Welcome to the Luthier's Corner
This recurring blog features professional advice from our luthiers on how to maintain and care for your instrument.
One thing that might happen this time of year is having your pegs "pop" or spin loose. If you aren't comfortable tuning with the pegs, this can be a tricky time for you, and many beginners end up breaking strings. Why does this happen?
Most violin-family instruments have pegs that depend on friction. There is a gradual taper to both the peg and peghole that needs to match precisely. This allows the peg to hold (due to friction), but we also need it to be able to turn. If your instrument has fine tuners, you might not need to turn the pegs very often, but they do need to turn sometimes. The major reason for pegs not being able to hold on can be attributed to cold weather and lack of humidity. Most pegs are made out of very hard, dense ebony wood that isn't affected much by humidity. The wood surrounding the pegs, however, is maple, and although maple is considered a hardwood, it is much softer and more prone to expansion and shrinking with changes in humidity. As the maple loses humidity in the winter, it gradually shrinks making the pegholes slightly larger until "POP" the peg can't hold on anymore!
It is a good practice to turn the pegs occasionally to keep them from getting stuck. They may also need some tweaking to keep them working properly year-round. We don't recommend the use of "pegdrops" because these introduce humidity which eventually will dry out and allow the pegs to pop again. We also don't recommend the use of anything that keeps the pegs from turning smoothly, especially for instruments that have synthetic strings that require frequent use of a well-fit peg that turns and holds properly.
In addition to peg problems, if your instrument experiences sudden temperature and/or humidity changes,you run the risk of developing cracks to the thin top or back plates. Sometimes seams or other glue joints will come loose as the instrument shrinks. If you notice that your instrument doesn't sound like it used to, or you have an unexplainable buzz, bring it in for an examination.
To reduce the risk of damage to your instrument, we recommend using a humidier at the first onset of cold, dry weather, or any time that you are traveling from a humid environment to a drier one. With the climate we have here in Nashville, that usually means that you should put a humidifier in your case whenever you are running a heater since the cold air outside can't hold as much moisture, and your heating unit will dry out the air inside your house even more.
At Nashville Violins, we run whole house humidification that automatically kicks in when the humidity drops. If it isn't feasible to humidify your entire house, you could try a room humidifier, or just get a small one that fits inside your case. The later is a handy and expensive option. We have several case humifiers in stock that will more than pay for themselves if it prevents damage to your instrument.
A case humidifier only works if the instrument is kept in the case when you aren't playing, but nobody can play all of the time! You also want to avoid leaving your instrument anywhere that dry, forced air can blow on it. A good case can also protect your instrument from changing temperatures as you travel outside. These will buy you some time, but you will want to avoid leaving it in a cold place for too long. It is better to keep the instrument with you. If you are comforatable, your instrument should be fine. If you do let your instrument get very cold, let it warm up gradually inside the case for a few hours before opening the case to avoid sudden temperature changes that could cause your instrument to crack (like an ice cube does when dropped in warm water).
Even with all of your best efforts, things do still happen. If you notice a crack, open seam, or your fingerboard falls off, there is no need to panic! You should loosen the strings to keep it from getting worse, place a paper towel under the tailpiece or any other loose parts, and bring it in. Violin-family instruments are made in such a way that they can be taken apart if needed, and we can fix anything at Nashville Violins!
We are busy in the workshop repairing school instruments and rentals while school is out for the summer. If you have been thinking about stepping up to a nicer or bigger instrument, now is a great time to do it, before we get busy with the back-to-school rush, and while we have a big selection of instruments and accessories.
It's also a great time to get fresh strings put on your instrument. If your instrument doesn't seem to sound as good as it used to, or always sounds a little out of tune, then you are probably overdue for some new strings. As always, if you buy your strings from us, we will install them for free, and inspect your instrument to make sure everything is done correctly.
See you soon!
The Sound Post
A peek through the treble side f-hole reveals a thin dowel of wood wedged close behind the bridge foot. <image>
This sound post is made of fine, quarter-sawn spruce and is tension-fit to the curvature inside the body of the instrument.
Although humble in size, this small piece of wood is structurally key to the performance of the instrument. When an instrument is strung up to pitch, there is an immense amount of downward and lateral force exerted on the top plate. With the sound post intact, the wood body can handle such pressure. Without it, you run the risk of severe damage.
Secondly, the sound post serves to transfer vibrations from the top plate to the back plate resulting in a pleasing tone. The post is sometimes referred to as “the soul” of the instrument and for good reason. A properly fitted sound post will enable your instrument to sing to its fullest potential. A post that is too short will fall down. If the post is too long, or doesn’t fit properly, it can protrude into the top plate causing cracks or other damage. But cut just right, and properly adjusted, the sound post will help your instrument achieve optimal resonance.
My sound post fell down. Now what?Occasionally, due to changes in temperature and humidity, the wood of a stringed instrument can flex resulting in a fallen sound post. Should this happen, you should de-tune your instrument to relax the tension, and place a paper towel or other padding under the tailpiece to keep from damaging the top if the bridge falls. The next thing you should do is to take your instrument to your luthier immediately! A sound post needs to be cut and fit by a trained professional. This will ensure the best care for your instrument. Needless to say, we do a lot of fitting and adjustments of the sound post here at Nashville Violins. If you hear your post languidly rolling around on the inside, or if you feel like your current post isn’t placed at the most optimal spot, please bring it by the shop where we are happy to take a look!
Why Pegs Slip
Cold, dry air can have adverse effects on our stringed instruments. Have you noticed that your pegs are starting to slip or pop? This happens more frequently in dry winter weather because moisture leaves the wood causing the wood around the peg to contract (making the hole bigger), and all of a sudden your peg can’t hold on any more. (Likewise, in the warmer months, the humidity in the air can cause the wood to swell and make turning the pegs difficult). This problem will be even worse if your pegs aren’t made out of a dense hardwood since the pegs themselves will also shrink in dry weather. That is why most pegs are made out of ebony.
Since most violins, violas, and cellos have friction pegs, it is very important that your pegs are turning smoothly and holding their pitch! If the taper of the pegs don’t perfectly match the taper of the hole, or if either is out of round, you are likely to have your pegs slip. If you try to force your peg in tighter to compensate, you run the risk of cracking or breaking the pegbox. The luthiers at Nashville Violins can inspect your instrument to determine why your pegs won’t hold.
Peg drops are one option that some players try. We don’t recommend the use of those products because they introduce moisture (that eventually dries out causing the peg to slip again) and they also contain other agents that can make it difficult to turn the peg smoothly. Other products like peg compound (sometimes called peg dope) are often used to help make the peg turn smoothly without creaking, yet still hold once tuned. It is a delicate balance, and difficult task that we ask our pegs to perform. Note that no product will work to hold a peg that doesn’t fit the instrument.
If your pegs normally work ok, but slip a couple of times in the winter, you can invest in a humidifier for your home or for your case. We stock several kinds of instrument and case humidifiers, and most are very reasonably priced. We can also set you up with a hygrometer to keep track of the humidity level so you know when to use your humidifier.
As always, if you feel like your instrument is misbehaving, bring it in to the shop at Nashville Violins and we’ll be happy to help.
5109 Georgia Ave
Nashville, TN 37209
Extreme Weather Conditions and your Instrument
Extreme weather variations (such as we've been experiencing here lately) can be detrimental to your stringed instrument. Generally speaking, it's good practice not to subject your instrument to extremes in temperature or humidity. Don't leave it in the car. Purchase a humidifier for your home in the winter months, or a dehumidifier in the summer months. Loosen your bow.
Sometimes, however, things can still go wrong. As the temperature outside drops and the heater starts to run, you may notice your pegs starting to slip. This is because wood shrinks in the colder months when the humidity tends to be lower. Cracks and open seams can also develop causing aggravating buzzing or worse problems. The bow can present its own set of issues as the horse hair starts to shrink, adversely affecting the stick.
If you notice any of these things happening to your instrument, or if your violin bow starts to look more like an archery bow, please bring it into the shop where we are glad to help. We also have a wide range of humidifiers and hygrometers for your cold weather needs.
5109 Georgia Ave
Nashville, TN 37209
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Now that colder weather has settled in, you may notice some changes in your instrument.
One thing you may see is that your pegs are starting to slip. As humidity drops in the colder weather, pegs may slip, making tuning your instrument a frustrating process.
Sometimes, cracks may even appear on the top or back plates of the instrument. If either of these things happens to you, there's no need to worry. Just bring it to us and we can take care of it for you. Now would also be a good time to purchase a humidifier if you don't already have one.