Thursday, November 6, 2014

How We Set-up an Instrument

Have you ever wondered how we, the instrument dealer, get instruments, and what it takes to get it ready to sell to you? Well here's your chance to look into our secret world!

When I place an order for instruments from a supplier, I always order instruments "unadjusted". This means the instrument comes as a body only, without an endpin, strings, pegs, bridge, tailpiece or any other accessories.

Instruments should be set up in the region that the instrument will be played in, to be able to take into account the weather and humidity conditions of that particular area.

The first thing I do when I get a delivery of instruments to Cassandra Strings  is inspect them. Most come unharmed, but sometimes shipping can be rough on these fragile instruments. Some have even arrived in pieces! If an instrument passes the first inspection, it goes to the workshop to be "set-up".

Once in the workshop, the real fun begins. Me, along with the shop staff decide what kind of treatment the instrument will get. Is it a high end instrument that deserves nothing but the best fittings and accessories, or is it a basic student that will be fine with the standard fittings and accessories? Everything comes in different quality levels, from bridges to tailpieces and even pegs. Each is selected carefully to match the instrument level. Once all of the fittings are chosen, the work begins. The fingerboard is planed, then scraped, then sanded and polished to have the correct amount of "scoop" in it to allow the strings to vibrate freely without buzzing. The nut is filed down to make playing more comfortable in the lower positions. The string spacing is then set at the nut as well, wide enough to allow "tunneling", but still close enough together to bar and play multiple string at once.

Peg hole reamer and peg shaper
The peg holes are reamed out to have the correct diameter and taper, and the pegs, always shipped extra thick, are shaved down in a special peg shaver, again, to the correct thickness and taper.
It is very important that the taper of the hole and the taper of the peg match to keep the pegs from slipping or not holding the pitch correctly.
A small hole is drilled through the shaft of the peg to allow the string to be inserted into it and wound. As a final step to get the pegs working smoothly, a special compound is applied to the peg where it comes in contact with the peg box, and worked in to make sure the pegs work smoothly.

Soundpost Setter
The soundpost, a small spruce dowel, is wedged between the top and back of the instrument on the inside. It is set through the f-hole on the treble side of the instrument. The sound post is never glued in, but is held in by the tension of the strings pushing against top of the instrument, squeezing it into place. The precise position of the soundpost is only set in by eye, and takes many years of practice to set correctly. Moving a post in any direction can greatly change the sound of the instrument, making the top strings louder, or more mellow, etc.

The biggest undertaking when setting up an instrument is carving a bridge. Bridges, like pegs are shipped over sized and are fitted to the exact specifications of the instrument. The feet are carefully carved down, by hand, to approximately one millimeter thick, and are shaped to the exact curvature of the instrument top. This helps transfer the most vibrations from the strings to the body of the instrument. Once the feet are fit to the top of the instrument, the top of the bridge is cut down to the correct height. The term we use to measure this height is the string height. It is measured on both the highest and lowest strings at the very end of the fingerboard, violins usually 4 & 6 mm, violas 5 & 7 mm, and cellos 6 & 9 mm. Once we have determined the correct height the bridge needs to be cut to, we trace a template to get the correct arching across the strings. This template makes sure that the bridge is flat enough that you can still play double and event triple stops, but curved enough to only do it when you want to.

After the bridge is cut, the last thing to do is string up the instrument and try it out. Set up of instruments is a trial-by-error, and if the first playing isn't good, adjustments are made, soundpost is moved, bridge is re-arched, etc., until we deem that the instrument is in top playing condition.

On average it takes a repair technician 2-3 hours of work to get an instrument into final playing condition.

After all of the work is done, a few of us sit down in a room and do a final visual inspection, as well as a final play test. Only then, if an instrument passes is it put up on the wall for sale.

Any questions, please comment below!

-Alex

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