jim sergovic luthier
The 1860s violin had a rough life. Through celebration and funeral, joy and woe, work and pleasure, countless songs found voice. Probably a trade instrument, sold to one of the trade musicians who supplied background, accompaniment, and main attractions before radio.
First to a right-handed player and later to a southpaw, a well-penciled calendar kept this fiddle busy for decades. At some point, perhaps in the 1920s, the peg box could take no more abuse. Donated to a church, and into a closet it rested, used as backup to the backup.
Neighborhoods change. The church moved. At their giant rummage sale this gem made its way onto a long folding table covered with relics. Purchased and sold yet again, changing hands from New England into the Keystone was a welcome destiny. This time not to play second fiddle. She is getting the full spa treatment!
Everything looks wrong for this wandering minstrel, but she has backbone and spunk. Incense wafts from the f-holes, Alma Pané informs me. Hmmmmm! Mystery solved? As I ream the peg holes to round, the intriguing smell released from its wood finally explained ~ ~
She’s getting peg hole bushings. I ream the peg holes back to round, insert and glue fitted boxwood peg hole bushings into the holes, and cut them flush with the peg box. Then the bushings get drilled and reamed for new pegs. A lovely experience for any fiddle, the excitement of momentarily returning to life as a violin! But those protrusions of extra bushing are not going to surrender placement without a fight.
Just in time, I discover Zona and their lovely razor saws. With this precision blade I’m able to safely cut within a couple hundredths of the peg box. Far less wood to slice away with my chisel. Papa always said, “Stick with what you’re good at”. I’m better at cutting wood than shaving wood, so there you go!
1860 nears completion. With D’Addario 4/4 Helicore Low Tension strings, 1860 will again be kicking up the hootenanny and serenading lovers, young and old.
While visiting York Pennsylvania luthier Chris Bluett (blu•ETTE), a gent comes into the luthiery with a violin in a paper bag. For sale. Chris makes and sells violins but does not buy unless made by him. The B-Team steps forward. I offer a slim stack of dollars for the shabby fiddle, and walk away a hopeful man.
Tight unblemished top grain, casual adherence to scroll symmetry above the box, and matching pegs caught my eye. As I clamp down on refurbishment, it got better and better. Decades of grime gently removed, Behlen hide glue restoring separated back and top, this gem exposed promising pedigree. Labeled without origin, the top was definitely a better tonewood.
Over a century ago with excellent materials, a craftsperson put this violin together with attention where it matters. Ready again for strings, I consult the foremost authority. With D’Addario Orchestral Strings CSR on speed dial, we come to the same conclusion. Premium strings for this promising centenarian.
D’Addario Kaplan strings are selected. They feel good in the hand, as I string the violin. Almost silky, with superior peg end windings. Stretching “break-in” was minimal. The tone? Phenomenal! After Steve Fields gets used to the slightly different scale length of my set-up, his smile is never far as he runs through his favorites. If I ever get this violin back from him, I may remove the D’Addario Kaplan Vivo set and try the D’Addario Kaplan Amo set. Can’t wait!
Slowly, cello refurbishment inches to completion. With as much time spent correcting my mistakes (learning 57 ways NOT to mix varnish) as with actual progress forward, months have galloped along. Mindful always of Shakespeare’s words: “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well”. I’m learning to back away and contemplate. All good things, however, come to an end.
The top and back, after varnish, I treated with a slurry of wool lube and rottenstone. Experimentation with a fine scratch remover formulated for plastics followed. But what is perfect for nitrocellulose lacquer is not right for varnish. There was a better choice for final polishing.
To internet research I turn. Clues point to North Carolina’s Mohawk Finishing Products. The undisputed expert, Phillip Pritchard, Mohawk Finishing Products Technical Service Representative, is again enlisted. Without hesitation he suggests their own Buffer’s Polish. The product is ordered, shipped, and received.
Upon the cello sides stray marks of top removal, scraping of glue, various blemishes and blisters of a 65 year life, are examined, exfoliated, and finally exit before my eyes. Hand-polishing is not easy work, but with effort comes reward. No need to rush as the cello is so close to completion; half today and half tomorrow. Behlen Buffer’s Polish has a nostalgic smell – reminds me of a bowling alley – maybe a similar polish is used on the hardwood lanes to maintain their gloss?
So with the sides looking ship-shape, I try a little elbow grease on the top. Stunning! I may go ahead and remove the strings/bridge/tailpiece and buff the entire top! And why not? Behlen Fingerboard Oil was shipped with the Buffer’s Polish. This mature cello could use some professional refurbishment of her fingerboard. We’ll keep you updated!
Thousands of years ago Neanderthals used animal glues in their paints to guard their works from moisture. ◊ As pyramids rose from northern Africa, craftsmen used animal glue in casket assembly for their Egyptian Pharaohs. Since the 16th century, hide glue has been used in construction of violins.
Why so popular? Can’t speak for all. For luthiers, exceptional sheer vs. tensile vs. brittle strength make hide glue perfect for exacting requirements. Modern technology has not synthesized an improvement. Baring government mandate, what is not broken will hopefully not be fixed.
Shortly after instruments appeared on my front stoop, it became apparent the small jar of hide glue gifted by a violin technician would soon empty. Every instrument, nearly, had some top separation. Were they all faulty? No. A violin top is glued as close to failure as possible. Humidity and temperature alter the shape of a violin. You want a top to detach from ribs (sides) rather than remain firmly glued, which would lead to a cracked top.
Behlen has a proven track record with ATB with their stringed instrument lacquer. Research shows Behlen hide glue the most popular and trusted. We ordered the gold standard of granular hide glues. Following directions on the can, failure became familiarity. Success followed. Advice from David brought it all together. The Goldilocks Principle. Not too thick, not too thin. Just right. Temperature has a lot to do with it. A digital thermometer is most helpful, in lieu of an actual “glue pot”.
Special thanks to David Michie Violins, 1714 Locust St, Philadelphia, for their donation of older-style cello clamps pictured below.
ANOTHER CENTENARIAN VIOLIN slipped through my door unannounced. Laying its problems before me, 50 years of neglect somehow became acute urgency for repair. Various needs, however, are becoming easier to remedy. Our first order of business? Removing old glue somewhat improperly applied here and there.
Taking a queue from my favorite dental hygienist, I’ve secured the same tools she uses to clean my teeth. It began with a damaged curette, no longer suitable for gentle subgingival cleansing. Within a few years, I had a handful of different shapes and sizes. One thing I noticed? All were stamped Made In U.S.A. on the handles.
Why the local dental group practices exclusively with USA-made dental curettes? Word never filtered back before press time, but it is gratifying to know America is competitive in small precision surgical tools. Perhaps our fixation with a nice smile keeps the USA at the forefront of dental hygiene?
There are two main curette types. 1] A universal Columbia curette. 2] The c. 1940s Gracey curette, invented by Dr Clayton Gracey with the help of Hugo Friedman. A Gracey curette has a lower cutting edge and an upper non-cutting edge. I find the Gracey ideal for cutting glue off delicate wood surfaces.
EVERY FEBRUARY, PETE CLOSES his tailor shop and heads to Greece. Every year he says, “I’ve got to get you my bouzouki, Jim. It needs your attention.” The strings buzz at its 8th fret and up from worn frets. But he never actually gives me his instrument. Until this year.
He opens the case and again explains what he wants, repeating those three magic words every luthier wants to hear, “Whatever you think is best.” Doesn’t he know my favorite Oscar Wilde quote? Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.
“Pete, what about this big crack on top?” Pete had never noticed a clean 6″ crack through its white spruce top. It gets worse. A second top rack. The 12″ separation among its sfendamos side ribs plus a 6″ opening further toward the back. A casualty of a major συμπόσιον; someone must have gotten pretty well knocked on their head with Pete’s bouzouki!
Big jobs are nothing but a collection of small jobs. But after all that gluing and sanding, it’s clear Pete’s bouzouki will want its top refinished. Lacking a spray booth and years of experience, I turn to a name luthiers have trusted for decades. Behlen. I ordered their spray lacquer, prepared the top, and before you know it, I have Pete’s bouzouki on its way to looking like it came out of the Borgada Spa!
A few holes in my knowledge base are quickly plugged. Phillip Pritchard, Mohawk Finishing Products Technical Service Representative, has just returned my call. With his gentle North Carolina accent, he seems respectful even of the nitrocellulose lacquer of which we speak. Phillip’s insights into scuffing, sanding, buffing, polishing, the “Cut & Rub”, are so comprehensive, we link to his reply email.
American Toolbox has restored several instrument, notably Hugh’s Collings mandolin & Santa Cruz guitar, several Guild guitars, a few others. Pete’s bouzouki has been more complicated. Not as hard as Steve Field’s Joh. Bapt. Schweitzer 1813 violin, but major enough. Thanks, Behlen! You made me look like a pro!
Special thanks to Jayne Henderson for her advice and guidance.
After all the work I put into Hugh’s MT2, I thought his problems were over. An Instrument Rescue, an intervention of sorts, had brought new hope into the floundering life of his beloved but demoralized mandolin.
Then a call comes in. “Jim, I have another project for you”. Lights and sirens, we drive over miles of dusty road, deep into county forest, to Hugh’s Shangri-La under the pines. His “new” 2001 SCGC D-Model has arrived, and is in rotation. His 1991 could now get a rest, and a little refurbishment. What was wrong?
Its top is getting a little wonky. There is a crack that stops under the bridge. Dry fingerboard, grooved frets, missing headstock binding, dirt, oils, burns, high action . . . Hugh has led yet another instrument astray. The 1991 has come to me for redemption; I shall guide it to the light.
Strings off, tuners off, deep cleaning. Level, crown, & polish the frets (Hugh’s fourth set in a dozen years, and this time, they were stainless). Pick out some glue on a top crack, reglue, sand, buff, and seal. Oil its fingerboard, install some naturally aged binding, and the tuners went back on.
With a possibly weakened top, we went with a lighter string. D’Addario EJ19 Bluegrass with the light tops and medium bottoms were perfect! The high action was no longer; we did not have to shave the bridge saddle; two strings with one pick, is the saying?
Over two decades old, D619 has amazing depth of tone, clarity, and volume. With fixed frets and settled action, Hugh again has a second Santa Cruz dreadnought on which to practice his interminable bluegrass flat picking. The ’91 definitely has a different sound than his 2001. Deeper, richer, louder. Age has its privileges; the ’91 is always senior spokesman within the bluegrass circle.