Repairing a broken esraj: an adventure.

Repairing a broken esraj: an adventure.

Years ago I acquired an instrument hailing from Northern India: the esraj. It was an old instrument at the time I received it, and had a small bit of damage. There was a crack in the bowl of the body, just below the tailpiece. After some years of use the crack suddenly grew from about two inches to over ten. At this point it was unplayable and required mending.

The first step was to remove the old head and disassemble the broken pieces.  This was my first time seeing the innards of such an instrument and it was exciting.

Great attention had been given to detail on the outside of the esraj, but inside showed a rawness which I did not expect to find.  Beautiful.  The bowl was chiseled from a single block of eucalyptus wood.

The damage is not fatal.  Five pieces come apart and fit back together quite well.  The next task is to decide just how I will pin and glue them back into place.

Pinned and gluing.

Next I decided to add a new piece of wood in the area which would eventually take all the stress of the taught strings by way of the tailpiece.  I used a router to create a shelf into which the fresh wood could be set.

I used a piece of mahogany as my patch wood.  It’s not nearly as dense as the eucalyptus, but it is readily available to me, it matches fairly well and should do the work of strengthening the load-bearing end of the instrument quite well.

Shaping with my treasured 60 1/2 Stanley Block Plane.

Excellent.  Things have come back together nicely.  There is just one more crack in the left c-bout to tend to before rolling the new skin.  I decided to fill this crack with tinted epoxy.

Now for the fun part.  The skin head on an esraj is glued into place while wet.  This seemed like a pretty straight-forward idea, but took a little thinking to figure out the best way to accomplish it.

I cut a goat skin into approximate shape.

My idea was to make it over-sized and make use of the extra edge by poking holes around the perimeter about every inch.  Once set in place I used wet leather thongs to cinch the skin to tightness while drying.

Here I am poking holes with a beautiful, hand-forged copper awl that my father made.

Here is the skin, cut to shape with slits to help things pull taut around the tight c-bouts.

The next step was a bit of a gamble as I had never glued a skin onto anything before.  I laced the wet, leather thongs around the back, loosely.  Then I saturated the bearing edge of the wooden bowl with hot, rabbit-skin glue and began to tighten the laces.  Usually, with hot animal glue you have about 2 – 3 minutes to get things into place, but I figured I would have more time since the glue was pressing into a wet skin.  Either way, I had to be sure this step was executed speedily and well the first time around.  Notice the green tape I used to mask the instrument so that the skin would adhere only to an area about 3/4″ deep around the rim of the bowl.

Once things were tied up I let it sit over night to dry.  The following morning I was delighted to find that the skin dried to a near perfect tautness.  I cut the laces free and trimmed the excess skin all the way around.

After cleaning up the edges and installing the bridge strap and tailpiece, I was ready to string it up!

21 strings later, and about three hours of tuning and it was playing wonderfully.