Several doctors I know hate to go to parties. They know that sooner or later someone is going to come up to them, describe an ache or pain and demand an immediate diagnosis. Well, this phenomenon happens to instrument repair people too. I’m always asked to find a buzz or do a quickie repair at our local tunes sessions. The thing is, I don’t mind.
While we were jamming a few months ago, a local old-time fiddler complained to me that her fiddle was hard to tune. I gave it the hands-on test and decided she was right. A quick remedy, I assured her, would be a little peg lube. I took the fiddle home with me intending to drop it off at her house the next day. No such luck.
A close inspection of the pegs revealed that whoever fit them had a mismatched peg reamer and shaper set. Violin pegs are tapered. To work properly they need to fit in a hole that is tapered exactly the same. On this particular fiddle the peg had more taper than the hole, leaving the small end of the peg without any contact to the pegbox. New pegs were necessary.
Photo 1 [below] shows the end of the G string peg. The light crescent shape shows the amount of space between the peg and the peg box.
New fiddle pegs are not hard things to install. But like most lutherie tasks the job involves knowing the tricks, having a little practice, and investing the $100 or so in the special tools needed for the job.
In photo 2 [below] you see the three essential tools for the job. The T-handled reamer shapes the peg hole. The shapers do the same for the peg. Shapers work like cheap pencil sharpeners. The shaft of the peg fits into the hole of the shaper. You twist the peg, and the shaper shaves the peg to the correct taper. I use two types of shapers. The brass block-looking one has three holes and cutters for three different sized pegs. The black contraption with the knob on top is adjustable for when you need those in-between or extra-large sizes.
To start the job, remove the strings and pegs of your fiddle. Put the reamer in the G-string hole and gently twist a few times around. Look at the walls of the holes. If you see fresh wood the entire length of both holes, that’s enough reaming for that hole. Go on to the next. The presence of dirt or oxidized wood means a few more twists of the reamer are necessary. (I always start with the G-string hole as the peg box is widest there.)
When the first hole is done, I mark the depth of the reamer with masking tape. This makes reaming the other holes easier. When reaming, you look for fresh wood. You do the same with peg shaping. The peg has to have contact with the cutter over its entire length.
Shaping the pegs is the fun part of the job. It’s fairly fast and when your shaper is sharp and well-adjusted the shavings just roll off the peg.
Put each peg in the peg box as you shape it. When all the pegs are installed, measure the distance from the peg box to the collar of the peg. It should be the same for all of the pegs A distance of 3/8″ usually works well. One thing to keep in mind is that the instrument has to fit in its case. Pegs that stick out too far will prevent you from putting the fiddle away.
Any pegs extending farther than your set minimum should be removed and the hole reamed out. Go very slowly at this stage. A sharp reamer can easily take off more wood than you want.
Some pegs come with string holes pre-drilled. Most, however, do not. Using a scribe, put a mark on each peg in the center of the section of the peg that is on the inside of the peg box. Remove the pegs from the instrument and drill each one using a bit that is a few thousandths of an inch larger than your largest string. A drill press or hand drill will work fine for this job.
Put the pegs back in the fiddle. Step back and notice how stupid they look with the extra length sticking out. Use your scribe and mark the pegs 1 / 16″ from the peg box. Take the pegs and cut off the excess length.
Use sandpaper to round off the tip. It is best to run through the different grits going from medium to extra fine. As all ebony is not perfectly black, I like to dye the pegs. A solvent-based wood dye is a must. Water-based dyes raise the grain and turn your perfectly round pegs into a funny shape. Rub some dye on the peg shafts with a cotton swab and quickly rub it off with a clean dry cloth. This will give a good black color and a little bit of shine to the peg shaft.
Remember how this whole project started? “All you need is a little peg lube.” Well, it’s the perfect time to do just that. The Hill brand is the only kind I use. It comes in a mini-lipstick tube and is a bit firmer than lipstick. Unlike lipstick it comes in only one color, brown. Put a little on the pegs where they contact the peg box.
If all went well, your fiddle should be ready for a new set of your favorite strings, leaving tuning problems a thing of the past.
Bob Smakula is a musician and resident of Randolph County, WV. He is the proprietor of Smakula Fretted Instruments specializing in the restoration and sales of vintage stringed instruments.
THE OLD-TIME HERALD SPRING 1992
Contact Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org