By James N. McKean
If there’s any question in your mind as to whether a violin is as much a work of art as a musical instrument, consider this: Even though the scroll plays absolutely no role in the sound of the instrument, it represents up to 20 percent of the value. So when the neck wears out through constant use, it’s cut off, and the original scroll grafted onto a new one. A replacement neck has no effect at all on the value—not only is a replacement neck expected to be seen on even the most valuable vintage instruments, it’s rare that you find an original one.
It’s been more years than I can remember since I did a neck graft, or any restoration work for that matter, so I thought I’d stop by Carriage House Violins, in Newton Upper Falls, Massachusetts, to talk to In Kyu Hwang, their head restorer, about the complexities of making and setting a neck, and the exacting process of bringing an antique instrument back to life. When I arrived, there were various parts of an Antonio II Gagliano (1791–1860) violin on the bench in front of him, ready to be reassembled. He showed me a Tomaso Eberle (1725–c. 1792) cello on which he had just finished extensive restoration, including a neck graft.
In Kyu has the easy going and affable manner of someone who is doing exactly what he always wanted to do—which, in his case, is the literal truth. As a middle-school student in Gwangju, a small city southwest of Seoul, he saw a documentary about the violin-making school in Mittenwald, Germany, and—even though he didn’t play the violin—fell in love with the craft. That dream lasted through high school, and then a stint in a local shop making a violin, and then his mandatory military service. He persevered, and eventually made it to the school.
After graduation, there came years of long hours in top violin shops in Berlin and Los Angeles, seeing and working on instruments by some of the finest makers. When Carriage House Violins was looking for a restorer for its high-end instruments a few years ago, he and his family packed up and made the move across the country.
What follows is our conversation about the complexities and challenges of restoration, and why it became his passion.
When an instrument comes in that needs restoration, what is your goal?
As a restorer my main goal is to make the instrument structurally sound. A beautiful restoration that falls apart in a couple years doesn’t mean anything. Before I start, I think about what the original maker had in mind and wanted to do. The fun part, and the challenge, is copying his original plan. Why he used this kind of wood, that arching, the ground and varnish. I want to match the look of the old master, to make any damage invisible. The very first step, if you have to add new wood, is also the most important—finding the right piece. It can take a lot of time, going through boxes of old wood to get the grain and the character right, but when you find exactly the right piece, it’s incredibly satisfying.
Matching the varnish must be a real challenge.
Matching the ground is the biggest challenge. What varnish the maker used actually doesn’t matter so much because by now the instrument has so much wear and so many layers with dirt and dust and retouching. The objective is to have an aesthetically well-blended look. You want to recreate the original texture of the varnish, but you also have to look at the whole picture—everything that has happened over the hundreds of years.
What role does setting the neck play in the restoration?
Setting a neck is very complicated. It involves much more than the neck itself. The most important part of setting a neck is having a stable upper block and button (the small semi-circular extension of the back)—they carry the weight of all the string tension. So if I’m doing a graft or resetting a neck, the first thing I do is check the upper block area. The Eberle cello, for example, had a very small upper block. But the top on a high-arched instrument like this is more flexible, so it needs a large upper block. It has a very steep rise from the neck to the central flat part of the arch—what we call the crown. That can lead to cracks or let the neck collapse downward, so sometimes you need to reinforce that area with a patch. The button was detached, but it wasn’t original anyway, so I made a partial cast and fitted a new piece of wood with a tongue extending under the block.
You want to recreate the original texture of the varnish, but you also have to look at the whole picture—everything that has happened over the hundreds of years.
When I glued the box back together it was now structurally sound and the neck would be stable.
Once the body is back together, what decisions do you have to make about setting the neck?
Each antique instrument is so individual. You start from the basic numbers, but you need to vary it in each specific case, based on experience and intuition. You don’t want to create too much tension, which reduces the vibration and makes the instrument unstable. You can change the overstand (the distance from the top of the edge to the fingerboard) and the projection (the height at the bridge). Since the Eberle has a high arch, I made the overstand higher and lowered the projection, and that reduced the overall tension. But the neck reset doesn’t change the character of the arch or the set of the f-holes. When you restore an instrument, or set the neck, you’re getting it back to the maker’s original idea. Once it’s done, then I can adjust the sound with its setup—the soundpost and bridge, the afterlength of the tailpiece and so on. I start with a standard setup and then work with the player, as you would with any instrument.
What about the sound of the instrument? How does restoration affect that?
When the instrument has recovered its original shape and structural integrity, so will the sound. I don’t need to try to make the sound better than it was before. An antique instrument has already been played through so many centuries by great players that it’s settled into that sound. I intentionally try not to modify it. If I have had to put in a patch, I go by my experience in “thicknessing” it to make it structurally strong but also respect the maker’s idea for that instrument.
What is it you find so compelling about restoration?
It’s endlessly fascinating. You’re dealing with instruments that have been built two or three hundred years ago by someone who was really talented and a great craftsman, who had a great idea of sound and beauty. It’s like shaking hands with this person who lived hundreds of years ago. And then when you take the instrument apart, you see all those details of how he worked—how he carved and in which direction and what kind of tool marks he left. Just touching the wood is so thrilling. It’s an amazing feeling. Making violins was interesting, but I found it limiting—it was just my ideas of shape, beauty, and sound. For me it doesn’t compare to that feeling of a direct connection with the old masters that comes from working on their instruments.
What is your greatest satisfaction in restoring an instrument?
[He gives me a huge smile.] When it’s done, if you show it to people and ask if they can guess where it was damaged previously, and they say no and cannot find it—well, then I’ve reached my goal. We’re dealing with art. This is the work of masters, who had a great idea and aesthetic, and if I can bring that back to life—that’s the best.