Today we go all the way to the back of the shop and meet one of our luthiers on staff: Jeff Pomerantz. Jeff is not only a talented luthier, he is also a very talented guitarist with a degree in Music Business. Which means our customers can not only get quality string instruments from Jeff but, quality guitar lessons as well.
1. How long have you worked at Kennedy Violins? Since June of 2014
2. What is your favorite thing about working at Kennedy Violins and why? It would have to be a combination of learning about instrument setup/repair and the sense of community with the people I work with. We all get along well, for the most part, which makes me look forward to coming to work everyday.
3. What is your favorite instrument that Kennedy Violins carries and why? I like the Vitacek violin because of the unique sunburst finish and louder, present sound. It really stands out
4. What is your favorite band or musician? As far as bands; hands down, Led Zeppelin. My favorite musician changes with every season, and sometimes every week.
I rediscovered Paul Simon this past summer, but now that its raining all the time around here, Im really getting into a fall mood listening to Kaki King.
5. If you didn’t play the guitar, which instrument would you play? Saxophone? Sousaphone, Triangle. Yep, Triangle.
6. Which musician (alive or dead) do you wish you could play with? Julian Bream
7. What are you looking forward to most in the upcoming year? Whatever projects/music I may find or become apart of…
8. What is your favorite thing to do when you aren’t working at Kennedy Violins? Either playing music, hiking, or going to shows around Portland
The Power Rangers were on to something when it comes to nature’s elements. These substances, while so simple, can wield great power alone and in combination with each other. At Kennedy Violins, you’ll find water not only for drinking, but on hand in the process of working on violins.
Water plays a crucial role in the process of making, repairing, and setting up violins. Here are a few of its uses:
Bending Wood – An essential step in the production of the violin is bending thin strips of maple, sometimes as thin as 1mm, to the curves of the instrument. A hot bending iron is used, but without wetting the wood with a little water, the dry wood is more likely to crack, snap, or splinter without water to soften the fibers. The moisture turns to steam when it comes in contact with the wood, steaming the fibers and allowing them to bend with less risk of burning.
Carving – Wetting a piece of wood with water can make it easier to carve. The water softens the wood so it gives way to the blade of a knife or chisel more easily. Some makers will dunk the entire maple scroll into water to help the carving process along. The ends of soundposts can also be wet with water (or even dabbed with saliva from your tongue) to make the precise carving of the ends an easier process.
Gluing – Many don’t realize that the glue used to glue the pieces of a violin together is water soluble. Hide glue, an made with collagen from animal bones nd tissue, begins in granule form and is mixed and melted in water before use. The advantage of using a strong water-based glue is that pieces of wood are secured with a molecular bond, but that bond can be broken and pieces can be taken apart when the glue is softened with water or steam. Violin parts need to be able to come apart easily to make repairs possible.
Wet Sanding – Water is also used when smoothing down surfaces like the ebony fingerboard. Very fine sandpapers are used with water that absorbs the dust and provides an extremely smooth, polished surface.
Tool Sharpening – Similar to the use of wet sandpaper, water is used on water stones (named appropriately as a sharpening stone used with water) and diamond stones. Using water when sharpening metal knives, gouges, chisels, scrapers, and plane blades keeps the tiny flakes and particles of metal dust from getting everywhere—like in your eyes or in the air to be breathed in. Water can also keep the tools cooler as friction heats up the metal. Water makes the sharpening process safer.
WHEN WATER IS A PROBLEM
Water in the form of liquid, steam, or high humidity can potentially cause damage to an instrument. (Very low humidity can cause issues as well. A Damp-it instrument humidifier can protect your instrument from harshly dry conditions.)
Warping Wood and Cracks – Wood is porous and absorbs water like a sponge, whether the water is in the air or comes in contact with the wood like a liquid. Although the oil-based varnish on the exterior of the instrument repels water, the interior of the instrument is not sealed or finished wood. When wood absorbs water, it expands, which can lead to cracking, warping, or open seams.
Rain – If you’re playing an outdoor concert and suddenly get stuck in a downpour, don’t panic. Just get out of the rain as quickly as possible or tuck your instrument under your jacket. As soon as possible, dry off your instrument with a soft, dry, absorbent cloth that won’t damage the finish. (Old soft cotton t-shirts make great polishing or drying cloths.)
If the inside of the instrument has substantial amounts of water in it, shake it out and set it in a dry, warm room to air it out. Inspect your instrument after it’s dry and look for any substantial water damage.
Questions about the condition of your instrument? Contact Kennedy Violins at 1-800-779-0242 or firstname.lastname@example.org. We are always happy to help!
This weekend I had the great opportunity to travel to New York City and spend time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was especially excited about their wing dedicated to musical instruments with some incredible stringed instruments on display, including original violins by makers Stradivari, Amati, and Guarneri as well as other 16th century violins from the Cremona school in Italy.
Evolution of the Modern Violin
The Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari families actively produced instruments between 1550 and 1744 in the same region of Cremona, during which time the modern violin as we know it came to life. While string instruments have evolved over time with various body shapes and string counts, very few changes have been made to the violin that was standardized during this time as a four-stringed instrument with its signature shape and size, strung in perfect fifths (E, A, D, G).
You may notice slight differences in design between the Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivarius violins, but they are clearly instruments in same family with the same tuning, string count, and contours. These violins seem so familiar because they are; almost all violins today are made with Stradivari, Amati, or Guarneri body designs.
For example, if you take a look at all the violins we carry at Kennedy Violins, you’ll notice that they are all made with the same standard measurements (body length, string length, string height, fingerboard length and so on—take a look at our violin measurements chart) used by luthiers today. Most are made and shaped with an original Stradivari design.
Preserved Historical Violin
As you may know, some instruments preserved from these hundreds of years ago are still in use. Most notably, there are 650 Stradivari violins still in existence, ranging in value from between hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars. In 2010 a Stradivari violin sold at auction for $3,600,000, a record high.
Updating to a Modern Setup
Even though these 16th, 17th, and 18th century violins are in tact and in use, the ones in performance today have actually been modernized with fittings that make them playable by today’s standards.
I found the diagram below so fascinating. From it we learn that a Stradivarius violin in performance today has been OPTIMIZED to compete with modern violins to catch up with the evolution of the violin that has taken place over the centuries. These evolutionary changes in setup have made the violin more easily playable with more projection and better sound quality.
Updates from the Baroque setup to the modern setup include
a new neck that angles back
a longer fingerboard that allows performance in higher octaves
a modern bridge
new strings, often synthetic with metal winding instead of strings made from animal gut
a modern tailpiece
a longer bass bar in the interior of the violin
What’s the Same?
What remains “untouched”? Essentially, the body of the violin (back, face, and ribs) and the scroll/pegbox. This may not sound like much, but it’s the body of the instrument that most greatly affects the sound. The quality of wood and the precise gradations in the carving and thickness of the plates make these instruments sound like they do.
In this sense, the restored Baroque instruments retain their authenticity because no one can replicate the carving of the plates done by the original masters themselves.
The Legacy Lives On
If you get a chance to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art or other museums throughout the world with string instruments on display, definitely take the opportunity to see these preserved treasures. Better yet, you can hear a Stradivarius performed live (or on record) by modern violinists including Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman.
To see and hear these pieces of history alive is truly a privilege as we remember the master makers who brought to life music as we know it today. Here’s to the continuation of their legacy through the practice and performance of music forever!
Bridge, pegs, fine tuners, fingerboard, nut — we do it all!
We recently created a new page on kennedyviolins.com highlighting our setup process and what goes into the finally assembly of a violin. If you want to learn the trade secrets of violin setup, check out our Instrument Setup page! You’re bound to learn something new!
Today, our ongoing “Face to Face” series introduces us to, perhaps, one of the most diversely gifted members of the Kennedy Violins team, Liz Lambson.
Liz Lambson: string bass player, artist, luthier, and writer–and somehow she plays all these roles at Kennedy Violins! She grew up in Colorado Springs, studied music and English at Brigham Young University, and moved to the Portland area about four years ago. Besides working at KV and freelancing as a classical bassist, Liz is also a mom of two little boys.
1. How long have you worked at Kennedy Violins?
Two years. Time flies!
2. What is your favorite thing about working at Kennedy Violins and why?
Working at Kennedy Violins in itself has been my favorite thing. By far, this has been the most fulfilling, rewarding, and enjoyable job I’ve ever had, and I constantly feel so blessed to work doing something I absolutely love. As a luthier and writer, I get to use my skills and knowledge as a musician in an artistic, creative way that is both fun and intellectually stimulating. Win, win!
I especially love working with my hands, which is why lutherie is such a great fit for me. I love the feel of sawdust and wood when I’m carving bridges and nuts and smoothing down fingerboards (click here to learn more about our professional set-up). I even enjoy washing my hands after work and seeing how much grime rinses off! There’s something strangely fulfilling about getting your hands dirty while getting up close and personal with these instruments. It’s like gardening, but we’re growing violins instead of snow peas or something.
3. What is your favorite instrument/product that Kennedy Violins carries and why?
That is a tough question. All the violins have different features worth loving. As one who works on the instruments, I have two favorites: the Ricard Bunnel G2 and G1 violins and the Anton Gerard violins. The Bunnels are fun because those are the ones I do the most finish work on, so each one is like a little craft project–and I am a die-hard sucker for crafts.
As far as the nicer violins go for more advanced players, I really love the Gerards because they are so, so beautiful with their tiger-flamed one-piece backs. The flame is just so stunning. And they sound great.
4. What is your favorite band/musician/composer?
While I love music by classic composers (especially Bach) and modern musicians (from jazz pianist Dave Brubeck to the folky Fleet Foxes to bust-a-move Beyoncé), my favorite and most meaningful musical experiences have been with musicians I know personally and with whom I’ve had the privilege to perform.
With that said, my favorite pop artist is Fresh Big Mouf, my favorite band is Fictionist, and my favorite composer is Christian Asplund. Each of these artists has been so influential when it comes to my own musical development and understanding of creativity.
5. If you didn’t play the bass, which instrument would you play?
I would play the bass. Which I do. I seriously think the bass is the best because 1) it’s so versatile and allows you to play any style of music (classical, jazz, rock, folk, etc.), 2) it’s so big it can beat up any other instrument, 3) it can serve as a boat in a flash flood situation, and 4) I play it, so you can trust me.
6. What are you looking forward to most in the upcoming year?
I’m actually moving to New York soon. (Don’t worry, I’ll still be working and writing remotely for KV!) I’m excited to check out the East coast music scene and meet new people.
7. What is something interesting that we don’t already know about you?
I’m half black and half Korean, which means I can make both family-recipe gumbo and family-recipe chajangmyeon (noodles with vegetables and black soybean paste).
8. What is your favorite thing to do when you aren’t working at Kennedy Violins?
Eat French fries with my boys.
As a luthier at Kennedy Violins, I spend hours a day staring at fingerboards–sanding them, smoothing them down, looking for the scoop (see below). As you can imagine, a stringed instrument would be impossible to play if there were no place to put your fingers. So, naturally, one of the most important parts of a violin is the fingerboard: the long black piece of wood that (hence the name) is a board on which you put your fingers.
IS IT EBONY? AND DOES IT MATTER?
The main reason ebony is used for fittings (chinrests, fingerboards, nuts, pegs, end buttons, tailpieces) on stringed instruments is not because it’s pretty or exotic, but because it’s STRONG. Each time your press a metal-wound string down in contact with the wood, the wood has to be dense and strong enough to be a firm platform and hold up to potential wear over time. For example, imagine if your teeth were made out of balsa wood instead of enamel. Each bite would wear your teeth away in no time.
SHAPE & CONSTRUCTION
If you look at the fingerboard, it may not look very special at a glance. But while this standard part may look like a simple addition to the body of a violin, it must be made with detail and meticulous precision in order to function as it should.
When you look at the fingerboard of a violin, you’ll notice that its not flat like a fretted fingerboard on a guitar or mandolin. The reason why the fingerboard is convexly arched on violins, violas, cellos, and basses is because these instruments are bowed rather than exclusively strummed or plucked.
Think about it. When you’re playing a bowed stringed instrument, you’re normally playing one note at a time. Playing one note at a time means your bow is only touching one string at a time. If the fingerboard were flat and the strings level, drawing a bow across the instrument would cause all the strings to vibrate at the same time.
Therefore, the arch of the fingerboard (as well as the bridge) must be precisely shaped and measured so that individual strings may be played with ease.
2. Scoop By just looking at a fingerboard, you probably won’t even notice the imperceptible dip in the length of the violin. While there is a convex arch across the width of the violin, there is a concave scoop along the length.
The scoop in the fingerboard leaves room for the vibration of the strings. Imagine pressing a string down on a completely flat fingerboard with a flat bridge. The string would lie flat along the length of the fingerboard making contact at every point, giving the string either no room to vibrate at all or just enough to buzz.
When luthiers (violin makers) plane and carve the scoop into a fingerboard, they start by placing a straight-edge along the length. They slowly carve a dip into the fingerboard until it meets precise measurements. This will keep the strings from buzzing when played.
3. Smoothness Fingerboards (as well as every part of the violin) are smoothed with wet and/or dry sandpapers, micromesh, steel wool, and scrapers to be extremely smooth to the touch. Who wants to press their fingers down on rough, splintery wood? Ouch!
Smoothing and scraping out any bumps also prevents buzzing. If you sight down the fingerboard, it should look smooth, not wavy or ripply.
CRACKS & IMPERFECTIONS
Most cosmetic imperfections on the surface of a fingerboard can be corrected. First, check and see if your fingerboard is made of ebony or a white wood painted black. If the wood is anything other than ebony, it will be approached differently because it is coated with a finish. A fingerboard not made of ebony lessens the value of an instrument.
1. Cracks For cracks, the key is depth. Is the crack large enough that it opens when you put pressure on either side, the fingerboard will need to be either 1) clamped and glued, or 2) replaced. Fingerboards are typically glued on with hide glue, a water-soluble glue used by luthiers so instrument parts can be removed, repaired, or replaced.
2. Chips, Scratches & Surface Cracks Because not all pieces of ebony are perfectly smooth, and some may be splintered in the planing process (especially if the wood grain isn’t forgiving), one trick luthiers use is filling imperfections with a clear glue (or even fingernail polish) mixed with ebony dust. Black dyes can also cover any discoloration in the wood.
So next time you pull out your violin, take a look at your fingerboard. Look to see if its ebony or wood, then look for the scoop, observe the shape, and check its smoothness. Who knew there was so much to it?
I recently began a new project: putting together an old violin that had fallen completely apart. The instrument is an older German violin, probably made around 1930 – 1950.
Violins are similar to puzzles, in that they have many small parts that fit intricately together. They are also similar to puzzles in that they are actually designed to be taken apart if necessary.
The type of glue used in making violins, called hide glue, is purposefully used because of its unique, not-too-strong properties. During times of extreme humidity or
temperature change, as the wood shifts slightly in size and shape, the glued seams will give way before the wood cracks. This saves the violin from becoming seriously damaged. Hide
glue also ensures that the violin can safely be taken apart and put back together again when necessary. Heat and water will soften the glue, and seams can be safely opened and closed.
This violin had fallen apart probably because it was exposed to lots of differing temperatures and humidities over the years, and because hide glue naturally breaks down after a certain amount of time. As you can see, there is also a big crack on the top plate that will need to be repaired.
Stay tuned for future posts, and watch as this violin is brought back to life!
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.
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.
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!
The bridge, which connects the vibration of the strings to the body of the instrument, is held in place only by the tension of the strings. No glue or adhesive is necessary or even desirable. (Photo by CavinB)
You’ve seen it before. Intermission commences at the junior high orchestra concert. The suspect, a rather uncoordinated violist (who shall remain unnamed), trips over a cello and the audience gasps as it faceplants on the ground. The bridge goes flying. The strings go limp. A harried seventh grader fights backs tears as she runs to her fallen instrument thinking all is lost, her life is over, and her parents will surely disown her. And to top it off, it’s a rental.
This is usually the time in life when a young musician realizes that 1) string instruments aren’t invincible, and 2) bridges aren’t actually glued on. Who knew?
From food to furniture to clothing to vehicles, the modern era has redefined the production of life’s staples through the use of assembly lines, man-made materials, and machines. But when it comes to string instruments, there’s a reason why violins aren’t made of plastic, commercially manufactured and slapped together with duct tape.
For one, that would sound terrible. Really terrible. But has it ever occurred to you that your instrument is supposed to come apart?
For example, did you know . . .
The bridge is held in place by the pressure and tension of the strings. As strings stretch and tighten over time, the bridge may even lean towards the fingerboard and can be adjusted by hand. And if you were to *remove all the strings at once, the bridge would simply fall over.
*This is not recommended, especially while changing strings. Replace strings one at a time to keep the bridge properly positioned and tension on the sound post.
The tailpiece is suspended and held in place by the tension of the strings.
The sound post (the wooden dowel seen through the f-hole) is also held in place by friction and the pressure and force of the strings on the face of the instrument. Loosening or removing all the strings creates the risk of the sound post falling, which can greatly affect the sound production and quality of your instrument. The sound post can even be moved to affect the sound of the instrument for better (or worse!).
The endpin is not glued in but can usually be pulled out by hand.
Tuning pegs aren’t glued or secured in place (obviously, as you have to turn them) but are simply held by the friction created by raw wood on wood. If the pegs are difficult to turn and are sticking (sometimes creating a cracking or creaking sound as you turn the pegs), applying a substance called peg dope acts as a lubricant.
The face, ribs, back, fingerboard, and neck are glued in place using a water-soluble adhesive called hide glue. Hide glue, which is actually made from animal hides, has been long-used in woodworking and lutherie. The water-soluble characteristic of hide glue allows instruments to be easily taken apart and put back together without damaging the wood, which aids in both assembly and repair.
So why are violins meant to come apart? If they weren’t, parts couldn’t be replaced or repaired easily, especially without sacrificing the entire instrument. Fingerboards, nuts, bridges, tailpieces, endpins, and even necks can be replaced and restored as individual pieces of a larger and beautifully crafted puzzle.
At Kennedy Violins, we take great pride in upholding the historic tradition of handmade string instruments. As each violin, viola, cello, and bass is hand-crafted, setup, and inspected by professional luthiers, you can be confident that every piece of your instrument is expertly constructed and in its place. Top that off with Kennedy Violin’s Lifetime Warranty and you can expect your instrument to truly last a lifetime.
And that’s even more impressive than your nephew’s Lego collection, if I do say so myself.