The Old Kay Cello in Action


Brandon came over for a visit and agreed to let me film a little sample of him playing the 1939 Kay cello that was recently brought back to life. Brandon has played the cello for many years, but admits that he’s rusty. We thought he brought out the best in the old girl and made her sound fantastic –

The cello is beginning to “open up” with playing, the sound becoming richer and fuller each time she’s played and we are thrilled to have saved her from the land fill.

The Old Cello


Back in 1984, North Thurston High School in Olympia, Washington was being demolished to make way for a new building. A friend of [name deleted] was a part of the demo crew and he spied a bunch of instruments in a dumpster awaiting disposal. Knowing that [name deleted] had a fondness for musical instruments of all kinds, but having only a minute, Douglas managed to save one battered cello from destruction.

This warhorse is a Genuine Kay Cello, Model 55, Serial Number 5146 –

The Kay Musical Instrument Company produced upright basses, cellos, violins, banjos and various styles of guitar from the 1930’s through the 1960’s before it was bought out and the name disappeared. The serial number dates this cello to 1939. The Kay upright bass and cello shared serial numbers and were produced side-by-side. After all these years, the sound post is still standing –

The Kay cellos are constructed of plywood, and built very sturdy to stand up to use by schools and public orchestras. The purfling is painted on, as are the “flames” –

The neck was broken some time long ago and mended with a screw through the fingerboard and into the neck base with a wood plug in the fingerboard. It’s not pretty, but seems to be holding-

The scroll is in good shape, with the expected chips in the finish and an identifying tag from the school –

There are the usual nicks and scratches that you would expect an old school cello to have, but overall it’s in fantastic shape – no cracks (new or repaired) and no seams loose.

[name deleted] has been carrying this cello around for a long time, and we thought it would be nice to see if it would hold up to being strung up again. A set of fittings was ordered from China* the old girl got a good cleaning** and I set to work. With Strobel’s “Useful Measurements for Violin Makers” in hand, measurements were taken to begin carving on the bridge. The fingerboard projection was 12mm too high! No way can this fingerboard be taken off and planed (remember the screw?) so the bridge ended up quite tall with rather chunky feet. No big deal, really, but I would have liked to have been able to make it a shade more delicate.

The fittings set came with new pegs, but the peg holes are quite large so the existing pegs will have to do. Bushing the holes, etc. etc. may come at a later date. Peg drops went a long way towards fixing the slipping pegs and make tuning much easier.

So, how does she sound? Fabulous, actually. Kay cellos get mixed reviews online, with some hating their “thin, weak sound” while others praise the “deep, rich tones.” We obviously have a good one as the sound is rich and full and with the end pin all the way in the C string makes the floor vibrate. A better bow is next on the agenda now that we know she’ll stand up to being played after being silenced all these years. Cello is a ton of fun and we look forward to many years of playing around with it.Do you have an old instrument that is just a decoration? Ever thought of putting it together to see if it will play?

Where does one buy inexpensive, but not cheap sounding, cello strings?

* Which is really irritating – we prefer to buy as locally as possible, but prices for a set of fittings for a cello shipped from the US were outrageous! Three times as expensive in some cases, even with overseas shipping! We did not want to spend a lot of money on fittings only to find that the old girl wouldn’t hold up to the string tension, so we did what we hate to do.

** Inside was a Corridor Pass for one Charlotte to get her from the office to Mr. Stabbertal’s class on Valentine’s Day 1974, which was fun to find, but I hate to think of her using her cello as a waste basket…