Part Two of the series on how to repair your own violin
Basics of repair
There is a grand tradition of fiddlers who repair their own instruments, as I said. Just because you happen to be a player does not make you useless, after all.
To repair your own instrument gives great satisfaction. I have one fiddle which is over two hundred years old which I found in bits, with all her varnish stripped. She would surely be worth more financially if I had had a restorer fix her, but I did it myself, she sounds and plays wonderfully, and I get a real kick out of the fact that I saved her myself. Because, believe me, she was kindling-wood before.
In the past walls were rendered and plastered with lime. Lime is a truly wonderful material that can be bent to a whole series of uses, but as a render on stone it is unsurpassed. It ‘breathes’, allowing moisture to escape and suppressing damp walls. This is because it is very porous. So why are there damp walls in so many old houses today?
France is divided, basically, into the north, where tuiles plats were traditional roof covering tiles, and the south, where tuiles romaines are found. There is a line just south of Chalon sur Saone where you can see this change quite clearly, and you know you have officially entered le sud, even though the Mediterranean is still hundreds of miles away. I always stop for a glass of wine in a café when I pass this point. Roofs in the north, with their flat tiles, tend to be steeply pitched, whereas in the south the pitch is much more gentle.
Everyone will be familiar with the beautiful poplar trees that make valleys in Burgundy and elsewhere so charming to the eye. Poplar produces straight-grained timber of prodigious length. The wood is soft and easy to cut, and it holds nails very well. It resists splitting firmly because is has an interwoven grain, so it is tricky to plane well; better to use a power plane. But poplar is in any case best kept for rough work.
It has two big disadvantages; it can to warp severely as it dries, so great care must be taken in stacking; and insects just love it. Poplar should never be used unless it is treated or painted, or else the woodworm will have a field day. However, it is reasonably resistant to rot, and as long as it is used with care, is a useful timber. It is cheap and plentiful, light and easy to handle.
Unfortunately, poplar is usually grown individually, in long thin avenues, or as windbreaks along the edges of fields, and more rarely in plantations. Its presence in the beautiful valleys of central France is a great asset visually. However, this causes a problem when it is cut for timber.
Wood is, along with stone and earth, one of the principal materials used in the construction of buildings, and particularly older buildings. The principal varieties used are oak, poplar and beech, known as hardwood in UK. Spruces and pines(softwood in UK) are also much used, especially in new-build. It is important to have some understanding of the nature of wood, its uses in the older house and some sympathy for its virtues as well as its limitations.
Wood is used in a wide variety of applications, and the most important of these are the support structure for floors; the roof timbers and associated work; and the interior finishing timber. Timber is also used in the construction of interior walls and in many areas in the construction of supporting walls.
There are three timbers commonly found in older buildings in France, namely oak, poplar and pine. Other timbers are often found as parts of outhouses and sheds.
Once you have the grip of the instrument under the chin sorted out, the next thing to address is the right hand’s grip on the bow. This can cause a great deal of trouble though in my opinion is not as tricky as the left hand. Again, the secret is to avoid tension; the hand must be relaxed. To do this, all four fingers and the thumb must be in contact with the stick, and all must be curved. This is hugely important. The most common grip errors are for the little or pinkie finger to lock and become straight and rigid. Do not allow this to happen. Another is for the pinkie to lift off the stick, which is also wrong. More subtle and harder to see but just as damaging is for the thumb to become stiff.
Some of these are specialised, and can be expensive, but even after just one set of pegs, you’ll be ahead, and believe me, then you’ll want to do more.
One of the most common problems with old violins is that the pegs are poorly fitted, are not a match to the violin or are just plain old worn out. A fiddle that won’t tune because the pegs jam or slip is a curse. Fitting new pegs is not difficult to do.
Penetrating damp is the result of water coming through the walls.
Once you’re sure no water is coming through the roof by following the previous articles in this category—and the saving grace of that kind of leak is that it is very obvious and marks its presence clearly—the next issue is this one. Here’s an excellent overview of the problem.
I’ll take time for another of my provocative asides here. I’m pretty convinced—actually I am totally convinced—that there is no significant problem of rising damp in most traditionally built houses, at least as long as they have been left that way. Note that last bit. I’ll come back to this later.
Meantime, if we discount the possibility of rising damp in most cases, we must look elsewhere for the source of water and there are two issues to address here.
Damp in your old house and how to deal with it. Part Two in a series explaining where damp in old buildings comes from and what you can do to combat it. Most of the advice is applicable anywhere.
Before worrying about how to get rid of dampness that is already in the house, it makes sense to make sure no more can get it first. There are a number of important areas where unwanted moisture can make it into your house. The roof is the easiest to deal with so we’ll tackle it first.
A good many incomers to France have no idea where to go to get the materials for their DIY restoration of an old French house. I have even heard of British second-homers filling the car boot with bags of cement and bringing it with them, which is laughable. This article is intended to help.