After a little while in the violin world, I know you will have seen this reaction: you have just gone into your friendly music shop and said, “My fiddle needs a new bridge. Can you sell me one?” You are shocked as the light outside dims, the interior of the shop becomes gloomy and the owner, in a voice that would render the bravest heart weak, intones, “You must never, ever, attempt to do any work on your violin yourself. Oh no. That is for the luthier to do. Now get ye hence and practise your scales.” And he refuses to sell you a bridge blank and you scuttle off with your tail between your legs thinking that everyone else in the shop must now consider you an uneducated oaf.
Well, you’re not.
Fiddlers and violinists
You’re a fiddler, not a violinist to start with, and there is a great tradition of fiddlers working on, maintaining and sometimes even building from scratch, their own instruments.
Now I realise that if you have a prize violin that cost as much as a house, then, you know, maybe you should let someone else look after it. But then again, maybe you should put the damn thing away and not even breathe on it, just in case. Good grief, just letting the poor dear hear fiddle music…And, if you are the type who can’t put up a set of shelves without wrecking the house, maybe you ought to stick to sawing the cat-gut. Not everyone is cut out for this handiwork thing, and there’s no need to be ashamed if you aren’t one of ’em. And here’s my get out, so listen up: if you attempt one of the procedures I describe, and turn your Strad into tinder-wood, don’t even think about blaming me. You bollocks it up, it’s your problem. Every technique I describe here I have tried on my own violins, and they are just lovely, thanks.
Having said that, there is nothing at all in the maintenance of a violin that is beyond the abilities of a competent amateur woodworker. Most of the items we will be discussing are replaceable anyway, so you can’t really do any harm, as long as you’re careful. If you over-cut a nut or shave too much off a bridge, you can just get another one and start again. There are some maintenance procedures which, if done carelessly, could have serious consequences, the most notable of which is replacing and setting the soundpost, but we will get to those, and I will give you fair warning that you are about to do Something Dangerous. Note, I am talking about maintenance here. This is routine work, the sort of thing you’ll need to do to any old fiddle to get it to play, the sort of thing all instruments need regularly. Real repair will almost always involve opening the instrument up and though I will be discussing that later it’s up to you to decide whether you are up to the challenge. If in doubt, don’t do it.
Repair and restoration are not the same
Nor is this about violin restoration. That is an entirely different subject and is an art in itself. This is routine maintenance, the sort of stuff that, if you louse it up, any luthier will quickly fix, after rolling his eyes heavenward and muttering something rude about amateurs. A fine restorer can do things with an instrument you would not think possible, and the process is easily as delicate and skilled as building an instrument from scratch, in many ways much more so. A restorer treads the fine line between recreating a beautiful work of art, perhaps of considerable value, and ruining it forever. Indeed, even most luthiers are not qualified to carry out serious restoration, they really are just repair men and builders, highly skilled perhaps, but without the specific experience and knowledge that would, for example, allow them to accurately match the eighteenth-century varnish on a violin and then touch in damaged areas so that the repair was invisible. Skill like that takes a lot of acquiring, and it costs.
If you have a nice old fiddle that needs some work, read this series of articles and then decide if you have the skills necessary to make a decent job before you do anything, and if in doubt, find a good luthier, or even a restorer, to do the work for you. Be warned that the costs of good restoration will quickly mount, and more so if the instrument is valuable.