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Setting your action for old-time

Posted by oldtimer on Friday, July 20, 2007

like this

Setting your action for old-time at the bridge.

Here is how I was taught to do it 60 years ago by Eck Robertson (I'm not making this up). This is the way old fiddlers did it, not the way modern luthiers would do it. Assuming that your fiddle is strung up with an OK bridge but you want to lower the action. First check your string length...from nut to the bridge should be about 12 7/8". As I have aged, I make my string length a little shorter...12 3/4".

This method will give you good old-time action for steel strings, which is all we had. For synthetics, you need to raise everything a little higher.

Take an ordinary #2 wooden pencil...lay it on your fingerboard between the A string and the D string with the point facing toward the bridge. Hold the pencil flat on the fingerboard and slide it to the bridge....mark the bridge with a little arc by rolling the pencil. Move the pencil between the E and A strings and do it again...then between the D and G strings...then outside the G and outside the E.

You end up with a dashed arc line drawn on the bridge. This line gives you about 1/8" clearance equally for all four strings. You want to draw another arc slightly higher (a little more than 1/16" higher) on the G string side and gradually curving down to your original line on the E string side. The old guys just cut the bridge along the original line...1/8" all the way across. But strings are different now (no copper Black Diamonds anymore) and we want the G and D to be a little higher than the E.

Now you need some appropriately sized and shaped needle files. You can do this with it strung up. Draw a vertical line straight down from each string to the arc line. Be sure to go straght down...don't follow the fan shape of the bridge or you will space the string too close together.

Loosen the A string enough to move out of the bridge groove and file the groove down to your guideline with a needle file about the size of the string or slightly larger. When you get the deepened notch down to the line, lubricate the bottom of the notch with graphite by rubbing the pencil point in the groove. Put the A string back in the groove and tune up.

Do the same with each string. Make sure to pull the bridge back to vertical or leaning very slightly toward the tail piece.

So now you have a tall bridge with deep groves and improved action. It may need some more tweaking, but if you followed these directions, it should be about right.

Ideally, you would then remove the bridge and cut or sand the top of the bridge down to leave notches less than half the thickness of a string. I usually don't bother, even though it is one of the big rules that you will hear incessantly in the fiddle world. I have found that there is no discernible difference in the deep grooves and a properly refined bridge. the notch is, in fact a static point where there is no movement of the string, whether it lays in a shallow notch or a deep notch.

Then there is the shaping of the thickness of the bridge, but that should be another chapter.

Disclaimer...I am just an old hill-side fiddler and i may not know what I am talking about. But, I have done this many, many times with great success.



8 comments on “Setting your action for old-time”

PInky Says:
Friday, July 20, 2007 @12:56:22 PM

What great, concise directions!  I want to try this.  Thank you!

SlowPockets Says:
Thursday, July 26, 2007 @7:25:18 AM

Glenn this is a great post. I've got a couple of bridges laying around the house and I might try this on my beater fiddle. It's still setup with that god-awful classical arch.

dwoolsey Says:
Tuesday, August 7, 2007 @12:50:49 AM

Hi Glen, thru the years I'm ashamed to tell you just how many bridges "bit the dust" under my construction.   Thank you for your directions.  :):)

hucktunes Says:
Monday, October 8, 2007 @1:43:44 PM

This really is a great post. I'll give it a try. One thing I've learned about wittlin' on the bridge is that the sharper the knife the sooner I botch it up.

artcarnie Says:
Wednesday, June 30, 2010 @11:04:11 PM

Yes, Great post! Thanks Glenn

44musher Says:
Saturday, August 13, 2011 @1:51:15 PM

Thank you!! Simple effective and it works everytime.

ronwalker49 Says:
Tuesday, March 27, 2012 @6:21:55 AM

Hi Glen...I would like very much to read "the next chapter"...How the "old timers" shaped and thicknesses their bridges....I have tried the tips you have here in your blogs and I am amazed at how well they work, and how simple they are to do....Thank you for your willingness to pass on this wisdom from the old days...

Humbled by this instrument Says:
Sunday, July 29, 2012 @5:21:44 PM

Thank you!

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