After cleaning up the fingerboard I did some more work on the $10 violin. It was in pretty bad shape when I got it and my intention is to give this instrument a second life and flip it on eBay or Craig’s List.
The next step was re-gluing the fingerboard. Traditionally, hide glue is used, but I did not want to bother heating up a glue pot just for one board. So, I used fish glue, which has very similar properties. The important thing is not ti use Titebond or any other type of glue. Fingerboards should never be glued on permanently. Protein glues, such as hide glue and fish glue, can be heated up and reactivated, so that it is easy to take apart glue joints. That’s because protein glues never cure, they only dry. By comparison, Titebond is a curing glue and one should generally never use it for glue joints that have a high likelihood of being serviced in the future.
To give me a longer working time I always heat up my fish glue. This is my makeshift glue pot, for this purpose.
There a many ways to glue a fingerboard. I generally don’t spread the glue across the entire surface. Instead, I leave a stripe without any glue in the middle. Whey I clamp the fingerboard the glue will squeeze out at the sides and on the inside some squeeze-out will spread towards the center.
There are also many ways to clamp. Since I am using fish glue I just use a few simple spring clamp. The reason is because fish glue does not make the two parts slip, like most other glues, do, so I don’t need to worry about slippage. Also, The squeeze-out is easily cleaned up with a wet rag after the job is done. Again, that’s because fish glue does not cure, it only dries.
Having said that, you might have noticed that the label on the squeeze bottle says, Cure Time, 12 hours. This is a misnomer. It only means that glue joints should stay clamped for 12 hours, for the glue to be completely stable, i.e. dry.
The next step of the project is the installation of the bridge. This violin did no have a bridge when I bought it and here you will see what it takes to install a violin bridge, a job that can cost around $125.
When you buy a replacement violin bridge it is actually a bridge blank. This means that it needs to be carved and sanded to be properly fitted on your violin. The bridge blank is oversized and fitting a bridge can only be done with proper tools.
Like all other jobs on violins, there are many ways of doing this. This is how I’ve been doing it (although I have used other methods in the past).
First step is to properly carve the feet of the bridge, so that the bridge fits properly on the soundboard, without any gaps. If you have a violin you can easily check if the bridge stands right on the soundboard. Just take a thin piece of paper and try to insert it around the feet of the bridge. You should not be able to insert the corner of the paper anywhere under the feet of the bridge.
The violin soundboard is carved and no two violins are identical, so each bridge needs to be hand carved for each violin individually.
The bridge is a critical part, not only because it transfers the vibrations from the strings to the soundboard, but also because a properly set up bridge can turn an unplayable instrument into a violin that’s easy to play.
To carve the feet of the bridge to the exact contour of the soundboard, I use the sanding method. Basically, I place a piece of sand paper on the belly of the violin, then place the bridge on the sand paper and sand the bottom in small motions. This can only properly be done with a bridge fitting jig, which hold it steady, so it doesn’t tilt during sanding. Also, to monitor how much I am sanding off, I draw a few lines at the bottom of hte bridge, with a pencil.
I place the sandpaper on the violin and I place the bridge in the exact place where it will be after assembly. Sanding has to be done with only small motions.
I frequently check the bottom to see how much I’ve sanded off. The cross hatched pencil lines make it easier to see the spots that the sand paper did not touch.
Once the bridge bottom is finished I have to work on the top. Bridge blanks are oversized, so the strings will be way too high, if we don’t carve the top. This straight edge shows how high the strings would end up, if we leave it as is.
To mark the proper string height I use another jig. This is also a shop made jig. It is basically a straight edge with a pencil lead. The pencil lead sits in a groove, so that the point is in the same line as the measuring edge.
At the nut side I place a shim (not seen in picture) under the straight edge and at the bridge side I place a spacer for the string height. What I like to use as a spacer is a drill bit. I know the string height for the height string and I use that diameter drill bit as a shim. I used a larger diameter drill bit for the bass side. At this point I mark two spots on the bridge.
Next, I use any available method to trace the contour of the fingerboard. It is also possible to just place a piece of card stock at the end of the fingerboard and trace with a pencil, but I have a tool that I use.
In the next step I transfer the curve to the bridge.
Next step is to sand the bridge. As you can see, quite a bit needs to be taken off.
At this point the bridge is too thick, so I’ll have to carve and/or sand off from the top, so that it goes down to proper thickness.
The disc sander makes the job quick, but I always finish off by hand. At this point, this bridge is still slightly oversized. I will fine tune once I do the finishing work. This part of the job is still the rough phase. But, as I’m sure you’ve concluded, installing a violin bridge is not exactly the type of work that you should take to your local handyman.
I can’t really finish the job at this point because I need to buy new strings. But I just put the old strings on to take a photo.
This is a fraction size violin for kids, a 1/8 size, to be precise. There’s still a lot of work to be done. I am actually missing one tuning peg and I need a new end-pin. But I will also have to do some voicing of the instrument. This is done by properly fitting the sound post, which is inside the violin and only accessible through the sound hole.
You can buy cheap violins on Amazon, for as low as $35, but also in the price range $59, $75, $99, $129 or even as much as $199 for the more pricey cheapo brands. None of those violins have properly fitted bridges. Then there’s the nut, the sound post and other details that differentiate real violins from starter pack violins. Cheap violins are hard to play, that’s because they are not properly set-up. Here you get to see part of the process that should be done for every violin, but is never done for the cheapo brands. How could they? If it costs about $125 to have a bridge properly fitted, it can’t be possible to sell a violin for $75, retail price. And they probably sell those for $15 to $80, to wholesale distributors, including the case, bow, packaging and shipped from China.
When I am done with this one I might sell it for about $100. Since actual luthier work went into this one the $100 is a bargain. I can’t really get more for it because at the end of the day it’s still a cheap unbranded violin. But for me it’s worth my time. If I were to build a violin from scratch I would have to spend more than $10 for raw materials. Unless I have an established name it is hard to get the right price for an instrument built from scratch. But this is an easy job. Any competent luthier can take any cheap violin, as long as it is structurally sound, and turn it into a better instrument than it ever was.
Also, flipping cheap instruments is actually a very common way for builders and repair techs to get some practice.