Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Vuillaume Visits Alf Studios

Restoring the set-up on a 150 year old violin

I have a busy week ahead. I'm making the final touches on my presentation for Prague and selecting wood for my summer violinmaking commissions. In addition, I have repairs to do on a very fine violin that I brought back with me from Hong Kong. While bridges and soundposts are easily changed for tonal reasons, bass-bars require a lot more effort and attention. But they are still very important to the sound.

This week I will be removing the top of a J.B. Vuillaume and installing a new bass bar. Doing this type of work is very helpful for my knowledge of new violin making because it gives me access to the work of great masters of the past. The request to completely re-do the set-up of a fine old violin provides the opportunity to see how my bridges, soundposts, and bass bars work in a violin that is 150 years old.

My client in Hong Kong, owner of the Vuillaume we are working on this week

After removing the set-up, strings, bridge, and tailpiece, etc., the first step was to remove the top. Looking closely, you can see that I am backing my palette knife with a sheet of clear acetate to help protect the underside of the edge.

The first thing one notices when the top comes off a Vuillaume violin is his charismatic autograph on the upper treble side of the back.

We can see a few things here besides Vuillaume's label. There are some signs of a leaky dampit in the distant past and an interesting penciled number: "1924". This violin is from the 1860's, as you can see in the center of Vuillaume's signature in the previous photograph. 1924 is merely the registration number. This took some explaining at customs since only violins that are over 100 years old can enter the USA duty free.

Whenever we do one repair, other things come up that are best attended to while the instrument is open. Here you can see some denting in the soundpost area. To protect the area in the future, and after consulting with the owner, we decided to swell out the denting and glue over a protective veneer. It's also interesting to note the traces of Vuillaume's varnish which seeped through the F-holes.

The first order of business was to remove the old bass-bar. We carved the entire bar away with a gouge until a paper thin veneer of the old bass bar remained. After dampened, it came off in one long strip.

With the new bar finished a 0.4 mm maple veneer was glued over the soundpost area. Alignment marks for the new soundpost were added in pencil.

The owner asked us to install a new set of pegs. As is often the case, we found the taper to be different on each peg hole and they were all different sizes as well. Rather then reaming them all to a standard (but larger) hole, we decided to fill in some of the deviant openings with spiral bushings.

Spiral bushings are long strips of wood cut along the grain which can be used to make small corrections without some problems associated with normal bushings. Here we are gluing in the strips with a white Teflon mandrel.

The last step was to retouch the new work and replace the strings and bridge. It will be interesting to hear the new sound. A good bass-bar often needs some playing in when new.

Next Thursday, I'll post some photos of the wood I've picked for my summer clients: Andrew Winter and Jacob Murphy!



  1. What a fabulous post! Thank you for sharing this: the photos and descriptions make me so happy.

  2. What was it about the violin that made a new bas bar necessary?

  3. This is a wonderful story told so well.

    Thank you,

  4. Hello,
    I am Gouw Edwin, a final-year BA-Music in Hong Kong Baptist University.
    I am doing a thesis about Violin making in Hong Kong.
    I would like to know could I talk to you in person, as I saw from the Photo, the background should be at a violin shop in HK.
    Thank you,