Ideas for making a VSO playable?

February 26, 2015 at 06:33 PM · Hi,

A student recieved a VSO for xmas from her very supportive and very low SES family.

I've put on good strings and given her a bow that works, but the pegs don't fit and the bridge is not shaped. I'd use school money to take it to a luthier but they won't (for good reason) have a bar of it. Plus, the price of the luthier is way more than the violin...

Is there anyway I can fix the ill-fitting pegs and bridge without specialised tools to make it playable? Atm. the pegs slip and it's hard to play on the unshaped bridge, but I don't want to attack anything without advice.

I think any attempt I make to make it playable while she spends a year or so saving for something better would both make he father feel better about his purchase and give me a spare violin for the girls on the waiting list.

Replies (20)

February 26, 2015 at 07:20 PM · Is this a full size instrument?

A peghole reamer and a peg shaver are pretty much needed. But these are not cheap. So unless you are going to do this somewhat frequently, maybe it doesn't justify the cost.

Fitting a bridge is not that difficult and doesn't require anything more than a sharp knife and some sandpaper. It just takes a lot of patience. You might want to get a book on violin repair.

February 26, 2015 at 10:36 PM · Hunt around on YouTube..

February 26, 2015 at 11:41 PM · Place a little chalk into the peg holes and spin the pegs while applying moderate pressure (not so much that you would split the peg box). Unless the holes are extremely mishappen, this should smooth out the surface of the holes.

Now rub a little hard soap on the pegs where they will touch the peg holes and spin the pegs again. In many cases this will make the peg action smooth enough to tune the string and also hold the tune with a little push of the peg into the hole as one turns it.

The bridge can be a tricky issue. A common problem is an unresponsive G and sometimes D string. You can sometimes resolve this problem by making the bridge lighter.

A simple way is to get some 150 grit sandpaper and rub a bridge face across it. The top of the bridge should be around 1.5mm thick and the feet should be around 4.5mm thick. So think of sanding a slant along one face of the bridge from top to feet.

You can go a little thinner if it seems to improve the G string response to the bow. But only tenths of a mm or else the bridge might become so weak it can snap.

VSO belly plates tend to be very thick and this can place the sound post sweet spot quite a distance from the treble foot. A crude test of sound post position goes something like this.

Remove the strings, bridge and tailpiece. Sharply tap along the bass bar with a finger tip or knuckle. For the most part the sound will be dull and quickly decay. But there should be a spot where it sounds louder or sharper than everywhere else.

If that spot does not match the location of the bass foot of the bridge, then a sound post adjustment has a good chance of improving the sound and response provided the tap spot is not too far away from the location of the bass foot.

Move the sound post in the direction you want to move the tap "sweet spot". So if the tap spot is more towards the scroll, move the sound post towards the chin rest and vice versa.

February 27, 2015 at 12:41 AM · Well, that is why on most student violins there are fine tuners on 4 strings. Use the chalk, tune the violin once using the pegs and re-tune it using fine tuners. You may need to use the pegs after a while, but if they can hold in one position, why bothering at all?

The alternative is to find a luthier who does "pro bono" repairs for community orchestra / school, such as "Il sistema".

February 27, 2015 at 05:34 AM · "Fitting a bridge is not that difficult and doesn't require anything more than a sharp knife and some sandpaper. It just takes a lot of patience."

You, obviously, have never fit a bridge!

I help people out with these things when they have no other options. I agree with asking the local luthier to help "pro bono". Most of us don't mind doing that, on occasion, and if you throw them some work from the school or your students (meaning-tell your students to go to luthier x because they help you and your students!) it might help.

Some VSOs can't be helped, but you can't really judge that.

Where are you?

February 27, 2015 at 08:16 AM · Before he recruited his made-redundant optical instrument maker friend (who had also made his own viola) as technician for the borough schools stringed instruments scheme, my father had to fit his own bridges. The technique he employed with the feet was to lay thin sandpaper on the belly of the violin and rub the bridge up and down on it. I would say that the instruments the pupils played on were a little better than VSOs.

February 27, 2015 at 09:28 AM · Before trying to play with the soundpost, find its exact position, sideways and lengthways, with a slit visiting card; ans see if it seems upright.

Then move the preferably fitted bridge a little in all directions to see if the tone improves a little. then you will have some idea what to ask a luthier.

My own viola spoundpost fell during its first weekend home. All luthiers we closed, so my dad made me a soundpost setter out of a piece of brass O-guage rail. I still use it!

February 27, 2015 at 10:11 AM · I make violins and have fitted more than a dozen bridges. It is not difficult if you are willing to spend five to eight hours working very carefully. It is definitely not as difficult as learning the Paganini Caprice #1. LOL.

February 27, 2015 at 10:15 AM · One VSO that I helped fix had a sound post that had the wrong length with improperly trimmed ends. After fitting a new sound post, the sound improved dramatically. So if the VSO is a $50 Chinese instrument, very likely the sound post needs a check.

February 27, 2015 at 10:30 AM · Some of the makeshift suggestions here may be helpful on this particular violin. I thought, however, that someone should mention in this thread that many of these are things which should not be done on a better violin. Others may disagree, but Duane and I are formally trained, full-time professional makers and repairmen.

February 27, 2015 at 04:21 PM · Good point. I only use my brass setter on VSO's.

I'm quite good at it, but i takes me hours.

February 27, 2015 at 05:11 PM · That is a tough situation. I hate explaining to families that their instruments aren't playable or that their efforts at home repairs need to be redone by a professional. However, it sounds like it really isn't salvageable. Would it be possible to rent for a year instead of saving to buy a better one? That way she could get started right away on something that will stay in one piece. I know it won't be fun to tell dad he got ripped off, though.

February 27, 2015 at 05:20 PM · A perfectly playable Eastman violin can be had for around $300. I have seen violin rental at $15 a month. Some shops offer rent-to-own programs.

February 27, 2015 at 10:11 PM · At the end of the road if all else fails there's always the conversion-to-ukulele option ;)

February 27, 2015 at 10:20 PM · What size is the violin?

February 27, 2015 at 10:29 PM · Converting to a ukelele would take more work than refitting pegs, bridge, and soundpost. :)

How about prying open the top and turn it into an educational prop? I don't think many students have seen the inside of a violin in person.

February 27, 2015 at 11:37 PM · Here's the "how to" about fixing that VSO:

February 28, 2015 at 01:45 AM · Trevor wrote:

"At the end of the road if all else fails there's always the conversion-to-ukulele option ;)"

Trevor, you got somethin' against arch-topped quarter-sized banjos? :-)

Anish, you sound like you're up to some major good, so if someone like you showed up at my door with the fiddle, I'd probably see if it was possible do a quickie for free.

February 28, 2015 at 02:04 AM · Not at all, David. Some of my banjo-playing friends in Irish sessions in pubs are quite capable of grabbing a temporarily unattended fiddle and effecting an instant conversion into a small arched banjo with their banjo pick ;)

February 28, 2015 at 07:58 AM · Fitting bridges is an entire field of study by itself.

I've had the privilege of learning just a bit about it from friends who are luthiers, and the amount of detail and time that can go into a good bridge is astounding.

As a school director, I've had to cut and fit a number of bridges to make our budget for instrument maintenance go as far as possible, and I just have to say, cello bridges are a pain to work on. And I won't even touch the bass bridges...nor would I do it for anything beyond the sub-$1000 student instruments.

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