Completed Five-String Fiddle

Five String Fiddle is headed for the Bluegrass Festival!

The customer gave her enthusiastic blessing to my taking her precious new fiddle to the Wintergrass festival; hopefully to be played by some real professionals. Last night I completed most of the set-up, and I had it playing this morning.

So, here is most of the set-up process:

  1. Re-install the fingerboard.
  2. Carve and install the nut (final shaping later.)
  3. Ream peg-holes
  4. Carve and install the saddle.
  5. Install the end button.
  6. Install the soundpost
  7. Install the pegs.
  8. Cut the bridge to proper fit,  shape, and height.
  9. Install tailpiece and strings.
  10. Play it for final adjustment of soundpost, bridge, nut height, etc.

As you may recall, the customer chose Ipe wood for fingerboard, nut, and saddle. It is an extremely hard and dense wood, but not a threatened species, so it is still easy to obtain. In fact, the board I purchased was being sold for decking. I actually have some Apitong wood, too, salvaged from a railroad boxcar floor. Also very dense and hard, but not as pretty as Ipe.

The color of the Ipe looks good with the Oregon Big Leaf Maple and the Sitka spruce under their varnish. The only finish on the Ipe is a very light rub of linseed oil.

shaping the nut
Shaping the nut of Ipe wood, to match the fingerboard.

 

nut and fingerboard
Nut and fingerboard installed and cut to preliminary shape.

 

Peg holes and nut grooves
Peg holes reamed and nut grooves located, but not finished.

 

Pegs installed
Pegs shaped, cut and installed.

 

saddle installed
Saddle, of Ipe wood, installed with radiused corners to prevent cracks.

 

Bottom view of the saddle
Bottom view of the Ipe wood saddle.

 

Completed end button with tailpiece.
Completed end button with tailpiece.
Finished front
Finished instrument front view. End button and pegs are ebony: I can’t obtain Ipe pegs and fittings.

 

bass side finished instrument
Finished bass side view.

 

finished treble side view.
Finished treble side view.

 

Finished back view.
Finished back view.

 

bass side scroll
Bass side scroll.

 

Treble side scroll.
Treble side scroll.

“Playing it in.”

So, at this point, the main thing is to play the instrument as much as possible, so that it settles into its new life as a fiddle, instead of a bunch of pieces of wood! This period is called “play-in”, and there is much controversy as to what is really happening. But my observation is that there are definite positive changes that come about through vigorous playing of a new (or newly restored) instrument. I’m not going to try to “prove it:” it is just my observation and one I feel comfortable acting upon.

Ready to play!
Ready to play!

How does she sound?

So far, so good! Very good, deep C-string tone, and well-balanced across all the strings. I would like a little more volume, and I may do some tinkering with the soundpost to that end, but I have to say, “Not bad for a brand-new fiddle!”

I think it is a winner! (Very pretty, too, but I didn’t do that…the tree did.)

Thanks for looking.

Commissioned 5-String Varnish Progress

Varnish Progress on the Commissioned 5-String Fiddle

Varnish Procedure for All my Instruments:

  1. Complete all scraping, shaping and smoothing: varnish preparation.
  2. Wet the instrument down to raise the grain, then
  3. Lightly sand with fine-grit abrasive, to remove rough bits of raised wood.
  4. Rub in a mineral ground, then use a rag to remove excess.
  5. After the ground dries, sand lightly again, to remove any rough excess mineral.
  6. Seal using turpentine and rosin.
  7. After the sealer is dry, begin adding coats of varnish.

Following the above format, here are the results:

Dried Mineral Ground, compared with varnished instruments.
Dried Mineral Ground, compared with varnished instruments.

 

front view with sealer
Front view with sealer…mineral has disappeared.

 

Side view with sealer
Side view with sealer…the grain is visible; the ground is transparent.

 

back with sealer
Back with sealer; the grain is very visible, the ground has disappeared.

 

Now the varnishing begins!

The mineral ground was intended to close all the open pores in the wood so that the varnish will not saturate the wood. Then the sealer locks the mineral ground in place and causes it to become transparent. (Think “wet t-shirt material.” White stuff becomes transparent when wet, as a rule.)

So, now the varnish further seals the wood and begins to add gloss and protection from moisture, dirt, etc. And, if we do it correctly, it will add the color we want, as well, without losing transparency.

I have used both oil varnishes and spirit varnishes. I believe the old masters used oil varnish, but currently, I have moved to spirit varnish. Perhaps one day I will use oil varnishes again

Spirit varnish dries so rapidly that I can usually apply four coats of varnish the first day. So here is the fiddle with four coats of spirit varnish:

four coats varnish front view
Front, with four coats varnish…still pretty yellow.

 

side with four coats varnish
Bass side with four coats of varnish: Too much contrast between side and front plate.

 

back plate with four coats of varnish
Back plate with four coats of varnish… looking pretty nice!

 

Leveling the varnish

So, then, after the first few coats have dried hard,  we sand lightly to remove brush marks, sags, drips, etc. and begin to add color coats. Usually, I have a pattern of shading I use, to emulate light “wear” patterns. This one has very little of that.

Final color front plate
Final color front plate…the light patch on the upper left is a reflection.

 

Final color treble side
Final color treble side: notice that the front and side match nicely, now.

 

Final color bass side
Final color bass side.

 

Final color back plate
Final color back plate.

 

Final color bass side scroll
Final color bass side scroll.

 

Final color treble side scroll
Final color treble side scroll.

 

Final Finish Work

So, now we will let the varnish thoroughly dry, and harden; after which there may be retouching and minor changes to make, but the main focus will become set-up after that. (In case anyone is interested, the customer has been kept abreast of every step in the build, and is getting quite anxious to take possession.)  🙂

Thanks for looking!

Commissioned 5-string fiddle

5-String Fiddle nearing completion

Custom Made Fiddle Choices

Back in December, I received a commission for a new 5-string “Bluegrass” fiddle. It was to be made on the same form as one of my earlier instruments but have a two-piece, straight-grained Sitka spruce top and a very wild-grained Oregon Big Leaf maple back, sides and neck. The customer specifically requested Ipe for the Fingerboard, saddle and nut. Ipe is extremely hard, dense wood, but not threatened or scarce, as ebony is becoming. It is an odd color when under the knife, and leaves a bright yellow dust when it it is scraped, but it finishes a nice dark brown and darkens further with age.

Wild Grain Makes for Tough Carving

The last time I posted, I was just beginning the back plate arching. It was tough carving, as it is extremely “wild” flame, and the grain is anything but straight. The result, of course, is some very beautiful wood. But it is hard work, regardless. The blades must be kept

The purfling requested was not only double purfling (favored by a few of the early masters) but was to include a purfling weave, as well, in the form of a modified “fleur-de-lis.”  This is a design I came up with on my first five-string fiddle, and have continued to use, in a variety of forms, ever since.

Back Purfling begun
Working on the back purfling slots.

I like the look of the double-purfling and the weave, but it is pretty hard on my hands, as I still do all my purfling inlays by hand. I know a lot of makers use a Dremel-tool, or something similar. Perhaps I will succumb to that as well.

At any rate, here is the back plate, with the purfling complete:

completed back plate
Back plate complete, ready for final scraping and graduation.

Closing up the “Corpus”

I closed up the corpus a few nights ago: all that is left to do before varnishing is to complete the final carving of the neck heel, and all the final edgework, so that the wood is “varnish-ready.”

Closed corpus, side view.
Closed corpus, side view. (Note the heel yet to be carved; edgework incomplete.)

 

Closed Corpus Back
Closed Corpus, back view…button still too long; heel uncarved.

 

Closed Corpus, Front view
Closed Corpus, Front view. Corners and edgework still not done.

I will show one more progress report during the varnishing process, and the last for set-up and playing.

Thanks for looking.

Working on the Back Plate

Inside Complete

Before I could prepare the back plate of this five-string fiddle, I had to complete the rest of the corpus (body of the violin:) First, the inside willow blocks and willow linings had to be tapered and shaped so they are completely smooth. Then, the back of the entire corpus (including the heel of the neck) has to be leveled, so that it will lie flat on the back plate. So, here is the main part of the 5-string violin, with the interior clean and smooth, and the back leveled and flat:

Inside complete, and back leveled.
Inside complete, and back leveled.

 

Beginning the Back Plate

I clamped the corpus flat on the back plate billet, then traced around the ribs, using a small washer to establish the correct rib overhang. Then I corrected the corners, using a straightedge and a series of circle patterns. Finally, I cut out the plate “footprint”, and began the arching process. Oregon Big Leaf Maple is a relatively soft maple, but it is still a good deal harder and tougher than Sitka spruce, so the back plate is a lot more work to carve. Here is the beginning:

Beginning Back Plate arching.
Beginning Back Plate arching.

In the above photo, the back plate is sitting in a work cradle, so that it will stay in place while I carve it. The Ibex plane in the photo has been slightly modified, to add the palm-fitting handle. This reduces the stress on my fingers and transfers the force to the palm of my hand as opposed to my thumb and forefinger. (To Ibex plane-owners: you will observe that I have removed the adjusting screw and reinstalled it upside down to allow insertion of the maple handle.)

I have been on vacation for two weeks, which has allowed me to accomplish more work than usual, in a shorter period of time. I go back to my regular job, on Monday, though, so things are about to slow to a crawl. (Sorry…that’s life. :-))

 

Thanks for looking.

More 5-string Fiddle Progress

Five-String Fiddle Progress

(Further progress on building a custom-made 5-string bluegrass fiddle.)

Neck Set

The neck was ready to set into the neck-block, last night, but I had reached my limit. So, today, I prepared both the neck and the garland, by ascertaining that all angles and dimensions were correct, and then laying out the shape of the neck mortise on the neck block of the garland.  This is a critical step, and always raises my blood pressure a little, as I know that, if I make a mistake, it will require serious rework to get back to a usable status.

However, this time, the job went pretty smoothly, and I was able to set the neck in a fairly short time. One thing I do a little differently than I was originally taught, is that I set the neck before installing the maple back plate. This allows me to achieve a good fit with the rib garland and neck block, and not have to worry about the fit against the back plate button. Then I saw off the stub of the neck heel, and plane and file it flush with the rib garland. After I remove the mold and add the back linings, I will level the back of the garland, and be ready to trace the back plate shape.

 

Neck Set Complete.
Neck Set Complete: still have to remove the neck-heel stub.

 

Here is the completed corpus (Sitka Spruce top plate and Big Leaf maple ribs still on the mold) with the wild-grain Big-leaf maple back plate billet.

Completed Corpus with Back Plate Billet.
Completed Corpus with Back Plate Billet.

 

Mold Removal

So, the next step was to remove the plywood mold. This is another stressful step because it involves literally using a hammer and chisel, to break the glue-bond between the blocks and the mold, so as to release the garland from the mold.  I used to have a difficult time doing this, because occasionally a drop of hide glue had seeped between the rib and the mold, and anchored the fragile rib material to the very solid mold. The likelihood of breaking a rib at that point became nearly 100%. Eventually, however, I learned to liberally coat all the non-gluing surfaces of the mold with candle-wax (paraffin,) by vigorously rubbing a candle over all the areas I felt were likely to get a drop of glue on them.

The result today was that, when I removed the mold, it went smoothly, and I could see a place where glue had definitely intruded but it had dried with zero adhesion to the waxy mold. (What a relief!)

Mold removed, ready for back linings.
Mold removed, ready for back linings.

Installing the Back Linings

The linings are important for two reasons: they strengthen the fragile rib-edges, and they triple the gluing surfaces between the rib-garland and the front and back plates.

So, I cut the mortices in both sides of each of the six blocks to receive the lining strips, and then inserted the linings dry, to get a perfect fit.

Afterward, I removed each lining, one by one, coated them liberally with hot hide-glue, and re-inserted them, clamping immediately with small spring-clamps.

Back linings installed, glued and clamped.
Back linings installed, glued and clamped.

Shaping Blocks and Linings

If you look closely you can also see, in the above photos, that I had trimmed the blocks on the front side, before removing the mold. After the glue is dry on the back linings, I will also trim the back side of the blocks, to achieve a smooth, curved surface on the interior of all the blocks. At that same time, I will taper the linings so that they are very thin on the edge toward the middle of each rib, but still 2 mm thick at the edge where they will contact the back and front plates.

After that, it will be time to level the back surface of the entire corpus (garland and neck-heel) so as to fit tightly against the back plate billet. Then I can trace the final shape of the back plate, cut it to shape, and get going on completing the back plate.

For now, I am satisfied to allow the glue to dry, and take the rest of the evening off.

 

Thanks for looking.

Commissioned Handmade Five-string Fiddle Beginning

Starting a new 5-String Fiddle

The Materials:

A few weeks ago I announced that a new fiddle would be beginning. Now I have a few photos to show:

The top plate is Sitka Spruce, from Bruce Harvie. The customer wanted “Oregon wood,” and the Maple is definitely from in my neighborhood, here in Oregon (I helped harvest it;) but the Sitka is just a species that grows here…I don’t know where it was harvested.

Wild-grain Maple for back and ribs!
Wild-grain Maple for back and ribs!

 

Fine-grained Sitka Spruce for top plate.
Fine-grained Sitka Spruce for the top plate.

 

Preview of the grain in the neck billet.
Preview of the grain in the neck billet.

 

Beginning the work:

I book-matched the spruce, to form the basis for the front plate: a solid plate with a tight glue-line down the center.

I used the mold (or form, as many people prefer to call it) that matched the fiddle the customer liked best. Then I added willow blocks to become the corners and end-blocks, and I traced the intended shape of the blocks from the mold template onto the back-side of the blocks, where they are flush with the mold.

Blocks and mold with template.
Blocks and mold with template.

 

Preliminary block-shaping complete.
Preliminary block-shaping complete.

 

Added the ribs, of the spalted maple the customer liked, and glued them to the willow blocks. Afterward, I added linings, also of willow, and let them into the blocks and glued them to the ribs and the blocks.

Spalted Maple ribs and willow linings.
Spalted Maple ribs and willow linings.

 

Rib garland nearly complete.
Rib garland nearly complete.

 

Then I traced the shape of the garland onto the top plate material, using a small washer as a spacer, and a ball-point pen as a scribe. I completed the corners using a straightedge and a series of circle templates. Finally, I marked the edge at exactly 4 mm thick, and carved the arching, using gouges and planes and scrapers.

Sitka top-plate arching complete.
Sitka top-plate arching complete.

 

Then I marked the layout of the double purfling and the f-holes, and began incising them into the Sitka Spruce.

F-holes and purfling traced and cutting begun.
F-holes and purfling traced and cutting begun.

 

Sometime in the midst of all the above work, I laid out and began carving the scroll and pegbox. That wild grain is very tricky to carve, as it changes direction constantly.

Rough-carved scroll and pegbox.
Rough-carved scroll and pegbox.

 

I went ahead and completed the purfling and the f-holes, so that I could prepare the plate to be glued to the garland.

Completed top plate and neck work with garland.
Completed top plate and neck work with garland.

 

I also added the bass-bar, chalk-fitting it to perfection, and gluing it in place, with hot hide glue. The bass-bar will be carved, planed and scraped to the proper shape after the glue dries.

Bass-bar glued and clamped.
Bass-bar glued and clamped.

 

Top plate glued and clamped to the garland, fingerboard glued to the neck.
Top plate glued and clamped to the garland, fingerboard glued to the neck.

 

The fingerboard is Ipé, as requested by the customer. It is an extremely dense hardwood, but not threatened as Ebony is beginning to be. It finishes to a dark brown and looks good, as well as wearing well. It is extremely difficult to work, though, so it may take time to become popular with makers. The saddle and the nut will also be Ipé, but the pegs will be ebony, simply because I have never mastered the lathe-turning of tuning pegs.

Working on the fingerboard.
Working on the fingerboard.

 

And that is pretty much where things stand, for now. I will try to post pictures as they become available.

 

Thanks for looking.

New Commission on the Way!

New Five-String Fiddle Request!

A client contacted me through this website and asked whether I could build a 5-string fiddle of primarily Oregon woods. (Sure!)

Test-Drive

We made an appointment and she came for a visit. She played eight of my hand-made instruments (all good fiddles), finally declaring a particular one to be exactly what she wanted, except that she did not care for the look of the one-piece Sitka Spruce top plate. It had very wide grain on the bass side and narrower on the treble side. (It sounds great, but the looks were bothering her.) Soooo…

Custom Build!

I went into my storage and retrieved a really wild-grained piece of Big Leaf Maple, and two billets of very straight, even-grained Spruce: one of Englemann, and another of Sitka: she chose the Englemann and loved the maple. She wanted an instrument essentially the same as that first one, but without the odd-looking belly grain. (Same model; made on the same mold (form), and sounding just like it, as well.) It will be tough to do, because the one she really likes is already five years old; it has had time to settle, be re-adjusted, and settle again. (Yes, it sounds good!)

Select Woods and a Good Start

So, we went out to one of my other buildings and hand-picked some likely-looking wood for the neck and ribs, and we were ready to do business. She presented a deposit, and I suggested that she take home the one she loved, for the time being, to keep her interest up while waiting for me to complete her personal treasure. She went home happy, and I began sorting willow for blocks, finding my proper templates, and enjoying the prospect of a new build. I will post follow-ups as they occur.

Thanks for looking.

I will post this over on the Bluefiddles page, as well.

Violoncello Piccolo Project

Piccolo Cello Essentially Complete

Remembering it is a “Mock-up”

This is not a cello I have built from raw wood. It was an inexpensive, small Romanian Cello I salvaged years ago (I had forgotten that it was Romanian… I thought it was Chinese) and for which I had never found a buyer. Currently, there is someone interested in a handmade five-string cello, and leaning toward the piccolo model, as that is the traditional size from the time of J.S. Bach. But there is no standard size of which I am aware, so I removed the neck of the little old cheap cello and made a 5-string neck and scroll with which to replace the old neck.

Here is the result:

 

Piccolo Front
Piccolo Front

 

Piccolo Bass Side
Piccolo Bass Side

 

Piccolo Back
Piccolo Back

 

Back of Scroll
Back of Scroll

 

Front of Scroll
Front of Scroll

 

It plays fairly well, for what it is. I have a difficult time becoming accustomed to the sound of the High E string in a cello, but I can see the value for certain applications, as it would effectively eliminate “thumb-position” in a lot of pieces.

If a person wanted a full-size five-string cello, or a 3/4- size, a 7/8-size, or what have you, I can make those, too.

I see that Helicore is now providing a five-string set for a full-size cello, so I may have to try one, just to see how the new strings sound.  🙂

Thanks for looking.

Five String Cello Progress

Five String Cello Project in Progress

Upgrade to my memory needed, it turns out:

It turns out that the “Hybrid” cello I chose for the donor corpus, was actually solid wood on back and sides, as well as the top. So, that’s a good thing!  It is still a rather cheap instrument, and so, this is still just a “mock-up” for R&D, so to speak. I will begin the “real thing,” (all handmade by me,) when the customer is satisfied that this is what he wants. (One thing he wanted is all Oregon woods, as far as possible. So this doesn’t qualify.)

Five-string neck is on the way:

The scroll is nearly complete, and I decided to go with the carved back on the scroll, as some of the early instruments had, just for fun.

Treble side scroll
Treble side scroll

 

Scroll front in progress
Scroll front in progress.

 

Bass side scroll.
Bass side scroll.

 

Scroll back carving begun.
Scroll back carving begun.

 

I had never tried this type of scroll back, before; Turns out it is a lot of meticulous work! I’m still not done, but I am moving along on it.

Scroll back progress.
Scroll back progress.

 

Pressing onward! Hands are getting tired!
Pressing onward! Hands are getting tired!

 

There will still be a lot of scraping and polishing to do before it is done. Also, I have to make a fingerboard to fit the neck; but then I can install the neck.

Pushing forward to the finish!

 

Thanks for looking!

Lots of Delays and New Project

Lots of Delays and New Project

Delays:

Home repairs and equipment repairs.

We had a few break-downs this summer. The lawn tractor, a faithful beast of thirty years, suddenly quit working. Turned out to be a bad PTO clutch. I was eventually able to order new parts online, and do the work myself, but it was a discouraging project, as I am really not a mechanic, by inclination. But it works again.

Meanwhile, it also turned out that one of our toilets had been leaking under the floor, and had ruined the floor, so the whole underlayment had to come out. I replaced it with something called “wonderboard”…a concrete product, reinforced with fiberglass… nasty stuff to work with, but relatively impervious, so I was glad to go ahead with it.  mudded all the screws so they were flush, and all the seams, etc., then sanded the whole mess flat. Then linoleum, and sealer, and wallpaper. Finally got everything back in place, working, no leaking pipes, etc.,  just Wednesday of this week. Glad to be done with that.

New Project:

5-String Violoncello Piccolo

A fellow called me a while back, having seen my 5-string fiddles, and asking for a custom-made five-string cello, using all Oregon woods, if possible. (No problem…but most of the historic 5-string cellos I am aware of were piccolos…considerably smaller instruments, and quite rare. Only a few surviving models.) Nope, he wanted a full-size. Okeedoke, no problem. They even sell Cello-string sets for full-size 5-string cellos.

But he thought it over, and now is leaning toward a piccolo, just because. (They really are a special instrument!) But, now I do have a problem: I don’t have one to show him.

So, since I am short on time, I am making an experimental mock-up of the correct size, using a fractional-size hybrid cello (laminated sides and back; carved top), and replacing the normal neck with a neck and scroll specifically designed for a five-string instrument. It will not be the quality instrument he will expect in a custom-made cello, but it will give him the opportunity to experiment with the smaller size and the five strings.

I had plenty of maple on hand, but not thick enough for the neck, so I laminated two 1-1/2″ slabs, side by side, to make a thick billet, and then sawed out the blank.

Piccolo Neck Blank
Piccolo Neck Blank

 

I laid out the details of the scroll and neck; then used a saw to begin removing excess material. It is hot and humid, today, and I tired pretty rapidly, so I only got partway done:

Piccolo neck and scroll in progress
Piccolo neck and scroll in progress.

 

Piccolo Scroll with more cuts

Piccolo Scroll with more cuts.

 

Starting to smooth up a bit, but still a long way to go.
Starting to smooth up a bit, but there is still a long way to go.

Plan:

I hope to have the scroll and neck complete in a day or two. I then intend to make a fingerboard and nut of Ipe, a non-threatened hardwood, and install the assembly on the hybrid corpus, immediately thereafter.

At that point, it should be down to the final finish of the neck and fingerboard, and set-up of the instrument in its new life as a  five-string cello piccolo. The corpus is already in good shape, so it should not require additional attention.

I will post photos, as they become relevant.

Thanks for looking.