Introduction: Re-skinning a Rebab

About: Musicker

A rebab is a two-stringed fiddle and a member of the Javanese gamelan orchestra.

I am a member of Ireland's National Concert Hall Gamelan orchestra. Our rebab's skin split during transport to a gig, even with the strings loosened and the bridge collapsed ...these things happen, which is why it is important to learn how to repair them!

Step 1: Equipment

For the project you will need:

- A replacement skin

- A trusted pocket knife

- A basin of tepid water

- Wood glue

- Pins/cocktail sticks

- Sandpaper

- A damp cloth

- PVC tape

All told, the project takes about an hour.

Step 2: Undressing the Rebab

One of the biggest challenges was undressing the body of the rehab. As you can see from the first photograph, the neck/head comes off very easily once unstrung. After much inspection and gazing in and around the remaining parts of the rebab, we were certain that the two pieces of turned wood were glued onto the metal rod which connects them through the body of the rebab. However, a stern yanking revealed how it was held together [see pictures].

Once the pieces of turned wood—lets call them the tail piece and the collar for all intents and purposes—and the metal rod are removed, the decorative cloth will slip right off.

After those components are removed it's time to tear off the old skin.

Step 3: Prepping the Body

Thoroughly clear the body of its old skin. Pay particular attention to the sides.

There will be residue left; a mix of skin and glue. In order for the new skin to adhere properly to the body, a clean surface is necessary. Using a fine/medium grade sand paper, erase all the residue. Run your finger along the edges to find any rough spots—such areas must be smoothened down as the skin will be stretched tightly over the edge; bumps, splinters, etc., may cause tears. Take your time with this.

Step 4: Soaking the Skin

Allow at least 10 minutes for the skin to soak.

In retrospect I would soak it for longer as the skin dries so quickly; leaving you with less time to work with it when it is wet and pliable. I used a clean baking tray to drown the skin. I reckon tepid water helps to further saturate the skin than cold water, however hot water may damage it. So use discretion!

Step 5: Putting on the New Skin

Line about an 2–3cms of the outside rim with wood glue or an alternative adhesive. I found that the glue dries quite quickly so next time I would water it down slightly to allow more time to work with the skin.

Remove the skin from the basin and pat away/shake off excess water. Place it on the body as symmetrically as possible.

Using the existing holes (pictured in the first photograph) pin down the skin. Pin linearly to build up the tension evenly (see second photograph).

When wet, the skin is very pliable. Don't be afraid to really pull it taut, the skin can take it (within reason, of course!). As the skin dries it tightens and the tension increases considerably, so don't worry if you think the skin is not taut enough—just try to keep the tension even.

Once pinned down, allow the skin to dry naturally. Press down the skin to help it stick to the body and for the edges of the skin to become as close as possible to the wood.

It dries very quickly but always allow for 'extra drying time' so that you are confident everything is bone dry before reassembly.

Step 6: Reassembly

The skin adhered well to the body and I was delighted with the tension. The race against the drying time of the glue an the skin meant that I had to compromise a little—the edges of the skin were not very neat. I took two steps to amend this:

- I trimmed the bits that were not glued down (when the skin dried it dried stiff, attempting to glue the stiff parts down would be a fruitless endeavour).

- I used PVC tape (electrical tape or any tape which can be manipulated—i.e. not sellotape/parcel tape—will also work) to cover where the edge of the skin meets the wood.

My rational for this was that I was worried that the decorative garments might catch on the loose/raised edges/folds in the skin, thus tearing it or lifting the skin further from the wood; causing damage to the skin.

The garments go on first and then slot the rod through the body with the collar still attached. Once slotted through from the top to the bottom, shimmy the tail piece onto the rod.

Placing something soft on the ground, like a cushion or bunched up towel, lower the collar to the floor. The soft item allows you to push the tailpiece securely onto the rod and tightly onto the body without damaging the beautifully turned wood of the collar. Once you are happy that you have tightly secured all parts, your job is complete!

Now time to attach the neck and restring the rebab!

Happy music making!!