Violin resurrection

January 5, 2014 at 04:34 PM · I am considering to buy a very good sounding old violin inspired by Stainer model, with a long body (364mm). The issue I am pondering about is the condition of the top; the middle part of the violin, approximately between the f-holes has a depression starting right from the bass bar (which has held bass side quite well) and stretching underneath the area between the bridge and the end of finger board. That area is flattened, like someone removed the top layer of the board and levelled it. A test has been performed using the magnet tool and the thickness of that area and other pars of the top and the belly is within expected.

A procedure to fix this is an arch recovery.

My major concerns are:

1. The impact on the sound quality; the violin sounds great tuned @ 415Hz and I would be sad to lose it.

2. The possibility for belly to sink back again over time; is the condition fully reversible and repair stable? Common sense is telling me that some sort of re-enforcement (sound post patch, thin braces or a plate?) would help the structural stability, but would most likely affect the sound.

Apart from that condition, the violin is in a quite good shape; no major cracks, no sound post crack and no crack on the back.

As per the cause.... current owner acquired this instrument in 1971 from a reputable shop. The shop claims that violin did not have this condition at the time of sale. So, the depression developed gradually over a span of 42 years. The violin has not been used a lot. It appears that the main culprit is the case: a sturdy one, but too low for this high-arched violin!

As you may have noticed, I am not too concerned about the financial aspect of the repairs, a long as they are reliable and the sound is still great.

Has anybody had experience with this type of repair and what has been the outcome?

Thank you!

Replies (29)

January 5, 2014 at 05:42 PM · Pictures available upon request.

January 5, 2014 at 05:44 PM · Hello,

It seems you have a violin that you like a lot and don't care about the cost of the repairs. Before I leave this point I have to say that assuming the violin is an old German and a very large model, you will not get your money back should you wish to sell in the near future.

I would go for the remedy no.1 as it takes much less time to perform and it gives permanent results. It's standard procedure. As far as sound is concerned, when the original arching is brought back, that would relax the top plate and produce a different sound compared to what you hear now. The sound will most likely be better, but I don't know what you consider to be good tone on a violin.

Definitely apart from the re-arching of the top the violin will need a new sound post and bridge, if not a new bass-bar.Only these changes will alter the sound considerably.

On the other hand if you decide not to operate on it, how can you be sure that the flattening of the top will not go on until it cracks.

January 5, 2014 at 08:12 PM · Buying a violin that immediately needs a major repair like this is crazy talk.

January 5, 2014 at 08:24 PM · My concern would be how it got this way, and what would prevent it from happening again.

The big depression is on the trebel side; was the soundpost set way too far from the bridge? And if so, is that why it sounds good, and sounds lousy when the post is put in a more normal position?

If the soundpost was in a normal spot, I would imagine that this distortion would come back again.

January 5, 2014 at 08:26 PM · Agree with Scott.

For all intents and purposes that fiddle might be getting to the end of it's life. It's not a Strad.

My understanding is that a proper repair would mean making a cast and using the hot bags to press it in original shape. It will very likely fall in again although not as quickly if you use gut strings and baroque tuning. A more permanent fix would probably mean a very large patch. Personally I would never buy a fiddle like that; bought a cello once with that sort of problem. Never again.

January 5, 2014 at 08:33 PM · Proper thickness doesn't tell you the whole story.

The arching is very important as well and that is what seems to cause the problem.

January 5, 2014 at 10:28 PM · Rocky, let me make sure I'm understanding you correctly:

You are considering buying a violin because you like the way it sounds?

After the purchase, you are considering alterations and corrections which could dramatically alter the sound?

Doesn't seem like a really great idea to me. Maybe have the alterations/corrections done by the seller BEFORE you make a purchase decision?

As to whether arching corrections stand the test of time:

They generally don't, and need to be redone periodically. The same factors which caused the archings to distort in the first place usually haven't gone away, unless the fiddle is taken into a whole new and better environment.

January 5, 2014 at 11:33 PM · "Maybe have the alterations/corrections done by the seller BEFORE you make a purchase decision?"

Yes, I agree. They need to assume the risk for this. I seem to remember a few years ago that Steve Majesky's Strad had to be sandbagged, and that it took quite a long time. I'm not sure how it came out.

January 5, 2014 at 11:50 PM · Thank you all for valuable opinions and much needed advice!

The sound post is placed on the correct spot and it may in fact have prevented the portion behind the bridge to sink. The top of the case pressed the bridge, so the right foot pushed down, while the area under the left foot had a bas bar as an opposition.

It is not a Strad, but there is a high probabillity that it was made by a famous maker in Salzburg, in 1736. The alternative is a very good copy of the original.

It seems that buying this violin is a no-win situation from purely logical point of view.

My personal challenge is that, apart from a Guadagnini I tried briefly 4 years ago, this is the first violin which sounds really great. I have played on more than a hundred violins in past 6 years, priced from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands, but nothing compares to this one.

Those familiar with good sounding Italian violins perhaps can identify with the experience when every single note, no matter where it is played, is supported by the whole instrument. It is resonant, with myriads of colours and with very clear and precise sound. There is what I call the immediacy and a strong presence of the sound. Playing Bach on this one is way more easier, the middle voices are easily heard and distinguished from the upper and lower. Overtones are abundant... and, unfortunately, David is correct in what I hear now may or may not be there after a set of major repairs.

What is also tempting is that the price is really low.

I guess I will either have to let go, or roll the dice, knowing that this is an irrational gamble that can bring me a substantial financial loss, or a dream instrument.

January 6, 2014 at 12:45 AM · Greetings,

personally I agree with those who are saying this is a very bad ideal but I am puzzled by your comments about being unable to find a violin that sounds great. I can walk into a couple of violin shops here in Japan and find three or four instruments that are superb without much trouble. The price is the trouble....

Aside from the ridiculous tax which makes buying a violin here a truly stupid thing to do, I know that under a certain price range you have to essentially chose between a a big sound and nice range of colors/sweetness. Go above that stop off point and the violins are there. My violin is 19 years old and almost good enough to keep me happy....

Cheers,

Buri

January 6, 2014 at 07:34 AM · Rocky,

your decision is purely economic. Can you afford the loss if the project fails and the violin is unusable? If the project fails, you have a wall decoration, possibly quite expensive.

If you can absorb the loss, go for it and try to put the expense of the repair on the seller before purchase to minimize your risk as advised in above posts. If he/she agrees you are off the hook and after repairs you can decide if you still like the violin. If the seller does not agree the risk is all yours. If you proceed with the project you need to find an experienced restorer.

January 6, 2014 at 11:00 AM · Its naïve to expect the seller to bear the cost of the repair - and also keep the price the same. Surely the current price is fixed because of the flaw - its not something even an uninitiated purchaser is going to miss.

if the seller fixes the violin and the sound is preserved (or improves)they are simply going to ask a higher price because the instrument is now worth more. The only way to come out ontop financially is to assume the risk.

Rocky: you have a very discriminating sound taste - but is it possible you are over influenced by what you hear playing the violin and not enough by what the audience hears? Some of the best performance instruments are not that good to the player's ear. either way, its crazy for you to commit to an instrument that's about to go in for surgery in a region that will surely almost certainly affect its sound.

January 6, 2014 at 03:31 PM · You say cost is no concern, then buy it and fix it or forever wonder what might have been.

January 6, 2014 at 04:00 PM · Rocky that sounds like a very interesting instrument. Salzburg /"Austrian" fiddles can sound very good.

David what do you mean - taking the violin to a whole new environment - ?

January 6, 2014 at 04:35 PM · "Its naïve to expect the seller to bear the cost of the repair - and also keep the price the same. Surely the current price is fixed because of the flaw - its not something even an uninitiated purchaser is going to miss."

No, it's not naive at all. It really depends on who the seller is, and how naive they or the potential buyer is. For example, if it is a shop, they could fix the violin for a minimal price, and may be just fishing to see if some inexperienced buyer will bite.

Yes, a naive buyer could very well fail to notice an arch problem --and buy it for the sound only. And no, the price is almost never "fixed." It really depends on how desperate the seller is. Unfortunately, the OP hasn't said anything about the seller.

However, regardless of who the seller is, the OP has nothing to lose and everything to gain by suggesting that the seller fix the instrument first. The worst that can happen is that they say no and he walks away. If they are rigid, he could offer to split the repair pending his approval after the repair. He really is in control.

January 6, 2014 at 06:04 PM · I don't think it is a good idea to consider the instrument. I learned a long time ago that condition should be the first concern in buying an instrument, Then sound. Not the other way around. There are large numbers of instruments like this which sell for fairly low prices due to the high arching. They don't tend to sound good with a modern setup. They can, though, sound good in baroque or classical condition. A long time ago I bought a L. Widhalm violin which sounded lousy with a modern setup, but sounded excellent with a baroque setup. The condition was great, by the way and I paid a whole lot less then other musicians who were buying Stainers.

January 7, 2014 at 02:18 AM · Thank you again for keeping this discussion alive! I really appreciate all opinions and you are helping me to make my decision. Thanks to all of you who sent me e-mail messages!

@Elise, I recorded myself playing this and my other violins. The impression is the same.

@Eric, yes, I guess it is better to try and fail than not try and regret later.

@Scott, the price is already low.

@Buri, I like the "...almost happy..." part of your post.

What would really be beneficial if I could hear from violin makers / restorers who have done this repair or have spoken with their peers about it and it's results, or more from the owners who have a violin that has gone through this ordeal.

What I would really want to know if any of the re-inforcement techniques has been found to be more effective than the rest.

I do believe that we all are not the owners, but merely custodians of our violins. To paraphrase James Ehnes, if I can, I would like to pass this and every other violin I have had a privilege to play, to another violinist one day in the same or even better condition than it was when I got it.

In this materialistic society of ours, some things are still priceless. Just imagine, if this is indeed the original, the same maker made Mozart's 1st violin! And if it is not, who cares. It still sounds great, and with a bit of luck and a lots of somebody's knowledge and experience it will!

January 7, 2014 at 11:16 AM · Hendrik asked:

"David what do you mean - taking the violin to a whole new environment - ?"

An environment without high humidity, high heat, and without large humidity fluctuations. These things make an instrument much more susceptible to deformation.

I think it was also mentioned that the violin may have been stored in a case where the lid put pressure on the bridge.

Rocky, I've done a lot of this kind of work, and there may be ways to reinforce the arching so it is more resistant to deformation, but it's hard to know from here. But any of these changes, from correcting the arching to adding reinforcement, are likely to change the sound significantly. The best time for major changes like this is between owners, when one musician isn't highly invested in a specific and narrow outcome.

Even when we build a violin from scratch, which gives us control over the highest number of variables, tonal results can be somewhat variable.

January 7, 2014 at 12:30 PM · Thank you David! Well said.

Yes, the lid appears to be the main cause of the sunken top. The pressure was not strong enough to break the plate, but mild, permanent and steady over many decades... with this result.

January 7, 2014 at 07:25 PM · Rocky;

There is a third "way" to accomplish the arch correction. The Beare shop has ben doing some corrections suspending the plate, humidifying specific areas of the arch, and laying in warm sand bags to help the plate find it's memory. This started with 'cello tops, and I've had some encouraging results with larger plates, but Andrew Fairfax mentioned he's had some success with this on violin plates so we did some experimentation last summer when he was with us at Oberlin.

The caveat of any "memory of the wood" method is that little prevents the plate from developing similar distortions at some point down the road (some measures can be taken, but the inherent problem of the build still exists). The plus; It's not a terribly invasive method, when it works... and it can simply be repeated.

That said, I completely agree with David that the best time for this sort of work is between owners... and hand that same advice out to my clients regularly.

Good luck, whatever you do.

January 7, 2014 at 08:02 PM · I'm way, way, way underqualified to participate in this discussion, but I still have an opinion and I'm gonna voice it because on the internet no one knows you're a dog. If you love the sound the way it is, and you buy it cheaply (maybe even talk the seller down a bit!), and of course you buy it a new case that doesn't press on the bridge, and you treat it with great care and string it to A415 with low tension strings and keep it in a stable environment, even without repairs, and you don't expect a high resale value, and the current sound of it gives you joy... I'd say buy it, love it, enjoy it, treasure it. You're no longer putting the stress on the bridge, and it's taken 40 years to get to this state, so I doubt it will collapse anytime soon. Its next "custodian" can try repairing it, or you can do it sometime down the road if you wish.

January 8, 2014 at 02:11 AM · Jefrey, thank you for shedding some light on the restoration process. I wonder if you or anyone else has ever tried a miniature version of lattice braces, as used by Greg Smallman and other guitar makers to reinforce a really thin top plate? Balsa has a lower density and the carbon fibre threads provide additional support.

Tara, great post! That will probably be a viable option at least for time being. In order to minimize tension, I replaced a set of Passione strings with 3 of low gauge Olive strings and a raw Lenzner Supersolo A. Now it sounds quite good tuned to 440Hz.

January 8, 2014 at 06:19 AM · Yes... Some shops (like Wurlitzer for example) do/did occasionally use reinforcement bars, which were essentially long cleats, to stiffen/strengthen weaker tops. These can often be seen set in a spoke-like pattern on the interior of the plate. Occasionally, they are set across the grain. Quartered spruce is the wood of choice for tops.

January 9, 2014 at 04:15 AM · Hello all!

I have decided to buy this violin. Will enjoy playing it for next 7-10 days and then surrender it to a very experienced luthier and violin restorer here in Toronto. After arch is recovered, it will be supported by one or a few long and thin cleats.

I will update this post along the way (perhaps with a few photos), or bump it after everything is done and I finally hear the sound again.

Oh, and in the meantime, will keep practicing hard on my 2010 Wilbaux, so someone else's blessed heart in only 274 years will beat a bit louder when this fiddle stars singing.

Thank you!

January 9, 2014 at 07:25 AM · Excellent Rocky - very exciting. Have you uploaded a pre-treatment sound recording?

[I use soundcloud - you can use it with limited storage for free or pay 3E/mo for 2 hrs. But what I like about it is that you retain copyright to all your recordings - unlike some other places]

June 9, 2014 at 02:16 PM · Resurrected!

I got it back from the luthier 2 days ago and can not stop playing.

Along with arch correction, it got a new bass bar, sound post and bridge - quite a lot that may affect the sound.

Luckily, the old personality is still there.

Strings are more balanced now, G and D got a bit less loud and / or A and E got more powerful. Currently using Olive thin G, D, raw gut medium A (Gamut) and thin Olive E. Every string has a distinct flavour and that makes it very interesting to play.

Will resist the temptation to use medium gauge for time being.

Afterward, will relax E string to D every time I stop playing to prevent the arch from sinking again.

Thank you all for your support!

June 9, 2014 at 07:18 PM · After everything you went through with your commissioned instrument, I'm glad this gamble worked out so very well for you. Congrats.

June 9, 2014 at 08:20 PM · Congrats Rocky, how exciting - when do I get to see the restored lady :) ?

June 9, 2014 at 10:07 PM · Well done - I knew you'd do it!

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