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How mad would I be to take the top off a violin?

Edited: August 17, 2022, 5:35 AM · I've got a Gewa Maestro 11.
The blanks cost about 400USD from the factory. I paid about 800 for one set up by a luthier. Then I paid another luthier 200 to lower its action to match that of my French violin.

AndrewH mentions modern instruments being bright. This is true of the Gewa - well, it has a nice sweet treble. It's also true of Yamaha guitars - crystal clear treble. Problem is, Yamaha guitars and the Gewa violin have no bass.

I wonder if the Gewa has a massive bass bar. I'm thinking of getting an endoscope to see.

But arguably the instrument is not worth the money of paying another luthier to go inside it and shave the bass bar down, unless that results in a surprisingly good instrumemt, which would indeed surprise me.

So I'm wondering about the sanity of doing it myself.
The biggest risk is breaking something while removing the top.

Replies (38)

Edited: August 17, 2022, 5:36 AM · Completely! Why do you think shaving the bass bar would increase the bass? I recommend consulting someone who knows first, but not the one who charged you 800USD for a set-up that would normally be about 200.
Edited: August 17, 2022, 5:41 AM · I saw an Olaf video about a lumpen bass bar and its effect on bass.

"but not the one who charged you 800USD for a set-up that would normally be about 200."

You have mis-read. The factory blanks lack tailpiece, pegs?, soundpost, strings, bridge etc. 800USD bought me a violin - a 400USD blank with those things added for an extra 400USD.

August 17, 2022, 5:48 AM · Greetings,
I guess it depends on why you are doing it. On the one hand, it doesn’t seem sensible if one is concerned with getting the best possible instrument/set-up as quickly as possible and getting on with learning/playing the violin. On the other hand, if one is focused more on what makes the violin tick, satisfying one’s curiosity and just generally learning about stuff by experimenting, then why the heck not? IT’s your money anyway.
Cheers,
Buri
August 17, 2022, 6:04 AM · It's just my spare violin, insured for 1k - certainly it's what most of you would refer to as a VSO. I've already got a set of soundpost tools, btw.
As long as I don't break the top, it will cost another 200 for a luthier to put it back together again. My use of the word "mad" should have indicated that I'm not 100% serious. Yet.
August 17, 2022, 6:24 AM · OK, maybe not so mad then. The only time I took the table off a violin was when the bottom block came loose after I removed the tail pin. It was an "interesting" (according to the Gardiner Houlgate auctioneer) old hulk whose hand-written label said Carlo Bergonzi. I got it back together well enough but it played abominably so I consigned it to a different auction house and got most of my £250 back.
Edited: August 17, 2022, 8:00 AM · It's not totally mad but depending on the glue they used it could be a frustrating and tedious endeavour (frustrating in that you could crack the top, particularly at the neck and bottom joints). Also consider that there's a lot more to strong low end than just taking a few hairs off the bass bar. It might make it a bit better or it might make it a lot worse.
I don't recommend it but if your curiosity can't be satisfied then it's up to you.

A safety razor blade can be used to get it started if you don't have a super thin knife.

Edited: August 17, 2022, 8:09 AM · At the moment my genuine curiosity only extends as far as looking at the bass bar with an endoscope to see just how big it is. If it looks like a double-decker bus, then my curiosity may be further stimulated. If it looks normal, then I will look around for an antique German violin and put the Gewa on Ebay.
August 17, 2022, 8:59 AM · I think you can probably just remove the tailpiece and endpin (put a cloth under the tailpiece and try to keep pressure so the soundpost doesn't move) and inspect/photograph through the tailpiece hole (with sufficient light).

I'm also skeptical that the cause is a heavy bass bar. I think the cheaper instruments do run bright, and I'd guessed that was some combination of weight, wood, and varnish (and strings and bows and maybe bridges that are too high). There are a lot of variables in there you can address. Maestronet tends to be pro-tinkering, so you could ask them.

Edited: August 17, 2022, 9:39 AM · Have you considered experimenting with different strings and SP adjustments?
Edited: August 17, 2022, 10:00 AM · @Gordon - One other thing you can get to look into the VSO: a dentist's mirror. I have seen luthiers use those, and it is not expensive as far as I know. It should go through the f holes and give you a way of looking around.
August 17, 2022, 10:03 AM · I have done it on a few violins. These were either early 1900 german factory instruments, cheap student instruments or in one case it was built by an amateur maker. In 2 cases the bass was weak and the whole instrument was very heavy. The top felt very stiff before taking it off - normally you can flex it a bit - and on one of them it was 6-7 mm thick in most places. I ended up regraduating both plates and fitting a new bass bar. They are still not brilliant instruments, but much better sounding than before. On one violin I removed the top in order to repair some large cracks.
These were all instruments that I paid very little for at auctions. I think the most expensive was the equivalent of 50 USD. I bought these instruments as learning tools to play with sound post setting etc. I would never dream of taking the top of any of my finer instruments.
You will need to make a lot of spool clamps to glue the top back on. The opening knife can be made from an old table knife with a thin blade. Search Maestronet - there is good info there.
Edited: August 23, 2022, 3:13 PM · Gordon, isn't the real question how mad you would have to be to put the top BACK ON a viola?
August 17, 2022, 11:59 AM · If you like tinkering with things and want to start an involved hobby of tinkering with violins because the activity itself appeals to you, then fine.

If you think it's a practical way to achieve a desired end and the only reason you have for doing it is you seek a certain outcome, then leave lutherie to the luthiers. In this case you are circling a rabbit hole which runs the risk of getting you nowhere and taking time and resources away from what is presumably your real goal: playing violin, preferably on one that you enjoy the sound of.

August 17, 2022, 12:19 PM · Just so you know, the glue used to put them together is more like casein than hide, and they don't come apart easily.

You may do damage to the top, so you have to be able to repair your damage. Save the splinters and glue them back in, with hide glue, same for the repairs.

Never having done this before, you'll probably get cracks on the sides of the neck and adjacent to the saddle.

That said, so long as you don't mind a total financial loss of the instrument, go for it.

August 17, 2022, 12:39 PM · Why do you think the violin would be glued with casein? Hide glue is normally used. The important thing is to go very slowly with the opening knife and let the glue crack instead of being cut. Look up some videos on YouTube. It can be difficult to get the knife in unless there I an open seam already. One way is to use a wooden block against the top from below and knock on that lightly with a small hammer or the handle of a screwdriver to create an opening for the knife. But be careful not to cause a crack or damage the edge. Don't do it right next to the neck as there is no reinforcement by the purfling there so the risk of making a crack is higher.
August 17, 2022, 1:54 PM · Bo,

I am a violin maker and have owned a shop for many years, and have had the (dis) pleasure of having to take these apart.

What makes me think that it is casein/white glue? Because I've had them apart.

August 17, 2022, 2:09 PM · OP, if your primary objective is to obtain a better-working-and-sounding violin for the lowest cost, I will recommend finding one which already fulfills you needs, over spending hundreds to thousands of dollars trying to make a silk purse out of sows ear. Unless you are a masochist. ;-)
August 17, 2022, 4:05 PM · So Gewa use casein or white glue? Why would they do that?
The 1/2 violin my children used is a Gewa - hope I never have to take that apart ;-)
August 17, 2022, 5:39 PM · I feel like this thread kind of affirms that "survival bias" discussion in the recent Chinese vs vintage violin thread, where people are more likely to disassemble unsatisfactory violins but probably leave nice violins to the professionals.
August 18, 2022, 9:43 PM · I definitely have survival bias.
August 19, 2022, 3:40 AM · I've got a dentist's mirror, but I can't really see anything with it.
August 19, 2022, 8:17 AM · @Gordon - sorry the dentist mirror did not work. I have seen my luthier use one to examine the violin's interior.
August 19, 2022, 8:44 AM · It's dark in there. Dentist's mirrors with a light and a battery in the stick won't get far through the f-hole. I use a roll of fairy lights.

August 19, 2022, 9:33 AM · The mirror through the treble f-hole, and a lamp shining through the bass hole works fine.
And peering through the end button hole allows checking the soundpost fit and angle.
August 19, 2022, 10:46 AM · To take the top off, you need two things:

1. A knife modified for the task: thin, sharp edge to work into the seam, with a modest wedge profile to stress the cut and cause the glue to crack cleanly, and

2. The patience to deal with separating the top, bottom and corner blocks from the top. These locations are where the real disasters can occur.

To put the top back on requires a bit more of a financial investment: a set of clamps designed for the purpose, a glue pot capable of heating water to 150 deg F range, some good quality hide glue, and a small brush.

Regluing a top is not difficult but also is not trivial. Hide glue can setup rapidly.

Finally, there is the reason you want to operate on the violin: get better bass response. This is going to be a real hit-or-miss proposition and here is why. You need to increase the flexibility of the top to get better bass response.

The main ways to increase the flexibility requires the removing of mass: lighter bass bar, thinner plate. Removing mass tends to INCREASE the treble and REDUCE the bass response. The very thing you want to do to improve the bass response also works against that objective.

If you have your heart set on brutalizing your poor violin, you might try sanding/scraping the top to thin the plate, then refinish the top with a simple, colored spar varnish. Try taking off 5g of weight at a time and try it out. You will be shocked at how much sanding/scraping you have to do to remove 5g.

The best advice offered so far is definitely by David Burgess: use your time and money to find an existing violin that has a better bass response.

August 19, 2022, 10:53 AM · Also, on the issue of glue used for tops: the general practice is to use a "weak" hide glue so that the top will pop off cleanly with little to no wood damage. But this is by no means a guarantee.

It would be rare to encounter a modern or old trade violin that used non-hide glue to attach the top, unless it was serviced by someone with limited knowledge of standard repair practice.

August 19, 2022, 3:42 PM · you don't want a violin top knife to be sharp otherwise it will cut into the top or ribs

Chinese trade violins commonly don't use hide glue

August 20, 2022, 8:18 AM · I think "bass bar" is a misleading term. From my experience and experiments, you can make rather radical changes in the bar without much effect, and it is the rest... arching, plate stiffness and weight (both of them), wood properties... that make the difference in the bass and elsewhere in the sound spectrum.

Unless you want to invest in the tools to do the complete job (and several VSO's to destroy gaining the skills and experience), I'd say that the current proposed idea would not get positive results. If you really want to dive in, advice from the experts on Maestronet would help.

August 25, 2022, 2:58 PM · When I noticed the title of this discussion, my first thought was, "those nice people in white coats must be well on their way by now . . ."
Edited: August 25, 2022, 3:14 PM · Further to Don's post, I am currently forced to use the Gewa 5 days a week until late September. It has Zyexes on it now, so I'm not sure how that has affected it, but I was forced to abandon concern about quantity of bass for concern for quality of bass, i.e. different bowing and fingering technique. That is probably better than taking the top off.
August 30, 2022, 3:14 PM · If you are trying to get rid of the brightness, would a slightly thicker sound post have an effect I wonder, just a thought and not a suggestion.
Edited: August 31, 2022, 6:23 AM · It's not a bright violin - it's a normal violin with weak bass. Having said that, it doesn't seem so bad nowadays with Zyexes. I can't remember what I've had on it in the past - either Dominants or Tonicas or both.
August 31, 2022, 8:04 AM · "The main ways to increase the flexibility requires the removing of mass: lighter bass bar, thinner plate. Removing mass tends to INCREASE the treble and REDUCE the bass response."

Carmen, I read (I think from Carleen Hutchins) that in plates the decrease in stiffness wins over the decrease in mass, lowering the frequencies.

August 31, 2022, 12:49 PM · Gordon, if you're already mad enough to want to perform medium-level surgery on your violin, indulging this urge is more than likely to only make the madness much worse. I believe the professional term in the psychiatric profession for the long-term-consequences of going down such a path, is "a major flip-out". :-)

August 31, 2022, 9:16 PM · Wow, that seemingly innocent question (well maybe not so innocent, ha ha) had led to such an informative discussion! This is great.
September 1, 2022, 5:15 PM · "I read (I think from Carleen Hutchins) that in plates the decrease in stiffness wins over the decrease in mass..."
That has been my experience with many regraduations... G and D strings gain low-end and "roundness". Go too far removing wood, and it becomes "tubby". Highs don't change much, unless you start with a student brick. Then you might fill in the high frequencies as well. I wouldn't thin the bass bar unless it was grossly oversized, as it can do non-intuitive (bad) things.
September 1, 2022, 5:29 PM · Thanks, everyone. Since it seems OK with Zyexes, and since my Breton isn't there to compare the two, I'm happy to leave the Gewa alone.
September 2, 2022, 6:32 AM · what a disappointment Gordon, I thought you were madder than that :-)

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