First Aid for Cellos
Accidents happen. Whether it’s a knock or bump to a cello which leaves it buzzing or sounding different, or if it’s a more severe accident with visible damage, accidents are stressful and upsetting. The first golden rule – before an accident happens – is: be insured. Whatever the value of your instrument, you should take out a policy at the start of your ownership before anything goes wrong. If you are insured and you have an accident, you can be confident of getting your cello back to normal with considerably less worry, stress and expense. It’s also good idea to update your insurance valuations every three years or so.
The second golden rule is: never attempt DIY. A lot of damage can be done to instruments by attempted or makeshift repairs, particularly if the wrong glue is used. Violin makers only use a hot hide glue which is traditional and versatile but requires quite a bit of skill to use. Its greatest quality is that it creates a completely reversible repair.
The next rule: keep all the pieces. This could mean simply conserving one broken corner, but in a more severe accident, there could be many more wood fragments to collect and preserve. No matter how slight – or appalling – the damage to an instrument is, if you manage to keep all the pieces together, these will be used by the restorer which will both improve the quality of the repair and reduce the cost.
The last golden rule is: use a good luthier or repairer. A good luthier will ensure that your cello comes back playing the same – or better – than it used to play before the accident. They will also make sure that you are fully compensated for any loss of value to the instrument as a result of the accident.
Is the cello safe to play if I can’t see any damage? Let’s explore the least daunting scenario: an accident has occurred but there is no obvious damage – so you just need to know if the cello is safe to play. The best test of this is to try playing the cello. If the cello plays as well as it did just before the accident, the odds are that the cello has escaped any kind of damage.
If you experience any loss in response, or if it just doesn’t play the same as it did before, then you need to establish what has changed and this will almost certainly mean consulting a luthier. Your cello might have suffered virtually invisible damage such as seams coming open, which has a big effect on the sound, or the bridge legs may have splayed, which also has a big effect on the sound. (If you know where your bridge feet stand and you know how to pull the legs of a bridge back in again, this may be something that you can remedy yourself.)
Another symptom to watch out for is a change in string heights/clearances. If the fingerboard has become partly unglued from the neck, this can be hard to spot with the naked eye, but you may notice that the string clearances have increased, particularly in 4 th position. Another warning sign might be a buzz. So, if there is a loss of response, if string heights have changed or if there is a buzz it’s a good idea to get the cello checked over by a luthier.
My cello has some visible minor damage: what next? One of the most common examples of minor damage to cellos is when a corner gets knocked off. It’s very easy to damage the corners on cellos, particularly on the front as spruce is far more brittle and breakable than maple and it’s generally very exposed to wear and tear as a result of playing. For this reason, it’s very common to find that the treble side front corners on old instruments have been reconstructed, while the corners on the bass side are repaired and worn but still original. The most vulnerable corner of all is the lower treble corner as it’s easy to knock it off with the bow tip on an A string up bow. As explained above, the number one rule is to pick up all the pieces. Corners are easy to repair if all the pieces are there and particularly if it’s a clean break. If pieces are missing, then it will involve a lot more work and expense.
Corner repairs rarely qualify for insurance claims because the cost is usually less than the standard excess. But if you collect all the pieces, it will be a quick and easy repair and won’t involve an insurance claim or affect your no claims bonus. If there is damage to a corner and you can’t get to your luthier immediately, be sure to treat all the damaged surfaces with the greatest possible respect; if they can be kept clean and untouched that will also help the repair. If a broken surface gets further damaged, that just makes the repair more difficult.
Cracks – new or old? When an accident happens, it’s easy to become unnecessarily anxious. We often see people who have started worrying about old/pre-existing cracks they never worried about before, because they think they are new and caused by the recent accident. Here’s an easy test to see if a crack is new or old. Unless they are immaculately repaired, all old cracks have some sort of dirt in them while the unvarnished surfaces in a new crack will look startlingly pale. So, if you have an accident and then spot a crack that is dirty or dark, be reassured that it’s not new and you don’t have to worry about it any more than you did before the accident.
Rib cracks. It’s very easy to make small cracks in cello ribs with quite a minor incident or bump. Small rib cracks under 5cm long don’t pose a structural risk to the instrument but it’s good to get them seen to before they become dirty. Rib cracks are often out of register – one side is slightly higher than the other – but they can usually be persuaded, with skill, to lie flat again and can then be glued easily. Bigger rib cracks are more of a concern. Even a long, simple rib crack can release quite a lot of tension in the wood; long rib cracks also start to compromise the sound of the cello. More complex rib cracks where there is a hole or if a crack is in the shape of an ‘H’ should be attended to by a luthier as quickly as possible. It’s often necessary to remove the front of the cello in order to repair longer rib cracks properly which is quite a costly job that will involve an insurance claim.
Major damage. Most cracks in the front or back should be taken rather more seriously than rib cracks. Cello fronts are more prone to cracking than any other part of the instrument due to the structure and nature of spruce wood. If a crack is close to the edgework, you may be able to live with it for a while, but any crack that starts or finishes in a sound hole or is close to the sound post or bass bar needs immediate attention and the cello really shouldn’t be used if it has a crack of this nature. Sound post cracks are always a serious concern, whether in the front or back of an instrument and they need to be attended to straightaway. Sound post cracks have an immediate effect on the sound and value of a cello, especially if the crack is in the back, so it’s essential to include this loss in value in an insurance claim. Small shrinkage or internal cracks in the back may not be too serious but should ultimately be checked out and attended to.
Insurance claims: we often hear from players uncertain whether they can make a valid insurance claim after an accident. The answer is simple: if damage has occurred to your cello because of a clearly identifiable accident or mishap – no matter how big or small, no matter how silly, embarrassing or avoidable it was, then you can make a valid claim without worrying and your insurer will cover the cost of the repair and any loss in value. If you need a temporary repair for your cello to make it safe until there is an opportunity for you to leave the cello with a luthier, the cost of this should be covered by your insurers if the claim is made correctly.
How to make a claim: If you have an accident and need to make a claim, inform your insurers immediately. They will send you a claim form and a claim number. Choose your luthier carefully and as soon as possible, file a written report with your insurers describing how the damage happened along with a full assessment from the luthier about the remedy and any potential unknowns (sometimes the extent of the claim isn’t known until you open an instrument) and the likely loss in value (if any). NB Keep your valuations up to date. It’s very important to get your instruments and bows valued regularly by a trusted and experienced luthier. If your valuation gets too out of date, you would not be compensated for the true value of your instrument if it were lost, destroyed or stolen.
What insurance doesn’t cover Things that are not covered by your insurance are general wear and tear – including varnish being rubbed off while a cello is played, and small scratches and bumps that will in any case fall below the excess for most policies. It’s also important to know that insurers don’t cover the cost of damage that occurs to an instrument through atmospheric changes. So if you travel with your cello to somewhere very hot or dry you should protect yourself against this kind of damage by making sure you humidify your cello case.
Sound effects. Players often worry if the sound of their repaired cello will be as good as it was before the accident. This is another reason to use a good violin maker. A good luthier will have enormous respect for the instrument’s original set up and set up history and will try wherever possible to reinstate your original set up after the repair is complete. Often a change in the sound of a repaired instrument is caused by changes from the original set up and not actually by the repair itself. Sometimes a repair introduces extra strength to the instrument, and this is bound to change its sound and potentially its response – but if you work with an experienced luthier, they will design reinforcements in order to change the instrument as little as possible. They will also be able to compensate for the repairs in the final set up and sound adjustment of the instrument after the repair is complete. Finally, a good repairer will make sure you are compensated correctly if there is any loss of value to the instrument at all. This is the only way to preserving the long-term value of your instrument – and your investment – after an accident.
© Robin Aitchison & Sarah Mnatzaganian 2021