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:
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. 🙂
Upgrade to my brain (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Scroll with more cuts.
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.
There are folks who want a five-string fiddle, and who can’t justify the expense of a hand-made instrument, made by an American luthier. I completely understand that, so I am going to try an experiment of sorts: I bought two instruments in the white …unvarnished, incomplete, etc. One is a five-string violin (standard size), with a one-piece back, and the other is a 15″ 5-string viola.
The viola looks much larger than the violin in this photo, but, in reality, the body is 1-1/16″ longer than that of the violin, with a proportionately larger neck and scroll.
I can see some potential problems, and I will see whether I can correct them before completing the instruments. There are certain details necessary to a good instrument that have been overlooked in these two. Specifically, it is needful to arrange the locations of the pegs in such a way that the higher strings do not rub on the pegs that are lower in the box. Both of these instruments fail that test pretty badly, but other than that, they seem to be very well-made, if possibly a little heavy.
Up until now, I have only bought standard, four-string instruments-in-the-white, and they have all turned out quite well. I hope I can make these two turn out to be great instruments, too, but… as I said, this is an experiment, of sorts.
At any rate, I will go over them carefully to try and bring them up to my standards as far as those things go. The workmanship is very good, though: I hope they sound great. I guess we will have to wait and see.
Shop Instruments, as a Principle
The advantage of using an imported, unfinished instrument like this, is that it drastically reduces my labor investment, and I can pass the savings on to customers who want a good instrument, but may not want to spend so much.
I label my shop instruments as “Atelier Chez les Eveques“, (the Shop at the Bishops’ Place.) Unlike my handmade personal instruments, they are not signed or numbered. But they are good instruments, and all who have bought them have been well-satisfied.
I will show progress on these two instruments as time permits. (We have had a host of home-repairs to worry us, lately….)
It has been a frustrating series of weeks: all the usual responsibilities, house guests, etc., plus a few unexpected items. The lawn tractor suddenly quit mowing, though it ran fine. We narrowed it down to being a bad PTO clutch, so that is just another thing to take apart and replace. Guess that’s what happens when you use 30-year-old equipment. 🙂
Then, two days ago, my beloved better half, Ann, discovered that the side porch steps are in advanced stages of rot…so, today, we went and bought all the pressure-treated lumber to replace them. They, too, have been in place for over 30 years, so, I guess, they have served well.
Progress on the 5-String Fiddles
I did manage to make a little progress on some of the acoustic five-string fiddles I had begun, however:
All the linings are in place for two of the instruments (violin and the 14-7/8″ viola.)
The front and back plates are traced and cut out for both of those instruments.
The front plate graduations are complete for the 14″ viola, and
The f-holes are cut out on the 14″ viola, but not refined.
So, this is where things stand, at the moment:
Here is the “Strobelesque” garland with its front and back plates:
No carving at all has been done on the plates, and the Sitka Spruce front plate is still nearly an inch thick. I will plane it down before I begin arching, of course. I do like the look of the spalted maple back and ribs. This maple was from an old Big Leaf Maple tree on the property where Ann grew up. It had begun to show signs of decay, and was removed for safety’s sake. Too bad for the loss of the tree, but it is nice wood.
Here is the 14-7/8″ Viola garland with its front and back plates.
This one is my own design. In fact, it was the very first form I ever made, thinking I was just going to make a viola for my youngest son (whose name is on the form, along with the date: 1999.) As it happened, I discovered that lutherie is addictive, and I have been building instruments ever since. 🙂
The center-lines on both plates are ink, not a glue-line: this instrument boasts both a one-piece Spalted (Big-Leaf) Maple back plate (also from the tree at Ann’s childhood home) and a one-piece Sitka Spruce front plate.
Here is the progress on the 14″ Viola:
This one is my own design, too: it is the same length as a standard violin, but much wider in the lower bouts, and deeper in the ribs. It will be interesting to see how it works as a five-string fiddle. (This is a first.) This one has an Englemann Spruce front plate and a one-piece Big Leaf Maple back from a log I was given by Terry Howell, years ago.
I will post more reports as the work takes place. Feel free to contact me if you have questions.
In most of the members of the violin family, including the five-string variants) there are narrow strips of wood glued to the inside of the ribs, all around the edges, called linings. On some double basses the linings are actually on the outside of the ribs, as well as the inside, following the edge of each rib. The purpose is the same in either case: it is to strengthen the very fragile rib material as well as tripling or quadrupling the thickness of the gluing surface at the edge of the rib. This is so that the rib garland can be securely attached to the front and back plates, also making it possible to remove those plates without breaking the ribs, when repairs are needed.
Wood for linings
I like to use willow for my linings when it is available, because it is easy to bend and fit to the ribs, as well as being very easy to carve, when it is time to taper those linings, and make them fair into the inside surface of the rib structure. Many makers use spruce, and I have done so as well, but have decided that I prefer willow. In fact, when I can get it, I specifically prefer Weeping Willow above anything else I have tried.
So…I arrived home fairly tired this evening, but I fired up the glue-pot, and prepared to install some linings: You can see the center bouts on the right-hand instrument’s ribs are already in place, making the edge 3 mm thick, instead of barely 1 mm.
When I pre-form the linings, I begin by using my bandsaw to cut a “plank” of willow, 3 mm thick, then thinning it to a very consistent 2 mm thickness. I use a “wheel-style” marking gauge, set to 7 mm width, to deeply score the “plank” along one edge, then flip it over and score the opposing face, effectively cutting the rib free from the “plank.” Then all I have to do is bend those linings blanks around my bending iron, and produce a pile of “ready-to-use” linings for my violin ribs (see below.)
I use a small sharp knife and a tiny gouge to make a small mortise in the junction between blocks and ribs (12 places on each face of the garland.) I only use hot hide glue on instruments, but the hot hide glue cools and gels rather quickly, so I cut the pre-formed linings to the proper length, and fit all of them into the garland, dry. One by one, I then remove each lining, coat it liberally with hot hide glue, and quickly re-insert it into the tight-fitting place prepared for it. I pinch hard, with my left forefinger and thumb, to squeeze the joint tight, and then use my right hand to apply a spring clamp. I move over a half-inch, and repeat, until the whole lining is tightly secured with glue and clamps. The little spring-clamps will hold the freshly glued linings in place until the glue hardens.
The same principle works for larger instruments, but the ribs are bigger, and I use bigger clamps.
Anyway, that is all I accomplished this evening. Possibly tomorrow I will get the rest of the linings into the other instruments.
Once the linings are in place, the ribs are a good deal less fragile, and less prone to breakage. That is a relief, as they are really easy to break, without the linings.
The last time I presented anything about these instruments, I think it was on another site, so– here is how they looked at that time (earlier this week, perhaps.)
Blocks installed, and necks cut out.
In the above photo, all you can see is three violin forms, with blocks installed, and some of the wood that will go into each, including the necks. I already had a fourth instrument (a small viola) begun, which was not in the picture.
So, here is that 14″ 5-string viola, well on the way to completion, but still with a long way to go…as of today.
And, as promised, here is a progress report on the other three:
On this instrument, the ribs are installed, but no linings as yet, and, while the Maple and Spruce have been selected for the front and back plates, they are essentially untouched. The neck has been traced out and the outline cut, but it, too, has far to go.
For this instrument, a five-string fiddle being built on the form of the 1735 “Plowden” Guarneri del Gesu, I had a top plate left from a previous project on the same form, so I opted to use it, with the spalted Big Leaf Maple back and ribs. No linings, yet, but they have been bent and are ready to install. The neck is from a different Big Leaf Maple, which came from the yard of the property where my wife grew up.
Henry (Senior) would not have recognized this form, but it was loosely derived from the form in Henry Strobel’s book, “Violin-making, Step-by-Step”…so it is called “Strobelesque.” In this photo, the glue was not dry on the treble-side upper rib, but I didn’t want to wait, so I took the photo with the clamps still in place. Again, no linings, yet, but they are bent and ready to install. Here, too, I had a partially completed top plate, and elected to use it. The back and sides are heavily spalted Big Leaf Maple, and the neck is also Big Leaf Maple, though from a different tree…the one in my Father-in-Law’s yard. A few years ago, they decided that tree had enough rot to be dangerous, so they took it out, but it provided wood for a number of instruments.
My son Brian Bishop builds high-quality guitars, and managed to salvage several guitar sets beside the various violin and viola sets I saved. I got one cello set out of it, too…it will become a cello for my beloved wife.
I am grateful to the patient staff at NameCheap, who walked me through to a satisfactory conclusion to the problem I have been having with this website.
I had inadvertently set upwhat amounted to a continuous loop, whereby the posts went to the page to which they were originally assigned, but then were redirected to another page, and back again…at least, that is how I now understand the error.
At any rate, now, when a visitor opens the site, they see the home page, and then can see at the top of the page an item called “Blog Posts.” And, there they are!
So…you can expect to see more progress reports and photos, as the days go by.
I should have a 14″ five-string viola nearly finished in the next week, or so, as well as good progress on a 14-7/8″ five-string viola and two five-string violins (fiddles).
On the other hand, we have company coming next week, so there is much to do in preparation for that visit, so perhaps it will take a little longer. Either way, the whole website is now functional, so I am happy.
I get a fair amount of demand for five-string fiddles; in my case, that means a five-string instrument with the same footprint and scale-length as a violin, but with the added C-string, so that it carries the full range of both a violin and a viola. I have mastered this genre to the point that the low end of my five-string fiddles sound like a good, small viola, and the high end sounds like a good violin…and the neck width is just barely wider than that of a violin (25 mm) so that it plays like a violin.
Teachers like them, because they can teach the viola part or the violin part, without having to change instruments.
One of the beauties of a five-string fiddle is that, because it is non-traditional, I am not under the burden of using traditional woods, so I am free to experiment, and, as it turns out, there are other woods that work quite well: I have made them of domestic woods; Big Leaf Maple/Sitka Spruce (or Englemann Spruce), but I have also used Koa/Sitka Spruce, Myrtle/Port Orford Cedar, and all these combinations worked quite well. I will soon try a five-string fiddle of Bubinga and Sitka Spruce and am open to other experiments.
I will continue to build and sell five-string fiddles either on speculation or on commission, as the demand increases.
I am beginning to hear a call for Five-String Violas as well. These have the same range of pitch as a five-string fiddle, but the physical instruments are whatever size viola is preferred by the customer. Though I have already built several sizes, until I get an increased demand, these will likely remain as custom commissions, not just built on speculation, such as how I currently produce the five-string fiddles.
The practical difference, then, between a five-string fiddle and a five-string viola, is that the (usually larger) five-string viola will usually have deeper, richer, louder tone, just because it has a larger resonating body, both of air and wood. But not everyone can comfortably play a larger instrument, so this is a matter of personal choice.
Five-string cellos are not a new thing. The cello-piccolo and the cello da spalla have been extant for centuries, and music has been specially written for both. I hope to see a rising demand for these instruments, but, for the moment, they are a rarity. I can build both, and hope to soon have some to display here, but, for the moment, I do not. I have had customers ask about them, but usually, it was just an idea they had, and they were not prepared to place an order.
Five-String Double Basses
Five-string double basses are increasingly common, as people want the freedom to reach for lower bass notes, and not have to have a “B-Extension” added to their bass (which can also be done, of course, but it does add length to the bass scroll, and an additional source of fragility.)
I build an occasional double bass, but they are a lot of work, and they completely monopolize my small workspace when they are a work in progress; so I am more likely to default to smaller instruments. There is a special thrill, however, in building a huge instrument, seeing the beauty of the beast, and feeling the floor shake when I draw out long bass notes with the bow. I can certainly understand why players fall in love with the double bass, and especially the five-string double bass, with the lowest-of-the-low B-string at their beck and call.
Violins have been codified in terms of form, size, materials and tuning for over 400 years. Orchestras have 30+ violins, between which the untrained observer would have a difficult time distinguishing, let alone identifying as having come from a particular maker’s hand. And yet experts can frequently tell at a glance when, where and by whom that violin was made. And ALL of them have four strings (count ‘em): G, D, A, and E. No five-string violins in the orchestra!
The violas, too, have their four strings, always at C, G, D and A. They are less tightly defined, however and are all over the board in terms of size and shape. Some are so large that most normal-sized people can’t play them, and some are not much larger than a violin. But they all have those four strings, tuned exactly a perfect fifth below those of the violin. No five-string violas, either.
NON-traditional is OK, too.
Really, a viola works best at what it does, and a violin works best at what it does, as specialized tools…but when they are so close in size—indeed, sometimes overlapping—what prevents us from having one instrument that covers the full range of both? A five-string fiddle?
Well…that isn’t as easy as it sounds. The physical size of a violin is barely big enough to really produce the open G-string tone, so simply adding a low C-string will not work well…and the viola is almost too big to make good high-pitched notes, so adding a high E to a larger viola is usually not very satisfactory either.
Five-string fiddles specifically designed for five-strings
But it CAN work…with some tweaking. Honestly, probably a five-string fiddle would work best in the size of a small viola—say, 15”—or even 15.5”. But country fiddlers and bluegrass fiddlers, who are waking up to the desire for a fifth string, and a lower range, don’t want a “five-string viola”–they want their instrument to fit in a regular fiddle case—not a viola case. They want a handmade five-string bluegrass fiddle.
What has worked for me, so far, is to maintain the “footprint” of a regular violin, but increase the depth of the body a little; lengthen the pegbox, obviously, for the extra peg and string; thin the plates just a little more, and deepen the bassbar a bit. I may try widening the center bouts just a little, too, sometime. But for now, I have a working model, with which everyone seems very pleased: it is very easy to play, has good balance across all five strings, a big deep bass end on the C string, and clear, strong high notes on the E string.
So, when a fiddler wants to be able to go low and growly, he/she can do so. When he/she needs a high end for some special sizzle, it is there. All in one fiddle case. A five-string fiddle case.