Debbie Lemmi, Violin and Bow Restorer
The first violin shop I worked in was in Orange and I basically just walked in there one day and said, “I want to learn how to do this.” I had always enjoyed working with my hands and wanted to learn how to fix instruments and he happened to need an assistant at the time, so he said “Why don’t you start tomorrow.” I started part-time and then I went to full-time and I worked at that shop for 19 years. I worked at another shop the last two or so years part-time, and then I moved to another shop which is in LA; that’s where I am now.
I had asked at another shop, when I was in high school, if I could just hang around and watch them and sweep their floors, whatever. And they said no. In a way, I don’t blame them because some shops are very guarded about what they do. And this happened to be a family shop, so it’s kind of like guarding family secrets.
I’ve done different tasks at different shops. At the first two, it was more general because they were smaller shops and I was either the only employee or there may have been one or two other part-time people. I would do a lot of set-up work, meaning putting in sound posts, fit bridges, fit pegs, re-hair bows. At the shop where I am now, it’s a larger shop and so they have the luxury, if you want to call it that, of having certain people do certain tasks. We have certain workers who do all the rough work, like planing fingerboards, fitting pegs, things that are kind of messy. They have certain people doing set-ups, they have one or two people who are really good at restorations, so they are the ones who, like if an instrument has a catastrophe, will piece it back together. I am the person who does the varnish work; varnish touch-up and restoration and a lot of the bow work.
My current boss really wanted someone to focus on varnish restoration; that’s the primary emphasis of my job there. But I had trained not only in the previous jobs but also in summer workshops with different bowmakers how to do more complex repairs and even how to make bows. So I’ve made a few bows, too. The bowmaking is something I really enjoy. It’s very precise and it doesn’t take as long as violin-making! You don’t have to wait as long for that gratification.
There are many projects I’m working on; it’s the sort of thing where you do something on one instrument and it has to dry or you have to wait for some reason and so you have several in process at the same time. Some of the ones that I recall best are ones that have had major spots where the varnish is missing. Either it had been scraped off or damaged in some way or somebody had tried to retouch it and had done a poor job. Being able to apply the varnish so it blends and you can’t see the damage, that’s fun.
There is something called “ground” to an instrument – it’s actually a chemical process that’s applied to the instrument before you put varnish on and it changes the color of the wood. If an instrument has been damaged, oftentimes it’s lost its ground in that spot. Being able to retouch it so that it doesn’t show can be very tricky, sometimes it’s impossible, because of the way the light reflects. If you look at it in one direction, it might look a little too light; the other direction might look a little too dark. Being able to find that happy medium where the customer isn’t going to notice it, it’s not going to jump out at you, that takes a lot of time. Sometimes I have to paint grain by grain. Especially on the top of an instrument; it’s made out of spruce, so it’s a softer wood and it has more distinct grains. The dark one is the winter wood and the white in between the dark is the summer wood, softer wood. Sometimes, especially if it’s been damaged, the grains will become indistinct when you put varnish over it. So you literally have to paint the grains back on. We work with very pointy brushes and we know how to manipulate them so we have a nice, sharp point. And magnifiers. They’re critical.
One that I have right now is a viola with a missing area of varnish about the size of a dime, and it was a cigarette burn. Somebody was playing and smoking at the same time —probably a fiddler, that’s not too uncommon — and the ash drops on the instrument and makes a little burn, which is black, so you have to scrape it off, losing the ground. It’s a nice enough instrument that it’s worth doing. If it were an instrument that didn’t have a lot of intrinsic value, then they probably wouldn’t have bothered. That’s probably not enough wood to be missing for it to affect the sound; it can affect the value depending on where and how much is missing. Occasionally, we’ll get people who don’t know any better come into the shop and their instrument’s scratched up and they want us to re-varnish it. Just strip all the varnish off and start over. We say, “No, we don’t re-varnish instruments.” Because the varnish is integral to the value of the instrument. Besides being incredibly expensive, it would ruin the value of the instrument.
There have been repairs that I’ve turned down. One that comes to mind is I had a customer come in who had bought a bow – a very nice bow – but it has an ivory frog. The frog holds the hair at one end and you hold it with your hand when you play. Ivory’s on the banned list now so he wouldn’t be able to fly with it. At least, not safely. He might have documents for it and maybe he’d be ok but maybe they’d confiscate the bow anyway, who knows. He wanted to get a duplicate frog made of another material so that he could keep the ivory frog because that’s part of the worth of the bow; it has to stay with the bow. But he could use the other frog when he travels. I have never made a duplicate frog and I didn’t feel it was fair to him – I didn’t know how long it was going to take, I didn’t how much it would cost him. I sent him to a bowmaker who’s done that before.
We have things like lathes which are helpful in making certain parts of bows. Whereas I’m sure before motorized machines they had to rely on hand lathes or bow drills, as some people call them. It’s basically a spindle with a bow, and you just run it back and forth. There are some people who make machines specialized to violin or bow work. It makes it faster, especially in the shop.
There are a lot of instruments coming out of China and other places where they do use machines, but they’re stuck in a student range. They’re not making fine instruments, generally. That requires a human touch. You have to be able to read what the wood wants to do. How thin to make it to get its best sound. But like with bows, you have to have a balance between strength and flexibility. A machine just can’t do that because every piece of wood’s different.
The thing that’s probably most threatening to our industry is there not being more musicians. People are losing interest. Or not understanding the worth of a good instrument. Now you can go on Amazon and buy an instrument for a hundred bucks. But that’s not the same sort of thing that we would sell in a violin shop. It wouldn’t even be something that we would work on because there’s too much wrong with it. They’re mass-produced, often again in China because the labor is very cheap.
A lot of the materials we use in bow making have gone on the endangered list. I don’t know if you’ve heard the recent things about ivory? Ivory is one of the materials that has been traditionally used on bows. Many bow makers, including myself, don’t use ivory anymore except in restoration work. But even the wood that we use, which is pernambuco, has gone on the CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] list for a restricted material. You can still get it, but it has to be certified. Pernambuco really is the best wood for bows because of its unique structure. It has a certain strength versus flexibility ratio that just works really well for bows. A lot of bow makers are using alternate materials like ipe or I’ve even seen snakewood or ironwood, although those are denser woods and a little more difficult to get a nice modern bow out of. They’re usually for baroque or transitional bows.
The strings used to be made out of sheep gut — some people think catgut, and I suppose that could have been true, too, but sheep gut’s what we know. The instruments are also put together with hide glue – like the hides of cows. The reason we use hide glue is because we want the instrument to be able to come apart so that it doesn’t crack, like with extreme changes in humidity. If it had a crack on the top, for instance, and we needed to glue it, we would want to take the top off in order to glue it back together precisely and put cleats, which look like little patches of wood, on the inside to hold that crack together so it can’t come apart again. It’s pretty invasive – you don’t want to be taking instruments’ tops off all the time.
This one is my first bow. That’s pernambuco. It’s not saleable because it has… do you see that? A little crack? This is a wind check. When the tree was growing, the wind blew it enough that it got a compression crack in the wood. So this one’s not really saleable, but it’s my first one so I wouldn’t sell it anyway!
Here’s how it starts: a plank of wood. You cut it out and it will be kind of a long stick with a rectangle, a little block at the end for the head. You plane it down to certain thicknesses and put some camber in it, the bend, and then you plane it more, plane it down to where you want it, shape the head, cut the mortise and drill the hole. I made this frog, too.
My former boss, he would make violins; sometimes I’d help plane out the inside. I’ve repaired plenty of them, so I understand how they’re put together. But bows are just more interesting to me. It’s not common for musicians to make their own or even to fix their own. Some musicians are even leery about putting their own strings on. I mean, they really should know how to do that, but some people are just not comfortable with it, and that’s fine. We’ll do it.
This is a lifelong sort of thing to me… it’s the kind of thing where you’re always learning something new. No two things are the same. Even two repairs that initially look the same, you might have to approach them differently. I’ve always enjoyed the problem-solving aspect. It’s a little daunting sometimes, but for someone who’s curious, it offers endless discovery.