours is pretty standard. The only time open seams can be a problem is if they’ve been open a very long time in intemperate conditions that may have caused the wood to warp. Warped wood can be a problem if the plates/ribs no longer fit together well or there’s a stress point at the seam wanted to pull itself open again. Still, even a warped open seam is repairable, just may require the face or back of the instrument to be removed and reglued.
  • Crack in the Face: Cracks in the face, back, or ribs of a violin can be more serious than an open seam. Like a broken arm, a crack may be an incomplete fracture or a complete break/crack through the wood. Either way, cracks can be delicately filled or glued/clamped back together with special clamps that arch across the top or back of the instrument.
  • Cracked Scrollbox: Here’s a fairly common and frustrating malady. The pegs, which are held in place by friction in the scrollbox/pegbox can put so much pressure on the scrollbox (especially if pushed or forced in too hard), that the wood can crack on the edge of hole the peg fits in. It’s a challenging spot to glue because it’s such a stress point. If glueing or splinting the scrollbox doesn’t hold, the entire neck and scroll may need to be replaced.
  • Loose or Detached Fingerboard: A very simple fix. Old glue is removed or scraped off and the fingerboard is reset in place with hide glue.
  • Cracked Chinrest: Depending on the location of the crack, the chinrest can either be glued and sanded so the crack is nearly invisible, or if the crack is around the brackets at a stress point, the chinrest can easily be replaced.
  • Scratches: Scratches can be either buffed out, touched up with a matching varnish color, or filled with wood filler or clear coat. Fine scratches are very easy to buff out with micromesh or pumice/rottenstone polishing powders mixed with paraffin oil on a soft cloth.
  • Chipped Corners/Edges: If the wood chip or corner isn’t lost, it can easily be glued back in place. If the piece is lost, a new piece of wood could be carved or shaped to replace it. If the chip, gouge, or hole is small, wood filler could also be used to fill in the gap. Gouges or chips in ebony surfaced can actually be filled with ebony dust mixed with a clear glue, then carved and sanded until level and smooth.
  • Warped Bridges: Especially in humid conditions, bridges warp over time from the pressure of the strings forcing down on them. Tuning strings over time also pulls the bridge forward (towards your face as you hold it in playing position). It’s important to occasionally eyeball your bridge from the side and pull it back to standing perpendicular to the instrument face. Warped bridges can actually be boiled, pressed, flattened, and dried back into shape, but replacing the bridge is usually the simple and affordable fix.
  • Nut with Grooves Too Deep/Wide: Nuts, the small, shaped block of ebony with four string grooves at the top of the fingerboard, are easy to recarve, remove, raise, or replace if necessary. Sometimes the grooves in the nut get too deep after rough strings saw across them over time. If the strings are too low you may end up with strings buzzing against the fingerboard. This is a quick and easy fix.

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If you have any questions about your instrument’s playability, even if it’s not a Kennedy Violins instrument, feel free to call us at 1-800-779-0242 with your questions! We are always happy to help you identify and necessary repairs to your instrument or recommend an upgrade to one of our Kennedy Violins violas, cellos, and violins. And with our lifetime warranty, we can promise you any maintenance necessary to make your instrument last for years to come!

15 comments

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  1. Leigh

    My new Nicholas Gand violin seems to have a VERY delicate finish. There are several areas where it looks like it has been scratched, but I am quite sure it hasn’t. I am generally very careful with it and keep it in the case when not in use, but small light specks are appearing all over it. They are not really scratches but they look as if the finish has simply lifted of in small areas about 1/8 to 1/4 inch long and just the width of the wood grain. I enquired about this and was told I could use Hill violin polish to buff out the marks and protect the finish.When I researched Hill polish online I get stories that range from” Don’t do it ” to “it took all the varnish off” to ” it makes a sticky buildup that collects dust is hard to remove”. While others seems to think it is a great product.
    I am just not sure what to do. The marks are not visible from a few feet away, but there seems to be quite a few after only a couple of months. I can only be so careful and fear what it will be like in a few years. Right now I am not really concerned with hiding what is there so much as protecting the finish in the future.
    any advice?
    Leigh

    1. Rachel Davis

      I would stay away from the Hill polish. Your violin has an oil based varnish which is very delicate. To preserve the varnish, I would do 2 things. 1.) Rub it down with a dry cotton cloth (an old t-shirt works well) after each time you play, even if it was only for 5 minutes. 2.) Keep it in the case whenever you aren’t playing it. If you have any other questions, feel free to call (1.800.779.0242) or e-mail us (support@kennedyviolins.com).

  2. Ash

    HI, I’m after information about repairing small cracks and chips on the surface of a fingerboard. I’d like to know what approach you use.

    Thanks.

    1. Rachel Davis

      I apologize for not being able to get back to you sooner. We have been swamped with our Grand Opening events. I will talk with our luthiers on staff and get back to you with an answer shortly. Thanks for your patience!

  3. deka

    Thanks for your great article. I purscased a miesel violin for my child after working many hous to come up with the money. Once it was shipped and received I noticed. It had a big break in the seam. Very upsetting so will use your tips to see the results.

  4. Malcolm

    How much glue am i going to need to glue my neck back on im pretty sure it isnt going to take a 1/4 pound

    (Fiddle neck)

    1. Rachel Davis

      Sorry for not getting back to you right away. The holidays have been crazy around here. The amount of glue that you need depends on a lot of factors like where the break happened, was with the grain or against the grain, did the fingerboard break off too, were there small cracks in the neck due to the break, etc., etc. The best thing to do would be to take it to a luthier and have them look at it in person.

  5. Raphie

    By accident a very small corner chipped off. I was wondering if it was ok for me to glue it back with wood glue? Also, will the chip affect the sound?

    1. Liz Lambson

      Hi there! This is a good question, and my recommendations depend on a few factors. If the chip is small and on an edge or corner (like one of the corners of the ribs near the f-hole), it’s unlikely it will affect the sound. If your instrument is valuable though, a visible crack around the glue joint may bring down the value. Whether your instrument is valuable or not, you’ll want to do a clean job. I would definitely recommend hide glue over traditional creamy wood glue–wood glue is pretty thick and gooey. If you thinned the wood glue, that might give you a cleaner joint. But my best recommendation is to buy some Titebond liquid hide glue and thin it a little with hot water before applying it to the dry, clean surfaces of the chip and the corner. You could also take your violin to a local luthier for a quick and likely very affordable fix if you’d rather not do it yourself. Here’s to the speedy recovery of your instrument!

      The chi
      Is your instrument valuable? Will the chip or crack around the chip be visible?

  6. Jalen

    How would you recenter or put the nut back in place if it has sliden

    1. Rachel Davis

      Resetting the nut requires that you remove all of the strings and glue it back in to place. Even though it’s not a complicated process, it takes time and patience to do it properly. If you get in a rush, the nut will just be off center again. I would take it to a violin shop with a luthier if you have not done this before.

  7. Graham

    I have recently been given a violin that looks like its been strung without a soundpost for several years. It seems the top plate has warped slightly downward under the bridge due to the pressure.

    Was wondering if this is something that can be repaired. I think this violin was approx $1000 new so not sure if it’ll even be worth the repair.

    Thanks

    1. Liz Lambson

      Thanks for contacting us! The sound post is such a crucial part of the violin, especially as something that channels the vibrations of the instrument from the strings and front plate to the back plate, completing the violin’s acoustics like a vital link or circuit connection. We definitely recommend having a sound post installed. Warping may not be reversible, but a luthier can fit a sound post to the violin in its current condition, which may prevent even further warping as the violin has been lacking interior support without a sound post. For a $1000 instrument or $99 instrument, the sound post is essential.

      Our best recommendation is the take the violin to an experienced violin maker/luthier in your area who can “diagnose” the instrument and give you an accurate estimate on how much it would cost to put in a sound post and do any additional repairs (if necessary). We hope the violin sounds and plays wonderfully for you!

  8. kris

    Hi there! Question ~ the sound of my violin was crackkkedd everytime I played the A string (2nd finger). Im actually a beginner so I really don’t know what happened and what to do. What do you think is the cause of that? Please help.

    1. Liz Lambson

      Hi Kris, you may be getting a buzzing sound for a number of reasons, such as if the fingerboard isn’t planed smoothly, or perhaps your string height is too low. Or you may be getting a wolf tone on that particular note. We recommend taking your violin to a local shop or luthier who can give you a more detailed diagnosis after handling your instrument. If you’re in the Vancouver, Washington area, definitely come by Kennedy Violins!

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