When my beloved Gagliano violin was diagnosed with a big opening in the center seam under the tailpiece last spring, I knew that the fiddle was facing unavoidable repairs. Basically, it needed major surgery, involving taking off the lid.
The fiddle is some 200 years old, and most violins don't get to that age without some bumps along the way. It was always clear to me that my violin has seen some rough days; while the back is intact, the front clearly has been cracked and repaired a number of times. This is in no way unusual -- what's more unusual is to find an old Italian in pristine condition -- that is why certain very special fiddles fetch millions. But as many luthiers can attest, even many of the finest Strads have quite a story to tell, once you open the lid: patches, repairs, wholesale do-overs.
I bought my violin in 2006, after falling deeply in love with the sound and after some four months of thinking about it, showing it to friends and experts, and figuring out financing. I had a feeling that one day my violin would need further restoration, looking at the old cracks. The late luthier Peter Prier, founder of the American School of Violin Making, said to me in our 2010 interview that he was only satisfied with a repaired crack when he could look at it and "it has completely disappeared!" I thought it might be nice to make mine disappear a little more, maybe one day. But this widening center-seam opening forced a reckoning sooner than I'd anticipated.
Where do you go, when your beloved and valuable violin needs major work? I thought about taking it to New York, but I live in the Los Angeles area and I wanted to keep it local. After speaking to a number of colleagues around town, I went to a local luthier that I know personally, who has a reputation for excellent and meticulous work: Nazareth Gevorkian, of Burbank, Calif. When I posted this on Facebook last week, someone asked, "Isn't this the luthier who broke Leonidas Kavakos' bow?" Yes it is. It doesn't matter to me, I've known him for years and I trust him. Enough to put the fate of my most valuable and cherished worldly object in his hands! He's extremely skilled and he did a stunning job. There's a reason Kavakos was going to him in the first place! Absolutely beautiful work.
That said, putting it in anyone's hands was going to be an enormous leap of faith, not to mention a major expense. A restoration like this necessarily takes time, and I also did not quite anticipate how very much I would miss my violin. It was made better by a very generous gesture by Dr. Bill Sloan, who lent me a lovely violin that he himself made (and I'm going to write a separate blog about this!) But did I ever miss my violin, which over nearly 10 years has become part of me. Now and then I just had to call Gevorkian, knowing full well that there was no way he could be finished yet, to reassure myself that, though my violin was in pieces and without its voice for the moment, it was still "alive." (I defy you to find a serious violinist who does not anthropomorphize his or her violin, at least a little!)
I'm happy to report that now, it sounds wonderful, looks wonderful and just seems more stable. I wanted to share the process that it went through, because it's fascinating. Gevorkian sent me pictures from just about every stage of the restoration, and I'm left gawking at the precision of his work. So here are the pictures, and some explanations:
If you have a crack in a violin, you can't necessarily just glue it shut. In the case of my fiddle, the crack was next to the bass bar, and one side was higher than the other. This required arching correction for the top of my violin, to smooth out those bumps caused by the uneven buckling across the top of the violin. This kind of repair involves taking off the top of the violin, and luthiers do not recommend removing the top very often because it’s such a major operation. When they do take off the top, they want to take a good look to see if anything else needs repairing. Besides the crack, the fiddle needed a chest patch and a new bass bar to fit the corrected shape.
First, Gevorkian had to put a protective layer of very thin aluminum foil over the top of my violin so that he could use it to make a plaster cast of my violin top. The foil was sealed around the edges with modeling clay (green, in this case) in order to keep any plaster from getting on the wood.
Here is a picture of the preparation of the cast. The edges are made of cardboard, and there is some chicken wire to make the plaster cast strong, so it won't crack. You can see the top of my violin, covered with foil, on the bottom of the cast.
Here is what the mold looked like, once filled with plaster:
Here is a plaster duplicate of the top of my violin, which Gevorkian corrected on the cast so that it was ready for the next step in the arching correction process.
Below is a step in the arching correction process. The top is placed upside down and clamped over the plaster cast. He did not have a picture of the next step, but I will describe it: once the clamps are in place, a hot sandbag is placed on top of the area that needs correction and left in place to press it for several days. If it needs more pressing, the process is repeated. It usually requires several repetitions to fully correct the arching.
In the above picture, you can see two patches on the right, which Nazareth painstakingly removed, then replaced with one larger patch (the "chest patch") with the wood grain going in all one direction.
Below is the fitting of the new patch, starting with a large block of aged spruce.
Below, the patch has been shaved down.
Here is the completed patch, with a new bass bar. After this picture he darkened the patch to cosmetically match it with the rest of the underside of the violin top.
Gluing on the top involved 28 colorful clamps. The colors actually have significance, relating to the the instrument's contours. The blue ones are concave, and the red and yellow are slightly convex so that they match the edge of the instrument.
After that he did cosmetic work on the top, cleaning and polishing. Then he set and adjusted the soundpost and made a new bridge. And here is my Gagliano violin, fully restored. Many thanks to Nazareth Gevorkian for such a beautiful restoration.
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