And, the Finish!

This is how a violin is completed:

Last time I posted, I had just completed the commissioned five-string fiddle, up to and including the sealer.

Sealed five string fiddle handmade in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop
Sealed instrument, Front View
back view of sealed five string fiddle, handmade in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Sealed instrument, Back View.


The “magic” of the sealer was that it caused the mineral ground to disappear forever. The instrument instantly went from stark chalk-white to a natural wood color, and the mineral will never be visible again. I always enjoy that transformation.

The Varnish, on the other hand, is a series of relatively small changes, wherein the violin not only achieves the color we want. Furthermore, the increasing clarity and depth of the varnish gives the impression of being able to “see into the wood.”

I always begin with a couple of coats of deep yellow or amber varnish, as an undercoat which will shine through the later color coats.

Yellow First

Here is the violin after the two coats of yellow varnish:

Yellow varnish base coat on a commissioned 5-string fiddle handmade in Oregon by artisanal luthier, Chet Bishop
Front View, with Yellow base coat.
Yellow base coat varnish on treble-side of commissioned 5-string fiddle, handmade in Oregon by artisanal luthier, Chet Bishop.
Yellow base coat, Treble Side View.
Yellow base coat on back side of 5-string commissioned instrument, handmade in Oregon by artisanal Luthier, Chet Bishop.
Back View with Yellow base coat.

Color Coats

Next, I bagan layering the color coats, building to the look I planned. (Each “coat, in reality is usually two coats, applied in quick succession. There were about eight total color coats, but I will call them “first through fourth.”)

First color coat on front of 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop
First Color Coat, Front
First color coat on treble side of commissioned 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier, Chet Bishop
Treble Side, with First Color Coat.
First color coat on back of commissioned 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier, Chet Bishop
First Color Coat, Back
First color coat on bass side of commissioned 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Bass Side, with First Color Coat.

This maple is really beautiful wood. I wish I had a lot more of it, but, sadly, I only was able to salvage a little of the tree from which it originated. The “donor tree” was removed from the property where my wife and her siblings grew up. It had finally rotted and was becoming dangerous, so they removed it. But the wood is gorgeous. You can see the stump in this article….

Continuing color coats

As you can see, the yellow base coat is still showing through pretty strongly. That is good, but I still wanted to move the color toward a deep reddish brown,  with the golden yellow shining through. Therefore… I needed more color coats!

Second Color Coat on 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop
Second Color Coat, Front
Second Color coat on back of 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop
Back, with Second Color Coat.

The color is headed in the right direction, but still needs to be deeper. I will add extra color in any areas that should be darker.

Third Color Coat, front side of 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop.
Third Color Coat, Front.
3rd color coat on back or 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop
Oregon Big Leaf Maple Back, withThird Color Coat.

I was getting pretty close to correct, so I began taking the instrument out into natural light, to check the color there.

Fourth color coat on five string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop.
Fourth Color Coat, Front.
4th color coat treble side of 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop
Treble Side with Fourth Color Coat.
4th color coat, back side of five string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop.
Back, with Fourth Color Coat.
4th color coat bass side of commissioned 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop.
Bass side, Fourth Color Coat.

The color was pretty close to what I had hoped to produce. Therefore, I felt that I was ready to  reinstall the fingerboard, Afterward, I would hand-rub the varnish to a good polish.  Finally, I allowed it to hang in my dining room and cure a little more fully.


First I carved the underside of the fingerboard to remove extra mass. This affects the sound, as well as the feel of the instrument. (Extra, unnecessary mass tends to absorb vibration rather than resonate.)

Underside of fingerboard
Underside of fingerboard beginning. It was fully carved and smoothed before installation.

Then I carved a tiny notch, dead center on the upper end of the backside of the fingerboard, where it would contact the neck. After carving the notch in the fingerboard, I drilled a shallow 1/16″ hole in the neck, to accomodate a tiny nail.

That nail is temporarily installed, to serve as a guide and an anchor while installing the fingerboard. The hide glue is very slippery while it is still hot, and liquid. There is a tendency for the fingerboard to “drift” under the clamps, before the glue can gel.

The notch in the fingerboard fits on the nail. The nail, then, serves as a temporary stop, so the fingerboard stays put. (I remove the nail after the glue has set.)

Fingerboard installed on 5-string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Fingerboard installed. Notice the tiny nail used to temporarily position the fingerboard.

Beginning Set-up

After a few more days, I began set-up. First, I installed the soundpost, saddle, nut, and end button. Next, I fit the pegs, and was ready for the bridge and the strings.

Nut installed on 5-string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Nut installed: it will be filed lower before installing strings.
Saddle installed, still requiring final smoothing and retouch.

You can see in the above photo that the varnish was still very soft. Everywhere I touched it, it also resulted in my leaving fingerprints. I had to “French-polish” the whole instrument afterward, and let it hang until the varnish was harder. Then it would be easier to handle. (But it was good to have the set-up nearing completion, too.)

Completed five-string fiddle ready for retouching.
Completed five-string fiddle ready for varnish retouch.


After the varnish had hardened a little more, I then installed the pegs.

Pegs installed, front view of five string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop,
Pegs installed, Front view.
Bass side with pegs, Five string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop.
Bass side view with Pegs.
Back side of five string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Back Side View with Pegs.

Final Set-up

I installed the Bridge and Strings and Tailpiece, and then the fiddle was complete. I still let it hang in my dining room for a week or so, too, so that the varnish would continue to harden without damage.

competed 5-string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Hanging up to cure.

Final photos

Final front
Final look at the Front before delivery.
Close-up look at the f-hole area.
Close-up of the f-hole on the Oregon Douglas Fir Front.
Bass side final look before delivery.
Bass side: final look before delivery.
Close up of the Scroll.
Close up of the Scroll.
back side of five string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Final look at the back of the fiddle before delivery.

I prepared the instrument’s documents (Bill of Sale and Provenance Document) and afterward, when the varnish had cured for another two weeks, the customer took delivery at the end of July, 2023.

He was delighted, and played the instrument for a long time at my house. Further (which is a joy to me,) he has contacted me since then, expressing his continued joy in the new fiddle. That is the kind of thing that makes this work a great pleasure.


Thanks for looking.


Getting “Closure!”

Setting the Neck

Front plate installed on five string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Artisanal Luthier, Chet Bishop.
Front, with rib garland, back, neck and fingerboard, nearly ready for assembly.

I failed to take photos of the actual neck-setting procedure on this violin. (Sorry.)  I will link to a series of photos from a previous instrument.  That one had a major “flesh-wound” mishap. (I accidentally thrust a gouge through my left thumb…but it does include the neck-setting process. And the wound healed!)

This one went very smoothly: I think it took less than an hour to achieve a perfect fit. Then I removed the interior mold, and installed the back linings, so that the corpus was complete and ready to receive the back plate.

Installing the back linings on a 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal Luthier.
Back linings, installed on an earlier instrument. Once again, I forgot to take pictures.

Completing the Back Plate

I also had to complete the back plate. I had already completed the outside arching, and most of the interior carving, as well. Still had to finish scraping the interior dead-smooth, then install the purfling, and the label.

Imterior of back plate of five string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal Luthier.
Completing the interior of the back plate.


Beginning the purfling weave on the back plate of a 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal Luthier.
Beginning the purfling weave on the back plate.


Partway done with back plate purfling on 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal Luthier.
Partway done with back plate purfling.


Completing the purfling weave on a 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal luthier.
Completing the purfling weave inlay.

Once the plate was truly complete, I added the label, and installed the back plate on the corpus.

Installing the back plate on a 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal luthier.
The spool clamps hold the entire perimeter while the glue sets. the spring clamp holds the neck heel and button tightly in place.
Back plate installed, on a 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier, Chet Bishop.
Back plate installed: notice that the button is far oversized. (See next photo.)
Side view of oversized button on a 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier, Chet Bishop.
The back button is deliberately left oversize, to be carved to final shape as a unit with the neck heel.
Button and heel carved to match, on 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier, Chet Bishop.
Neck heel and button carved to match.

Preparing for the Varnish

I removed the fingerboard, to give me easy access to all parts of the front of the fiddle. Notice that the fingerboard had only been held by three “dots” of hide glue. even so, the glue took off a microscopically thin layer of ebony when I removed the fingerboard. (That is what the “black stuff” is.)

5-string fiddle in the white, handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal Luthier.
Fiddle “completed in the white.” Ready for all varnish-prep work.

Edgework and Varnish Prep

All final shaping has to be completed at this point: any bumps, humps and hollows have to be carefully addressed, using a sharp scraper, before the mineral ground is applied. The mineral ground is a suspension of extremely fine particles that “plug” the pores in the wood, so that the varnish does not penetrate deeply and deaden the sound.

I apply it wet, with a brush, and vigorously rub it into the wood with my bare fingers, then rub off as much of the excess material left on the surface as I can. It is not supposed to be “on” the surface, so much as “in” the surface of the wood.

Wet mineral ground on 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier, Chet Bishop.
Front side, with wet mineral ground.

The wet mineral ground temporarily darkens the wood, but, as it dries, it turns stark white.

Dry mineral ground on 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal luthier.
Dry mineral ground.

The next step is always pretty amazing: when I brush on the sealer, it surrounds all the “white” particles in the wood, and they become transparent. Look at the “before and after” photos of the back plate, as the sealer is applied:

Back plate of five string fiddle with dry mineral ground. Handcrafted in Oregon, by Chet Bishop, artisanal luthier.
Back plate with dry mineral ground.
Back plate with sealer on 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal luthier.
Same plate with sealer applied.

From this point forward, it is just a matter of applying numerous coats of varnish, and adjusting the color as the process progresses. Furthermore, I want all the parts to “fit together” in terms of color. (You can see that there is a difference between the front and back color, for example.)

Next time, we will talk about color varnish coats.

Thanks for looking.



More Progress on a Commissioned 5-String Fiddle

Progress Report: 5-String Fiddle

When I last posted, it was to explain my neck and scroll procedure. Before that, I had left the project with both plates partially carved.  The garland was complete, but with linings on the front side only.

Front Plate Procedure

So, moving forward, the next thing was to complete the front plate,

front plate
Douglas Fir Front plate outer arching nearly completed

Once the arching was nearing correct values, I carved most of the interior and then began laying out f-holes and purfling lines. The Douglas Fir is extremely difficult to work with, because the winter reeds are incredibly hard, while the summer reeds are nearly as soft as spruce… so the knife tends to follow the winter reed, instead of your intended path, making it very difficult to cut a smooth line.

beginning to carve the interior
Beginning to carve the interior of the Front Plate. This part was not too hard.
checking the depth
Checking the depth of the hollow. There is still work to do on the outside, so I have to be careful.

Purfling Procedure

rough purfling due to hard fir sound plate
Rough beginning for purfling and sound-holes. 

It was discouraging seeing how rough my beginning looked. But, as things progressed, I was able to clean up my lines a little and they began to look more acceptable:

Inner line of purfling completed.
Inner line of purfling completed.

And then, The outer purfling. I was being careful to not inlay the purfling too deeply, for fear of causing problems, but that meant the purfling did not want to stay in the slots by itself, while the glue set. So I had to clamp it down until the hot hide glue gelled and set up.

clamping purfling while glue sets.
Clamping purfling while glue sets.

But it looked pretty good after I planed it all flush with the Douglas Fir.

Double purfling on Douglas Fir Soundboard
Outer line of purfling copmpleted. Notice the pilot holes for the f-holes have been drilled.

When the interior and exterior were correct, I could finish cutting out the f-holes.

Beginning to cut out f-holes for a 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Beginning to cut out f-holes.
F-holes completed but rough
F-holes completed but rough. as the next few days went by, I kept returning to the f-holes with small files and perfecting the shapes.

I forgot to take pictures of the sequence of steps installing the bassbar. I constructed it of Douglas Fir, to match the top plate, and chalk-fit it to the correct location inside the plate. After the glue was dry I shaped it to the correct height, thickness and curvature. 

(There are a couple of links in the above paragraph to other builds, where I remembered to take pictures,,,sorry for the inconvenience!)

Then, after completing the inside scraping and edge preparation, I installed the front plate, using hot hide glue and spool clamps.

Front plate installed, with neck, fingerboard and back plate for 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Front plate installed, with neck, fingerboard and partially completed back plate.

Next time, I will show the procedures for setting the neck, completing the back plate and closing the corpus.

Thanks for looking!



A Custom 5-String Fiddle Progress Report

My Neck and Scroll process

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.

Here is what it looks like, using the current commissioned instrument as an example:

Five string scroll blank, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier
Five String Scroll blank, laid out for carving.
scroll blank lyout for five string fiddle handmade in Orgeon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Volute and pegbox layout.
Cutting scroll outlines for five string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregong by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Cutting tangents to the scroll curves.
Cutting volute on 5-string fiddle scroll handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Cutting the volute lines, to remove the scrap wood.
Scroll blank for 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
The resulting scroll blank still needs more tangents cut.
Five string scroll in progress, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
This is how the final tangents look. (Notice, too, an “error” pilot hole. It will be plugged befor the real peg holes are drilled.)

Then I carefully cut away the waste wood from the center area of the scroll, using small gouges.

carving a five string fiddle scroll
Using a small gouige to remove the rough wood from around the scroll “eye.”
carving a five string fiddle scroll for a five-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Undercutting the turns of the scroll, using a small curved gouge.
rough-carved scroll
Rough carved pegbox and scroll, front view.
Scroll in progress for a five string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon, by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Rough-carved scroll and pegbox from side and back.
back view of scroll for a five-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Closer view of rough-carved back of scroll.
Side view of five string fiddle scroll in progress.
Treble-side view of rough-carved scroll. (Notice that the “error” hole has been plugged.)
Bass side of five string fiddle scroll in progress,
Bass side of rough-carved scroll.

Installing the Fingerboard

Once the scroll is close enough to correct that it will not be changing much, I trim off the excess wood from the sides of the “handle-portion” of the neck, and temporarily install the fingerboard.

scroll with fingerboard
Fingerboard temporarily installed and being shaped along with the neck.
shaping fingerboard and neck on a five string fiddle by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Shaping the fingerboard and neck, and perfecting the scroll.

The next step is to install the neck into the neck-block on the instrument.

We will talk about that later.


Thanks for looking.

New Commissioned Five String Fiddle On the Way!

New Commission!

Unusual  Woods

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.)

Customer Preferences:

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, the next 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!

Which Mold?

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 local wood, 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.

Maple and spruce for five string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier
“Fiddle in the rough!”

Here is a closer picture of the maple:

Heavily Spalted and Heavily Flamed Maple for five string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, luthier.
Heavily Spalted and Heavily Flamed Maple

I book-matched the spruce, by cutting a single billet in two equal halves and gluing them together to make the front plate.

Douglas Fir for five String bluegrass fiddle, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Douglas Fir, cut and ready to joint and glue the Center seam

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.

scroll billet for new five string bluegrass fiddle, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Scroll profile cut out, and pilot holes drilled.

Mold Preparation

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.)

wood for new five-string bluegrass fiddle, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Back plate in progress, blocks in the mold, and the shapes traced from the template.

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:

Ribs for new five string bluegrass fiddle, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Rib-stock, sawn and thinned: ready to be cut to size and bent.

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 other side. 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.

Wood for new five string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Bookmatched top plate, neck and back billets in progress, and rib samples, cut to size.

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 were iron.)

(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:

ribs installed for a new 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Center and Upper bout ribs installed, using hot hide glue and clamps.

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.

All ribs installed on new 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
All the ribs are installed, but still need to be trimmed, before installing the linings.

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.

Linings installed in new 5-string Bluegrass fiddle, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop. Luthier.
Front view of linings clamped in place.
Garland with linings installed, for 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Side view of lining clamps and rib garland.

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.

Completed garland and billet for front plate for 5-string bluegrass fiddle, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Garland and Front plate billet cut to shape.
New 5-string bluegrass fiddel in progress, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop Luthier.
And, that is the progress, so far!

Thanks for looking! I will try to keep everyone posted as to progress.

Lutherie Books Available

Lutherie Books in General

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.)

Building an Oliver Five String Fiddle

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

(Cover Photo)

The Journeys of the Swan

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.

The Journeys of the Swan
(Cover Photo)




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!

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.


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.


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.