5-String Viola Conversion Result Feedback

I finally got some publishable feedback!

Earlier this year, I converted one of my classical 16-1/2″ violas (Instrument #18 (viola #7) on this page)  to a 5-string, for this young player. (Story here.)

I shipped it to him and it arrived just after his birthday. He has been playing it ever since.

Happy Player

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.)

Achievable Goals

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.

Hope you enjoy it.

A 5-String Fiddle: “North to Alaska!”

A Call From an “Unknown Person”

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.

fiddle back
Fiddle back with first coats of varnish complete.

 

She was quite happy with the look, so I continued without further photos until it was done.

Then I sent these:

completed front
Completed front.

 

completed bass side
Bass side completed (fancy pegs on this one!)

 

Completed back
Completed back: she loved the figured maple!

 

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.

Hanging for extended dry time
Hanging for extended dry time.

 

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! 🙂

 

Thanks for looking!

Five String Viola Conversion

First Five String Conversion

Contact from a Potential Customer

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,

Second Contact

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.)

The Plan

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.

Photographs

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.

Adding Color

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.

five string Viola conversion handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop Luthier
Dark front, still unfinished.

 

five string viola conversion made in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier
Here is the Dark back, still unfinished.

 

five string viola conversion made in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier
Dark treble side, still unfinished.

 

five string viola conversion made in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier
And the Dark Bass side, still unfinished.

 

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.)

five string viola conversion, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier
Front view, hanging in the dining room, waiting to be shipped.

 

Five string viola conversion, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Dining room back view.

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.)

Provenance Document

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.

provenance document for five string viola handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Provenance document photo from Computer screen.

Shipping

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.

Soundpost magic

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.

five string viola handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Final appearance, front view.

 

five string viola handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Side view, final appearance,

 

Five string viola handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Final appearance, back.
Five-string viola handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, luthier.
Final appearance Scroll

 

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.

 

Thanks for looking.

Why a Five String Viola?

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.

 

Thanks for looking.

New Venture for me: “The Bread Bag Fiddle” just went “Live!”

New Book!

First of many to come, I hope!

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.

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=the+bread+bag+fiddle&i=digital-text&fbclid=IwAR0ruyNsAt4mJ8qlbr0sLREES-C0H9cppji7jC6Q9fAMwNOtZJaPKF6BhgU&ref=nb_sb_noss

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.

The Bread Bag Fiddle: Resurrecting a "Dead" Violin by [Chet Bishop]

Thanks for looking!

Five-String Fiddles Nearing Completion

5-String Fiddles Nearing Completion

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.”

Linings

I carefully removed the molds, and cleaned up the interior of the two fiddles, then bent and installed the back linings.

Handmade Five string fiddles in progress, by Chet Bishop in Oregon
One set of back linings installed. Other corpus ready for back linings.

 

Two handmade fivestring fiddles in progress by Chet Bishop of Forest Grove, Oregon
Both fiddles with linings installed. Notice the linen reinforcements of the purfling-weave areas.

Back Plates

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.

Purfling weaves incised
Purfling weaves incised.

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.

purfling weave beginning
Beginning back purfling weaves. The idea is to produce an illusion of an “over-and-under weave.”

 

purfling in progress on two 5-string bluegrass fiddles handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Purfling in progress.
trimming purfling weaves on 5-string bluegrass fiddles handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Trimming the purfling weaves. They have been inlaid to a shallow depth, because the plates are thin.

 

scraping the purfling weaves on a 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Scraping the Purfling Weaves.

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.

five-string fiddles handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Both fiddles ready for final varnish preparations.

I will outline the process and show pictures in my next post.

Thanks for looking.

 

Further progress on two fiddles (8/24/21)

Slower Progress:

(I actually got a fair amount done, though…)

A few weeks ago, I bookmatched my plates and then cut ribs and necks, so as to set up “kits” for six new five-string fiddles. Then, I got started building two of them, as parallel builds.

Since I last posted, two weeks ago, I did not exactly stay on schedule, but I didn’t get too far behind.

Scroll Carving

I had completed the first scroll and neck, and had begun working on the second neck, when, I “kinda took an unplanned detour.”

scroll carving for five string fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop Luthier.
Beginning to carve the pegbox for fiddle #1.

 

carving pegbox for five string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon my Chet Bishop, luthier.
Heavy wood removal from pegbox interior.

 

sawing out scroll on 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, luthier.
Beginning the saw-carving of the scroll

 

Saw-carving the scroll for a 5-string bluegrass fiddle, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop. luthier.
Saw-carving the scroll.

 

scroll for 5-string bluegrass fiddle, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, luthier.
Scroll nearing completion

 

scroll for 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon, by Chet Bishop, luthier.
Scroll #1 essentially complete.

 

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…)

Entry wound!

 

Exit wound!

 

Both sides at once!

 

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!”

Steri-Strips from the ER.

 

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.

Bandage for protection.

 

Red Violin beginning? This was the second scroll, in progress when I slipped.

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.

Fingerboard installed for 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, luthier
Fingerboard installed the second day after the injury.

 

That was kind of encouraging, seeing some progress again.

neck and fingerboard with five-string fiddles by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Neck #1 with the two completed front plates and garland assemblies.

 

back plate and neck assembly with dive string fiddles by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
I had also traced and cut out the back plate for fiddle #1.  (Big Leaf Maple: Pretty stuff!)

 

Then I set the neck on fiddle #1:

cutting neck mortise in 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier
Beginning the neck mortise. Notice the hard, heavy winter reeds in the Douglas Fir front plate.

 

cutting the neck mortise on a 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop. Luthier.
The cut-out in the front plate for the neck mortise.

 

completed neck mortise in 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Completed neck mortise

 

neck set completed in 5-string bluegrass fiddle, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Completed Neck-set. (Back of the neck heel will still have to be sawn off.)

 

Healing up!

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.

Thumb exit wound, healing well.

 

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.)

scroll for 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, luthier.
Beginning work on the second scroll, again.

 

scroll nearing completion for a 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop. Luthier.
Second scroll nearing completion.

I will post more again, soon. Sorry for the hiatus: it wasn’t intentional. 🙂

 

Thanks for looking.

 

 

More Progress on the first two of Six Fiddles. (8/9/21)

Build Progress for a couple of new “5-string Bluegrass fiddles:”

Last time:

Last post showed the garlands complete, and ready to be leveled:

garlands for two five string fiddles made in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Garlands with linings installed, ready for leveling.

 

I began the leveling process using a file and a finger plane, until the fragile rib-edges were level with the linings.

garland for five string fiddle made in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Beginning the levelling process.

 

Then I completed the leveling by rubbing the garland on a sanding board.

five string fiddle in the making
Flattening the garland on a sanding board.

 

Tracing the plates

Once the garlands were flat, I could use them to trace the outline of the plates: I used a small washer as a tracing tool– as a spacer, to give me the overhang distance I want (3mm.)

tracing the front plate for a 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Tracing the outline of the plate, using a washer and a ballpoint pen.

 

five string fiddle in the making.
The washer has to be the right size to put the ink line 3mm away from the rib.

 

overhang for five string fiddle handmade by Chet Bishop In Oregon
Pretty close, I’d say!

 

Correcting the corners and cutting out the plates

I really don’t want the “round corners ” produced by the washer, but they do give me a starting point from which to correct the corners before cutting out the plates:

corner shapes for 5-string fiddles handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Corrected corner shapes laid out, on Englemann Spruce, using a straightedge and a circle template.

 

Douglas fir front plate cut out for 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Douglas Fir Front plate cut out and ready for arching. Uncommon wood, but good!

 

two plates for five string fiddles handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Both plates are ready for arching. I enjoy using Oregon woods when I can.

 

Arching the plates:

Arching the plates is a critical step, because the arching pretty much controls the tone quality. In fact, it may be the single most inportant factor in achieving good tone. I begin by scribing the edge-thickness of the plates and then I  begin removing waste wood to complete the rough arching:

Scribing the edge thickness for a 5-string fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Scribing the edge thickness for the Douglas Fir front plate.

 

planing a front plate for a 5-string fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Rough-arching the Douglas Fir plate, using planes and gouges.

 

I use arching templates to establish the shape of the arching, and then fair-in the parts in between the templates. (The templates for the back plate are slightly different, but all of these things matter: I have to use them correctly. And, although I can get the arching “close” without the templates, quite honestly, “close” isn’t good enough.)

arching templated for 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
This top is from the previous fiddle, but I used the same templates, so here they are!

Laying out F-holes, and incising them.

After the arching shape is very close to correct, I use templates to lay out the f-hole shapes and locations, and then use a knife to incise the lines deeply, so that I can’t accidentally remove the lines through further shaping.

f-hole layout for five-string fiddles handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
F-holes laid out and incised on both front plates.

 

Then I refine the arching, using gouges, planes and scrapers, until the shape is exactly what I want.

refining the arching on a 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Refining the arching on the Englemann Spruce plate.

 

two plated for 5-string bluegrass fiddles handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Both front plates ready to begin purfling.

Purfling:

The word “purfling” evidently comes from the old Italian “por filo” meaning edging.  It supposedly helps strengthen the edge, and it certainly helps “define” the edge, and…it looks nice. Though there are examples of old intruments without purfling, all of the better “Old Master” makers used it, and I will never make an instrument without it. (Besides…I like it.)

I position the purfling beginning at 4mm inside the outer rim of the plates, and mark the location of both sides of the slot, using a purfling marker (sometimes called a purfling cutter.) The marker won’t work for the corners, so I have to lay them out using a pencil.

Then I use a knife to incise those lines deeply enough to receive the actual purfling strips.

purfling laid out for 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Beginning purfling slot in Englemann Spruce front plate.
Douglas Fir is much more difficult to incise, because the winter growth rings are very hard.

 

picking waste wood from the purfling slots on a 5-string fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Picking waste wood from the purfling slots.

 

Finally, when the slots are complete, I can begin inserting the actual purfling strips. The strips come as 32″ long three-ply veneers, and are very brittle. I have to use the bending iron to prepare them for insertion into the slots.

plate ready for purfling for a 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Purfling slot completed in Douglas Fir front plate.

 

inserting purfling in a 5-string bluegrass fiddle front plate, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Ready to insert purfling strips in the Englemann Spruce plate…but not without bending them first!

 

Purfling, inserted dry, into front plate of 5-string fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Purfling, inserted dry, on the Englemann Spruce front plate. Ready for hot hide glue!

 

Gluing the Purfling:

After the purfling strips are correctly fitted, dry, I carefully lift them out, one by one, and slip hot hide glue into the slot beneath each strip, then quickly force the strip back into the slot, ramming it home with a special tool.

When all is complete, I allow the purfling to dry, before moving on to cutting the channel, performing the final edgework, and fairing the channels into the arching…but those are stories for another day.  🙂

Completed purfling for two 5-string bluegrass fiddles handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Both plates’ purfling complete, still wet from gluing.

 

Thanks for looking.

Progress report: fiddles for Fall of 2021

Progress Report 8/3/21

Foundational Work For 5-string Fiddles

My last post showed the six “kits” I had built. The post included bookmatching the five-string fiddle plates, cutting the profiles of the Big Leaf Maple necks and scrolls, and cutting appropriate ribs to size. As a result, I ended up with six kits, including bass bar blanks all cut from the same billet of Englemann Spruce, and a big pile of linings ready to bend. ( I thought the linings were willow, but I now suspect may be poplar, instead.)

Five of these front plates ar Englemann Spruce, but one is Douglas Fir. I rarely find Douglas Fir that will work for tonewood, but a friend brought me a pickup-load of firewood,  and I found some that sounds great. (As you can see, I am not a “snob” about where I get my wood. If I need special wood, I buy it, but I frequently use Oregon woods.)

(In case anyone reading this is not aware, I build all my instruments (except the fittings, as a rule) entirely from the raw materials. I make all my molds by hand, and all my templates by hand. I have even made many of my tools. So every instrument is genuinely “handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop.”) 🙂

materials laid out for 5-string fiddles to be made in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Four of the six assembled “kits.”

 

I set aside four of the six “kits,” just to get them out of the work area. Then I began work on the remaining two kits.

Fiddles in pieces, waiting to become 5-string fiddles handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Two of the four kits in storage.

 

Beginning the Builds

The first step after shaping the blocks (last post) is to bend the ribs and linings. Then I can glue the ribs to the prepared blocks, using hot hide glue, and finally glue the linings to the ribs.

I rub a heavy coat of candle-wax (“paraffin” in the US) on the outer rims of my molds. This will prevent a “sneaky” drop of hide-glue from accidentally bonding the ribs to the molds instead of just to the blocks.

(A rib accidentally glued to the mold can be a disaster if I don’t realize my mistake in time. The glue is definitely stronger than the rib. It will destroy the rib, if I don’t catch it early enough to use hot water or steam to release it. But the wax coating pretty much eliminates that problem.)

I used a bending iron and a thin aluminum bending strap, to hand-shape the ribs, and then put them aside in paired sets, with the respective molds for which they are intended.

ribs and linings bent for handmade 5-string fiddle by Chet Bishop in Oregon
Ribs and linings bent and ready to install.

Installing the Ribs

I installed the center-bout ribs first: they can be difficult, so I’m glad they are first. But the real reason they are first, is that the upper and lower ribs will overlap the ends of the center ribs: they do not have a mitered corner, but a lapped corner, which if done correctly, is essentially invisible.

installing ribs on 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishopribs
A pair of center-bout ribs installed.

I frequently use these “French-style” molds, (flush on the back) which allow me to install the front linings and still easily remove the mold. (Italian-style molds are centered on the ribs…I use that kind, too.)

I used cylindrical clamping cauls of appropriate sizes (dowels, broom-handles…whatever) and f-clamps to quickly secure the rib ends before the hot hide glue gels. If I make a mistake, I can steam the joint loose with a teapot, and do it over, correctly.

After the center-bout ribs dry, I shape the ends of the ribs to match the curvature of the blocks.  Then the upper and lower ribs can be glued to the perfectly-shaped block and rib. Finally, I begin installing the upper and lower ribs.

installing ribs on 5-string fiddle handmade by Chet Bishop in Oregon
First upper rib installed: notice the shaped endes of the center-bout ribs.

 

Installing ribs in 5-string fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
A pair of matching upper ribs installed.

 

installed ribs on five-string fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
All the upper and lower ribs installed. (Looking from the back side of the mold.)

 

ribs installed on two five-string fiddles, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Two completed rib-sets, ready to be trimmed before adding linings. (Lots of smoke blowing in from the fires this season, making the light kind of red.)

Necks!

While waiting for glue to dry on the ribs, I laid out the necks so that I will be ready to begin carving them.

Necks for five-string fiddles handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Necks laid out for carving.

Linings!

After trimming all the corners, so that they look as though the ribs come together as one, I begin installing the linings. I cut a small mortise on each side of each block, flush with the rib, so that the lining will be glued tightly to the rib, and into the block mortise. I secure them all using hot hide glue.

Next, I cut the linings to length, shaping the ends to closely fit the prepared mortises. Then, I coat about 7mm of the edge of the rib, and the entire mating surface of the lining with hot hide-glue and insert the lining into the mortises and push it to the correct level, corresponding to the ribs. Finally, moving rapidly, I secure it with small spring-clamps.

installing linings in five-string fiddles being handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
One set of linings fully installed: one to go!

 

Linings installed in five-string fiddles handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
All the front linings installed in both molds.

 

I made a good deal of progress yesterday, and had hoped to make more progress today, but there were some household repairs that needed to be addressed first; so I didn’t begin working on violins until mid-afternoon.

Tomorrow I will level the fronts of the garlands and trace the front plates… I hope.  🙂

 

Thanks for looking!

Need More Fiddles!

Failed to Keep Up!

I shipped the last three fiddles I had made and I am left with the “cupboard” looking pretty bare!

This had been a busy year in a lot of other ways, and I have spent a lot of time messing around, trying to build a travel case for the Travel Bass I built last summer. (Without the case, the bass isn’t going anywhere, so I really need to complete it.) Also, the last two fiddles I had made were literally hanging around the house, and so, I wasn’t feeling pressed to build more of them right away.

Sudden Change

But those two fiddles have suddenly found homes. The only two five-string violin-size fiddles I have left are ones I made several years ago: they both play very well, but the ones I am building currently are my best work, and that is what I want to put in players’ hands.

The Plan

So…I decided I had better hit the Lutherie trail in a big way: I took six of my molds (five in the photo, below…the sixth shows up later) and glued the blocks in place, to begin a group of six new fiddles. I plan to select and prepare materials, and match them together into “kits,” so that I know which top plate goes with which back plate…and neck, and ribs, etc.

Then, I plan to begin building them in pairs, but I will always have another pair ready to begin, if things slow down at all.

5-string fiddle molds with blocks and a transparent template.
Five molds with blocks and a transparent template.

The Process:

You have to look closely to see the plexiglass template in the photograph above (and below.) The template is hard to see, but it gives the precise shape I want for the outline of my blocks. I use a ballpoint pen to trace the shape onto the blocks.

Template tracing block shapes for 5-string bluegrass fiddle made by Chet Bishop
I use the template to trace the exact shape I want for my blocks.

 

Then, I use a saw to roughly cut out the shapes , and an oscillating spindle sander to shape them precisely. I apply wax to the edges of the molds so that an accidental drop of glue can’t bond them to a rib. The ribs are only glued to the blocks and linings, initially…the mold will be removed.

Molds with blocks shaped for 5-string bluegrass fiddle by Chet Bishop
Here are the blocks, shaped and ready for ribs.

Wood Choices

Next, I cut the ribs from wood that match the back and neck, as closely as possible. Usually, I try to get them all out of the same billet of wood. Over the years,  I have harvested some of my wood, myself, or it was given to me by a friend, in log form, and I had someone mill it up for me.  At other times, I have bought other wood from tonewood dealers.

I have used a variety of woods for the back plates: These (below) are all Big Leaf Maple, and I have used a wide variety of other woods; but when I build for classical orchestral instruments, I use only European Maple and Spruce.

I bought the wood (in the pictures below) from Bruce Harvie, of Orcas Island Tonewood Co. That piece of Big leaf maple on the right measures 2″ thick, about 6″ wide, and 16″ long, or more. The large billet allowed me to cut the ribs, neck and two-piece back all from the same billet. I cut up the Englemann Spruce billet on the left  to provide two tops and nine bass-bars.

Wood for 5-string bluegrass fiddles made in Oregon by Chet Bishop.
Englemann Spruce and Big Leaf Maple.

 

MAple wood for a 5-string bluegrass fiddle made in Oregon by Chet Bishop.
Same piece of Maple…closer view.

Processing the materials:

To begin with, I used a bandsaw to slice off the rib material. Then, I laid out the actual shape I needed for the back and neck. (The traced “shape” visible in the above photo is not my mark: it is just the way tonewood dealers catch the imagination of their customers.) 🙂

When I cut out the back plate shape I had to slice it in half lengthwise, and glue the halves together, to form the back plate.

planing center joint of a back plate for a Chet Bishop five-string fiddle.
Hand-planing the center joint.

 

Maple back for 5-string bluegrass fiddle made in Oregon by Chet Bishop.
Same billet, made into a back plate blank. The rest became ribs and neck.

 

Then, I traced out all the neck billets and used a bandsaw to cut them out.

Neck billets for 5-string fiddles made in Oregom by Chet Bishop.
Looks like a “bouquet of fiddle necks.” They will be matched with their respective backs and ribs.

 

Next, in addition to the work on the heavier components, I sliced ribs from appropriate wood to match the wood of the backs: a darker maple back required darker maple ribs. They will be only 1 mm thick when finished.

Ribs for 5-string fiddle.
I was glad I had rib material that matched the color of the old wood for this fiddle. That back (below) was harvested in September, 1983.

 

Wood for 5-string fiddle made in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Matching ribs and neck to back wood.

 

After thinning the ribs, I used a knife to cut the ribs to size.

Wood for ribs for 5-string fiddle made in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Each set of ribs requires three lengths for upper, center and lower bouts.

Douglas Fir

I usually build the top plates of spruce (Sitka, Englemann, European or other species.) Sometimes (rarely) I will use other woods: this one is Douglas Fir. Otto Erdesz used Douglas fir for front plates on many instruments. So far, I have only used Douglas Fir once, but it turned out to be an excellent fiddle, so  I am doing it again. 🙂

Wood Kit for a 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop.
A Douglas Fir top plate with a Big Leaf Maple back, neck and ribs.

 

And finally, I see the kits beginning to emerge!

Materials for 5-string fiddles handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
These Kits will help me keep focused and encouraged about building the six new fiddles.

 

I will try to provide updates and to post progress reports.

 

Thanks for looking.