Gut String Making

Today, gut strings are not used much on fiddles, but there was a time when gut strings were about the only kind available. Making gut strings is an exacting process. We have heard of strings being made on pioneer farms, etc., but, in our research, so far have found only one reference to fiddle strings being made on a farm. These were made on San Juan Island, Washington, by the Hawaiian father of pioneer fiddler Charlie Kahana to go on a fiddle made by the young Charlie.

Gut strings do have a unique sound and are preferred for this by some fiddlers playing kinds of music to which their tonality lends a desired touch. I use gut strings on all my 19th century fretless, and some fretted, banjos, for example. They have a much different tonality from the gut substitutes available today, and are much louder than one would have thought.

One of the major books on violin making was written by A. Heron-Allen, and published in England in 1885. It has a great, highly detailed section on how gut strings are made. Following is Mr. Heron-Allen’s description of how to make gut fiddle strings.

Phil Williams
Voyager Recordings & Publications

Making Gut Violin Strings - A. Heron-Allen, Ward Lock & Co., London, 1885.

Strings for the violin, and nearly all other string instruments, are composed of the small intestines of sheep, and have been so composed ever since the time of the ancient Egyptians. The best intestines are those of lambs which have lived on dry mountainous pastures; and it is said that the best lambs are those from the province of Berry, and from some parts of Germany, and that they are at their best for the purpose of string-making in the month of September, which is, consequently, the string-making month in each year.

The intestine used is that one which is composed of the duodenum, the jejunum, and the ilion; it is composed of three membranes, the external (of peritoneal), and the mucous membranes, both of which are removed as useless, but which enclose between them a third, the muscular or fibrous membrane, which is used in the manufacture of fiddle strings. The intestines are fetched direct from the butcher’s, whilst the carcasses are still warm, and they are detached by workmen, who are specially employed for the purpose, by whom they are at once stretched upon an inclined plane and scraped with a knife blade, to clean and empty them of all foreign substances, grease, etc. This must be done quickly, and whilst the intestines are yet warm, or the cooling matters would hopelessly colour the intestines; after this operation the intestines are tied up in bundles and placed in vessels to carry them to the manufactory, where they are tied in bundles of ten, and placed in cold water from twelve to fifteen hours; this may be done in a running stream, or in a vat of spring water, slightly corrected with carbonate of soda. After this they are immersed four or five hours in tepid running water. These soakings produce a slight fermentation, which aids the separation of the fibrous from the mucous and peritoneal membranes, which is done by women scraping the intestines with a split cane on a slightly inclined slab, down which a current of water constantly runs; the internal membranes run off into a trough and are used as manure, the external are used for racquets, whips, and other rougher articles composed of gut. The fibrous membranes, separated in bundles of about ten, are now placed in stone jars to soak for three or four hours in potassa lye (or ammoniacal solution, which is preferable), whose strength must be most carefully apportioned to the work to be done. At the end of this time they are carefully rubbed through the first finger (protected by a gutta-percha glove), and the thumb (armed with a copper thimble), of the left hand; by this means are removed any of the fragments of the two superfluous membranes which may have escaped the first scraping. This operation is generally repeated at two hours' interval three times during the day, after each of which repetitions they are put into a similar stone jar of solution of permanganate of potassa. The fourth time this is repeated they are not replaced into the same solution, but are dipped into a weak solution of sulphuric acid. These operations are repeated for two or three days, morning and evening, always similarly increasing the strength of the solution used.

The guts are now sufficiently cleaned to be sorted, and, if necessary, split. They are sorted by experienced workmen into qualities, lengths, thicknesses, and strengths, so that each may be devoted to its proper uses and tones. As the guts, in their natural state, are not sufficiently uniform in diameter to obtain that cylindricity and parallelness that is the great aim of the string-maker, they often require to be split into long threads by means of a knife specially prepared for the purpose, which threads are then placed in ajar with their thick and thin ends set alternately The next operation is the spinning, which is performed on a frame about three times as long as a fiddle. It is done as follows: two, three, or more fibres (according to the string required to be made) are taken and set alternately ; that is, the thick end of one opposite the thin end of another. The usual number apportioned to the four strings of a violin are as follows: for the first, or E string, 3-4 fine threads ; for the second, or A, 3-4 strong ones ; for the third, or D, 6-7 strong ones. Beyond this, double bass strings reach as many as 85 fibres, but this is a branch of the manufacture which does not concern us.

At one end of the frame is a little wheel, the centre or axle of which bears two hooks : at the other end of the frame are little fixed pegs. The guts selected are fixed to a peg which is set in one hook of the wheel, and carried to the other end of the frame, twisted round a fixed peg, brought back to the other end and fixed to the other hook of the wheel by another peg ; this wheel is rapidly revolved by a multiplying fly-wheel, and the guts are twisted up into a fiddle-string, the fingers being passed along it meanwhile to prevent the formation of inequalities in its length. The pegs are then removed from the hooks and set into holes opposite the fixed pegs at the other end of the frame (in the same way as the pegs are set into the head of a fiddle), and the work proceeds in the same way with a new bundle of guts from another fixed peg to the hooked wheel, until the frame is full. The strings are then sulphured to whiten them in a sulphuring chamber, into which the frames are placed, and flowers of sulphur ignited in the centre. The chamber is then hermetically sealed and left for the night, during which time the strings become bleached by the action of the sulphurous acid gas evolved by the combustion of the sulphur. They are next morning exposed to air (but not rain) till nearly dry, when they are again moistened, twisted on the frame, and replaced in the sulphur bath. This operation lasts from two to eight days according to the size of the string being made. The strings are then thoroughly polished and rubbed to get rid of all inequalities, grease, or other foreign particles. This is done whilst they are still on the frame by means of a set of hair cushions, which, enveloping the strings, by a lateral movement submit them to a rapid and forcible friction, they being from time to time during the operation moistened with a sponge soaked in an alkaline solution of potassa. The strings are then wiped to get rid of all impurities, moistened with pure water, and replaced for the night in the sulphur bath, after which they are again twisted and dried. When dry they are polished, an operation which first or E strings are frequently allowed to go without, but which for the others takes place as follows :—The frames are laid flat upon trestles or other supports, and the strings are polished by hand or machinery by means of little gutta-percha cushions, olive oil and pounce, or whitening, being used for the purpose. These polishers are run from end to end of the strings till the requisite polish has been obtained. The strings are then carefully wiped and lightly moistened with olive oil, after which they are thoroughly dried, which is accomplished when, on loosening the pegs, they do not contract. The strings are now cut from the frames close to the pegs, and rolled into coils as we see them in commerce, after which they are made up into bundles of fifteen or thirty. With all these operations it is not to be wondered at that it is exceedingly difficult to obtain absolute cylindricality throughout the entire length of a string, and as a matter of fact the extreme ends of a string generally taper slightly, and are therefore useless, producing false, and " wolf " notes. To get over the effects of this circumstance it is best when putting on a new string to uncoil its entire length, put the two ends together, and cut it in two exactly in the middle, tie the knots in the two strings thus made at the cut ends (i.e., in the middle of the string); you thus have two strings (it is false economy to try and make a string run to three lengths), which are pretty sure to be true from the tailpiece to the nut, whilst the defective four or five inches at the ends serve to coil round tho pegs, and the superabundance is cut off. It is following this line of action that it is the custom when a string is false to "turn it round" on the fiddle, which often remedies the defect.

It remains to us now (before noticing patent strings) to turn to the consideration of covered strings. On the violin only one such is used, the fourth, or G string ; but going a step farther to the tenor (or viola), we get another covered string, the C, which balances the absence of the violin E. It is doubtful who first invented covered strings, but J. Rousseau attributes the invention to Sainte-Colombe, the celebrated violinist of his epoch (1687). For violins it is generally gut which is covered with copper (plated or pure), or with silver. Silk is also used, but it is difficult to tune accurately, and will not remain in tune when once screwed up ; undoubtedly the best are the copper-plated gut ones. I always obtain my covered strings for violin or viola from Mr. Gr. Hart, who covers them with alternate spirals of gun-metal and plated copper. The best (recommended by Herr Strauss) are wrapped over close to the knot with red silk. The gut of which covered strings are formed is not sulphured, nor is it oiled. The string is fixed at one end to a hook set on a wheel, and at the other to a turning swivel, which holds the string stretched by means of a weight. The turning of the wheel turns the strings and the swivel, and the workman carefully wraps the wire on to the string as it revolves, taking the greatest care to preserve its regularity and close winding, and checking the vibrations of the rotating string with a cork. The gut used must be perfectly uniform in diameter throughout its length, and incapable of further stretching. Consequently it is strongly stretched before the wire is wound on, or else by subsequent stretching the core would recede from the helix, and the effect can only be described by those who have suffered from it.

All violin players are familiar with the now-common acribelle, or silk, strings, which are composed of an infinity of filaments of silk so twisted together and polished as to exceed in uniformity and transparency the finest gut strings. For players troubled with perspiring hands, and for hot or damp climates, they are, without doubt, invaluable, for they are but little affected by damp, and they make up in convenience in these respects what they certainly lack in tone. They are apt also to fray and get ragged, and though it has been recommended when this is the case to draw tha string quickly through the flame of a spirit lamp, to remove the frayed fibres, an acribelle string once gone wrong, is ghastly with a ghastliness more easily imagined than described. The same remark applies to the twisted or plaited strings, sometimes known as Chinese water-cord. These are quite the best for players with hot hands, and are almost exclusively used by violinists in India and other hot countries, where the ordinary strings not only break very easily, but are very difficult to keep. But, of course, their tone is inferior to gut.

In conclusion, by-the-bye, a word on knots. It seems a simple thing to tie a knot in the end of a string so that it shall not slip through the slit of the tailpiece, but the common " booby " knot is very apt to break off, and in so doing the knot flies against the belly and produces those four little chipped holes so often seen beneath the tailpiece of a fiddle. If in tying the knot you do not pull the short end right through, but make a slip-knot of it, you will find that the long end coming out of the slit is much securer and less likely to " fly " than if the dear old "booby "-knot of our childhood is made. It should be remarked that in the knot of the first string the long end should be twisted round the slip-knot once again to make it larger, and, therefore, more secure So shall your strings hold well, and not " fly " out of " pure cussedness.' In putting on a string never (as so many amateurs do) put the end through the peg, and then draw it down to the tail-piece and fix it there with a knot. This is certain to bruise the string all along, and utterly spoil it. Make your knot as above directed, and fix it to the tail-piece; then carry the string up to the head, cut off what you do not want, and fix the end thus made to the peg. Never have a coil of loose string hanging about the scroll of the fiddle, or twisted round the pegs; it is unsightly, and often produces a buzzing noise. When you require to put an entire new set of strings on (fiddlers with cool hands seldom break strings, but have to replace the whole set when it is worn out), do not, on any account, take all the old strings off and then put the others on ; the sudden relaxation of the pressure, and consequent " working " of the fibres of the fiddle, may throw the instrument " out of temper " for days. Take off one at a time, and put on the new one, and screw it up to pitch before changing the next one.

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