It’s a lot of fun to repair your own fiddle.
I have one fiddle that 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.
That brings me to an important point. There is one rule which you should bear in mind whenever you touch an instrument with a mind to fixin’ her.
Never, EVER do anything that cannot be completely undone later.
This is particularly true with older instruments, which are not only beautiful to play and listen to but are works of art in their own right. Okay, so a workshop fiddle from the Mittenwald may be no Mona Lisa, but it’s on a par with the old etchings that were produced in similar numbers and are now so sought after.
With my old fiddle, I have done nothing that can’t be undone. I repaired her tragically splintered top using proper luthier’s hot hide glue and tiny cleats of top-quality instrument-grade spruce. Someone had committed the cardinal sin of stripping the varnish, and I know my own limits there, so I finished her with French Polish, which sits on the surface of the wood and can be removed completely with alcohol, which itself evaporates and leaves no residue. I made no changes to the structure of the violin. A real restorer could easily take her back to the state she was in when I found her and perform a complete restoration, and you would never know I had done anything at all. Indeed I hope that after I am dead and gone, someone will do just that, and give her another two hundred-odd years of music-making.
With violins we are actually quite lucky because so many of the parts are not actually “of the violin” but effectively are “consumables.” These include the tuning pegs, endpin, bridge, saddle, top nut tail-gut and tailpiece. All of these may be replaced by the player. Maybe you won’t get it quite right first time, but the learning itself is fun. More structural, and to be treated with much more care, are the sound-post and the fingerboard. Nevertheless, these too will have to be changed sometime in the life of the violin, and they can be replaced by the player.
If you are a fiddler on a budget you should know that it is still possible to find very old European violins that need a little work to turn them into really very nice instruments indeed, at very affordable prices. Almost invariably these instruments are light-years better in sound and quality that the kind of new instruments that sell for up to a thousand pounds or even much more, and as for the junk Far-Eastern fiddles that crowd the bottom end of the market, trust me, it won’t take but six weeks for even a complete beginner to realise he or she is playing a cigar-box on a stick. (Since first writing this I have discovered some very nice Chinese-made violins and I will do a piece on that later. However the old “Skylarks” and the likes are to be avoided.)
Any French, Bohemian or German violin made before WW2 will be a decent instrument, even if it did come out of one of the factories in Mittenwald or Mirecourt, and anything with a “real” name on it will be a damn fine fiddle. Furthermore there is absolutely no doubt that the best thing of all for a violin is age, the more the better, and there are huge numbers of really nice fiddles around made between 1880 and 1939.
Often these instruments can be picked up for under a hundred Euros, which is ridiculous when you think what they compare to (or what smart violin boutiques would charge for them after a good clean and a new set of Dominants….) I will discuss what to look for in the search for an old instrument later, but for now we’ll assume you already have an old fiddle or at least have one in mind and want to know what is involved in getting her to play properly. Perhaps you are a player, or maybe you or one of your kids has a fancy for the instrument and there’s that old fiddle Granddad had still up in the loft….Dang, I’m sure the old guy said it was a Strad…..
Also published on Medium.