Violin Conservation Books

Posted By Colin Froggatt on Jul 22, 2017 |

Considering that we are essentially craft workers, there is a surprisingly heavy and regular reading list for those wishing to maintain a well informed view, nor are all publications as cogent as the BVMA Newsletter.

The problem is compounded for those who are restorers as well as makers, and for those who are also Conservators, a backlog is inevitable since conservation literature varies even more widely in its relevance and  penetrability. However, two recent publications stand out and really do deserve the attention of all  concerned in any way with musical instruments

The Gentle Art of Applied Pressure

The first is .”The Gentle Art of Applied Pressure” by Robert Barclay, Carole Dignard and Carl Schlichting, all of the Canadian Conservation Institute, who are the publishers. Code 0402. $26. 44pp. spiral bound paperback.

The aim of the book is to assemble the sort of everyday knowledge that accumulates in disparate workshops  but is constantly having to be reinvented because it goes unrecorded, in this case the wide range of tools techniques and materials used to hold objects together while glueing or reshaping takes place.  While this is an immensely practical book, it is supported by typical CCI scientific rigour and is clearly and logically presented.

The first part examines the application of pressure from a physical point of view.  Artificial means of multiplying force, such as levers, wedges and pulleys are discussed, as well as the natural processes of elasticity, gravity, air or fluid pressure and magnetism.  Other topics discussed are, distribution of pressure and join topography, including shear, a constant problem with splits in highly arched, poorly quartered instrument fronts.

The remaining majority of the book then consists of numerous well illustrated and described examples of solutions to real-life clamping problems, including work on a medieval fiddle, a Lyre, a keyboard instrument, and various percussion instruments.  Some techniques such as go-bars and turnbuckles will be familiar, others such as vacuum clamping and using tin plate with rare earth magnets, offer new and interesting possibilities.

The great advantage of the book is that it offers combined and accumulated knowledge.  It even exceeds the idea that two heads are better than one, by having three authors, who in their acknowledgements thank many for their input, singling out 14 in particular.  However, this is a truly interactive book which in its conclusion encourages readers to write in with their own ideas and experiences so that future editions may be more complete. Ideas used will have sources acknowledged, so a good opportunity to share some accumulated BVMA knowledge.

The Preservation and Use of Historic Musical Instruments. Display case and concert hall

The second book is called “The Preservation and Use of Historic Musical Instruments. Display case and concert hall” by Dr. Robert Barclay, senior Conservator at the Canadian Conservation Institute, and is derived from his 1999 PhD dissertation for the Open University, previously only available on disc from CCI.

It is not an exaggeration to say that this book examines every aspect of the care of historic musical instruments, but it is not an encyclopaedia.  It is more like a précis of an encyclopaedia, dealing with each aspect succinctly and logically, moving on quickly so that ideas are easily sustained and connections and inter relationships made or revealed.  It draws together the views of makers, restorers, conservators, musicians etc. examining them dispassionately and without confrontation, so that devoid of rhetoric we  examine the rationales and intentions of all concerned with historic instruments.  The aim is not to promote one view, but to reveal many and to be honest about these so that better understanding can be promoted.  There is a true pursuit of knowledge from which we as readers gain greatly.

Having quickly defined a vocabulary of common terms in particular contexts, such as the Historic Instrument, Function, Restoration, Conservation etc, we are then presented with a most useful intellectual tool or framework, which I imagine will be universally adopted by the musical instrument community, for its clarity and utility.  Within this framework actions taken on instruments are examined separately but in conjunction with the rationales encouraging them, and both are considered as lying within or without three possible regimens of use.  These exceed the usual non productive polarisations of Conservation and Restitution or Restoration, by including the rationale of Currency as a legitimate option.  In this regimen, instruments continue in use and are maintained and adapted to suit the needs of musical fashion. Most instruments would fall into this category, but you would expect few Historic instruments to do so.  However you would be surprised, and thus it is important to recognise and consider this regimen.

The great usefulness of this construct is that actions on historic instruments can be separately examined and compared to the rationale adopted by those performing the actions, total agreement of course being the expected result.  However, through the presentation and discussion of a number of real-life case studies, we are gradually brought to understand how difficult it can often be to achieve such agreement.  Such is the fair minded and enviable restraint of the author that even the most extreme cases of disagreement are merely described as displaying dissonances.

The Preservation and Use of Historic Musical Instruments. Display case and concert hallThe strengths of this book are that it encompasses a wide and disparate range of views on instrument care and use, presenting these fairly and without rhetoric.  It provides a valuable intellectual tool with which to examine not just case histories of other peoples dilemmas, but which can also be used to eliminate some of the woolly thinking we are all sometimes guilty of when confronted by complicated and conflicting instrument care issues. It may provide a valuable restraint in such circumstances, holding back the natural urge to do what we are trained to do, long enough for us to use the mental tools provided, rather than the physical ones, to consider the situation coolly and within a wider context.   Most of us will wince a little in reading this book as it recalls past dissonances of our own, but now we have the enlightenment  to help us resist repeating them.

This book is very well annotated and referenced and includes an appendix chronologically listing events and publications which might have influenced thinking in the field of instrument care, thereby providing useful context for the case studies.  To attempt to care for Historic musical instruments without reading this book is to be seriously ill-informed.

Both these books are available from Canadian Conservation Institute, 1030 Innes Road,Ottawa ON  KIA OM5 Canada.  Tel. (613) 998-3721 E-mail   Web site

However, the second book The Preservation and Use of Historic Musical Instruments, by Robert L.Barclay

1-84407-127-8 Nov.2004. 192pp paperback. 35.00 , is also available from the publishers James & James/ Earthscan. 8-12 Camden High St. London NW1 OJH tel. 020 7387 8558 E-mail and there is a 10% discount if you buy online at


Padraig O Dubhlaoidh.