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.
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.
Gotta have a stand for the bass…can’t let it just lie around the house.
Heavy base-plate adds stability for the five-string double bass.
Travel Case Coming!
The next project has got to be a travel case for this bass. A “Travel-bass” with a removable neck is less than optimal without a case in which to travel. And such cases don’t seem to be readily available for reasonable prices.
So, it is back to the drawing-board for me. 🙂
Probably looking at a foam-core fiberglass case. Shouldn’t be too much harder than building a boat. 🙂
I began to build a bass bow! but other things intervened, and I had to set it aside for a bit. I posted about it back then on my other website: Bass Bow Beginning
But then I got another little block of time, and I made more progress. That was fine, but it was still not terribly high-priority, so it was again set aside while I did what life demanded. (I had gall-bladder surgery somewhere around that time…kinda captures the attention somehow… I had posted about that progress, and the surgery, as well. But it really set me back as far as productivity goes. Sigh…) Bass Bow Progress
Annnd, as luck would have it, the gall-bladder surgery disturbed the existing scars from bowel surgery four years earlier, so I ended up with three hernias along the old scar, (sigh…) and was back in the hospital again for hernia repair. (Getting reaalllly tired of this game!)
But now… Everything seems to be healed up and I am once again productive, at one thing or another. 🙂
Completing a Bass Bow
I built my second upright bass, a five-string, 5/8-size double bass with a removable neck for safe transport, and I was struggling to adjust the sound. The bow I had was annoyingly cheap, and soft, and the hair as fine as I would expect on a violin bow… so it was frustrating, and I kept thinking, “I need a better bass bow!” So, the time had come!
I knew where the Hickory bow was, which I had begun years before, and most of the things I had bought to go with it, so I got moving on it. I finished inlaying the second gold star on the side of the frog, cut gold Mother-of-pearl for the slide and the dot on the end of the adjuster screw, and started on a ferrule.
All you bowmakers are already shaking your heads, because you know (as I did not know, that I should have built the ferrule first, and then made the frog to fit the ferrule, instead of the other way around. It is much simpler to carve hardwood to match an existing metal structure, than to bend and braze (that’s what silver-solder is, technically) metal together in an attempt to match an existing wooden shape. (Ah, well, never let it be said that I passed up an opportunity to learn things the hard way…)
Anyway…the ferrule was a real pain to make, because I failed to do it first. The under-slide, by comparison, was a piece of cake.
I had to make a new metal bow-tip, as I had accidentally made the original one a tiny bit too small. Also, I had chosen to use stainless steel, because it was cheap, easily available, and very durable. (Another beginner’s error: Yes, all of the above is true, but it is also much harder to cut, solder, file, and drill holes in than silver would have been.)
At any rate, I got back on the project, and in a day or so, had what looked like a promising bow! But I couldn’t find the hair I had bought. (I remember seeing it, and I remember putting it somewhere so I’d be sure to find it again. Must have been a really special place…I have no idea where it went.)
I looked and looked for the hair I had bought, but had no luck: I finally decided to quit messing around, and just order more hair. Usually, there are specialist suppliers I would patronize, and I prefer to do so, but they all would take a week to ten days to deliver: so I ordered through Amazon, and had it the next evening! (Amazing!)
While I was waiting, I added the leather thumb-pad and the wire windings.
And…that is what the new bow looks like!
And it Works!
I am grateful to be able to say, it works well! I get better tone and more volume with this bow than I did with the cheap student bow I already had.
Undoubtedly, a bow made of Hickory cannot be expected to match a good bow made of Ipé wood, let alone one made of Pernambuco. But this bow is quite satisfactory, and I feel pretty good about the project as a whole. I may try making another bow of Ipé, or Bois d’Arc, though, before I attempt a bow of Pernambuco.
I begin with yellow varnish for a base coat at least…sometimes two or three coats to get it even all over, as some areas soak it up rapidly, and look “dry”. though they have the same amount of varnish.
After the base coat is dry, I rub it down with fine sandpaper, just to remove any bits that stick up–whether dust, debris, wood fibers that raised up earlier…whatever is sticking up needs to be flattened, or there will be a “cone” of varnish growing around it with each coat.
if I am going to do any “wear” or “antiquing,” I need to begin thinking of it now. It will affect how much color I apply to what areas, as well as whether I intend to add “dirt” in wear areas.
If I have induced the type of wear that involves “scratched areas” or “dents”, I apply them now, and rub dark pigment into those discontinuities, to imitate dirt in old scratches on old instruments. Then I rub off any excess pigment, so that the dark color only remains in the low areas of the “distress.” This would also be when I apply “dirt” in wear areas, where grain is raised and where a player’s clothes or hands would typically wear off the original varnish.
Next I begin applying darker colored varnish in the areas where least wear would occur (Or, of course, if no “antiquing” is planned, I apply the darker varnishes over the entire instrument except the “handle” area of the neck, which is left bare until the very end. I sand between coats, using 400-grit paper.
As the color builds, I have to watch, and make a decision as to when to stop: I do not want the grain to be obscured, but I do want enough varnish thickness to provide a moisture barrier against sweat, etc.
When I finally decide (usually after six or more coats) that the color is acceptable, I give it two more coats of clear varnish, to deepen the sheen and to protect the colored varnish from damage.
Finally, with the varnish complete, I allow it to dry thoroughly, then I can begin final fitting and set-up.
So, since we are effectively at step “zero”, and the last time you saw the instrument it had only the rosin sealer coat applied,
The first thing was to wash down the sealer coat with alcohol to remove any excess rosin from the surface. I wanted the rosin in the wood, not “on” it. Then I applied a full coat of yellow varnish. The result is always a little disconcerting, as it is veryyellow after that first coat. But the yellow mellows and calms down under the subsequent coats of colored varnish, and becomes the “inner glow” that shows through the darker varnish.
At any rate, here are several pictures of the yellow varnish:
And, that is pretty much what the base coat looks like. Step one is complete!
I chose to add a second coat of yellow to the sides, back and neck, but began adding color to the front, in order to balance the front color with the rest of the instrument.
About this time, a friend in Australia, who is a great bass maker, contacted me to point out very kindly that I had made my fingerboard too flat for a five-string bass. (Well, rats!) So I had to make a new fingerboard with the correct radius for playing a five-string double bass with a bow.
Here is the side view with the old fingerboard:
And here it is with the new one!
Without that tighter radius, it would have been next to impossible to avoid playing two strings at once. I am very grateful that my friend alerted me to my error before I had completed the bass. Not being a player opens me up to some “sins of ignorance” that a player would notice immediately. He had also pointed out that I had made the upper end of the Fingerboard unnecessarily wide, so the new one is narrower…but that meant re-carving the neck to match the new board.
The neck feels better to my hand, now that it is narrower and a little thinner.
I decided to go ahead and fit the endpin assembly as well, before pressing on with final color coats. I had a double bass reamer made for me by a friend, about 2006, and I made a shaper for myself about that same time. In both cases, the occasion was the building of my first double bass.
I had hoped to make an Ipé endpin plug, to match the rest of the fittings, but since I wasn’t sure either that I was able to do so, or that I would have time, I went ahead and purchased an endpin assembly with a plug made of Indian Rosewood, and it turned out that the color was so similar that I gave up the idea of hand-turning one of Ipé wood.
Final Color Coats
Then I sanded down the whole bass, and re-touched the whole bass, adding color in areas that I felt were too light, and filling in places where the previous coats had not been thick enough. when that was dry, I gave a second color-coat to the entire bass. This will be the final color coat, though I intend to add at least one clear coat, and probably two. The clear coats deepen the sheen of the varnish and make it look more transparent. while actually adding very little to the thickness of the varnish film. They also protect the color coats against premature wear.
I really like the deep amber color that is developing in the bass. The clear coats will accentuate it, but not make it much darker.