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Overconfident Woodworker Syndrome (Rant Alert!!! Rant Alert!!!)

Posted by fiddlepogo on Saturday, January 15, 2011

I was considering posting this in a recent thread, but I thought maybe it belonged in my blog instead.

It occurred to me that I've seen the same thing happen so many times that
it's like a syndrome:

1. Woodworker or banjo maker or guitar maker finds old fiddle
2. Woodworker does NOT stop to ask questions, not even in the information age, when it's a google or a forum away, does not even consult fiddling friends in the same town who might know.
3. Woodworker then:
A. uses wrong glue
B. strips finish
C. finishes it like it was any old piece of furniture he's worked on before.

Result.... Violin Shaped Object.

Yeah, chances are it was a "German Trade Fiddle", but at least it was a German Trade Fiddle with some character and
a well-cured finish.
In their haste, they're stripping the fiddle in question of maybe the ONLY thing it has going for it...
(and virtually all of it's appeal as far as marketing it to Old Time fiddlers)
and possibly... (GASP!!!)
maybe it's NOT a German Trade Fiddle.

This "Overconfident Woodworker with Violin" Syndrome is so common.
(maybe because working with wood is such a common hobby)
that at least some seriously valuable violins meet this fate every year.
Think about it.

Violin or fiddle fanatic kicks the  proverbial bucket/ buys proverbial farm.
Hasn't told anyone that he/she bought a bench made worth $18,000
(think about it- how many of you want to broadcast to your relatives
how expensive of a violin you just bought??? One of these has shown up
at the local bluegrass jam!)
Clueless heirs inherit fiddle. It never occurs to them that their fiddle-crazy aunt or uncle
could have bought an instrument that was well above what they really needed.
So they let the toddler play with it, damage it.
Or it gets stored in a warm attic, and falls apart.

It gets yard-saled.
Woodworker finds it,
can't restrain himself,
thinks he's fixing it,
and he's really wrecking it.

Truth is, by judging a violin by furniture standards, he might think
that even a PERFECTLY ANTIQUED new violin needed
FIXING!!!!  Why, the finish is obviously DAMAGED!!!

Recently I heard that only half of the instruments Stradivari made have survived.

I wonder what happened to the rest.
Could be...
Yeah, some.
WWII bombings???
Yeah, probably a few more.
I wonder how many more got butchered beyond recognition
by the "Overconfident Woodworker Syndrome".
I'm sure the syndrome existed 100 years ago too.
At least they didn't have modern glues, but they did have sandpaper
and lacquer.

I'm guessing the reasoning goes like this:

1. I'm experienced and competent working with and finishing wood.

2. Violins are made of wood

3. Therefore, violins are something I'm competent to repair and refinish.

Somehow it never occurs to them that a violin, being a musical instrument might be different, or if they are a banjo or guitar maker that violin construction and repair methods might be radically different from banjos or guitars.

They don't ask, they just ASSUME.

And you know what they say about doing that!!! ;^)

Ironically, there ARE fiddles that no one would complain about anyone refinishing....
there are some REALLY horrendous Chinese fiddles called LARKS...
I can't imagine ANYTHING you could do to them would make them sound any worse.
Problem is, the finish looks nice and new enough by typical woodworking standards
that most woodworkers would leave it alone.
But I know aspiring fiddle fixers need to practice on something-
PLEASE practice on a Lark!!!

Last winter, a fiddle showed up on Craigslist.
I went and looked at it, and it had badly repaired major cracks... IIRC, it had white glue.
Queasiness set in... I lost interest.
The seller had another one for sale... it was old, maybe 100 years old from the looks,
and obviously a cheap, cheap, fiddle (my guess is the bottom end of the catalog fiddles) ... the carving of the top looked all wrong, purfling was
inscribed or painted on... but it had no cracks, and to my great surprise, it sounded pretty good...
lots of character, definitely a fiddle, but a pleasant sounding one.
I almost bought it...  it'll probably become an overconfident woodworker's victim someday,
stripping it of it's pleasant sound and funky old-fashioned charm.

11 comments on “Overconfident Woodworker Syndrome (Rant Alert!!! Rant Alert!!!)”

Mandogryl Says:
Saturday, January 15, 2011 @6:42:58 AM

Very true, all of it.

richdissmore Says:
Saturday, January 15, 2011 @8:24:13 AM

i had a firend that striped his3/4 size and full size fiddles then used stuf thats used on bowling alleys he tryed to sell me onethey did not sound good so i did not buy what a wast of fair posable good sounding fiddles german trade fiddle now we will never know? he passed a way

cornfed Says:
Saturday, January 15, 2011 @8:29:43 AM

FiddlePogo, a rant may be a rant, but that dosen't make it wrong. I have frequently heard that "it doesn't matter, it's just a trade fiddle". That statement kind of over looks the fact that at least old German trade fiddles were made by folks who knew what they were doing. It is a fairly common phenomenon, ( I'd guess 10-15%) that a German trade fiddle actually sounds pretty good, certainly much better than most beginner or many intermediate students can manage. Most of them are usually at least adequate....NOT VSOs. There were probably many tens of thousands of them imported into this country up until the 50's of the last century anyway. What disturbs me the most is that ,even with those huge numbers the erosion has been constant, and seems to be accellerating. When do we pass a point of no return with them? In the 19th century few thought that the enormous herds of buffalo would ever be diminished, but where are they today? Those familiar with antique furniture know that even the more common types from the turn of the 20th century are becomming more and more rare in any kind of original or restored condition for the same reasons that we are talking about with fiddles.

KCFiddles Says:
Saturday, January 15, 2011 @8:49:11 AM

I bought a very nice 18th Century Viennese violin from an antique dealer who was going to give it to her 10-year-old to learn on.

IMHO things aren't good just because they are old. The good stuff is old because it's good.

fiddlepogo Says:
Saturday, January 15, 2011 @11:14:52 AM

Thanks for the support, mandogryl, rich, and cornfed!


Thank you for rescuing the nice Viennese violin!

As far as the other statement.... yes... in a way I see your point.
Back when I was studying classical guitar, I had an A-model Ramirez for a while.
A top of the line instrument is very good, yes. And I've played a nice benchmade violin.
But having aged wood, glue and finish has a way of SOMETIMES doing something appealing to an instrument as lightly built as a fiddle.
That old cheap fiddle I mentioned really reminded me of an old toy, the way it was finished... it really WAS the equivalent for it's day of a cheap chinese fiddle. I'm sure it sounded awful when new. But somehow it had aged gracefully without cracks and mellowed, and while it wasn't about to find it's way into an orchestra, it had a sound that would've done nicely on an Old Time fiddle tune.
Hmmm.... I wonder what Larks are going to sound like in 100 years, if there are any left??? ;^D

On the other hand, I've tried plenty of old trade fiddles I wouldn't trade my Knillings and Eastman for-
the local music store got a bunch in not too long ago... they looked way better than the one that looked like an old toy,
but they all sounded awful. Maybe they're the kind that could benefit from regraduation???

I guess what I'm arguing for it to not "judge a book by it's cover".
Also, to recognize that there is definitely a market for trade fiddles that sound good (not violinny, but neither muted nor harsh) among the "old timeys". They don't want a "fine violin"... they don't want a shiny new Chinese fiddle... they want something old fashioned looking that matches the old fashioned music, and may have been something like Eck Robertson or whoever played.
And German trade fiddles... (the 15% that cornfed mentioned that sound pretty good)
fill the bill perfectly. There are people selling fiddles at Clifftop, and I'm guessing (haven't been there yet) that most of them are trade fiddles. There is an element of romanticism in all that, yes, and oddly, I rebel against it in my own instrument choices, but it's a real factor for a lot of people into Old Time who are purchasing a fiddle.

bj Says:
Saturday, January 15, 2011 @12:54:11 PM

I've played a few trade fiddles in the local music shops. They should have sounded much better than they did. I looked at the "setup" and there wasn't one, to speak of. Bridge blank never even fitted, soundpost in an odd place, afterlength? What's that? Gut an inch longer than it should have been, one even had the wrong sized tailpiece on it! Another had been stripped and refinished with polyurethane.

The one thing I will say for the local classical weenie shop is that the fiddles they sell all sound reasonable. The trade fiddles are priced three times what I can get them for elsewhere but they're all set up properly (well, if you like classical setup) and they all sound decent, and some sound dang good.

Though I agree that some trade fiddles probably aren't made to the best specs, from what I've seen so far most are reasonably close (well, except for those dang carved in bass bar fiddles) so I think that setup on some of the ones you've played that didn't sound as good as your fiddles could have been greatly improved if they were done by someone who knows how to set up a fiddle.

One thing I think almost all those old trade fiddles had going for them was GREAT wood that was seasoned properly. Considering how depleted the soil is and how polluted the air is these days, not to mention the depletion of the forests themselves, I doubt highly that all but a small percentage of the wood being cut today can compare.

So I bemoan the loss of ANY old trade fiddle for that reason. Most can be made to sound good, or even great, with a good setup, some maybe need a bit more. But I think all can be made to sing reasonably well, providing some butcher hasn't been at 'em first.

BC Says:
Saturday, January 15, 2011 @2:54:50 PM

Thanks for the "rant". In my eyea, history is history, whether its "cheap" or "priceless". In today's world there aren' any excuses for finding the answers. But too many people think of everything as a throwaway.

albert52 Says:
Saturday, January 15, 2011 @7:59:50 PM

Here here!
The one I got for Christmas would be considered a German trade (HOPF). In the late 1890s 2 members of the HOPF family, as today, still carry on the trade. The one I have was bought in 1893 in Scotland and 3 owners since its original purchase. The original buyer and his granddaughter, and now me.
There are a few scratches on it, but I don't care. The wood has aged so well, that this instrument actually sings. I felt like a virtuoso playing it.
As one of those guitar and banjo builders and woodworking enthusiast I totally agree. Any time I came across something that I was not sure of I researched first.
The only thing I have to do with this violin is repair a small crack by the right f hole. I researched how to do it and now I am ready. The one thing that gets me is the cleat I have made for it is almost as thin a toilet tissue after graduating it, and yet I am advised that it will hold. As for glues, I get really hot under the collar when I hear of guitar repair shops using white glue instead of hide glue.
I was taught instrument repairs back in the 1960s and white glue (carpenter's glue) was a no-no.
Michael you hit the nail on the head (pun intended). Actually I have seen nails and screws in guitars that should not be there. UUUUUgh!
So keep on ranting!!!

fiddlepogo Says:
Monday, January 17, 2011 @10:25:16 AM


"providing some butcher hasn't been at 'em first"!!!
Good line!!!
"But too many people think of everything as a throwaway."
Also a good line!!!


"Here here!" to you to-
a woodworker and builder who does research FIRST!!!
GLAD, mighty glad to hear it!!
Sounds like a very nice Hopf!!! That's probably as few owners as you can get for an instrument of that age.

kubasa Says:
Tuesday, January 18, 2011 @6:11:48 AM

What bothers me at about the same level is when a family has a fiddle that was owned, played and even made by "great-grandpa" and now sits in an attic and no one is allowed to play the instrument. Or in another case, a family heirloom instrument becomes "lost" during a move and is never seen again because it was treated like a piece of furniture and boxed up. Do I sound like I'm speaking from experience? Just two scenarios that I've been exposed to over the years and have rubbed me the wrong way.

Thankfully, I've managed to avoid a 3rd scenario by helping my Dad fix up his old mandolin the right way. He was so close to using the gorilla glue......

fiddlepogo Says:
Tuesday, January 18, 2011 @11:03:43 PM

Yeah, I've experienced that family instrument thing.
A couple years before my 15 year hiatus ended, a banjo player found out I played.
We jammed at his place with me on his family fiddle- it sounded pretty horrendous
because I hadn't played in 12 years... but letting me borrow it was out of the question,
even though it would only have been practicing so I could jam with him.
And a friend has a Guarnerius that belonged to his grandpa... of course, that one's in pieces,
so it's not like it's playable.

While annoying on one level, I understand such things too... because I too form irrational attachments with things...
so I can't get TOO annoyed... it's a very human thing to do.

Such things happen on a very high level too. The Hill family bequeathed a Stradivarius to some English museum
on the condition that it never be played!!!!
It tortures English virtuosos because they seem to have a very hard time finding top level instruments.

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