Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

Hot Music On A Burned Fiddle
(The Fun Is In Looking Back!)

by Norris Chambers

   JJust about everyone has been tempted at one time or another to build a musical instrument - a violin, guitar, banjo or some such device. I had never had this urge, but got pushed into it by accident once during the "old days."

  Four teen-agers, including my cousin and two others and me, had a little string band with my fiddle, my cousin's guitar and a beat-up banjo and another cheap guitar. We played for an hour each Saturday at eleven in the morning over a radio station some sixty miles from our country hangout. It was quite an experience to get us all together and get in the old Model T and travel that distance in time for the morning show.

  This particular day, it snowed the night before and the roads were white and somewhat slick when we left about daylight and headed north over the little country roads. The Model T was quite comfortable, since it was the old coach type with the roll up windows. Anyone with experience with a Model T knows that the engine puts out plenty of heat to keep the interior comfortable, even without a heater. (Heaters were unheard of in those days.) The engine did not use a water pump, and depended on the heat rise in the engine to circulate the water through the radiator for cooling, so the temperature was always not far from 212 degrees.

  The snow wasn't much of a problem. The little tires of the old T cut through to the ground, and we were able to maintain our usual rate of speed - probably 20 to 25 miles per hour. When trouble came, it was sudden and unexpected. We had progressed to a larger and wider road that handled two way traffic, when there was some. Of course it was not paved, but was either sandy or muddy, depending on the composition of the soil through which it snaked its way.

  It so happened that in this particular spot, the surrounding area was deep sand and the sand had drifted to the road in little rows that criss-crossed it at intervals. These ridges were covered with snow, and just as we approached one, the car skidded sideways for a short distance, and the wheels hit the sand row, which was well frozen and hard. The sudden stop caused the top-heavy machine to turn over on its side in the middle of the road. The two singers in the back had their song interrupted prematurely, and in a very few seconds, we were lying on our side in the road and the engine was racing wildly. I finally found the key on the dash and turned it off.

  The first thing I thought of was fire. I could just see the gasoline hitting the red hot exhaust pipe and igniting. We all got to our feet and began trying to open the left hand doors that were now on top. With a lot of squeaking and squawking, we managed to climb out, and there was no fire. But in the process of trying to get out, we had stepped on the windows that were on the ground, and they had shattered. We gathered at the side of the road and began debating what to do. The first idea proved to be the best, so we gathered around the vehicle and raised it to an upright position. It flopped onto its wheels, and didn't look much worse for the accident. After looking it over carefully, we didn't see anything wrong except the broken windows on the right side and a few fresh dents in the fenders.

  We tried the motor, and it started. Everyone crawled back in and we continued on down the road, holding the speed down just a little. When we arrived at the station, it was ten minutes until program time, and we crowded around the heater trying to get our fingers and our instruments warmed up a little. The open windows had chilled us thoroughly.

  You guessed it. My fiddle was too close to the heat, and when I discovered it by a burning odor, the varnish was bubbling up and smoking. A few strokes of the bow showed it to be badly out of tune. I just about broke out in a panic. We had to play, and it looked like my old fiddle wasn't going to make the grade. But a little tuning made it playable. The tone, however, was flat and funny. You never heard such a weird sound.

  But we put on the program, flat fiddle and all. Believe it or not, we got several fan letters saying that my fiddle playing was the best it had ever been. None of us agreed with the letters.

  So I began the process of repairing a fiddle. I asked a few old timers who had done such things, and one old fellow told me the biggest job was getting the thing apart. I assured him that was no problem, as the heat had pretty well unglued everything. If a glued section must be taken apart, a few drops of acetone might do it, or a thin, hot knife pressed between the parts. Don't hold it too close to a stove, as I did. This bubbles the varnish! He showed me how to make clamps, which were nothing more than "C" shaped pieces of wood with the inside dimension just a little wider than the fiddle's body. He explained that these were placed over the body, after glue was applied, and that wedges were driven between the clamps and the body to tighten them.

  I retired to the blacksmith shop to become a violin maker. We did just about everything in the blacksmith shop, and it seemed like a likely place to try a new skill. I removed the strings and tail piece along with the top. The wooden braces inside seemed to be tight, so I didn't bother them. The neck piece was unglued, so I took it off easily. Then I started scraping all the joints until they were smooth and clean. I made an ingenious clamp out of strong fishing cord and a quarter inch bolt, spread a thin coat of glue on both sides and pulled the neck in tight. I let this dry until the next day, then put glue on the sides and top and put about eight or ten of my C clamps on the body. In a couple of days I put the strings back on and tuned it up. It made a tremendous difference in the tone quality of the instrument.

  I still have that old fiddle, and it still sounds pretty good when I can find a good fiddler to play it. I never made an accomplished violin player, but I did learn how to glue a top on. The secret to making a good joint in any wood work, including instrument making or repairing, is to have them clean, apply a thin coat of glue to both sides and clamp them securely until they dry.

  I might add that I also sanded the top and put some new varnish on it. It didn't exactly look new, but it looked much better than it had with the bubbles showing.

  If you are seriously interested in this type of work, there are a few books available and if you ask around, you will find an old timer now and then who will be glad to give you some tips. Just remember that no matter how serious the circumstances that might lead you to this type of work, such as my case, you must turn on a grin and HAVE FUN. Fun is where you find it, and if you don't find any, you have missed a lot!


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