Finishing Procedure for an Oliver Five String Fiddle

Starting With Bare Wood

Last time, I gave a preview of some of the varnish procedure.

But, to be more specific, let’s walk through the varnishing process:

Bare wood front of five string handmade bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop
Bare wood, front view
Bare wood back of five string handmade bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop
Bare wood, back view

Peparing for Varnish

First, I removed the fingerboard to give me access to every square milimeter of the outside of the instrument. Next, I used low-angle light, to cast dark shadows so that I could see all the discontinuities, humps and hollows. Then, I gently scraped all the surfaces to remove all of those discontinuities.

Finally, I was ready for the varnish procedure:

Five string fiddle ready for finishing, handmade in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop
Bare wood, scraped and ready for finish

Mineral Ground to Close the Pores

To begin with, I used a suspension of fine particles of gypsum in either water or coffee, to form a mineral ground.  First, I brushed the mixture onto all the outside surface except the handle area of the neck, Then, using my fingers, I rubbed the mixture into the wood, so as to fill the natural pores wtih “nano-particles” of the gypsum.

After the mixture dries, the instrument looks chalk-white, and the mineral ground obscures the wood grain.

Front view of five string fiddle in gypsum, ready for varnishing.
Dry Gypsum, Front View
Side view of five string fiddle in dry mineral ground
Side View, Dry Gypsum ground.
five string fiddle back in dry mineral ground
Back view, Dry Gypsum ground
Five String scroll in dry Mineral Ground
Scroll with Dry Gypsum ground

Then, I used 400-grit sandpaper to very lightly rub off any excess dry gypsum, which still left the violin looking stark-white, as the gypsum had filled the pores of the wood.

Obviously, that (mineral ground) stage of the process looks pretty awful. but the next step (sealer application) always feels like “magic” to me. The sealer makes the mineral ground permanently “disappear!”


For the last ten years, or so. I have used a sealer which is simply a thin solution of rosin in alcohol. Sometimes, I use turpentine instead of (or in addition to) the alcohol. Either way, the solvent carries the rosin into the pores, surrounding the particles of gypsum, and thereby rendering the particles tranparent. (However, on this fiddle, I chose to use alcohol as the solvent.)

Front of five string fiddle with rosin sealer applied
Front view with sealer
side view with sealer
Side View With Sealer
back view with Sealer
Back View With Sealer
Scroll with Sealer
Scroll With Sealer

Obviously, the mineral ground has done its work, plugging the pores against penetration by varnish. However, it has also become permanently invisible.

NOW we Varnish!

When I began making violins, I was using oil varnishes. Later, I switched to spirit varnishes. Today, I am still using a spirit varnish.

The main chemical difference between the two is that an oil varnish is composed of a mixture of a drying oil and a resin of some kind. The varnish-maker cooked the oil and resins together at a high heat, thereby forming a polymer, which is no longer either oil or resin. It does not dry by evaporation so much as by a continuation of the poymerization process, and by “off-gassing” the volatile portions left in the mix.

Varnish makers prepare the spirit varnishes, on the other hand, by dissolving one or more resins in a solvent. Incidentally, the solvent is usually, (but not always) alcohol. When the solvent evarporates, the resin (or resins) remain(s) in and on the wood, to finish hardening. (The mineral ground helps  to prevent deep penetration of the varnish into the wood. This is desireable because the varnish-saturated wood does not vibrate the same in comparison to the unsaturated wood, and it can thereby dampen the sound.)

I always begin with a yellow varnish, so that the yellow base coats will “shine through” any thin areas of the darker vanish, providing a reflective “glow” from within.

Yellow Varnish Base Coats

Here is the fiddle with two coats of yellow varnish:

Two coats yellow varnish on a handmade bluegrass five string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop
Front View, two coats Yellow
Treble side view five string fiddle 2-coats yellow varnish
Side View, Two Coats Yellow
Back view 5-string handmade bluegrass fiddle with two coats yellow varnish, handcrafted in Oregon by luthier Chet Bishop
Back view with two coats yellow varnish
5-string bluegrass fiddle scroll with two coats of yellow varnish; handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier, Chet Bishop.
Scroll with two coats yellow

The grain begins to become more visible with thje addition of the varnish. There is a temptation to stop early, because the grain becomes highly visible after about three or four coats of varnish. But it will look better with more.

Building the Color

I began deepenind the color by simply adding a thin coat of brown varnish, over the yellow base coats.

One thin coat of brown varnish over the yellow varnish
Deepening the color: one coat brown varnish.

I loved this look…it seemed as though the Quilted Maple wood was in flames, or perhaps as if I was seeing an incredibly dramatic sunset in progress. But I knew it needed more.

two coats brown over yellow
Two coats brown over yellow. Back
two coats brown over yellow front
Brown  (two coats) over yellow, front view
Brown over yellow varnish on scroll of five-string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop,
Scroll with Brown varnish over Yellow


Obviously, (as you can see) I am applying more color in certain areas. I am attempting, thereby, to give the impression of truly aged varnish (where the colored varnish has ben worn away in certain areas through much use.) Some people don’t like that look, but many do. Most importantly, I like it. Charles Beare was famously quoted as having said, “There is absolutely no reason  to ‘antique’ or ‘shade’ a new instrument...unless you actually hope to sell it!” (Apparently I’m in good company!)

So, I apply more varnish in the areas where hands would be least likely to touch, and where the surface is least likely to be abraded by any means. But, I try to be gentle about this, not heavy-handed. Some (few) makers deliberately damage the wood, in an effort to imitate advanced age. Their instruments sell to people who like that look, but I don’t want to do that. Therefore. I simply brush on deeper color in the areas of least wear.

Usually, I prefer instruments to be at least a little leaning toward a red-brown color, so, I needed to add some red.

More Color

I brushed on a thin coat of red-brown varnish all over:

back of five string fiddle in varnish process.
Back view, leaning toward red
front view leaning toward red
Front view, leaning toward red
Scroll, leaning toward Red
Scroll, leaning toward Red

But it still needed more! Consequently, I added more brown in the corners, and allowed it to dry. Then I added more red.

Shading begun, with more red
Shading begun, with more red
Back with more red
Back with more red
Scroll with more red
Scroll with more red


Finally, the varnish reached a depth of color about which I felt pretty good!

Final Color Front
Final Color Front
Final Color Back of handmade bluegrass 5-string fiddle, handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop
Final Color Back
Scroll of handmade bluegrass five string fiddle, handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop
 Scroll in its Final color 

Then, I french-polished the instrument, to flatten any brush-marks. Now I will allow it to dry and harden for a couple of weeks before I set it up for playing. Otherwise, it will acquire deep fingerprints as I work on it.


Thanks for looking!

Another Five String Fiddle in the Works!

I Began this 5-String Fiddle  Sometime Last Year…

Life Happens! Projects get put on hold...

Originally, I laid out the “kits” for six new five-string fiddles, two years ago. However, I had taken on other responsibilities, so I was pretty busy. But I did manage to complete two of the fiddles a year ago. As a result of numerous interruptions, I had barely begun this particular instrument.

We had  lots of interruptions: some good, (a commissioned five-string fiddle) some bad (Health issues for family members.) But, now I’m almost “on the homestretch” to complete my #17 Five-string fiddle.

Where it began

Initially, I bought some very pretty quilted Big Leaf Maple, and some Englemann Spruce, from Bruce Harvie, of Orcas Island Tonewoods. Fortunately, I got the ribs, back and neck out of the same billet of maple. It was nice that the Quilted Maple billet was large enough for that. I cut the top plate and bass bar out of the Englemann Spruce. However, I obtained the willow for the blocks and linings elsewhere.

But then, I laid the instrument aside for a year, partialy completed, while, as I said, other things (commissioned intstruments, family needs, etc,) took precedence.

Eventually, I “drifted back” to complete this instrument in June, and still there were a lot of sidetracks. (“Life is what actually occurs while we are planning something else.“) But this is the final work:

quilted maple for five string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop
Wild quilted maple back inside carving

Carving the back plate

First, I completed the carving, of the back plate, inside and out. Then I installed the purfling on the back plate. (I had already completed the front plate, a year ago.)

back plate of five string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop
Outside of quilted maple back with purfling complete

Carving the Neck

Meanwhile, I began carving the scroll and neck.

early carving on a scroll
Beginning the scroll, using a saw


scroll and neck for a 5-string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Scroll and neck ready for Fingerboard

After I installed the back plate on the corpus, it was time to install the neck.

The Neck-Set

Neck Mortise in a 5-string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Carving the neck mortise

First I laid out the mortise with a straightedge and pencil. Then I carved the mortise out, using chisels and scrapers. Afterward, once the neck joint was perfectly fitted, I glued and clamped the neck into the mortise and allowed it to dry.

However, I still needed to finish carving the neck heel and back button, together, as one piece. In that way, all the dimensions and curves will be correct. In addition, I continued to work on the final smoothing and details on the scroll itself.

Final Shaping of Neck, Heel and Scroll

final carving of the neck and heel of a 5-string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop
Final carving of the neck and heel
Back nearly complete on five string fiddle by Chet Bishop
Back nearly complete
Completed front view of five string fiddle by Chet Bishop.
Carving is complete, and it is time to remove the fingerboard!

Finally, I removed the fingerboard. As a result,  I could easily access all of the bare wood for the final varnish preparation and varnishing. (Originally, I had only temporarily attached the fingerboard, by means of three dots of hide glue.)

Five String Fiddle ready for varnish, handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Front view, Ready for varnish
Back view of 5-string fiddle by Chet Bishop, ready for varnish.
Back view, Ready for Varnish
Scroll ready for varnish
Scroll, ready for varnish

Varnish Process

In reality, the varnishing process is fairly involved.

First, I apply a mineral ground. Next, I apply a coat of sealer. Then, I begin varnishing. Furthermore, the varnish must be built up, coat by coat. To begin with, I apply two base coats of yellow. Afterward, I work through whatever colors I have chosen to achieve the final result. (Usually, it requires about eight coats of varnish.)

But, here are some pictures taken after the first two coats of yellow varnish:

Yellow base coats of varnish on five string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop
Two coats yellow varnish, front view
two coats yellow varnish side view
Side view.: two coats yellow varnish
Two coats yellow varnish, back view of five string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop
Two coats yellow varnish, back view.
two coats yellow varnish on a five-string scroll by Chet Bishop
Scroll, with two coats yellow varnish

Next time, I will describe the finishing process in more detail. And, as I near completion, I will post again, showing the set-up procedure.

Thanks for looking.

And, the Finish!  (How I complete the varnish and set-up.)

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. As a result, 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 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. The varnish was still quite soft, though dry to the touch.


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, at an angle, 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.


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!



Progress Report on a Custom 5-String Fiddle

My Neck and Scroll process

Originally, when I first began making instruments, I laid out the scrolls with a pencil and simply started carving. However, that was extremely labor intensive and not very accurate, either. As a result, 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. (Obviously, that is a “bitter pill to swallow,” having to scrap a scroll and start over.)

Learning from a Better Maker

So, then, what has changed? Fortunately, I watched how a viola maker in Brazil (Luis Manfio, of Sao Paulo) carves his scrolls, on a photo-essay he once posted. To begin with, he used a fine-toothed saw to cut “tangents” to the scroll pattern. Then, he used the same saw to follow the side surfaces of the scroll and remove the scrap wood. Understandably, this was a much better way than I had been attempting, so, ever since then, I have followed that path.

So, then: here is what that process looks like, using the current commissioned instrument as an example:

Five string scroll blank, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier
Step one: Five String Scroll blank, laid out for carving.
scroll blank lyout for five string fiddle handmade in Orgeon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Also, the Volute and pegbox layout.
Cutting scroll outlines for five string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregong by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Step two: Cutting tangents to the scroll curves.
Cutting volute on 5-string fiddle scroll handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Step three: 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. (Additionally, 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

After the scroll is close enough to correct that it will not be changing much, I will trim off the excess wood from the sides of the “handle-portion” of the neck. Then, I will temporarily install the fingerboard, using three “dots” of hot hide glue.

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

Subsequently, 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. However, 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 also grew just a 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. Professional musicians still play some of them, 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.   I was splitting some of the firewood,  and the split-off piece hit the ground: 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 played 5-string instruments before. 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. He 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 wanted one especially built 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, now!

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,” for a moment, but it will disappear immediately after completion.)

The commissioning customer also wanted local wood. so that he could say, “My violin came 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 Now Available: More to Come, with Time.

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 kind of story. Kai Jensen, a NASA engineer who loved violins, began to build a cello. However,  his health failed him 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  we fulfilled Kai Jensen’s dream  and it 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 sher heard it play 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!

Video Proof! Feedback on the 5-String Viola Conversion!

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 is Headed “North to Alaska!”

A Call From an “Unknown Person”

This sort of thing has happened 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 walking back up that steep hill, toward home. We had maybe a third of a mile left to go,  when my cell phone rang.

I saw that the call originated in Anchorage, Alaska!  Ironically, I do have a cousin in Anchorage, but it was unlikely to be him. I commented to Ann, “It’s probably spam…” and I answered the phone.

The woman identified herself immediately: she 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 fiddle.

(Cool!) But I really don’t 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.”)

But, sadly, for this example, I neglected to take any pictures until late in the varnishing process.

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 come to my area in April in regard to 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!

Large Handmade Viola Converted to a BIG Five-String Viola

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.