By Liz Lambson
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 end pin against the side of our van on the morning of a performance. Propping a bass standing up like that is asking for tragedy. He walked away, 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, micro-mesh, 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 well made and maintained. I was thinking the other day, it seems people are really comfortable gluing 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 re-glued.
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 Scroll box: Here's a fairly common and frustrating malady. The pegs, which are held in place by friction in the scroll box/peg box can put so much pressure on the scroll box (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 gluing or splinting the scroll box 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 Chin rest: Depending on the location of the crack, the chin rest 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 chin rest 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 micro mesh or pumice/rotten stone 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 re-carve, 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 play ability, 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.