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Dear little cellist,

We thought you'd be interested in finding out about someone whose job is to repair cellos and other stringed instruments. So this month's e-letter is an interview with luthier Sarah Peck from Stringers instrument shop in Marylebone, London.

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Sarah welcomed us into her workshop beneath the shop. There are bridges hanging up to dry in the window, cellos and violins in different states of repair and tools wherever you look, but not tools you'd recognize, "What are these?" we kept asking. On the walls are posters of Stradivarius instruments. Sarah told us, "Stradivarius started making instruments when he was 8 or 9 years old - that's why the instruments from that time are so beautiful, they started to learn from such a young age." Sarah herself is lovely - warm, personable and really interesting to talk to. It felt a real privilege to be given a glimpse into her world.

We began by asking her, 

What is a luthier?

A luthier (pronounced lootier) is someone who makes instruments or mends them. It comes from the word for a lute maker but over the years it's come to mean an instrument maker.

But your work here is repairing instruments rather than making them?

Yes, repairing and restoring. Repairing is when it's something simple. Restoring is where you get an instrument that hasn't been played for a long time - it can have any number of problems - and you put it back into playing condition. Restoration is usually something that takes a long time. Sometimes instruments come to me in pieces - that's a restoration.

How did you train to be a luthier?

I trained for three years in making viola de gamba and early string instruments in Massachusetts, then for a further three years at an instrument making college in Sussex. Since then, I've made a violin, viola and several viols.

Are there many female luthiers?

There are a fair number - not as many as there are men. I think there are more female luthiers on the continent (in Europe) than in England.

Did you want to be a luthier when you were a child?

No, I wanted to be a marine scientist! I studied marine biology but then I switched to instrument making. Whatever I did, I wanted to be hands-on, so I transferred that to my love of music. There must be something about marine scientists and cellos! Did you see our April Fool e-letter about the scuba diving cellist?

What skills do you need to be a luthier?

Well, it helps if you have woodworking skills. When I started, I learnt woodworking and repair and restoration at the same time which was difficult. I think the skills are patience and problem-solving and it's good to have a musical ear.

Do you play an instrument?

I play the guitar and the viola de gamba. I could be a better violin player if I practised and I'm trying to become better on the cello - I can play the G major scale!

What's the worst damage you've seen to a cello?

One cello came into the shop after a girl had left it on its back in front of the sofa and her little brother jumped off the sofa and both his feet went through the front of the cello.

I also saw a cello that was completely riddled with woodworm. It had holes in the ribs and everything was cracked. I did put it back together. Sometimes you have to look at an instrument and decide whether it's worth working on. But it's up to the customer too - some people are very attached to their instrument and they'll do anything to keep it together.

If the soundpost falls down, can you stand it up again?

Yes, you can, there's a special tool for doing that called a soundpost setter. I remember when I first started, it took me all day to put a soundpost up and I still hadn't managed it. It took me about a year to become proficient at it.

What's the most common accident?

With children, the most common thing is letting the bridge warp forward. It can be prevented if you push the bridge back - but people find that a scary thing to do. A much more serious thing is the neck snapping - often that happens because a cello has been left standing upright instead of being laid on its side. It can be mended but the instrument loses all its worth because it can be repaired but it might not last.

Amongst professional cellists, it tends to be soundpost adjustments and other minor things. Cellos also come in with open seams - that's when the top plate and / or the back plate come away from the ribs (the sides of the cello). It happens with age and with the changing weather - the glue will go - it's a completely natural thing. In America, a lot of cellists have a summer bridge and a winter bridge and a summer soundpost and a winter soundpost because the humidity changes so drastically.

You are working with all these tools. Do you sometimes cut yourself?

When I first started, I cut myself a lot - not so much now.

What's your favourite part of the job?

I guess it must be finding out what the instrument sounds like at the very end of a restoration.

Do you get nervous when you are repairing a very valuable instrument?

Yes!

Is it a bad idea for people to try to repair instruments themselves?

Yes - because there's so much stuff that is specific - the type of glue and how much glue to use and if you do it wrong you are damaging the instrument and when it does come in to me it takes twice as long. We use reversible glues - that's the whole idea of repair and restoration - you want to keep the instrument going. So if I have to take the top of a cello off, when I put that top on again, I don't want to use a lot of glue because the next person who has to take the top off could cause damage. Some things you want to be permanent and some things you want to be reversible.

Which of the string instruments is the most fragile?

The cello - they're all fragile but cellos can be damaged more easily. It's difficult with cellos because they are big instruments and the cases are very heavy to carry but the covers aren't sturdy enough to really protect the instruments.

Do you have a message for little cellists?

Yes - practise! It pays off! When I was a kid, I played the trumpet and of course I didn't want to practise. I wanted to go outside and play. So I used to forge my parents signature because they had to sign that I'd practised for half an hour. Eventually the guilt got to me and I told my parents and my parents let me quit - unfortunately. I regretted it because by the time I became interested in music again, I was three or four years behind everyone else. I think playing an instrument becomes even more enjoyable as you get older. So stick with it!

I thought you were going to say, "Don't drop your cello"!

Don't drop your cello either!

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The instrument on the left is a copy of a Maggini viola, made by Sarah and waiting to be varnished.

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Bridges hanging in the window (1)

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Bridges hanging in the window (2)

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The workbench

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How cracks are repaired on a violin. The clamps will be removed when the glue has set.

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Files

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Scrapers

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Clamps