The students love them, but why were they installed?
Q: I’m a high-school orchestra director who inherited a range of instruments when I took over the program. Two of the cellos have what I call “mini-bass tuners” on them instead of the normal pegs. Since they are so easy to tune—and hold a tune—the students argue over who gets to play them. Was this ever a common thing to do? And, why would someone do this? Also, I recently gave a dead violin with geared pegs to a student who is showing interest in becoming a luthier for him to fix up in his spare time. If he is able to get the old pegs out, is it recommended to install traditional pegs or keep the geared pegs?

 —Claire Schlegel

A: It’s unusual to find cellos with those bass-style tuning keys instead of pegs—over the past 40 years, I’ve only seen it once or twice. On the other hand, it’s not too unusual to see those traditional-looking geared tuning pegs, especially on school instruments, where the setup can be rudimentary at best. They all work on the same basic idea, which is that the key or peg is firmly attached to the pegbox, with a geared mechanism for tuning the string. You’d think you’d see them more often, just as a matter of practicality.

One of the things I love best about the world of the violin is that it’s ruled by tradition. But, it’s not tradition for its own sake—it’s pragmatism, pure and simple. Whether it’s the maker or the musician, the violin is the way it is not because that’s the way it’s always been done, but because that’s what works best.

Over the decades, I’ve seen all sorts of fads that seem like brilliant innovations at the time, but wait a bit and things go back to the way they were. Hollow end buttons, holes drilled in bridges, cedar soundposts, an endless succession of endpins for cellos—they come and go, and only occasionally does a new idea become a part of the tradition.

Pegs for violin, viola, and cello are still made of wood because that’s the best and fastest way to tune the instrument. I think the reason you don’t see those bass-style worm gear tuners more often is that they’re just so much slower when it comes to changing strings. It’s also a production to install them, and for a violin maker, it just feels like vandalism to drill into the sides of the pegbox and screw gaudy brass plates on to the gorgeously figured maple you worked hard to select and varnish properly. There had better be a good reason for doing that, especially when you have a shaper and a reamer, and the pegs costs so much less, and you can pop them in much faster.

But—and this is a huge but—the pegs have to fit perfectly in order to hold. And you have to be careful to keep them lubricated, but not too much. Sadly, school instruments are often the Willys Jeep of the violin world, expected to ford raging streams and climb a hill without missing a beat, while costing less than a spare tire to buy and maintain. In that case, the Perfection Pegs are a good compromise—they don’t work as well as properly fit wooden pegs, but they stay where they are, and they can take quite a lot of abuse.

As for your aspiring luthier: Replacing pegs can be a daunting task, mainly because you do need the shaper and reamer, and those tools cost quite a bit.

The tools for making and repairing violins are quite specialized and often custom made, so they tend to be expensive. And they do require some training because when you have wood and sharp steel together, things can go very wrong quickly.

If he’s interested and enthusiastic in pursuing repair, though, he might be able to find a local shop willing to show him the basics in exchange for helping out around the shop. It’s kind of an apprenticeship, in fact, and how violin makers were trained for centuries.

Some things don’t change, at least in the world of violins.


 

Luthier James N. McKean makes instruments from his shop in Westchester County, New York, and is a corresponding editor for Strings.

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