Category Archives: Repair/Recontstruction

Wood & Water: What If My Violin Gets Wet?

“Earth!”
“Wind”
“Fire!”
“Water!”

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, when sealed with a finish, won't absorb water. Varnish on a violin accomplishes this purpose—at least on the exterior. (Photo by Mark Engelbrecht)
Water, when sealed with a finish, won’t absorb water. Varnish on a violin accomplishes this purpose—at least on the exterior. (Photo by Mark Engelbrecht)

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 support@kennedyviolins.com. We are always happy to help!

Face to Face with Shiloh from Kennedy Violins

Continuing our “Face to Face” series, we are excited to introduce the newest member the Kennedy Violins team: Shiloh Congleton. Prior to joining the staff at KV, Shiloh apprenticed one-on-one for several years under an exceptional luthier and master repairman at one of only a handful of shops on the West Coast authorized by C.F. Martin & Co. After performing warranty-related work on Martin instruments, Shiloh’s professional training has given him the ability to recognize the subtle differences that make an instrument perform both as it should and at its best—the latter for which he strives.

shiloh
Shiloh Congleton, Kennedy Violins Luthier

1. How long have you worked at Kennedy Violins?

I have worked at Kennedy violins since Dec. 2013.

2. What is your favorite thing about working at Kennedy Violins and why?

My favorite thing about working at Kennedy Violins is that we are able to offer instruments at almost every price point, enabling most anyone with the desire to play  an instrument to be able to afford one, whether it be through a rental program, an entry level instrument or a high end setup, thereby spreading the power of music as far as we can.

3. What is your favorite instrument/product that Kennedy Violins carries and why?

My favorite product that we carry is the Bunnel violin outfit. Although many of the other instruments that we carry are “better”, I feel that the Bunnel is the perfect balance between affordability and playability. As mentioned in my response to question #2, my favorite thing is putting instruments in the hands of those that wish to play them. Sadly, beginning musicians often quit because the entry level instruments available in their price range are simply of such poor quality that they do not sound good and/or are difficult to play. I feel that our Bunnel line of instruments successfully bridge that elusive gap between affordability and quality.

4. What is your favorite band/musician/composer?

Possibly the most difficult question to answer ever… but my favorite musician (this year) is Peter Green.

5. If you didn’t play the violin/viola/cello/guitar, which instrument would you play?

I would wish to play the cello.

6. Which musician (alive or dead) do you wish you could play with?

I plead the fifth.

7. What are you looking forward to most in the upcoming year?

This year I am most looking forward to completing the instrument builds that I have begun.

8. What is something interesting that we don’t already know about you?

I have two connected toes on each foot!

9. What is your favorite thing to do when you aren’t working at Kennedy Violins?

My favorite thing to do when not at Kennedy Violins is to build instruments and spend time with my beautiful wife and daughter.

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Learn more about the amazing members of our Kennedy Violins staff on our About Us page!

Instrument Setup: How to Set Up a Violin

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!

Violin Parts: All About Fingerboards

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.

fingerboardstevesnodgrass
A fingerboard painted black to look like ebony. Fingerboards made with less-dense white woods usually decrease the value of the instrument. (Photo by Steve Snodgrass)

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.

1. Curve
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.

fingerboardblindrobert
Violin fingerboards are not flat like the fretted fingerboard of a guitar or mandolin. (Photo by Blind Robert)

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.

Ébano
Raw Ebony (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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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?

A Violin is Brought Back to Life (Part 1)

A Violin in Pieces

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.
Figuring Out What Goes Where

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

Clamping Linings

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

Making New Corner Blocks

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!