I apologize for the long hiatus. Lots of things have been going on, so I haven’t taken time to post progress reports on the two instruments I began in late July.
I had anticipated being done with both by the second week in September, but there have been sufficient interruptions and side-tracks that I am still not done. (Rats...)
When I last posted, I had just recently set the necks in the instruments. I progressed fairly rapidly for a bit, thereafter, but failed to “Show and Tell.”
I carefully removed the molds, and cleaned up the interior of the two fiddles, then bent and installed the back linings.
The next step was to install the back plates. I had laid out and installed the back purfling weaves, but, because the rib garlands sometimes change shape a little after the molds have been removed, I avoided “locking in” the shape of the back plates until the plates were already installed. Then I could do any final trimming of the back plate, and afterward lay out, cut and install the remaining purfling.
I went ahead and installed the back plates, trimmed them to accurately match the ribs and then began layout and installation of the back purfling. I bent the purfling, using heat, then began gluing the sections in place in the proper order.
Final Varnish Preparations
The purfling channels and all the edgework remained before varnishing. Also, I turned off the artificial lighting, and used the dim light from a window to cast soft shadows across the wood, and reveal any humps and hollows I may have missed earlier. After completing all that work, I could begin the varnishing process.
I will outline the process and show pictures in my next post.
I had completed the first scroll and neck, and had begun working on the second neck, when, I “kinda took an unplanned detour.”
Then I Had a Small Mishap:
I had worked for 12 hours, Monday the 16th, and afterward, I was getting pretty tired. My hands were tired, brain was tired, too, I suppose…anyway:
I had begun carving the second scroll, completed the saw-carving part, and was removing waste wood with a small gouge, when, I slipped, annnnd, just happened to have my left hand in the path of the misdirected gouge. (sigh…)
Urgent Care? Emergency Room?
First we tried going to an Urgent Care clinic. We arrived there, and then discovered that (a) they only work by appointment, and (b) they don’t take medicare insurance, anyway. I asked what my options were, and they said, “Everything else is closed! Go to the ER!” (Sigh… very expensive option!)
So, about 30 minute later we arrived at the Emergency Room at St. Vincent Hospital. They were busy as usual, so we waited for about four hours. But after that, the ER people washed it out with sterile water, X-Rayed it to eliminate the possibility of torn bone or tendons, and applied two little “Steri-Strips!”
I guess that was normal, but it felt pretty “exposed,” and was very prone to bumps (which were pretty uncomfortable when they happened.) So, after we got home, Ann bandaged me up with a heavily padded dressing so that I could sleep without bumping it. That was a real help, and I slept well.
I kind of piddled around, the next day…partly too tired, I suppose, as we had arrived home somewhat after 3AM, and we got to bed after 4AM. Partly just not feeling real good. Anyway, I had other things that needed doing, so I didn’t work on fiddles for that day.
Back to Work!
I got back to work on Wednesday. It turned out that I really needed two hands for most things, so it slowed me down rather badly, having a bulky bandage on the left paw. However, I was finally able to get the fingerboard installed on the first scroll/neck so that I could shape them as a unit.
That was kind of encouraging, seeing some progress again.
Then I set the neck on fiddle #1:
After that, we had appointments with various people, so I didn’t get a lot done on Thursday or Friday. By the time the weekend had rolled around, I had the biggest bandages off, and was sporting a plain finger bandage, but I had to be pretty careful. Bumps were still pretty unpleasant.
So, after having removed the bulky bandage, I went back to work on fiddle #2, carving that “Red Violin” scroll into just a plain, “five-string fiddle scroll.” It looked as though the majority of the “gore” would simply be carved away: so, no “Red Violin!” (By the way, that little gouge, third from the right, is the one that perforated my thumb.)
I will post more again, soon. Sorry for the hiatus: it wasn’t intentional. 🙂
Build Progress for a couple of new “5-string Bluegrass fiddles:”
Last post showed the garlands complete, and ready to be leveled:
I began the leveling process using a file and a finger plane, until the fragile rib-edges were level with the linings.
Then I completed the leveling by rubbing the garland on a sanding board.
Tracing the plates
Once the garlands were flat, I could use them to trace the outline of the plates: I used a small washer as a tracing tool– as a spacer, to give me the overhang distance I want (3mm.)
Correcting the corners and cutting out the plates
I really don’t want the “round corners ” produced by the washer, but they do give me a starting point from which to correct the corners before cutting out the plates:
Arching the plates:
Arching the plates is a critical step, because the arching pretty much controls the tone quality. In fact, it may be the single most inportant factor in achieving good tone. I begin by scribing the edge-thickness of the plates and then I begin removing waste wood to complete the rough arching:
I use arching templates to establish the shape of the arching, and then fair-in the parts in between the templates. (The templates for the back plate are slightly different, but all of these things matter: I have to use them correctly. And, although I can get the arching “close” without the templates, quite honestly, “close” isn’t good enough.)
Laying out F-holes, and incising them.
After the arching shape is very close to correct, I use templates to lay out the f-hole shapes and locations, and then use a knife to incise the lines deeply, so that I can’t accidentally remove the lines through further shaping.
Then I refine the arching, using gouges, planes and scrapers, until the shape is exactly what I want.
The word “purfling” evidently comes from the old Italian “por filo” meaning edging. It supposedly helps strengthen the edge, and it certainly helps “define” the edge, and…it looks nice. Though there are examples of old intruments without purfling, allof the better “Old Master” makers used it, and I will never make an instrument without it. (Besides…I like it.)
I position the purfling beginning at 4mm inside the outer rim of the plates, and mark the location of both sides of the slot, using a purfling marker (sometimes called a purfling cutter.) The marker won’t work for the corners, so I have to lay them out using a pencil.
Then I use a knife to incise those lines deeply enough to receive the actual purfling strips.
Finally, when the slots are complete, I can begin inserting the actual purfling strips. The strips come as 32″ long three-ply veneers, and are very brittle. I have to use the bending iron to prepare them for insertion into the slots.
Gluing the Purfling:
After the purfling strips are correctly fitted, dry, I carefully lift them out, one by one, and slip hot hide glue into the slot beneath each strip, then quickly force the strip back into the slot, ramming it home with a special tool.
When all is complete, I allow the purfling to dry, before moving on to cutting the channel, performing the final edgework, and fairing the channels into the arching…but those are stories for another day. 🙂
My last post showed the six “kits” I had built. The post included bookmatching the five-string fiddle plates, cutting the profiles of the Big Leaf Maple necks and scrolls, and cutting appropriate ribs to size. As a result, I ended up with six kits, including bass bar blanks all cut from the same billet of Englemann Spruce, and a big pile of linings ready to bend. ( I thought the linings were willow, but I now suspect may be poplar, instead.)
Five of these front plates ar Englemann Spruce, but one is Douglas Fir. I rarely find Douglas Fir that will work for tonewood, but a friend brought me a pickup-load of firewood, and I found some that sounds great. (As you can see, I am not a “snob” about where I get my wood. If I need special wood, I buy it, but I frequently use Oregon woods.)
(In case anyone reading this is not aware, I build all my instruments (except the fittings, as a rule) entirely from the raw materials. I make all my molds by hand, and all my templates by hand. I have even made many of my tools. So every instrument is genuinely “handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop.”) 🙂
I set aside four of the six “kits,” just to get them out of the work area. Then I began work on the remaining two kits.
Beginning the Builds
The first step after shaping the blocks (last post) is to bend the ribs and linings. Then I can glue the ribs to the prepared blocks, using hot hide glue, and finally glue the linings to the ribs.
I rub a heavy coat of candle-wax (“paraffin” in the US) on the outer rims of my molds. This will prevent a “sneaky” drop of hide-glue from accidentally bonding the ribs to the molds instead of just to the blocks.
(A rib accidentally glued to the mold can be a disaster if I don’t realize my mistake in time. The glue is definitely stronger than the rib. It will destroy the rib, if I don’t catch it early enough to use hot water or steam to release it. But the wax coating pretty much eliminates that problem.)
I used a bending iron and a thin aluminum bending strap, to hand-shape the ribs, and then put them aside in paired sets, with the respective molds for which they are intended.
Installing the Ribs
I installed the center-bout ribs first: they can be difficult, so I’m glad they are first. But the realreason they are first, is that the upper and lower ribs will overlap the ends of the center ribs: they do not have a mitered corner, but a lapped corner, which if done correctly, is essentially invisible.
I frequently use these “French-style” molds, (flush on the back) which allow me to install the front linings and still easily remove the mold. (Italian-style molds are centered on the ribs…I use that kind, too.)
I used cylindrical clamping cauls of appropriate sizes (dowels, broom-handles…whatever) and f-clamps to quickly secure the rib ends before the hot hide glue gels. If I make a mistake, I can steam the joint loose with a teapot, and do it over, correctly.
After the center-bout ribs dry, I shape the ends of the ribs to match the curvature of the blocks. Then the upper and lower ribs can be glued to the perfectly-shaped block and rib. Finally, I begin installing the upper and lower ribs.
While waiting for glue to dry on the ribs, I laid out the necks so that I will be ready to begin carving them.
After trimming all the corners, so that they look as though the ribs come together as one, I begin installing the linings. I cut a small mortise on each side of each block, flush with the rib, so that the lining will be glued tightly to the rib, and into the block mortise. I secure them all using hot hide glue.
Next, I cut the linings to length, shaping the ends to closely fit the prepared mortises. Then, I coat about 7mm of the edge of the rib, and the entire mating surface of the lining with hot hide-glue and insert the lining into the mortises and push it to the correct level, corresponding to the ribs. Finally, moving rapidly, I secure it with small spring-clamps.
I made a good deal of progress yesterday, and had hoped to make more progress today, but there were some household repairs that needed to be addressed first; so I didn’t begin working on violins until mid-afternoon.
Tomorrow I will level the fronts of the garlands and trace the front plates… I hope. 🙂
I shipped the last three fiddles I had made and I am left with the “cupboard” looking pretty bare!
This had been a busy year in a lot of other ways, and I have spent a lot of time messing around, trying to build a travel case for the Travel Bass I built last summer. (Without the case, the bass isn’t going anywhere, so I really need to complete it.) Also, the last two fiddles I had made were literally hanging around the house, and so, I wasn’t feeling pressed to build more of them right away.
But those two fiddles have suddenly found homes. The only two five-string violin-size fiddles I have left are ones I made several years ago: they both play very well, but the ones I am building currently are my best work, and that is what I want to put in players’ hands.
So…I decided I had better hit the Lutherie trail in a big way: I took six of my molds (five in the photo, below…the sixth shows up later) and glued the blocks in place, to begin a group of six new fiddles. I plan to select and prepare materials, and match them together into “kits,” so that I know which top plate goes with which back plate…and neck, and ribs, etc.
Then, I plan to begin building them in pairs, but I will always have another pair ready to begin, if things slow down at all.
You have to look closely to see the plexiglass template in the photograph above (and below.) The template is hard to see, but it gives the precise shape I want for the outline of my blocks. I use a ballpoint pen to trace the shape onto the blocks.
Then, I use a saw to roughly cut out the shapes , and an oscillating spindle sander to shape them precisely. I apply wax to the edges of the molds so that an accidental drop of glue can’t bond them to a rib. The ribs are only glued to the blocks and linings, initially…the mold will be removed.
Next, I cut the ribs from wood that match the back and neck, as closely as possible. Usually, I try to get them all out of the same billet of wood. Over the years, I have harvested some of my wood, myself, or it was given to me by a friend, in log form, and I had someone mill it up for me. At other times, I have bought other wood from tonewood dealers.
I have used a variety of woods for the back plates: These (below) are all Big Leaf Maple, and I have used a wide variety of other woods; but when I build for classical orchestral instruments, I use only European Maple and Spruce.
I bought the wood (in the pictures below) from Bruce Harvie, of Orcas Island Tonewood Co. That piece of Big leaf maple on the right measures 2″ thick, about 6″ wide, and 16″ long, or more. The large billet allowed me to cut the ribs, neck and two-piece back all from the same billet. I cut up the Englemann Spruce billet on the left to provide two tops and nine bass-bars.
Processing the materials:
To begin with, I used a bandsaw to slice off the rib material. Then, I laid out the actual shape I needed for the back and neck. (The traced “shape” visible in the above photo is not my mark: it is just the way tonewood dealers catch the imagination of their customers.) 🙂
When I cut out the back plate shape I had to slice it in half lengthwise, and glue the halves together, to form the back plate.
Then, I traced out all the neck billets and used a bandsaw to cut them out.
Next, in addition to the work on the heavier components, I sliced ribs from appropriate wood to match the wood of the backs: a darker maple back required darker maple ribs. They will be only 1 mm thick when finished.
After thinning the ribs, I used a knife to cut the ribs to size.
I usually build the top plates of spruce (Sitka, Englemann, European or other species.) Sometimes (rarely) I will use other woods: this one is Douglas Fir. Otto Erdesz used Douglas fir for front plates on many instruments. So far, I have only used Douglas Fir once, but it turned out to be an excellent fiddle, so I am doing it again. 🙂
And finally, I see the kits beginning to emerge!
I will try to provide updates and to post progress reports.
This instrument was actually begun last winter, but is only now coming into completed form. The back, sides and neck are all salvaged from a tree taken down years ago on my wife’s parents’ property, where she grew up. (I built a commissioned instrument from this same tree last year.) I wish I had a lot more of it, but much of the tree was lost to rot. Too bad… it is pretty wood. The Sitka spruce top came from somewhere here in the northwest, but I don’t know exactly where: all I can say is that I bought it from a local wood dealer.
Eventually, I had the corpus (body) completed and had begun working on the neck and scroll. Additionally, arthritis was plaguing me a little, so it was slow progress.
Then it was time to set the neck. This is one of the most exacting steps in building a violin: everything has to be correct, or it will be impossible to correctly set the instrument up for playing.
After the neck mortise is completed, so that the neck fits perfectly and all angles and dimensions are exactly right, I liberally coat the mortise and neck-heel with hot hide-glue, and then I quickly ram the neck into place. Then, I checked all measurements one last time and clamped it with a single clamp at the heel.
After all the woodwork was completed, I varnished the instrument: The first coats are quite yellow, to provide a “golden glow” from under the color coats.
Finally, the instrument was fully varnished and set-up:
The sound on this fiddle is very strong and clear: it has a well-focused C-string and is well-balanced across all five strings. I think this is possibly my best instrument so far.
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.
Just an update: 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: It promises to be a great fiddle! (And, it did!)
I always hang the fiddles in the dining room to dry, since we heat with wood, and that is where the woodstove is. The room stays warm, especially up near the ceiling.
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.)