Here I am going to address the complicated question: (how) can I use animal glue in the instruments I make and still be a vegetarian?
Animal glue (or Hide, Bone, Skin or Hoof glue) has been used for thousands of years to stick things together. Since the 20th century, chemical alternatives such as PVA, Aliphatic Resin, Epoxy Resin and Cyanoacrylate ‘Super’ Glue have been available.
Since I don’t eat animals or wear their skins, mainly because I think it’s unnecessary and grim, why would I choose to use a stinky, mucous-like substance made from boiling up dead animal parts in the fine musical instruments I build?
It’s not because it’s easier. The glue must be heated in a special double pot to just the right temperature, requiring constant attention, stirring, adding a bit of water now and again, making sure it’s not too thick or too thin, adjusting the heat so it doesn’t get too hot or too cold. It’s a bit like having a pot of porridge constantly on the go. Luckily, being an excellent cook and multi-tasker I don’t find this a problem. It adds an interesting extra dimension to the construction process. Besides the glue being tricky to prepare, joints must be very well fitted and working time is very short – only a matter of seconds, compared to PVA glues which can be fiddled about with for several minutes before they start to set.
The reason I use it is mainly it’s because it’s much much better. If it was as good or slightly better, I’d probably stick with the old (new) Titebond Carpenters Wood Glue, with its convenient plastic bottle, ease of use and none of the pangs of remorse for the pain and suffering of my fellow sentient beings.
It’s better for these reasons: First, it doesn’t creep. (Yes, it is creepy to consider the boiling up of bones, skin, teeth and hair – at least for those of us that consider these things. Most meat eaters will not consider the horrors of the abattoir, nor shrink from putting a dead animal in their mouth even though they wouldn’t even touch a dead animal they saw in the road – even with the wheels of their car.) By creep, I’m talking about the tendency of some glues, particularly PVA, yellow and white glue, never to fully dry. It always stays slightly soft, so joints which are under constant tension, such as the bridge, may over time creep out of position. Animal glue on the other hand, once it is dry, becomes very hard, crystalline, flexible, yet very strong indeed. This makes it perfect for musical instrument making.
As well as this, while most chemically composed glues work by grabbing the surface of the wood, animal glue acually creates a molecular, electro-chemical bond with the wood itself. It somehow (don’t ask me exactly how, it’s getting a bit technical, but the information’s out there if you’re interested) gets into and beneath the surface of the wood and as it dries, actually pulls the two pieces together with a strength, stability and longevity that modern glues cannot come close to.
The result of this is that it makes musical instruments sound much better, clearer – more crisp and sparkling. And we know that they last a long time as luthiers have been using such glue for centuries.
Animal glue also has another very amazing property and it is this: Even though joints glued with it will last indefinitely and resist changes in temperature better than most other adhesives, all it takes is for heat and water to be applied at the same time and the join can be easily reversed with no damage at all to the wood. From a repairman’s point of view, this is ideal, as well as from the instrument’s. It means that with due care and attention it could last for centuries. Whereas piece held together with chemical glue must be forced and pried apart, causing damage to the wood, an instrument held together with animal glue can be gently disassembled. Not only that, new glue will bond to old glue, which is another of it’s remarkable properties.
Finally, I think it’s worth considering the effect of modern industrialisation practices on the lives of animals and on the environment. While we all know and can imagine the suffering, pain and fear caused to animals bred and killed for our consumption (though most of us never see or even know the whereabouts of our local slaughterhouse) we might also think about the wider effects of the giant chemical industries that we rely on these days. Water pollution, air pollution, destruction of habitat, the creation of poisonous products and bi-products and generally making our planet toxic and hazardous for most forms of life. Well, that’s not such a great alternative either.
I was going to go on to explore the more interesting subject of Necromancy in Musical instrument making – or whatever the term is for bringing the dead back to life. Considering the act of giving new life (of sorts) to the dead tree.. etc, etc., but I think I’ll just leave it at this for now.