By Erin Shrader
“Pegs don’t get a lot of respect,” says Eric Meyer, a Portland, Oregon, craftsman whose handmade fittings grace some of the world’s great instruments. “People think of them kind of like tires. They wear out and you throw them away.”
Pegs may draw little attention when they do their job well, but there’s no ignoring them when they won’t turn, refuse to stop at the right place, or, worse yet, or let go altogether. And, like tires, if one pops at the wrong time—say in the middle of an audition—the results can be, well, spectacular, though not life-threatening.
Recalcitrant pegs are not only a vexing nuisance; left unattended they can lead to serious damage that will diminish the value of your instrument. Luckily, a little understanding will go a long way toward staying in tune.
Pegs become uncooperative for many reasons: weather, poor-quality materials, bad workmanship, or simple wear from everyday use. Badly worn or poorly fitting pegs need adjusting, a job best left to a skilled repairer. While the task is relatively simple, simple is not the same as easy.
Regardless of the reason they aren’t fitting, resist the urge to force the peg into the hole. This can lead to serious damage. Peg wood is harder than the maple of the peg box, hence forcing the issue can eventually crack the box. Such cracks are difficult and expensive to repair, and such repairs often come undone, reducing the value of your instrument.
The shaft is originally cut with a tapered peg shaver that resembles a simple pencil sharpener; the corresponding holes are shaped with a reamer of exactly the same taper. As the peg turns, the tapered shaft acts as a wedge, driving it into the hole. A good fit is critical: if the surfaces don’t fit precisely the pegs won’t stay in place.
How to Check if Your Pegs Fit Properly
Even the best-fitting pegs won’t stay that way forever. Pegs and peg box, being made of wood, expand and contract with changes in temperature and humidity. Most musicians have had the experience of opening the case and finding strings loose when the instrument has experienced a change in weather. Due to the nature of wood grain, pegs don’t necessarily contract evenly. They tend to stick or bind as the seasons change, and as they age, they shrink across the grain, becoming oval, resulting in poor contact between the turning surfaces. The constant abrasion of everyday use also causes wear.
To check for good contact between the surfaces, loosen the string and pull out the peg. You should see an even, shiny surface all the way around where the peg meets the holes. If not, take the instrument in to have the pegs adjusted. Check to see that the string hole is in the right place. If it’s too close to the inside wall of the box it could be pushing the peg back out.
Solutions for Peg Problems
Peg dope is a commercially available compound that, used sparingly, helps sticking pegs turn smoothly and stay in place at the same time—not unlike ski wax, says Meyer. Used in excess, it builds up, hardens, and increases wear, which is why some people recommend avoiding it. Some shops recommend a liquid called Peg Drops for slipping pegs, while others advise against it. Avoid folk remedies like chalk and rosin. They may work in a pinch but will abrade the surfaces faster, increasing the problem in the long run.
To apply peg dope, loosen the string and pull out the peg. Draw a line of compound around the part that contacts the hole, then reinsert and turn the peg to work the compound in until it turns smoothly without squeaking.
When peg dope doesn’t do the job, take the instrument to an experienced luthier for an evaluation. A light shaving of the peg or reaming of the hole may be all that’s necessary, or the pegs may be replaced. Adjustment removes a little material each time, so pegs start out oversized. A new set will have enough extra material for several reshapings before the pegs must be replaced. The peg box, however, cannot be replaced. The holes can only get so big before new wood, called a bushing, must be inserted. The hole may be filled with new wood and redrilled, or a long, thin shaving of maple, called a spiral busing, may be glued inside. A spiral bushing is very strong and has the advantage of being nearly invisible.
The quality of fittings is difficult for the consumer to judge. Poor-quality wood is cheaper, initially, but wears out faster and will require more frequent adjustment. If you’re replacing the pegs, invest in reasonably good quality. If you’re buying a new instrument, make sure the pegs work. If they don’t, insist that they do before you buy.
What’s the Best Wood for Pegs?
Any suitable hardwood can be used for pegs. Italian pegs in Strad’s time were jujube while the French and English used boxwood. Ebony, a colonial resource, gained popularity in the 19th century, which continued on in Germany after the French turned to rosewood in the 20th century.
But which wood is best? “Opinions are like noses. They’re all different and everybody has one,” replies peg maker Eric Meyer. His first choice is mountain mahogany, which grows at high elevations throughout the western United States and looks like old boxwood. Mountain mahogany was introduced to the trade by master maker and restorer Hans Weisshaar of Los Angeles, who Meyer says noticed it growing near his vacation cabin in Big Bear, California. Meyer finds it has the perfect density for turning, “like plastic, or hard butter” with “super-tight grain.”
It’s also virtually unaffected by changes in the weather. Meyer attributes its resilience to the high-desert climate of intensely hot days and bitter cold nights.