The Ultimate Makeover

By Germain, Christopher | Strings, October 2008 | Go to article overview

The Ultimate Makeover

Germain, Christopher, Strings


Modern technology has taken over so much of our lives, but you wouldn't know It by visiting a workshop in which ans of today's musicalinstrument restorers works. Those artisans labor in a mostly iow-tech environment, using many of the same tools and materials that the classic violin makers used. You won't find computer-aided digital-arching correction devices or microscopic color analyzers, but you might find a fragile old violin top resting in a plaster cast, waiting for a bag of hot sand to restore its original arching. The varnish materials are traditional as well-the same natural pigments, resins, and gums that have been used for centuries. But while the tools might be low-tech, the skill set required for large-scale restoration work is incredibly high.

"A stringed-instrument restorer must possess a large number of related skills in order to perform successfully in the profession," says Hans Nebel of Harrington Park, New Jersey, one of the world's most experienced and accomplished stringed-instrument restorers. "A restorer must surely have fine training, a professional eye, good business sense, a great memory and, most of all, an appreciation of fine old instruments and love of music."

Nebel spent 17 years restoring stringed instruments for the Rembert Wurlitzer shop in New York from 1957 to the shop's official closing on Aug. 1, 1974. During his tenure there, Nebel saw and worked on hundreds of the world's rarest stringed instruments. The skills and discipline that Nebel learned at Wurlitzer's have served him well in his private practice, which he's maintained for the past 33 years.

The process of restoring a rare stringed instrument can be a complex undertaking, involving issues related to structure, aesthetics, and acoustics, he says. In addition, a restorer must have a strong sense of ethics and be capable of employing techniques and materials that are reversible. Restorers must perform work that appropriately enhances the function, overall health, and value of the instrument.

For Nebel, the complexity of that operation involves "the intricate assemblage of related parts" within a stringed instrument, but for him the ultimate result is of paramount importance. "The final outcome of a restoration must meet my clients' expectation as well as my professional satisfaction," he says.


The physical demands placed upon a stringed instrument in the 1700s were far less intense than those encountered in the contemporary music world. Three centuries ago, concert pitch was lower and the materials used for early strings-mostly gut-put less pressure on early instruments. Today, in order to meet the need for greater volume and higher pitch, some older instruments must be modified or restored-it's sort of analogous to hotrodding an antique racing car to meet the demands of today's high-octane racetrack.

When the art of stringed-instrument restoration work began is uncertain, but it was likely sometime after the golden period of violin making in Italy, which ended in the late 18th century. Prior to that time, if an instrument suffered a serious crack or break, it was common to simply replace the broken part with a new one. It wasn't unusual in those days for a maker to replace the entire top of an instrument instead of repairing a crack or two. But once the rarity and high value of classical Italian instruments was established, it became important to preserve and maintain all original aspects of a given instrument.

Antonio and Pietro Mantegazza of Milan were among the earliest restoration specialists. The Mantegazza Brothers, as they are known, were gifted makers in their own right, but the siblings were often employed to help restore instruments owned by the Italian nobleman and collector Count Cozio di Salabue, one of the first collectors of rare violins. By the early 19th century, the count had amassed an enormous collection of classic Cremonese instruments, including magnificent examples by Stradivari, Guarneri, and others. …

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