A Taylor’d Approach for Aug. 3, 2022
A journey through a violin
I’m told my great-grandmother was a child protégé on the violin, one who graced prestigious stages with her music. However, about 80 years ago, her mother had her put down her violin for reasons no one fully understands and she never picked it up again.
From that point on, her violin was handed down through my family. It was stored in different climates throughout dozens of moves and passed through several hands until it landed in mine.
I received it wrapped in bubble wrap, preserved as well as could be managed, but crumbling under the weight of years. Its sides had separated from its body in several places, the wood occasionally cracked and warped. A peg was missing, another had crumbled within the scroll, and the two that remained held onto strings that were curled and broken. Its bridge was absent as well, letting the tailpiece rub and mar the wood, but the original chin rest made of cork remained.
I certainly didn’t inherit my great-grandmother’s exceptional ability, but I have played violin for most of my life. I’ve changed countless strings, swapped out several pieces; I can care for an instrument.
But the care this delicate instrument so clearly needed? I wasn’t sure I could do it. I’ve worked in historical fields enough to know what big deals restoration and preservation are, the skill and knowledge they require to bring things back to stability. I’m not a trained professional and I certainly don’t have the qualifications.
However, I had to acknowledge that the violin doesn’t belong to a museum. It belongs to me. And like the generations that owned it before me, taking the violin in for professional restoration was simply not possible with my budget.
I did some experimental googling to learn what would need to be done to restore the integrity of a violin body, and surprisingly, the more I researched, the more possible it seemed for me to pull off.
Ultimately, I decided I had to try. I couldn’t let it go through one more generation, slowly degrading in bubble wrap because of the absence of a perfect solution. The perfect had been the enemy of the good for too long and as the violin was now in my care, I would do the best I could by it.
I reached out to some friends who work in restoration, as well as a luthier I know in another state and with their helpful advice I set to work bringing the violin back to life.
The first step was to get my hands on a set of special clamps used around the body of the violin to reattach its sides. Waiting for those to arrive from the internet was probably the longest part of the whole process, but with their help I was able to bend the rehydrated wood back into position, with only a little bit of fear, and reattached the sides.
Once the glue had dried and the cracks mended, I was suddenly no longer afraid to touch the violin. No longer falling apart at the seams, it suddenly started to feel more modern. After all, violins haven’t exactly changed much in the last century. And this solid thing in my hands? I knew this. I had handled these for years.
With bolstered confidence, I moved onto the pegs. The two that remained stayed in their place, but the replacements took a little longer than I’d anticipated. The pegs I’d purchased to fill the empty slots had to be sanded down to fit. Turns out instruments made around a century ago were a little less likely to have standardized measurements.
After that messy business was finished, I cleaned and polished the wood. I slid a new bridge into place and added new strings one by one, tuning them up as I went.
With all the pieces in place, the violin looked younger than I could’ve imagined, the fresh strings gleaming against the fingerboard. Only the cork chinrest, delicately cleaned, gave a clue to its real age.
That, and its sound. While my own violin sings crisp and clean, a quality instrument but only about a decade old, this one rolled and echoed, aged like a fine wine.
While my own inexperienced restoration went surprisingly well, the final product is solid with repairs carefully concealed … I’m aware it’s unlikely to fool an experienced professional. However, this new old possession of mine can now be held and handled, can be tuned and plucked and once again do what it was made to do.
As I drew the bow across the strings and listened to it sing for its first time in 80 years, I think my great-grandmother would be happy with my decision.