Dressing A Violin Fingerboard

Dustin Fagg Luthier
Author: Dustin Fagg

The fingerboard is under constant duress and is a part of the violin that needs occasional maintenance. Just like changing oil or replacing break pads on a vehicle, violin fingerboards are re-workable and replaceable. This article will cover the maintenance portion – planing of the board.

Materials Needed

  • label stickers
  • curved sole block plane or apron plane
  • small hammer
  • nut knocker
  • opening knife (dull knife before using)
  • fabric to protect the top from the tailpiece
  • a leather bib for the violin
  • fingerboard sanding block
  • 220, 320 and 600 grit sandpaper
  • mineral spirits
  • mineral oil
  • fine steel wool

Before dressing a fingerboard, one must first determine whether or not it is in need of planing. Sighting down the fingerboard in good light is a great way to look for the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, telltale ripples. Additionally, a fingerboard in need of planing may cause the instrument to have a buzz. A player may also complain of a loss in power, clarity, or difficulty of playing fifths, which is also sometimes symptomatic of a rippled fingerboard in need of dressing.

A bumpy fingerboard in need of dressing.

Once it has been determined that a fingerboard is in need of dressing, one must see that there is enough fingerboard to dress while maintaining the stability of the neck. Sighting down the joint between the fingerboard and the neck will show whether the fingerboard is providing the necessary structural support. If the line of the joint is curved or warping, the fingerboard may be in need of replacing entirely.

A fingerboard with a visible curve in the joint line indicating the possible need of a new fingerboard rather than a dressing.

Taking the bridge down is a fact of life when it comes to fingerboard planing.  Recording measurements before hand is a necessity for this, and any repair when the strings are to be taken down. These measurements will make re-locating the bridge and, if it falls, the soundpost, quite easy. Be sure to protect the top from the tailpiece with a piece of fabric, and to mark the bridge location with labeling stickers.

A properly protected and prepared violin ready for the bridge to be taken down.

Before any planing takes place the instrument must be protected with a super sexy leather violin apron.

Leather violin apron ready for instrument protection.

The last step to take care of is the bit that will be getting in your way;  nut removal. We use a nut knocker and a hammer to remove the nut. I place the knocker against the nut and slide my hammer along the board to knock the nut off.

Be sure the nut knocker follows the general radius of the fingerboard for maximum contact and distribution of force.

If the nut is stubborn, using an opening knife between the peg box walls and the nut will give it that last bit of convincing it will need.

Opening knife in between the neck and the nut, not between the nut and the board facing down.

Do not use the opening knife between the fingerboard and the nut, as the knife will certainly cut into the neck and leave an unsightly divot when the nut does finally give way. Also, don’t get carried away hammering at the nut as the volute is delicate and may fly off if given enough of a shock.

Using a block plane or apron plane with a slightly convex sole, start planing the fingerboard.

Showing the slight convexity of this Lie Nielsen brass 102 apron plane.

Plane against the bench while protecting the neck with a piece of cloth or leather.

I like to start by taking a few long deliberate shavings to really show me what’s going on with the fingerboard. Most often there is a “hole” in the fist position area that one must dig around. Careful planning of the planing is important as you want to remove as little material as possible.

Here you can see the “hole” in the first position area and the correct orientation against the bench for planing.

After the first few shavings, check the general radius and scoop of the fingerboard (we use the Weisshaar number of a 41.5 mm radius). If the radius is rounder or flatter than your template, you can make some corrections to “steer” the fingerboard radius in the correct direction. But once again, be careful to not remove more material than the dressing warrants. Conservative planing is more important than the radius matching your template.

Holding the radius template against the fingerboard to aid in correction.

Correct scoop of the fingerboard is imperative to the playability of the instrument. If the board doesn’t have the desired scoop, start the planing in the middle of the board and gradually expand the strokes, thus “digging” the scoop into the fingerboard. If the fingerboard is too scooped, start at the ends and work your way toward the middle. Continue to move the plane side to side (from the treble side to the bass side and back again) to avoid creating flat spots in the radius of the board. Dragging the fingerboard radius template along the fingerboard will highlight high spots by burnishing the ebony and leaving shiny streaks behind. Check the scoop of the board periodically with a flat ruler edge running the length of the board, and a second ruler measuring the scoop itself at the mid-point. Also be sure to take the measurement from behind the lengthwise ruler, as doing so in front of the lengthwise ruler can give false readings.

Incorrect, possibly giving a false measurement.
Incorrect, possibly giving a false measurement.
Correct, also measuring at the center of the board lengthwise.
Correct, also measuring at the center of the board lengthwise.

The correct measurement for scoop is debatable, but the thickness of the bass string at the G and slightly less under the E string for violin is great. Some would say that the thickness of the bass string is the correct amount of scoop for the whole fingerboard. Often I find that .7 mm under the G string and .5 mm under the E string is appropriate.

Once you have the correct scoop, the correct fingerboard radius (or appropriately close), and have removed all holes and ripples (often indicated by even texture and complete length of fingerboard plane strokes), you are ready to scrape out the facets the plane has left behind. Remember that all work of the fingerboard surface from here on out is solely to remove the facets left by planing, Absolutely no corrections to the fingerboard shape are to be made with the scraper or sanding block. If you find irregularities, they must be removed with the plane to avoid creating holes.

Use a flexible scraper and bend it over the board to remove more facets and retain the radius you worked so hard to establish.

Bending the scraper over the fingerboard, taking long deliberate cuts.

Once the facets have been removed from the fingerboard with the scraper, sand through the grits to remove the marks left by scraping. Your sanding block should be roughly 60 mm long and a comfortable width. The block must be made of a hard material (I made mine from an ebony cut-off) and the bottom needs to be flat. If you make the bottom of your sanding block out of something soft you will get ripples in the surface of the fingerboard. I like to sand the length of the fingerboard with 220 grit first, wet and dry the board to raise the grain, sand with 320, wet and dry, sand again with 320, and finally sand with 600 grit and mineral spirits until the 320 grit scratches are removed. Sand as little as possible, just enough to remove the marks left from the previous grit/scraper.

Sanding the fingerboard in the same position as planing the fingerboard.

Once the playing surface of the board is finished, and using the same plane as previously, an alaise is planed into the fingerboard on each edge for the comfort of the player.

Planing the alaise against the bench with protection.

 

Details of the facets and general shape of the alaise on a drawn cross section of fingerboard and neck. The alaise facilitates comfort for the musician’s hand.

I use the same scraper to remove the facets that I make on the edges of the fingerboard but take care not to scrape away the line where the alaise meets the playing surface. Skip the 220 grit on the side of the fingerboard and sand with 320 and 600 grit to remove the scraping marks. Once again, take care to not sand off the line where the alaise meets the playing side of the fingerboard.

Smoothness, scoop, radius, and lines from the alaise visible.

 

An example of a great elais. Round and comfortable with a nice defined line where the alaise meets the playing surface.

Re-attach the original nut and adjust the string heights, spacing, and re-dress the nut to the newly planed fingerboard . Use mineral oil and steel wool to give the newly dressed finger board and nut a final shine before stringing up the instrument referring to the previously recorded measurements

Don’t forget to use mineral spirits to soften the adhesive on the bridge marking stickers before removing them.  They may potentially take varnish with them if you don’t, resulting in a very bad day.

 

 

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