This and several other of my instruments are all from a log given me by the late Terry Howell. I have made one cello, one bass and several five-string fiddles from the wood of that log, and I still have a lifetime supply, thanks to Terry’s generosity. (see that story, here)
The front plate, however, is a first for me: Douglas Fir! This is unusual, but not unheard of: there are a number of professional instruments by Otto Erdesz out there being played whose front plates were made of Douglas fir. Will I always use it? Nope! But this turned out very well indeed! I am more confortable using spruce, and probably will continue to mostly use spruce, but it was quite an eye-opening experience to try the Douglas Fir.
The sound is very big, with a very clear, deep C-String, and perfect balance across all five strings. This fiddle will “cut through the mix” in a band, but can also play pianissimo when needed.
Overall, I am very well satisfied with the final result on this fiddle. I am confident that a buyer will find it a thrill to play.
Last post included the sealer, which, to be honest, looks awfully nice…but it isn’t varnish: it was just a resin dissolved in turpentine, used to lock in the mineral ground and seal the pores against excessive varnish saturation (which could dampen the tone.) It looked like this:
So, from that point forward, the varnishing began:
The first coats of varnish I use are pretty intensely yellow, as that golden glow will shine through the other colors, wherever there is any wear, or deliberately thin spots in the color coats. Then I begin selectively darkening certain areas, corners, etc. to enhance the overall look and feel, visually.
So here are the front and back after the early coats of varnish: pretty much all from the first day or two of varnishing:
After the early varnish is well-cured, I scrape or sand back any sags, drips, or brush-marks, remove any brush-hairs that might have been overlooked earlier, and then lightly sand over the entire instrument, to produce a smooth surface upon which to deposit subsequent coats of varnish (usually about eight overall, by the time I am done varnishing.)
I add the deeper color coats, still striving to produce the shading that would go along with the old instruments that everyone finds so attractive. (I have numerous excellent photos of “old-master” instruments to study, from which to gain ideas as to what is “normal” wear.) So, here are photos of the front and back of the same instrument after further layers of varnish have been applied:
I anticipate about two or three more coats of amber varnish to deepen the shine and improve the clarity. There will be some re-touching done as needed, of course, especially after I re-install the fingerboard and fit the pegs, to begin set-up. But this is looking pretty much the way it will when it is finished, in terms of overall color. the red will probably look a little less intense, but it will still be there.
I hope to have it playing next week sometime.
This is the “sister instrument” to a five-string fiddle made last year. Each was built from wood salvaged from the scraps after I built a five-string Double Bass last Summer.
This week was a hard one, in terms of getting things done, because I had some repairs to do; but I did complete the varnish prep work on the most recent five-string violin, and then rubbed into it the mineral ground I use to fill the wood pores and prevent excessive varnish saturation.
The mineral ground dried rapidly, allowing me to accomplish the final rubdown before varnishing began: so, this evening, I applied the sealer, which is designed to soak in, and lock the mineral in place, after which the solvent evaporates, leaving only the resin in the wood. I rubbed off the excess with a rag and alcohol to make sure no unwanted residue was drying on the surface.
So, here is how it looks today. From here on out, it will be varnish and set-up:
I always hang the fiddles in the dining room to dry, since we heat with wood, and that is where the woodstove is.
This is a pretty accurate view of the color, so far: I intend to use yellow varnish as my base coat(s) to produce a golden glow from within the color-coats.
There was a famous maker, years ago, (Otto Erdesz, 1917-2000) who often made top plates for violas and violins out of Douglas Fir. Professional players bought and played his instruments, and they are still being played today, although many classical players insist that European spruce is the only “proper wood” for an instrument soundboard. Frankly, I usually would have agreed: all my experience with Douglas Fir seemed to indicate that it would not be a very good choice, even though I have played one of his instruments, and it was excellent. So, until this instrument, I simply didn’t try it.
Early this winter, a friend gave me a load of clean, dry Douglas Fir firewood. I heat with wood, and we had all been told it would be a bad winter (it wasn’t) so I really appreciated the gift. As I split some of it, I noticed that, unlike most Douglas Fir, it had no twist at all, and split easily and cleanly. When I picked up a chunk and tapped it, it gave a very clear, bell-like ring. (Hah! That spells “time to try some fir!”)
So I found one of the few pieces long enough to use, and carefully split it into useable billets, then sawed a center-line to book-match a plate.
I have been using a pattern modeled after the 1735 “Plowden” Guarneri del Gesu, a lot, lately, so I installed blocks in the mold, bent the ribs, and got going!
I had one more piece of “scrap” of Oregon Big Leaf Maple, from the 5-string Double bass I built last year, too, and I was looking forward to making a fiddle out of it. I had already made one 5-string fiddle from scrap from the other side of the bass-back, (sold to a bluegrass fiddle player in Ohio) and it turned out very well, so I was anxious to get the “sister” instrument made.
Back Plate Arching nearly complete:
The neck actually came from a tree on my wife’s parent’s place. I got started on it, as well:
Beginning to cut out the scroll requires a lot of saw-cuts, to outline the actual curl of the scroll, and then to remove the waste wood, using either a saw or a gouge…I used the saw, in this case.
Then I use various gouges and chisels to complete the scroll and the inside of the pegbox.
After the scroll and pegbox are very close to complete, I will prepare and attach the fingerboard and shape the two as a unit. That hasn’t happened, yet, so the handle portion of the neck is still rough and untouched.
Completing the Front Plate
Meanwhile I completed the carving of the front plate, laid out and cut the f-holes and began the purfling. Cutting the purfling slots by hand on Douglas Fir is quite difficult, because the winter reeds are exceedingly hard, compared to the softer summer reeds, and the knife just “pops” over them so that it feels as though it is running over corrugated roofing. It took me much longer to purfle this plate than it usually does for a spruce plate. (Ah, well!Perhaps that is one reason so few use it!) But the tap-tones of this plate are exceptionally strong and clear: I still have high hopes for the power and tone of the resulting instrument.
Garland leveled and Front Plate installed!
(I neglected to get photos of the bass-bar process: it is also Douglas Fir, from the same billet. I will show it after I remove the mold…sorry.)
The graduations for the back plate are nearly complete, but today was a long day, and I will have to finish them tomorrow. So, here is where the progress stands, for tonight:
Tomorrow! (yeah, tomorrow!)
I hope to get the back plate completed tomorrow, except for the purfling, which will wait until after I install the plate. Then I will prepare the fingerboard and get it glued onto the neck, and I will feel as though I am “On the home stretch!” (But it won’t really be true: there still will be a great deal of work left to do, before it is anywhere close to completed.)
The last two commissions were a five-string on the original Oliver Pattern and a five-string on the slightly-wider Guarneri pattern. Both sounded great, and both customers are very happy. So that left me wondering which one to do next. The obvious answer: Both!
I’m trying a new neck and scroll design on the Guarneri model. I hope it works well, as I really like the graceful look.
The instrument on the left (modeled after the 1735 “Plowden” Guarneri, with modifications to acommodate five strings) is left-over Oregon Big Leaf maple from building a five-string double bass, last year (same as the Andy Pastor commission fiddle.)
The scroll, also Oregon Big Leaf Maple, is from a tree on the property where my wife grew up, as are the ribs. The back is from a tree on the next ridge of hills west: about ten miles by road, probably three miles in direct line-of-flight. (Same one from which the recent double bass was taken, as well as several other instruments I have made. The late Terry Howell, of Howell Tree Farm, gave me the entire log, so I have a good supply.)
I also decided to try an experiment: This will be the first time I have attempted a 5-string bluegrass fiddle with a belly of Douglas Fir, as opposed to Spruce. Otto Erdesz was famous for using it successfully in many of his instruments, so, when a friend gave me some very straight, split Douglas Fir, I decided to make the attempt, on the Guarneri model. It is quite dense compared to spruce, but it rings like a bell, when I tap it with my finger, so I think it will be good.
The back, ribs and scroll on the right-hand instrument above (the Oliver-model) are all from the tree on my Mother- and Father-in-law’s property. The belly, as usual, is Sitka Spruce.
So, that is where things stand, today:
Slow Start due to Repairs and other Responsibilities
This has been a slow start: 2021 saw me needing to repair my ancient bandsaw, and my drill press had succumbed to the misguided attention of a marauding mouse. (The little wretch had crawled up through the ventilation holes of the electric motor and chewed off all the insulation from about 4″ of wire!)
The bandsaw required disassembly and drilling out a worn, threaded hole, and retapping for a helicoil. The machine will probably outlast me, now.
The drill press motor had to be taken apart and a new wire soldered in place. (A friend did that one for me. I really lack confidence when it comes to electric motor repair.) Fortunately, the damage was limited to just that one wire. (Maybe the plastic insulation gave the mouse a belly-ache.)
At any rate, I now have both machines running again, and I was able to saw out the profiles for the remaining plates as well as drilling the pilot holes in each scroll.
I should be able to get more done, now. (Gotta prune the apple-trees, too… Spring is on the way!)
This is my original mold– my first five-string was built on this mold, as was the commissioned instrument from a year ago. I will not complete it before the end of this year, obviously, but it is on the way.
The neck and back are made of spalted, heavily flamed Big Leaf Maple, salvaged from the yard at the home where my wife grew up. Her mom and dad had the tree taken down a few years ago, and my son and I salvaged a little of it. The front plate is sitka spruce.
It will be a few weeks…and there is another coming right behind it, but on the Guarneri mold.
A couple of months ago, I received a phone call, and, glancing at the “caller-ID” thing, I thought, “I don’t know anyone in Ohio: this is probably spam!” But I cautiously answered, and was surprised to hear, “Um, hi! Yes, I was interested in a five-string fiddle…” (I instantly changed gears, mentally, and shifted from “Is this another spam-call?” mode, into “Yes!How can I help you?” mode!)
Turned out he specifically wanted a handmade,luthier-made acoustic five-string violin. I had a couple in stock, but he looked at the pictures and asked, “What else have you got?”
(Hmmm! Now what?)
“Well, I have one that I had begun, using scrap from the five-string double bass I just completed….” So I sent him pictures of the beginnings of an instrument:
There wasn’t a great deal to see, but he liked it and asked how long it would take to complete it. I guessed “at least a month,” and he said, “Fine! Send me pictures as it progresses!” And that was that!
So I sent photos and progress reports: he asked questions, and we chatted via e-mail and phone chat messages, during that month, during which he saw things like:
He was especially encouraged to see proof that I actually build my instruments from the raw wood, as he had already discovered that there are makers who put their label on other people’s factory-made instruments and claim they made them. (If someone can’t afford a handmade instrument, I willoffer the option to buy one purchased in the white, and finished in my shop, but I never put my personal label in such an instrument: I did notbuild it! My own work is all signed and numbered.)
And finally, the set-up instrument:
The Visit and Delivery
He was growing more and more attached to “his” instrument as it progressed, so, as it neared completion, he made plans to fly here to Oregon (with his family) to be the first to play it! This is what he encountered when he and his family arrived:
He brought his wife and two sons with him, and they patiently waited (From about 1 PM to 10 PM!) while he played ten of my violins, three of my violas, and, of course, the “prize five-string!” (I stillhave “Orange Blossom Special” racing through my head, today!) This is how the living room looked when they left! 🙂
He ultimately bought the five-string fiddle, packed it into a hard-shell case, and then he and his family headed off to the Pacific coast (the next morning) to hike around the Cannon Beach area, as well as Ecola State Park.
They found a little shop in Cannon Beach where he bought a stand for his new fiddle:
And then they flew home to Ohio! But He graciously took time to write a review, and allowed me to post it here, including his name!
Andy Pastor Review
I’m leaving this message of gratitude to Chet Bishop and his family for others to see and hopefully help them make a decision to purchase one of his fine instruments.
I purchased a five-string violin which he had just begun carving months ago and which became a commission violin for me. I flew from Ohio to his beautiful place in Oregon where I had the pleasure to meet Chet, his wife Ann, and his son Brian Bishop. By the way, Brian is a premier guitar luthier who had several guitars with him as well as guitars in local well-known music stores. His guitars sound better than any Martin, Taylor, or Gibson I have heard (attention to detail and work performed inside the body of his guitars sets them apart).
There is so much to say about a Chet Bishop violin and the experience, so I’ll make it bullet points:
The sound of a Chet Bishop violin is perfectly balanced on all strings. This is not easy to get a deep clear tone from a C string on an acoustic violin, but this is his specialty. No issue getting that rich sound out of the C string with my lighter weight carbon fiber Coda Bow Diamond GX or my Franz Winkler Pernambuco bow. No need for a heavy bow to get the C to ring!
The violin is handmade (not a kit) and he knows exactly where the wood used is from. He has specific wood he uses ( and showed me his supply) which I feel gives each violin its own unique and beautiful sound and, of course, look. The quality of the build process is fully under Chet’s control. (Unfortunately, there aremore than a few violin makers using pre-made “white” violin kits and selling them as hand-made. Be aware and do your investigation!)
The feel of the five-string Chet Bishop made violin is so similar to a four-string, it makes transitioning between a four and five-string violin easy. The string spacing and bridge/fingerboard arching are dialed-in, and his years of violin making are apparent.
The finish of my violin as well as all the other Chet Bishop violins that I had the pleasure to try is similar to the old Master violins from Italy. Cheap student violins all have that high glossed finish look, it’s hard to see the grain on the top of these foreign-made violins, and even harder to feel the ever-so-slight structure of the grain. Probably why these factory violins made in low-cost countries all sound the same; no real soul.
Attention to detail can be noticed at first glance, even by any non-musician. The unique purfling design on the back, the internal strengthening (used by the old master builders to make their instruments last hundreds of years), small unique features of the saddle and nut, the wood sealing and varnish process, cycloid arching of the back plate, just to list a few, all add to the quality and beauty. This detail will certainly allow the violin to actually improve over time (not that it needs to!!).
Then there is the experience of watching the violin get made. Chet provided daily progress photos and explanations, we communicated via text and sometimes email. This was very exciting. I know more about how a violin is made than I ever thought possible, at least without going to a violin-making school. I also got to know the luthier during this process, such a bonus to know your violin maker. He understood what music I played (in a band environment) and kept that in mind during the build process. (Although any of his violins could easily be (and are) top performers in any style: classical, jazz, country, bluegrass, spiritual, klezmer, Irish, Celtic….)
The benefit of visiting the violin maker and trying out the instrument cannot be overstated. Chet and his wife are extremely inviting people, as he said, “ordinary folk.” I probably tried out over 10 of his violins and violas, this was a real pleasure to hear each instrument and compare sounds to the five-string I purchased. Chet and his wife are so patient: I spent a full day with them (10hours). We did some minor adjustments to the five-string violin after I had played it: changed the chin rest, changed the e string, lowered the bridge a very slight amount, and a tiny soundpost move. He made sure everything felt perfect before I left. His wife made us some fantastic burritos for dinner, hot apple cider, and apple scones for snacks/dessert! As I said, very welcoming people, we had great conversation: Chet is extremely knowledgeable and I’m so grateful he shared some of this knowledge that day. Although these are truly the benefits of a visit, he has no issue shipping a violin, and I feel these minor adjustments could be handled remotely and/or by myself.
I’m including this last bullet point because… how many people can say they have a Sequoia tree on their property? He has at least two! (I got photos by both.) Chet is a wealth of knowledge about the area, I’m so thankful he suggested visiting Cannon Beach / Haystack Rock / Ecola State Park on the Pacific Ocean. This added to making the trip even more memorable. Even saw a herd of wild elk grazing just feet from me at one of the scenic views.
I hope this review not only expresses my gratitude to Chet Bishop and his family, but also provides assurance and guidance for anyone considering one of his fine instruments. He makes the whole violin-family of stringed instruments and his son, Brian Bishop, covers the family of guitars. Looking forward to another visit in the future. Truly an heirloom instrument!
Thank you, Chet!
Here is one of the “baby” Sequoias which Andy liked so much: My mother planted them 50+ years ago. 🙂 They are only 5 or 6′ in diameter.
I just began a new website for teaching-related articles, photographs, and videos. The Layman’s Institute will be at http://laymansinstitute.com and will have lots of teaching articles: whether math lessons, violin-making, or anything else.
No content is there, just yet: I will begin adding content in the next few days, I hope.