Viol Care for Dummies

Adapted from a handout accompanying a presentation first given at the 2004 Conclave in Tacoma, Washington

by David Dreyfuss. From the VdGSA Website

So you open your viol case and the bridge is sitting flat on the instrument. Crisis? Something you can fix quickly yourself? Something you should have been able to prevent? While it would be great if every viol player had a viol doctor as a housemate and playing partner, most don't. There are a number of basic maintenance and repair tasks that every viol player should be able to do for themselves. Perhaps even more importantly, every viol player needs to be able to recognize:

  • When something is wrong;
  • Whether it is something that they can fix right away themselves;
  • When to get more qualified help.

Viol doctors do the occasional dramatic miracle cures and major surgeries, but their stock-in-trade is actually the routine adjustments of pegs, frets and bridges. Some of these adjustments you can easily do yourself, but it's even more important that you be able to recognize that something is amiss, so that you can make an intelligent decision as to whether you can make the adjustment or replacement yourself, and you can decide when it's time to visit the doctor. We'll consider pegs, frets and bridges first, and then talk a bit about strings and bows as well.

Pegs

Something is wrong if:

  • A peg is hard to turn;
  • A peg slips;
  • A peg makes unpleasant noises when turned;
  • A peg seems to skip past the right place when tuning;

A properly adjusted peg turns easily and smoothly and holds at any position. If it's hard to turn or can't be pushed in tight enough to hold, first make sure that there is not too much string wrapped around it in the pegbox and that the string is not wrapped too close to either edge of the pegbox. Ideally, you should finish winding the string so that it passes approximately parallel to the other strings directly to the nut. Then the string does not interfere in any way with the peg, neither tending to pull it out or push it in (or worse, jamming it in too tight or preventing it from being pushed in far enough). It can also be helpful to wind the string on the peg so that the handle is approximately perpendicular to the pegbox. You'll find it much easier to adjust than if it's parallel. If you find it too close to parallel, just loosen the string completely, and put a little more or less through the hole and rewind.

The next obvious thing to check is that the peg is not jammed in too tight. You shouldn't need a lot of strength too push a peg in far enough to hold firmly, and you can't turn it easily if it's jammed in too far. Twist it and back it out, then push it in just far enough to hold. If this balance seems too delicate, or you get a lot of creaking or skipping, then it's time for a little maintenance work. Some people resort to “peg wrenches” to help move stubborn pegs. Be wary of doing so unless you have arthritis, particularly weak wrists, or particularly small pegs. Often, peg wrenches encourage players to push their pegs in too tight, making them that much harder to turn and putting strain on the pegbox which could eventually cause it to split. If in doubt consult a teacher or viol doctor first to see whether you can't make your pegs operate more easily without a wrench first.

A properly adjusted peg needs a good balance between friction to hold a position and lubrication to make it turn easily when you want to change the position. This needn't be a delicate balance. The most common problem is actually lack of sufficient lubrication. It is often tempting to conclude that you need to increase friction somehow when your pegs don't seem to be holding, but you can almost always increase friction just by pushing the peg in a little further. Unless you're sure that your pegs are well lubricated, your next step to solve both sticking and slipping problems should be to add lubrication. You can improvise using soap or wax, but most people find a commercial “peg dope” to be the easiest and most reliable lubricant. These usually include a good balance of slippery stuff with sticky stuff (fine chalk or equivalent). Remove the peg, rub peg dope over the contact area on the peg, reinsert it and turn it a few times. Remove and repeat; then rewind the string. You may find that you now need to push the peg in a little further, but the peg should work much better. If you're still having problems (or you don't feel comfortable applying peg dope yourself), it's time to consult the doctor. It's possible that you have more serious problems—pegs or holes that are out of round or not matched, cracks in the pegbox, damaged pegs, etc. These problems can also be fixed, but are probably not do-it-yourself jobs.

Frets

Viol frets are moveable. But just like pegs, they should only move when you want them too. And you should only want them to move when you need to adjust tuning. If they are sliding around while you are playing or when you are handling the instrument (taking it in and out of its case), you're not going to be able to keep them properly adjusted. You can do just about anything you might need to do to your frets yourself up to and including complete replacement—it's not difficult and requires no special tools, though many players prefer to let the doctor handle such work. But don't just make do with sloppy loose frets. You can make temporary improvements by wedging something between the fret and the fingerboard (a sliver of wood or cardboard—matchsticks are popular). You will probably also want to replace frets when they become noticeably dented by the strings. Again, you can make a temporary improvement by slipping the fret around the neck just a little to provide a fresh fret surface under the string. If you do decide it's time to change frets, you will also want to consider your choice of fret material (gut or nylon) and thickness (many players are opting for thicker frets nowadays). Discuss these issues with your teacher or viol doctor if you don't already have strong opinions.

Bridges

Don't ignore your bridge! It can serve you well for many years with just a little care. If you ignore it, it may bend, buckle, break, or just fall over. It's not glued in place, and every time you tune your instrument, you push it around a little. The most common thing that happens over time is that the repeated movement of strings over the bridge tend to pull the top of the bridge toward the fingerboard. This isn't terribly serious in itself, and you can easily continue to play without noticing any problems for a while. If you ignore a leaning bridge for long enough, several bad things can happen. The bridge can gradually warp. If it becomes badly warped, it may break. And even if it is strong enough not to warp, it may fall over. The best cure, of course, is prevention. Get into the habit of glancing quickly at your bridge every time you take the viol out of the case. The tailpiece side of the bridge should be approximately perpendicular to the body of the viol, and the feet should be firmly seated against the body with no visible gaps. If you see it leaning at all, take a moment to straighten it out right away before you tune. There are several ways to straighten a bridge, and it doesn't matter too much which one you use, but do get comfortable with one of them. If you're new to bridge adjustments, an easy, safe way to do it is to gently pinch first the top string just above the bridge between your thumb and first finger with the tips of your finger and thumb against the bridge. Push the bridge slightly toward the tailpiece (pulling the string slightly over the bridge). Repeat on other strings until the bridge angle is correct, and the feet are firmly seated.

If your instrument is jarred for any reason (dropped in its case or shipped somewhere, for example), check the bridge position more carefully. Make sure that it is straight, and also make sure that it hasn't shifted on the body. There's usually a visible mark where the bridge normally sits, and it should be obvious if it's moved. The strings should also be positioned symmetrically across the fingerboard. While you're at it, especially if you observe and correct bridge movement, check the soundpost. On most instruments, it should be slightly toward the tailpiece under the treble foot of the bridge. If you suspect that it's out of place (or worse, fallen over), it's probably time for a visit to the doctor. Resetting the soundpost is a minor job, but the positioning can be critical to the sound of the instrument. If you don't know what you're doing, it's a good idea to get experienced help in resetting the soundpost. If the soundpost is down, but the bridge is still up, it's a good idea to loosen the string tension until the post is reset to minimize strain on the unsupported belly. Similarly, you will find that the strings pushing on the bridge help hold the soundpost in place. So if the bridge collapses, the soundpost often goes with it. If the post is still up after a bridge collapse, you can go ahead and put the bridge back up—just be careful not to jar the instrument even slightly until you have string tension again.

Strings

Strings break! Top strings on small instruments may have a useful service life of days to weeks. Larger strings may last years, though most serious performers change all their strings after a year or so. So, you definitely should learn how to change a string if you don't already know, and you should carry a complete spare set (with, perhaps, at least a couple of top strings). Make sure you know what gauge of strings you use, so that you can buy replacements. Viols come in a wide range of string lengths, and so you may not want to be using generic string sizes. Installation details vary a little with the type of string and your tailpiece design. Many people claim that you should always use a knot on the underside of the tailpiece. (A figure-eight knot usually works well.) The argument is that tying the string around itself slightly dampens its response, though I can't say that I've ever really been able to hear the difference myself. My practice is to use the figure-eight knot on all but the top string on most instruments. I usually find that it's hard to tie a big enough knot to hold securely on the top string. I tie the string around itself as follows. Insert the string through the tailpiece from the top. Tie an overhand knot in the end; then tie another overhand knot around the string where it heads toward the tailpiece. The first overhand knot in the end of the string will prevent the knot from slipping loose as the string is tensioned.

Make sure that the groove in the bridge is lubricated. Graphite from a #2 pencil is the usual choice of lubricant. This helps the string slide over the bridge to equalize the tension on the two sides so that the tuning remains stable. Make sure the groove in the nut is similarly lubricated, then start to tighten the string. If you have a lot of excess length, do cut it off instead of trying to wind it all onto the peg. It's tempting to save it to pull out after a string breaks, but too much string on the peg can cause you other problems. Insert the string through the hole in the peg and wind string on both sides of the hole so that the end is captured. As you bring the string up to tension, stop once or twice and equalize the tension over the bridge by lifting gently. Try to wind so that the string ends up running straight from the peg to the nut when you are finished. Make sure you know what pitch you're aiming for. The string won't break as long as you don't significantly overshoot the correct pitch.

If your string starts to fray, you will probably notice that it starts to sound dead. The little hairs sticking out tend to dampen the vibration. The end of life is probably near, but you may be able to keep playing for a little while longer if you carefully trim the hairs with nail clippers or cuticle nippers. If the winding on a wirewound string starts to unravel, you may again be able to continue to play for a little while if you don't have a spare, but you're going to need a replacement very soon. In any case, if the sound of your string has changed (starts to sound dead or “false,” it's probably time to change it.

Bows

Bows require very little routine care beyond adding rosin and storing with reduced tension. If your bow no longer seems to hold rosin, or if you have lost a significant fraction of the hair, then it's time to visit the bow doctor and get new hair. Some players go years between rehairings, but many heavy users get their bows rehaired about once a year. Most viol bows can be rehaired by anyone who does violin-family bows, but many such service people are either reluctant to do viol bows or may not do a reliably good job. It's best, of course, to find someone who is familiar with viol bows.

If your bow becomes noticeably warped, or the thread on the frog screw becomes stripped, it's time for service. These things can usually be fixed at very modest cost, so you don't have to scrap a bow that seems to be having difficulties.