By James N. McKean
There is very little that can be as pleasurable as opening a box from one of my suppliers and taking out a set of finely made pegs and a matching tailpiece. It’s one of those things, like vibrato, that you never notice unless it’s done badly; then you realize how essential it is to the richness of the music. Like vibrato, a peg seems so simple. And yet, as every musician knows, a great vibrato is devilishly difficult to pull off well—it has to transform the sound without drawing attention to itself.
It might seem that every peg is much like another, but a closer look reveals just how much elegance can be put into the most utilitarian object. And they come in an almost infinite variety of materials and shapes. Traditionally, fittings have been made out of the Big Three: ebony, rosewood, or boxwood. You want a wood that is extremely dense and stable, so that the shaft of the peg won’t compress, or the tailpiece or chinrest crack.
Decades ago Hans Weisshaar, the eminent Los Angeles dealer and restorer, found that the quality of boxwood had deteriorated substantially; it was getting increasingly difficult to find genuine Turkish boxwood, which is as hard as the finest ebony. The newer varieties, while they looked the same, were just too soft. He found a local wood, mountain mahogany, growing in the nearby mountains, which was a perfect substitute, both in color and density.
As simple as they seem, fine fittings require quite an investment in time and expertise. While the maker uses machines like a bandsaw and lathe, they are most definitely not machine-made; each set is turned and finished individually, by hand. The finest pegs cost hundreds of dollars, compared to the most utilitarian, which are sold by the dozen.
The difference, while it seems almost imperceptible, is well worth it, even though the quality of the wood can be just as fine. Years ago, in a fit of economizing, I thought I would use more commercial fittings on my latest cello. After all, who would notice? They would work just as well. The problem was, I noticed. It was like putting plastic seat covers on a William Morris chair, or a rubber bumper guard on an Alfa Romeo. I barely had the instrument set up before I knocked it down and was fitting a set of Bois de’Harmonie rosewood pegs.
A quick look online will show the considerable variety of styles available. They range from a simple oval to a deeply cut heart shape, while the tailpieces can be rounded, or with a pointed arch. Some pegs are quite ornate, with collars and little knobs at the end in contrasting woods. Over the years I’ve found myself going simpler—all those extra details seemed to distract from the beauty of the simple curves of the best pegs.
It’s like the mugging and swooping around that some musicians indulge in. I remember years ago hearing an account of the Sibelius violin concerto that smoldered like a barely contained forest fire. I even put down my tools to listen, something that happens very rarely. I was amazed to discover that it was a performance by Jascha Heifetz. The knock on him has always been that he was the ice king, steely and soulless, but as I realized from just hearing him, that was due to the fact that when he performed his face was expressionless, his body perfectly still; the only thing moving was the bow and his left hand, climbing around the violin. Everything went into the music.
“The different colors allow the violin maker to select fittings that complement the tone and even texture of a particular instrument’s varnish.”
Fitting pegs also seems so simple—you ream a hole, you shape a peg, add some peg dope to lubricate it, and there you go: Done! However, the taper of the hole and the peg have to match perfectly: The tolerance is zero, otherwise the pegs won’t hold, or be impossible to turn smoothly. The blade of the peg shaper has to be as sharp as the knife that I use to cut f-holes—which means sharp enough for a surgeon. It has to be as straight as a ruler; the slightest deviation will cause the peg to be looser on one side or the other, causing it to bind.
The peg fits when you try it in a freshly reamed hole and the polished shine of each side is the same. To get that, though, requires less than a quarter turn of a screwdriver, and then a test and then another adjustment, until it’s exactly right. Like fitting a bassbar, or a soundpost, or setting a neck, close enough is not nearly good enough: It has to be perfect. Fitting pegs is one of those tasks that requires as much patience as skill.
Violins can last for hundreds of years—some of those made by Andrea Amati in the mid-16th century are still in use. But even with the most careful use, parts wear out. Sooner or later, the hardest ebony fingerboard will reach the end of its life. Necks wear out and have to be replaced, with a new one grafted to the original scroll (one hopes). The incessant turning of pegs will gradually enlarge the holes, and while it might take generations, sooner or later they have to be bushed. The hole is reamed one last time, to prepare a good gluing surface, and then a tapered stick of wood is fitted (usually boxwood, for its added density). The excess wood is cut away, the new wood retouched to match the original varnish, and then new, smaller holes bored. Often the old pegs can be turned down and re-used. Properly done, bushing has no effect on the value of your instrument, any more than a neck graft does. And it’s healthier—the smaller the hole, the less chance the pegs will crack the pegbox. They’re also easier to tune.
Your instrument is there to make music, but it also provides visual pleasure. When you’re tuning, you don’t want to even think of the peg. But once you begin to notice them, you’ll see how much they can add to your instrument’s beauty.
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Strings magazine.