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Jonathan Hai

Violin Maker's Wife: One More Tale of a Double Bass

July 6, 2012 at 1:04 PM

Post no. 20
This is my 20th post and I have to say I'm pretty satisfied with myself for having continued this far. I have never written before just for the pleasure of writing – it was always for work-related papers – and I am having a great time writing this blog, and especially getting feedback from my readers (that's YOU!).

Quartet newsflash – in addition to the cello and the viola, work on the soundboard and "f's" of one of the violins has been completed and Yonatan fitted the bass-bar and closed it a couple of days ago. As he is now doing the same thing, for the fourth time, on the last violin, I decided to dedicate this post to a story about a-hundred-years-old, run-down, broken double-bass Yonatan restored and brought back to life a couple of years ago.

It all started with Guy, an artists whose workshop is located behind that of Yonatan's, and who creates furniture, home decorations and even showers from various pieces of… well…junk, that he collects. One day he came into Yonatan's workshop and said he had found an old cello, and was thinking of turning it into a lamp. They often consult with each other – Yonatan and the other artisans – about woodwork, tools, varnish etc. So Yonatan said "sure, bring the cello over". However, when Guy came back, it turned out that he was in possession not of a cello but of a double-bass… well, something that once upon a time, probably around the time the T-Rex walked the earth, was a double-bass…. What it really was at that point was a real piece of junk – a wrecked, worm-eaten, moldy, broken, cracked piece of wood that had the general shape of an instrument.


I personally thought that even a lamp is a way-too-optimistic outlook for this piece of wood, and that it would best serve as bonfire material…. But Yonatan immediately saw the potential of this instrument, and convinced Guy to sell (!!) it to him.
The bass then remained in a corner of the workshop, until there was a slow period and, as Yonatan said "one day I looked at it and it looked at me… and I decided to see what could be done here".

Let me tell you, for the next few months, whenever Yonatan had a quiet moment – between building a viola and a cello and doing various restoration jobs – he invested dozens, and dozens….and dozens… of hours to turn this wreck back into a playing instrument. Upon opening it he found a label that said the bass was produced around 1900 by Karl Hoffner, a company that still exists and is mostly known for its bass guitars, but still to this day produces serially made stringed instruments. The bass, as it turned out, was of a decent quality, better than those being serially made today.

So Yonatan started working on it, both to restore it and, in the process, to upgrade the instrument's qualities, by working on the thicknesses of the sound board, creating and fitting a new bass bar and so forth.

To make a really, really long process short, Yonatan found that he was implementing every single restoration process, methodology and step he had ever learned or heard of. The soundboard required the greatest amount of work: first of all the contours of the instruments, where the purfling should be, were all rotten and eaten away, and had to be redone. This was amazing to watch as Yonatan has a special method of inserting new pieces of wood into the old ones as you can see here:


Then, on the inside, numerous cracks had to be fixed and closed- including two massive ones under the bass-bar and where the sound post (anima) should have been located. Normally, the existence of such cracks basically erases most of the value of a new instrument, but here they were just part of numerous problems…. Then a new bass-bar was put into place and a lot of extra wood was shaven off:


Many of the same processes had to be implemented on the sides and on the back, and then the entire instrument was glued back together. If you think that was it – well, forget it!

The neck of the double bass was broken in numerous places and apparently was fixed in the past by an amateur who caused even more harm to the peg box (where the tuning machine with which you tune the instrument is located). The easiest thing would probably have been for Yonatan to make a brand new peg box, but if you have been following this blog you know that's not who he is. He worked for ten years in restoration of old buildings in Tel-Aviv and medieval castles in Italy – remember? So he took this broken, rotten, mutilated neck and peg box, inserted new wood – and new life – into them, and wrapped it up by performing one of the more labor-intensive procedures in violin restoration called "neck graft" in which a new neck is perfectly implanted into the old peg box.



Then, after he inserted the new neck into the closed instrument, he had to varnish the double bass as all the old varnish was long gone. Wait, not so fast. The new varnish needed to be put in a way that would completely hide the differences between the old, spotted, brown wood and the new, much lighter one. This meant that on each area of the instrument, a different color was used and a different number of layers of varnish was painted… until the entire instrument had the same tonality and you really couldn't tell old from new.

Believe it or not, at the end of this amazingly laborious process, based as much on Yonatan's faith as on his violin-building abilities, the double bass looked and played like a king. As Yonatan said, "it was sheer satisfaction to hear the instrument has come back to life and, when it played, it seemed to thank me for the work I invested and trust I had in it". No wonder – the double bass now was way more Hai than Hoffner:)


If you want to see the entire documentation of this restoration process just click here and scroll down a bit.

To end this 20th post, as one of my readers wrote to me, I never actually introduced myself… so maybe now's the time to do so: My name is Avivit – nice to meet you!!

Here's the time also to ask you, what d'you think so far? Anything you especially like? Anything missing or annoying so far? I'll be more than happy to know. Honestly :)

From Dottie Case
Posted on July 7, 2012 at 4:13 AM
I always enjoy these blogs and find them fascinating to read. Thank you.
From marjory lange
Posted on July 7, 2012 at 6:08 AM
I've enjoyed the whole process of the quartet coming into being--and I've loved the background of getting into your house: luthiers are amazing enough, but luthiers in the midst of their families--special.

Thank you.

From Melinda Keeling
Posted on July 7, 2012 at 4:17 PM
I love it! Absolutely a fabulous and fascinating story and very well told. I enjoy reading every installation and look forward to the next!!!
From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on July 9, 2012 at 5:21 AM
Avivit, I am astonished that you have not written in this style before. As other have said, your blogs are fascinating and very well told. I have had enough experience with English, Italian, and Hebrew to know that grammatically they are all so different. I honestly cannot distinguish your written English from that of a native English speaker who writes well.

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