The Coffin Case

Today a bit involving my fiddle habit, and a wonderfully successful trip to our local flea market, where I went with my kid looking for nothing in particular. As usual, we split up and she went to look for her interests, and I dawdled about looking for mine. This flea market is pretty darn good, because you can always find something. This is what can make it dangerous.

But not this time. No, I found probably one of the best deals I have ever come across, and it came in the form of what is known as a “coffin case.”

I glanced about at a set-up of two guys who probably made a living tearing down houses and barns. Tons of junk. Those types of guys keep everything they find that might be of value, and they bring it to the flea market looking to make a quick buck. One of the reasons I like this flea market is that the booth spaces are cheap and there is a heavy concentration of average people just looking to unload…stuff.

This is in contrast to “antique malls,” where you will almost never find a deal. I don’t like antique stores or malls much. But I do like this particular flea market.

Well, amongst the junk at the two dude’s table was a violin’s coffin case, they are called that because of their resemblance to a coffin. They haven’t made them since the nineteenth century, so I looked closer. In the case was a bleached-out, heavily worn, apparently full-sized violin, complete with bow and what looked for all the world like a removable sound post (this is still a mystery). There was also a dead mouse and other gross stuff.

I said, too many problems. I walked off.

I got fifty steps away and it hit me. That was a real coffin case, how much did they want? I figured a lot. So I turned around and asked. I was pleasantly surprised.

“Fifty bucks.”

A steal for the case alone. But still, it was a flea market.

“Will you take forty?”

Done deal. Handed over the cabbage. I walked back to my truck and wondered what the hell I had done. I set the case (with an obviously split lid) upon the tailgate of my truck and looked hard at what I had bought. Within the case was an obviously old, but still straight, bow. There was an object tied on a cord, it looked like a removable sound post, hand-whittled (this is still a mystery to me).

Then I looked at the violin. Friends, I have never seen such a well-worn fiddle. Ever. However, it was apparent to me that it had not been abused, just used. A lot. I looked closely at the wood, it seemed to be a spruce top and a maple (update: probably native birch) bottom with <zero> varnish remaining. The scroll was obviously hand-carved and strangely twisted a few degrees, although the fingerboard was ruler-straight.

What the hell? I put everything back in the case and locked it in the truck. Then I kept walking. Found a pair of boots, it was a good day.

Later, I was itching to make a close examination of the violin. It also desperately needed cleaning.

So, I did so. I used a violin polisher/cleaning compound, I must have put twenty coats on the instrument, my rag was black with the dust of ages. Then it was time for some photos.

As I said, an honest spruce top. However, I discovered the purfling (the lines around the edge) was not inlaid wood, but hand painted. This is the first sign of an inexpensive violin. Then I looked at the bottom and I was confused.
The bottom appears to be a one-piece crafted slab of native maple (birch). I’m no expert, but this is not shoddy construction. Also, the fiddle is lighter than a feather. Cheap violins are frequently heavy. The mystery got deeper. Then something (besides the twisted scroll) looked odd, I set this mountain fiddle next to Clarence, the Maggini clone.
Notice how the body is significantly narrower than standard (by 3/4 in), and the bouts (the cups on the side) are smaller. The length is fairly close to the same. Could this be an old “ladies size?” Maybe, but I didn’t know.

I started asking myself what what going on here. The violin was obviously very old, probably Civil War era. I guesstimated that it had last been played in the fifties, due to the remnants of steel strings as opposed to gut (they came into widespread use during WW2). Whoever had owned this violin was a probably a person of limited means, but good ingenuity. I found several hand-carved pieces, including one of the old pegs.

Also without a doubt, this violin had been played a LOT for a very long time. I’ve never seen so much honest wear on a fiddle! Not abuse, sheer use.

So, my theory is that this fiddle must have, or did have, a pretty sweet voice. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been played so much for so long. But that’s part of the mystery for now, as I’m having my luthier put a new sound post in it. Also, I’m waiting for new furniture to come in the mail (I chose a new boxwood tailpiece, chinrest, and pegs. I think the boxwood will look great on this old girl, as opposed to ebony).

I have everything else already, strings, etc. It is possible that my luthier might find a surprise or two. But that’s why he makes the big bucks.

So, violin evaluated and cleaned, I decided to tackle the coffin case. Friends, this is where I started. See below.

Note: in the upper left of this image is the mystery sound post-looking thing on a piece of waxed string. What is that? But I digress.

The case was fixable, but it was a mess. I almost get hantavirus looking at this image, I remember the dead mouse and the numerous rodent droppings and general filth. With regret, I decided the ancient felt could not be saved. So, out came the putty knife and a little elbow grease, followed by a vacuum cleaner then a damp rag.

In the meanwhile, I bought some quality green felt and I glued the split and loose stuff with Elmer’s wood glue and I let it sit, clamped, for 24 hours. Elmer’s is great glue, by the way, I recommend it.

The next day it was time to play cut-and-paste with my new felt. I chose the traditional green color. It seemed right. Here is what it looked like as I started, the case was cleaned and ready.

I took my time. I measured and cut each piece carefully, and I made them all before I even thought about gluing them down. It took a while. Then I test fit them to make sure they’d work. I labeled each piece on the “down” side. Then when I was ready to apply the contact glue I laid each piece out in the order in which it had to go in the case.

Then it was the moment of truth. The spray glue came out. I made sure to do this part in the basement, that stuff stinks. I applied the glue, I assembled the new felt into the case. Then I walked away as it tacked up. If I would have hung around I’d have been tempted to fix minor imperfections. Experience has taught me that that is a sure method to create large problems from small ones.

Behold, the coffin case’s new look!

It turned out OK, for a layman’s work.

Managed to (probably) save an old mountain fiddle, did a quick rehair on the old bow (it plays just fine), and gave the coffin case a new lease on life.

All for under a hundred bucks.

Seriously? Yeah. You can’t buy the cheapest violin on Amazon for that kind of money. This means that for less than a brand-new, mass-produced, very inexpensive violin, I have saved a part of Appalachian culture from hanging on the wall of a Cracker Barrel. I do not doubt for a second that this fiddle played for some family for at least a couple of lifetimes.

Now it’s my turn. These relics, we never really own them. We are simply their caretakers. This is part of the fascination for me.

I’ll let you all know how Old Twist (my nickname for this fiddle) turns out. How it sounds.

The coffin case, though, turned out just fine. Now it’s good for another century.

8 thoughts on “The Coffin Case

  1. I do something similar with old 70s chairs. So rewarding to restore a piece to lounge room condition and just think about all the history that comes with it. The box and fiddle look great.


  2. I have two violins that were retrieved out of my father’s old dairy barn. I was told that the full size one was last played before I was born (1954). The story is, that it was brought from Austria, and could be a german or italian Andreas Amati copy? It could also be an embarrassing piece of work! It was in a coffin case, which completely fell apart. How do I send photos? Any ideas?


  3. Pingback: Junk Store Violin 2 | The Interstellar Valley

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