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Slip Sliding Away, or Those Bothersome Pegs

Have you ever experienced a change in your cello pegs with the change in seasons? Andrew Bellis explains why.
Andrew Bellis in his workshop

Andrew Bellis in his workshop.

Pegs can be such trouble, can’t they? It is, of course, old technologygoing back hundreds of years, but cello pegs are surprisingly next to impossible to improve on.

Choice of Materials

Generally, the woods used for the pegs are made from a harder, heavier wood than the pegbox. The three most widely used are boxwood, ebony, and rosewood. Pegs are traditionally turned on a lathe, the heads cross milled, and then hand finished. Nowadays, the machinery can be computer controlled. The head and shaft are, of course, made from one piece.

Boxwood chess pieces

Image by ha11ok from Pixabay

Boxwood—or box—makes a very pretty peg and is often used on period* instruments. Of close grain and fairly lightweight, it is quite attractive. Box is the worst behaved for pegs however, as it is an exceptionally dry wood and any peg grease (we’ll come on to that later) seems to disappear quickly. 

If you think the color often seen on box pegs—red/brown—is its natural color, think again. The true wood is very pale yellow. If you look at traditional wooden chess pieces, the white are natural boxwood and the black are ebonised boxwood. Wood used in cello pegs is subjected to acid and alkali treatments to darken it, but that only affects the surface, so any fitting that removes wood (basically, thinning the shaft to fit the tapered holes in the pegbox) will reveal the true color. The bicoloured peg then looks awful. The repairer will need to know the tricks for making pegs’ color appear consistent. 

Yet for all that, they don’t work very well and nowadays don’t have a very long life. The modern boxwood that appeared in the mid-1970s is much softer than that used in the 1800s, and the pegbox soon makes grooves in the peg if the peg is used every day. Box was appropriate for pre-20th-century instruments but sadly not for modern ones, from a practical point of view. If you have a set of English boxwood pegs from the 19th century, the slab-sided ones, treasure them.

Ebony pegs

Ebony is the most common peg wood. Most types of ebony are sourced from at least three countries, in varying degrees of blackness. They turn and polish well with a natural finish (oiling). Like box, ebony is a very dry wood; unlike box, it is heavy and durable. It needs constant attention to work at its best but should have a long life.

Rosewood is, by far, the superior peg wood. That is because it has a natural oiliness. It turns and finishes well, though it pays to source close and straight grain timber. In my opinion, it is also the prettiest. Rosewood pegs will partially forgive you for ignoring them—as you will if you have a tuning tailpiece, like all sensible players of contemporary instruments.

Rosewood pegs

So, what’s with this peg-slipping business?

You know that awful feeling when you open the case, and some (or all) of the strings, are floppy? At worst, the sudden lowering of tension will allow the bridge and the soundpost to go down. Cellists, that’s why you ALWAYS put a rolled up duster under the tailpiece when you pack away your instrument—the bridge won’t take chips out of the varnish as it falls.

Why do pegs slip? Blame the weather. In the winter and early spring, we tend to get protracted periods of driven easterly weather in the northern hemisphere, and those winds are very drying. You will perhaps notice that you use (or need) more hand cream than usual. Air conditioning in the warmer seasons will also cause similar problems. Wood that is being continually taken from a comfy apartment to outside air to a cold car warming up, back to outside air, then to an air-conditioned concert hall—and then the reverse at the end of the day—won’t know what to do with itself. 

Change of Winter into Spring

For our instruments, it means they slightly change shape, and what changes the most? Ebony! Who’d think it? One of the heaviest, closest grained woods there is. With lower temperature and humidity, the pegs shrink slightly, and that’s enough to upset the fit that otherwise secures them on their taper. Out they pop, self-propelled. The very worst scenario, and I’ve seen it happen on cellos at least three times in my 40-year career, is that the fingerboard falls off, too. Fingerboards are ebony, of course, and the glue can’t accommodate its change of width. (If the case is upright when that happens, the descending fingerboard takes out the bridge, too, and causes all sorts of expensive trouble.)

What to do?

If you are lucky and the soundpost and the bridge have stayed up, then retune the two middle strings so they make a proper sound but not up to pitch. Then check that the bridge is upright/leaning slightly back; you will need to correct it as the strings are retensioned because the top will creep towards the fingerboard. Do the same with the outer strings, then gradually bring each string up to pitch.

Check to ensure all the strings are in their correct grooves and that they are taking the correct line onto their pegs. Reset the fine tuners; over the next few hours, you will need to tune up again. I can’t emphasize the importance of keeping the bridge at its correct angle. If asked, a kind luthier will make you a cardboard template (and show you how to use it). A lot of mention is made of the back of the bridge being at right angles to the belly; it ain’t necessarily so, but it’s a guide.

Wood Reacts to Moisture

Water drop on wood

Even the finest sourced and longest seasoned wood will still change shape with the seasons, as it takes moisture in and gives it out. Hardwoods are no more immune to this than softwoods. Remember: wood is not metal, so it deserves care and understanding. Look at the lovely rewards it gives us! 

What You Can Do

If your instrument has a tuning tailpiece, then strings will only use the pegs as anchors once fitted and settled up to pitch. Then, it is possible that the pegs can be ignored for months and might seize. Try to remember to retune your cello using the pegs every month or so. Cellists using genuine gut strings have to become peg experts, as you rely on them; in my experience, adjustments need to be made every 15 minutes or so…

I love gut strings T-shirt

If you do not know how to look after your pegs, consult a friendly luthier who will show you. On no account should you use any type of chalk, rosin, or any other abrasive substance to “make them stick”—you will spoil the carefully reamed tapered holes. Take professional advice for using peg ‘paste’ (such as that marketed by the Hidersine Company under the W.E. Hill & Sons brand), which is a mixture of clays and oil (I simplify, please don’t try and make some yourself!!).

Over the years, the peg holes in your instrument’s pegbox will cease to be perfectly round and go oval. That is why, on a new instrument (or one that has had its pegholes bushed) luthiers leave the pegs, when initially fitted, a little too long. When refitted a couple of years later, they will be the correct length.

There are two tapers: the French is steeper and the German is shallower. The German taper seems to have been adopted as the norm, by modern instrument-makers in China, also. Proper peg-fitting tools for luthiers are very expensive.

New Technology

Some may see the new generation of geared plastic and metal tuning pegs as “the answer.” They are beautifully made; each peg contains a miniature epicyclic gearbox. That means added weight—over double that of the heaviest ebony—not such a problem for cellists where the weight of their (modern) instrument is supported by the pin, but a real burden for violin and viola players. So keep to wood for your pegs—and learn how to care for them. In the “old days,” all the pro players knew these tricks; they had to, since they couldn’t afford to visit their local shop all the time. Nowadays, that knowledge is in danger of disappearing.

Cellists: are you aware of the “posture peg”? It is a headless C/G string peg that you use a special key to tune. It doesn’t get in the way of your head, and makes life easier for those with flowing locks. Those who have tried posture pegs say they should have got one (or two) years ago.

StringVision Posture Pegs

StringVision Posture Pegs

Bonus

An extra bit comes from the useless information department: if you have little decorations on the outside ends of your pegs, such as a metal pin or a molding, they are known as helms, as in helmets. For protecting the head, you see!

*period, as in historically informed performance



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