When I first began making instruments, I laid out the scroll with a pencil and simply started carving. That was extremely labor intensive and not very accurate, either. It was very easy for me to lose track of where I was going, and ruin a scroll by carving away wood I really needed. (That is a “bitter pill to swallow,” having to scrap a scroll and start over.)
Learning from a Better Maker
So, what has changed? I observed how a viola maker in Brazil (Luis Manfio, of Sao Paulo) carves his scrolls, on a photo-essay he once posted. He used a fine saw to cut “tangents” to the scroll pattern, and then used the same saw to follow the side surfaces of the scroll and remove the scrap wood. It was a much better way than I had been attempting, so, ever since then, I have followed that path.
A customer ordered a new, custom-made Five String Fiddle, and it is on the way! He chose heavily spalted, heavily-flamed, Oregon Big Leaf Maple for the back plate, the sides, the neck and scroll. My wife’s parents gave me the wood from this maple tree.
Ann used to play under and climb on this tree as a child, and we hated to see the tree cut down. Her parents still live there, less than four miles from our house, but they had to remove the tree because it was dying. I have salvaged wood for a few instruments from that tree and they all look and sound wonderful!
Given a choice between Spruce and Douglas Fir, the customer chose the Douglas Fir, for his front plate. This tree was also cut a just few miles from my home. (A famous violin and viola maker, Otto Erdescz (1917-2000) used to make violins and violas with Douglas Fir soundboards. Some of them are still being played professionally, today. But very few luthiers use Douglas Fir. I didn’t either, until a few years ago!)
Not my usuaI Choice in times past
For many years, I refused to try such a thing. But a friend gave me a load of very straight grained Douglas Fir firewood, a few years ago. As I was splitting it, I heard the split-off piece hit the ground, and it rang like a bell! I had never seen such straight-grained, clear Douglas Fir, with zero runout!
Unfortunately, that particular piece was too short for a fiddle. I had to search through the pile for a piece that was long enouigh for a violin plate.
Since then, I have made several such instruments, and they all sound great. (I find that the Spruce is definitely easier to work with, though, and, for classical, orchestral instruments, I still use only European maple and spruce.)
This man showed up at my shop and he played all the five string instruments I had. (He really had not been used to 5-string instruments before, and he laughed for joy, hearing the rich deep C-string on each one. After a short while, he declared, “OK, I’m addicted!”) He played the full range of all of them, and finally settled on my earliest unsold 5-string (#3 on the “Chronology” page) as being exactly what he wanted.
But not to buy that instrument. No! He wanted a commissioned instrument “just like that one!” He had thought things over, and he wanted one that was built especially for him! (Sure! We can do that!)
And, as it turned out, that was a good thing: A week later, thenext customer who came to try out all my instruments also loved that fiddle, but she bought it that day, and drove away! So it is gone!
I knew which of my molds was the source of that fiddle: I have made at least four off of that specific mold. All of them have sold, now, so, for the moment, there are none available. (This instrument will “solve that problem” momentarily, but it will be gone immediately after completion.)
The commissioning customer also wanted localwood, so that he could say, “My violin was made from a tree on that hill!” So…choosing the wood was the first step.
Choosing the Wood
The model I would use had already been chosen, so that was not an issue. I also knew what the wood source would be: I still have a little of the maple my wife’s parents had given me. And, with the customer’s approval, I chose a clear piece of Douglas Fir, salvaged from the firtewood I mentioned earlier. He loved both pieces.
Here is a closer picture of the maple:
I book-matched the spruce, by cutting a single billet in two equal halves and gluing them together to make the front plate.
I laid out the neck outline on the billet I had chosen for the neck, and I drilled the pilot holes for the tuning pegs. Then I cut out the side profile on a bandsaw.
Meanwhile, I got the blocks glued into the mold. Then I traced their shapes from my template, so the whole job could begin. I also planed away the rough surfaces of the maple to ascertain that it actually would serve well as the back plate of a new five-string fiddle. And, I found that it was just a little too narrow in the lower bouts.
So, I “transplanted” a small piece of wood from the area above the upper bout on each side and grafted them in on the lower bouts. (This practice is not at all uncommon: It will be every bit as strong as the center seams on two-piece backs. And, once the double purfling is installed, the joints will be nearly invisible, under the varnish.)
Preparing the Ribs
I had chosen wood for the ribs, as well, and I sawed them to a thickness of a little over 2 mm. I thinned them, using a wooden fixture I made, clamped to my oscillating spindle-sander. The fixture allows me to gradually reduce the thickness to 1 mm.
Here are the ribs:
Installing the Ribs
Next, I cut the ribs to the correct length and width. I carefully considered which grain from one side would “mirror” which grain on the otherside. I had already been tinkering on the neck, as you can see in this photo, but I will explain that process later. (It isn’t always possible to do everything in a precise order. While I am waiting for glue to dry on one section, for example, I may jump ahead on another piece.) You can see the bookmatched front plate, too.
I cut all six ribs, and marked them as to inside, outside, upper and lower ends, etc, as well as which side of the fiddle they would call their home…treble or bass side.
Then I bent the ribs using a hot “bending iron” (actually made of aluminum, but, in the old days, they wereiron.)
(I forgot to take photos of the shaped blocks: Sorry.)
I had cut and shaped the corner and end blocks, already, so I applied a generous coat of hot hide glue to one block at a time. then, I clamped the rib into the block surfaces, making certain that everything fit correctly before tightening the clamps.
First, I installed the center bout ribs, and when the glue had dried, I used the spindle-sander to trim the ends of those ribs to match the curvature of the outer faces of the corner block, so I could install the upper and lower ribs. Here are the upper ribs, glued and clamped:
The lower end of the bass-side center bout rib was not fully tight, so I reglued it and reclamped it. (left lower side of photo.)
Then, when that glue was dry, I installed the lower ribs, by turning the mold upside down in the vise, so I could see clearly. It also meant that both hands were free to adjust the rib position, and apply clamps.
Linings bent and installed
I also did not take photos of bending and installing the linings. (Sorry.) Here are two photos of the result, still in clamps.
Tracing the plates
Once the linings were installed and the ribs thus strengthened, I could trace the shape of the plates, and begin cutting things out.
Thanks for looking! I will try to keep everyone posted as to progress.
This is the beginning of my “offerings” to the reading public, regarding the building of Violin-Family instruments. I currently build Violins, Violas, Cellos, and Double Basses, as well as the Five String Variants of each.
The instruments have been making customers happy wherever they go, but I have come to realize that I will only be able to build so many instruments before my body will no longer cooperate. So I am attempting to take some of the things I have learned and experienced, and make them available for others to use and enjoy. (The headings below are links to the Amazon sites where the books are available.)
My first book on lutherie was a compilation of a series of blog posts, chronicling the building of a commissioned five-string fiddle. I offered the compliation for years as a free .pdf download, with its companion, “The Journeys of the Swan,” but it did not work well on smart-phones, or other small screens, as the text was just too small to read. So, I have revised and re-formatted the book as an electronic book, and have released it as a Kindle book.
It is only 21,000 words, (which seems short, to me,) but it is profusely illustrated with color photos of the build.
I hope to offer an online series of lutherie lessons later, in keeping with this style
This one is a different story: Kai Jensen, a NASA engineer who loved violins, began to build a cello…but he was getting up in age, and his health failed before he could complete his beloved project. Years later, long after his passing, his daughter brought the instrument to me to complete it for him, so that she would have her father’s cello to play. This is the story, step-by-step, of how Kai Jensen’s dream was fulfilled and blossomed into a beautiful cello. It is also the story of how his daughter inherited her father’s joy. She named the completed instrument “The Swan,” because the first music it played was Saint-Saen’s “The Swan.” These are the Journeys of the Swan.
This will probably become a list of articles or short books on resurrecting old fiddles. Only two for now, but more will come. These will appear on Kindle for their minimum price
The Bread Bag Fiddle is a short work (3,800 words, 30 photos) chronicling the transformation of a “junk-store special”…a sadly neglected and abused violin, into the daily player of a gigging fiddler.
“Resurrection of Another Dead Fiddle” is a little shorter, still, but it includes details of internal structural repairs, as well as replacement of missing rib wood and a full neck-set. The customer had sadly set this one aside and bought a cheap violin on which to practice, but after the repairs shown here, this violin returned to being her daily player. She has become a Happy Customer!
I shipped it to him and it arrived just after his birthday. He has been playing it ever since.
The young man truly has been pleased with it: He loved the tone, loved the balance, etc. But he was reluctant to allow me to publish a video of him playing it. He wanted more time to practice.
He just had a hard time getting used to having five strings. Quite a few classically trained players have told me that this was a problem. They felt that strings just seemed to appear in the wrong places. (I can understand that: there is a string right down the middle of the fingerboard that wasn’t there before! Besides, the angle in string crossings demands more of the player: it is much flatter, requiring more precision.)
He sent me several “progress reports,” over the next few months. All of them sounded good, to me, but he was still working on “getting comfortable” with the new instrument, and did not want them made public. Until today, I did not have his blessing to share any of them.
One of his stated goals was to be able to play Bach’s Cello Suite #6 on the viola. It was originally written for a 5-string cello: A very good cellist can play it on a four-string cello. But, the best violist cannot play Suite #6 on a classical 4-string viola in the original key. The classical cello used “thumb-position” fingering to play it. “Thumb-position” is not usable on a viola.
The young man bought the 5-string viola to overcome that specific hurdle, so he is working on that piece in this video :
I especially appreciate this video. It showcases both ends of the range of the Viola, and it shows that the instrument speaks quickly and easily, in fast attacks.
He hasn’t “spoken up” online yet (and he may not) but the music tells me he is happy with the instrument.
This sort of thing has happened to me often enough that I ought to not be surprised: I get a call from some unfamiliar place, and I automatically suppose it to be “spam” of some sort, since I do get a lot of unsolicited calls trying to sell me something or another.
But then the caller says they are looking for a five-string fiddle, and the game changes instantly! I have to mentally “change gears,” pretty quickly. (No complaints! That is a nice surprise, when it happens.)
Call from Alaska
Ann and I were out walking, in January, just trying to get the exercise we need. We live on the very top of a steep hill, and we were headed back toward home, with maybe a third of a mile left to go, up that steep hill, when my cell phone rang.
I saw that the call originated in Anchorage, Alaska! I do have a cousin in Anchorage, but it was unlikely to be him, so I commented to Ann, “It’s probably spam…” and I answered the phone.
The woman identified herself immediately and stated that she was looking for a five-string fiddle for her eleven-year-old son. Evidently he is an up-and-coming fiddler, and wanted a 5-string.
(Cool!) But I don’t really recomend buying a $6,000 instrument for a beginner who may change his mind in a year or less. So I cautioned her that these hand-made fiddles may not be appropriate for an 11-year-old.
I suggested that I buy a “fiddle in-the-white” (woodwork completed, but just bare wood, unfinished, and not set up) and complete that for her. In that way, I could provide an instrument at one third the cost of handmade. She immediately agreed: that is exactly what she wanted. I offered to call her back for more details after we arrived home and she agreed to that as well. So, we sealed the deal by telephone, and I began the work.
“Atelier Chez Les Evêques” Fiddles
Usually, this means beginning with a white instrument, checking all measurements and the resonance of the corpus, and then going ahead with varnishing. Since I am not making these instruments, but only completing someone else’s work, I do not put my label in them but rather my “house-brand” label (which only means “From the shop at the Bishops’ place.”)
This instance was no different, but I neglected to take any pictures until varnishing was well under way.
So, about February 1st, I sent the lady this photo of just the back, letting her know I was working on it. She had made plans to be in my area in April for a different project, anyway, so I had plenty of time to make delivery.
She was quite happy with the look, so I continued without further photos until it was done.
Then I sent these:
The customer was quite happy, so I hung the fiddle up in my dining room to continue drying while I waited for her to arrive in my area.
Now the little fiddle is back in Alaska and being played. Everyone is pleased with it, including the young fiddler.
She sent me a video of the youngster playing “The Road to Lisdoonvarna” and he sounded pretty good! I hope he becomes a hugely successful fiddler and needs a handmade fiddle someday! 🙂
A young man contacted me by phone, over a year ago, asking about a large, five-string viola. He was very polite and not at all aggressive or assuming, but he essentially had no money for such an instrument. The phone call was a very pleasant conversation, despite the lack of funds and I was at least able to answer all his questions.
After we disconnected, I simply assumed I would not hear from him again, and eventually forgot about it,
The same youmg fellow contacted me again. a year later. This time, he had been “saving his money, ” but, unfortunately, not quite enough. So we talked over the options. Eventually I offered to convert one of my earlier orchestral violas to a five-string viola at the price he could afford. He liked that idea, and eventually, after his final approval, I began the project.
An older 16-1/2″ Oliver Viola
I began with this viola– my own design. The viola played quite well, but, for some reason, no one had purchased it, so far. (It was instrument #11, viola #4 from my Bluefiddles site.)
As I usually keep my viola necks fairly narrow, for player comfort, I needed to make a wider fingerboard and nut, to accommodate the fifth string.
Obviously, I also needed to plug three of the peg-holes and drill four new ones. They had to be positioned so that all five would fit on the pegbox, and the strings would still not rub on another peg, when tuning.
I did not take any photos of the fingerboard and nut changes, but here are a few photos of the scroll in progress. (Also, midway through the conversion, he asked whether I could darken the varnish. That really had not been part of the “deal.” But, after thinking about it, I decided that I could try to do it with minimal labor, and just count it “good customer relations.”)
So: here are some photos of the scroll after plugging the original holes and drilling new ones. I capped all the plugs with figured maple, to avoid leaving the dark circles which usually remain after such an operation.
The different background and lighting (shifting position, trying to eliminate reflections) resulted in different apparent color…but they actually match.
About the time I reached this point in the conversion is when the customer requested the color change. It turned out that he liked the color of his current instrument, and hoped I could mimic that somewhat. 🙂 (Okeedoke...)
So, I began adding color; sparsely, at first, until I could see how it was building. About three very thin coats of a dark, red-brown varnish were required to offset the original golden brown, and produced the color that he wanted.
Set-up and completion
At the point where I felt things were beginning to look correct, I added a clear coat, and allowed it to dry for a few days before setting the instrument up. But then I set it up with Evah Pirazzi strings, and it hung in my dining room, where it could dry still further, while waiting for a check to arrive. (This is where I frequently hang my instruments for final drying, as it is usually the warmest room in the house.)
Finally, a check arrived, and I first sent a provenence document with clear photos of the instrument for identification purposes, (for insurance purposes, and, in case of theft.)
I always include a provenance document for my hand-made instruments, along with the bill of sale. That way, if the instrument ever gets stolen, they have clear proof that the instrument is theirs, along with good photos by which to identify it. The front page includes a dozen accurate measurements, and the back side (Two-sided document) has all the photos.
Finally, I packed it carefully and shipped it off.
The 5-string viola arrived five days later, undamaged and still in tune. Most luthiers only ship their instruments with the strings slack and the bridge down, to minimize the chance of damage.
I don’t want to make the customer set-up the instrument, so I carefully wrap and pad the instrument inside a good case. Then I pack the case in an oversize carton, with yet more padding, and so far, the instruments have arrived safely, and usually still in tune.
I’m not confident that the customer has access to a luthier who can set up and adjust five-string instruments. The soundpost fit and position is critical to the balance across the strings. That balance is touchy on a five-string instrument, and not everyone succeeds at it.
People often tell me their 5-string fiddle sounds “dead” on the C-string. A five-minute readjustment of the soundpost brings it back into perfect balance. So…I go ahead and ship them fully set-up and ready to play.
The customer loves his new Viola. He is thrilled with his new five-string, and is practicing the Bach Cello Suites on it now. He promised to send a video, once he gets accustomed to the “five-string feel,” so when the video comes, I will add it to the website.
What can be done on a 5-string Viola that cannot be done on a classical viola?
J. S. Bach Cello Suite #6
I recently spoke with a pro-level violist from California: He said that the Bach Cello Suite #6 could not be played in the original key on a four-string viola! (This presented a new idea to me. Not actually being a player, I simply never had thought of that possibilty.) So, I looked it up online:
I offer the following quote from an article in “The Strad” Magazine. The Magazine quotes Simon Rowland-Jones’ comments in 1999. (The article was printed in July, 2021)
“The suite can only comfortably be played on a five-string instrument, although most cellists do play it on a normal four-string cello using thumb position to facilitate the higher registers. As thumb position is not possible on the viola, violists normally play this suite in the key of G.”
I knew that J. S. Bach actually wrote suite #6 for a five-string cello (possibly a violoncello piccolo.) Experienced cellists play it, but they find it challenging on a four-string classical cello. I just had never thought that “very difficult” for a classical cellist might spell “impossible”for a classical violist!
So, a five-string viola actually provides the only answer for a violist who really wants to play all six Bach cello suites on a viola, in the original keys!
Violin/Viola Teachers love the 5-string Viola for a different reason:
Violin teachers find the 5-string viola offers a big help, too. Especially when teaching in a group setting, the five string instrument allows the teacher to demonstrate the violin part for the violin section. The teacher can immediately switch to the violists’ part, without having to change instruments. A well-balanced five-string instrument provides good sound on both ends of the spectrum.
Band Members love them, too
Players in modern bands ( Jazz, Country, Bluegrass, or anything between) enjoy being able to drop into a growly low harmony to complement whatever melody the lead singer or instrument is following. When the five-string instrument is the lead, the player will really shine, because of the extended range.
Large Violas vs. Small Violas
I do not claim that there is no difference between the sound of a large instrument and a small one. (Sorry: a well-made, well-set-up, large viola simply does provide a bigger voice.) However, a well-made, properly set-up, small 5-string viola can still demonstrate an amazingly good voice. It will speak easily on the C-string, and be very open, deep and clear. It will prove to be just as clear and strong on all five strings. But violists really like the sound of big violas!
Non-Classical, Ergonomic Options
So: what can I do for a player who, by reason of physical limitations, cannot play a large viola? David Rivinus, years ago, invented a new form which he marketed under the name “Pellegrina.” (I actually have played one, once, which was owned by a young violist. She bought it for the playing ease and it turned out to be her “daily player for life.”)
The Pellegrina I played offered the playing length of a 15″ viola, but it possessed the internal space of an 18″ viola! (How is that possible? Well, quite honestly, I thought it looked as though it had been designed by Salvador Dali!) Mr. Rivinus had dramatically extended the curves of both the upper bass bout and the lower treble bout, so that they “bulged diagonally.”
This feature provides the internal resonance volume of an 18″ viola. But he left the playing length from neck-heel to end-button exactly that of a 15″ viola. The player’s hand moved no further from her shoulder than it would have done with a 15″ instrument.
Commission only, for Ergonomic, non-classical forms
If a player wants such an instrument, today, I can build one. However, I will only build it as a commission. Also, I will be using my own design, not a copy of David Rivinus’s work. (Mr. Rivinus retired a few years ago, and quit building them. His personal instruments are no longer available except when a player sells one. In fact, he still functions as a broker for those selling or buying his older creations.)
But Mr. Rivinus built the Pellegrina using sound engineering principles: His instruments (or instruments like his) offer a very good option for ergonomics. However, some players feel so strongly the need to “Look Normal” that they will never try such an option. (That is sad, because many violists end up with injuries by playing violas which are really just too large for them. )
Five String Violas for sale:
If you are interested in a five-string viola of any kind, please contact me, and we will discuss your needs. If you need something similar to what Mr. Rivinus invented, we can talk, as well, but it would definitely be a commissioned instrument.
As some of you are aware, I have posted lots of articles on violin making and repair, over the years, some in book form, but in .pdf format, so, those who were interested could download them, but they were really only readable on a full compluter…the words were too small to see om a phone, for instance.
Anyway, I had put together a small (3,800 word, 30 photos) booklet on the resurrection of a fairly “dead” fiddle, which had literally arrived at my shop in a plastic bread-bag, with the top tied off so not parts could be lost.
Hence, the name of the new booklet: “The Bread Bag Fiddle: (Resurrection of a Dead Violin).” It is not a true tutorial: it is more of an encouraging look at what can be done with a “junk-store-special” or a “garage-sale treasure.”
New to Kindle
I had never attempted using the Kindle publishing software before: this is my first offering.
It was fairly intimidating to me as a non-tech-savvy, bona fide “Old Guy,” but I did manage to “jump through all the hoops,” and publish through Amazon Kindle. As it turns out, the minimum price one can set is $2.99 so that is what I did. Have a look if you are interested.
I apologize for the long hiatus. Lots of things have been going on, so I haven’t taken time to post progress reports on the two instruments I began in late July.
I had anticipated being done with both by the second week in September, but there have been sufficient interruptions and side-tracks that I am still not done. (Rats...)
When I last posted, I had just recently set the necks in the instruments. I progressed fairly rapidly for a bit, thereafter, but failed to “Show and Tell.”
I carefully removed the molds, and cleaned up the interior of the two fiddles, then bent and installed the back linings.
The next step was to install the back plates. I had laid out and installed the back purfling weaves, but, because the rib garlands sometimes change shape a little after the molds have been removed, I avoided “locking in” the shape of the back plates until the plates were already installed. Then I could do any final trimming of the back plate, and afterward lay out, cut and install the remaining purfling.
I went ahead and installed the back plates, trimmed them to accurately match the ribs and then began layout and installation of the back purfling. I bent the purfling, using heat, then began gluing the sections in place in the proper order.
Final Varnish Preparations
The purfling channels and all the edgework remained before varnishing. Also, I turned off the artificial lighting, and used the dim light from a window to cast soft shadows across the wood, and reveal any humps and hollows I may have missed earlier. After completing all that work, I could begin the varnishing process.
I will outline the process and show pictures in my next post.
I had completed the first scroll and neck, and had begun working on the second neck, when, I “kinda took an unplanned detour.”
Then I Had a Small Mishap:
I had worked for 12 hours, Monday the 16th, and afterward, I was getting pretty tired. My hands were tired, brain was tired, too, I suppose…anyway:
I had begun carving the second scroll, completed the saw-carving part, and was removing waste wood with a small gouge, when, I slipped, annnnd, just happened to have my left hand in the path of the misdirected gouge. (sigh…)
Urgent Care? Emergency Room?
First we tried going to an Urgent Care clinic. We arrived there, and then discovered that (a) they only work by appointment, and (b) they don’t take medicare insurance, anyway. I asked what my options were, and they said, “Everything else is closed! Go to the ER!” (Sigh… very expensive option!)
So, about 30 minute later we arrived at the Emergency Room at St. Vincent Hospital. They were busy as usual, so we waited for about four hours. But after that, the ER people washed it out with sterile water, X-Rayed it to eliminate the possibility of torn bone or tendons, and applied two little “Steri-Strips!”
I guess that was normal, but it felt pretty “exposed,” and was very prone to bumps (which were pretty uncomfortable when they happened.) So, after we got home, Ann bandaged me up with a heavily padded dressing so that I could sleep without bumping it. That was a real help, and I slept well.
I kind of piddled around, the next day…partly too tired, I suppose, as we had arrived home somewhat after 3AM, and we got to bed after 4AM. Partly just not feeling real good. Anyway, I had other things that needed doing, so I didn’t work on fiddles for that day.
Back to Work!
I got back to work on Wednesday. It turned out that I really needed two hands for most things, so it slowed me down rather badly, having a bulky bandage on the left paw. However, I was finally able to get the fingerboard installed on the first scroll/neck so that I could shape them as a unit.
That was kind of encouraging, seeing some progress again.
Then I set the neck on fiddle #1:
After that, we had appointments with various people, so I didn’t get a lot done on Thursday or Friday. By the time the weekend had rolled around, I had the biggest bandages off, and was sporting a plain finger bandage, but I had to be pretty careful. Bumps were still pretty unpleasant.
So, after having removed the bulky bandage, I went back to work on fiddle #2, carving that “Red Violin” scroll into just a plain, “five-string fiddle scroll.” It looked as though the majority of the “gore” would simply be carved away: so, no “Red Violin!” (By the way, that little gouge, third from the right, is the one that perforated my thumb.)
I will post more again, soon. Sorry for the hiatus: it wasn’t intentional. 🙂