Thursday, June 9, 2011

the disappearing luthier (and the disappearing clients)

French violin from the 1820's. You may be surprised if you knew what it looked like this morning. While it is still a mess, the new pieces of wood have melted into the old and mostly disappeared. Another four or five hours and it will all appear to be the same age, but in better condition than it seems now.

This is the dilemma for the restorer. Your work has to disappear. There is no room for ego in restoration and when a job is done properly there should be a huge let-down for the restorer and the client, because the trouble has all disappeared. What was the fuss about? It looks fine, why is the bill so big? It doesn't look damaged at all....

This work is the antithesis of making an instrument. When you make, it is all about your vision, and your combined ideas for tone and style and outline and chroma and nuance and character. These things will all combine in the mind as you will the instrument into being. And there it will be, an expression of your vision and the limitations in your realisation of it.

A factory or even an amateur instrument (and some 'professional' ones too) will just be the physical combination of a bunch of bits made in isolation, without a central idea wedding them to each other. Some may sound fine and look good, but they are just industrial objects. A really fine instrument will be the result of some educated decisions based upon experience aimed at a particular outcome and put out there to be judged as such.

So when it comes time to restore an instrument of this calibre there is no room for the personality or the inclinations of the restorer. You only succeed if your work becomes invisible and reveals the vision of the original maker. I believe very strongly that makers who don't restore and restorers who don't make miss out substantially in the two aspects of the workers ego. To be able to be 'present' or 'absent' is to know much more about what works. This is a further reflection of the metaphor of the reflex curve mentioned in a previous post.

So, happily, to-day I disappeared and felt the better for it. But I was also aware that there has been less of this to be done lately. I deal with people's discretionary income and there is less to be had of that for instruments lately, than I have known for twenty years. In another sense also, I felt an absence to-day, contemplating the death of another long-term client.

I looked after his violin for 15 years or so (not the one pictured here), but it has a wonderful story that begins with a family escaping 'cleansing' in Europe in the 1930's. It is a challenging story, but ultimately a happy one for those that lived through it. The violin has moved on, and as it happens its new owner is also a client of mine. But I will miss M.- a lovely man and a fine music educator, and the world is a little diminished without him.


  1. Hi Rob, very interesting post.
    I think the old marks in an instrument must remain, because they are old footprints of the players along its history.
    I asked myself sometimes about if the luthiers in XIX century where masking they work too or they were just thinking about sound instead of stetic (?)
    A hug

  2. In the years I have spent restoring old wood boats, one of the hardest lessons has been the involuntary humility. Many restorers will completely rebuild a boat to look new and I have always wondered why. If you want a new boat, just build a new one! One scarp of old timber does not a restoration make.
    The restoration process is an anthropological one. The restorer must meld with those who have come before (unless, of course, they made a complete botch of it). That's why I enjoy restoring so much. Especially the joy of handling the work of a great craftsman. It is inspiring and yet humble.

  3. Cheers both of you.
    The old marks should remain. In the example pictured I had to put some new wood into it, and in order to be respectful of the instrument and its story, I'm in the process of making the new harmonise with the old in such a way as to make it almost impossible to see the repair. I'd never 'clean up' the wear and patina on an old instrument beyond the removal of damage that ruins the appearance or function or long-term health of the instrument.

  4. I intended to say a scrap of old timber, not a "scarp", but you understood. I love to work a new piece until it looks old. Mary calls it the Doryman method but I learned it from someone else.

    Surely the finish on an old instrument has a lot to do with it's tone? Aren't you afraid that your repairs may change the character of the piece?

    Mary has been building a violin, as you know, so I have pondered the relationship of finish to sound - perhaps to excess.


  5. Anything on an instrument will contribute to the way it vibrates- one way or another. An experienced maker will intuitively be able to alter the tuning of the plates or even the arching, or maybe the tuning of the bass bar to include the impact that their finishing system will have. But most instruments are just made and varnished without any thoughts of this.

    In practise, a small repair will mostly just improve the tone by removing buzzes etc, but that's the whole challenge with instruments- it not only has to look good and be 'sound' in an engineering sense, it has to sound good too. But fortunately, sound is very subjectively perceived, variations are very subtle and really careful repairs are very expensive!

    So in reality, the structure and thickness of a finish will have the capacity to improve or degrade tone. The details of this have had hundreds of books and articles written about them, and most of it is so esoteric that it just has the effect of making obsessive people 'take their eyes off the ball' and get bogged down in snake oil and hocus pocus. There is no silver bullet, there are just maybe one hundred 'one-percenters'!