June 22nd Progress Report

Some Progress is better than none!

It has been a frustrating series of weeks: all the usual responsibilities, house guests, etc., plus a few unexpected items. The lawn tractor suddenly quit mowing, though it ran fine. We narrowed it down to being a bad PTO clutch, so that is just another thing to take apart and replace.  Guess that’s what happens when you use 30-year-old equipment. 🙂

Then, two days ago, my beloved better half, Ann, discovered that the side porch steps are in advanced stages of rot…so, today, we went and bought all the pressure-treated lumber to replace them. They, too, have been in place for over 30 years, so, I guess, they have served well.

Progress on the 5-String Fiddles

I did manage to make a little progress on some of the acoustic five-string fiddles I had begun, however:

  • All the linings are in place for two of the instruments (violin and the 14-7/8″ viola.)
  • The front and back plates are traced and cut out for both of those instruments.
  • The front plate graduations are complete for the 14″ viola, and
  • The f-holes are cut out on the 14″ viola, but not refined.

So, this is where things stand, at the moment:

Here is the “Strobelesque” garland with its front and back plates:

garland and plates
Rib Garland and rough-cut plates for the “Strobelesque” fiddle.

No carving at all has been done on the plates, and the Sitka Spruce front plate is still nearly an inch thick. I will plane it down before I begin arching, of course. I do like the look of the spalted maple back and ribs. This maple was from an old Big Leaf Maple tree on the property where Ann grew up. It had begun to show signs of decay, and was removed for safety’s sake. Too bad for the loss of the tree, but it is nice wood.

Here is the 14-7/8″ Viola garland with its front and back plates.

garland with plates
Rib garland with front and back plates for a 14-7/8″ 5-string viola.

This one is my own design. In fact, it was the very first form I ever made, thinking I was just going to make a viola for my youngest son (whose name is on the form, along with the date: 1999.) As it happened, I discovered that lutherie is addictive, and I have been building instruments ever since. 🙂

The center-lines on both plates are ink, not a glue-line: this instrument boasts both a one-piece Spalted (Big-Leaf) Maple back plate (also from the tree at Ann’s childhood home) and a one-piece Sitka Spruce front plate.

Here is the progress on the 14″ Viola:

garland and plates
Rib garland and nearly completed plates for a 14″ five-string viola.

This one is my own design, too: it is the same length as a standard violin, but much wider in the lower bouts, and deeper in the ribs. It will be interesting to see how it works as a five-string fiddle. (This is a first.) This one has an Englemann Spruce front plate and a one-piece Big Leaf Maple back from a log I was given by Terry Howell, years ago.

 

I will post more reports as the work takes place. Feel free to contact me if you have questions.

Thanks for looking.

Four Five-String Fiddles

Progress Report

The last time I presented anything about these instruments, I think it was on another site, so– here is how they looked at that time (earlier this week, perhaps.)

Blocks and C-bout ribs installed. Blocks installed, and necks cut out.

 

In the above photo, all you can see is three violin forms, with blocks installed, and some of the wood that will go into each, including the necks. I already had a fourth instrument (a small viola) begun, which was not in the picture.

So, here is that 14″ 5-string viola, well on the way to completion, but still with a long way to go…as of today.

14
14″ viola 5-string in progress.

 

And, as promised, here is a progress report on the other three:

5-string 14-7/8
5-string 14-7/8″ viola in progress.

On this instrument, the ribs are installed, but no linings as yet, and, while the Maple and Spruce have been selected for the front and back plates, they are essentially untouched. The neck has been traced out and the outline cut, but it, too, has far to go.

 

Guarneri-form 5-string fiddle
Guarneri-form 5-string fiddle in progress.

For this instrument, a five-string fiddle being built on the form of the 1735 “Plowden” Guarneri del Gesu, I had a top plate left from a previous project on the same form, so I opted to use it, with the spalted Big Leaf Maple back and ribs. No linings, yet, but they have been bent and are ready to install. The neck is from a different Big Leaf Maple, which came from the yard of the property where my wife grew up.

 

5-string fiddle
5-string fiddle on “Strobelesque” form, in progress.

 

Henry (Senior) would not have recognized this form, but it was loosely derived from the form in Henry Strobel’s book, “Violin-making, Step-by-Step”…so it is called “Strobelesque.” In this photo, the glue was not dry on the treble-side upper rib, but I didn’t want to wait, so I took the photo with the clamps still in place. Again, no linings, yet, but they are bent and ready to install. Here, too, I had a partially completed top plate, and elected to use it. The back and sides are heavily spalted Big Leaf Maple, and the neck is also Big Leaf Maple, though from a different tree…the one in my Father-in-Law’s yard. A few years ago, they decided that tree had enough rot to be dangerous, so they took it out, but it provided wood for a number of instruments.

My son builds high-quality guitars, and managed to salvage several guitar sets beside the various violin and viola sets I saved. I got one cello set out of it, too…it will become a cello for my beloved wife.

 

Thanks for looking.

Five String Instruments

Five-String Fiddles

I get a fair amount of demand for five-string fiddles; in my case, that means a five-string instrument with the same footprint and scale-length as a violin, but with the added C-string, so that it carries the full range of both a violin and a viola. I have mastered this genre to the point that the low end of my five-string fiddles sound like a good, small viola, and the the high end sounds like a good violin…and the neck width is just barely wider than that of a violin (25 mm), so that it plays like a violin.
Teachers like them, because they can teach the viola part or the violin part, without having to change instruments.
One of the beauties of a five-string fiddle, is that, because it is non-traditional, I am not under the burden of using traditional woods, so I am free to experiment, and, as it turns out, there are other woods that work quite well: I have made them of domestic woods; Big Leaf Maple/Sitka Spruce, but I have also used Koa/Sitka Spruce, Myrtle/Port Orford Cedar, and all combinations worked quite well. I will soon try a five-string fiddle of Bubinga and Sitka Spruce, and am open to other experiments.
I will continue to build and sell five-string fiddles either on speculation, or on commission, as the demand increases.
Five-String Violas
I am beginning to hear a call for Five String Violas as well. This would have the same range of pitch as a five-string fiddle, but the physical instrument will be whatever size of viola is preferred by the customer. Until I get an increased demand, these will likely remain as custom commissions, not just built on speculation, as I currently produce the five-string fiddles.
The practical difference, then, between a five-string fiddle and a five-string viola, would be that the (larger) five-string viola will usually have deeper, richer, louder tone, just because it has a larger resonating body, both of air and wood. But not everyone can comfortably play a larger instrument, so this is a matter of personal choice.
Five-String Cellos
Five-string cellos are not a new thing. The cello-piccolo and the cello da spalla have been extant for centuries, and music has been especially written for both. I hope to see a rising demand for these instruments, but, for the moment, they are a rarity. I can build both, and hope to soon have some to display here, but, for the moment, I do not. I have had customers ask about them, but usually, it was just an idea they had, and they were not prepared to place an order.
Five-String Double Basses
Five-string double basses are increasingly common, as people want the freedom to reach for lower bass notes, and not have to have a “B-Extension” added to their bass (which can also be done, of course, but it does add length to the bass scroll, and an additional source of fragility.)
I build an occasional double bass, but they are a lot of work, and they completely monopolize my small workspace when they are a work in progress; so I am more likely to default to smaller instruments. There is a special thrill, however, in building a huge instrument, seeing the beauty of the beast, and feeling the floor shake when I draw out long bass notes with the bow. I can certainly understand why players fall in love with the double bass, and especially the five-string double bass, with the lowest-of-the-low B-string at their beck and call.

Why a Five-String Fiddle?

Why not a Five String Fiddle? 

Traditioooonnn, Tradition!!

Violins have been codified in terms of form, size, materials and tuning for over 400 years. Orchestras have 30+ violins, between which the untrained observer would have a difficult time distinguishing, let alone identifying as having come from a particular maker’s hand. And yet experts can frequently tell at a glance when, where and by whom that violin was made. And ALL of them have four strings (count ‘em): G, D, A, and E. No five-string violins in the orchestra!

The violas, too, have their four strings, always at C, G, D and A. They are less tightly defined, however and are all over the board in terms of size and shape. Some are so large that most normal-sized people can’t play them, and some are not much larger than a violin. But they all have those four strings, tuned exactly a perfect fifth below those of the violin. No five-string violas, either.

NON-traditional is OK, too.

Really, a viola works best at what it does, and a violin works best at what it does, as specialized tools…but when they are so close in size—indeed, sometimes overlapping—what prevents us from having one instrument that covers the full range of both? A five-string fiddle?

Well…that isn’t as easy as it sounds. The physical size of a violin is barely big enough to really produce the open G-string tone, so simply adding a low C-string will not work well…and the viola is almost too big to make good high-pitched notes, so adding a high E to a larger viola is usually not very satisfactory either.

Five-string fiddles specifically designed for five-strings

But it CAN work…with some tweaking. Honestly, probably a five-string fiddle would work best in the size of a small viola—say, 15”—or even 15.5”. But country fiddlers and bluegrass fiddlers, who are waking up to the desire for a fifth string, and a lower range, don’t want a “five-string viola”–they want their instrument to fit in a regular fiddle case—not a viola case. They want a handmade five-string bluegrass fiddle.

What has worked for me, so far, is to maintain the “footprint” of a regular violin, but increase the depth of the body a little; lengthen the pegbox, obviously, for the extra peg and string; thin the plates just a little more, and deepen the bassbar a bit. I may try widening the center bouts just a little, too, sometime. But for now, I have a working model, with which everyone seems very pleased: it is very easy to play, has good balance across all five strings, a big deep bass end on the C string, and clear, strong high notes on the E string.

So, when a fiddler wants to be able to go low and growly, he/she can do so. When he/she needs a high end for some special sizzle, it is there. All in one fiddle case. A five-string fiddle case.

See samples below:

 Oliver Five-string fiddle, by Chet Bishop. Sold.
Front view of Oliver Five-string fiddle, by Chet Bishop. Sold.
Oliver Five String Fiddle, by Chet Bishop (Sold)
Back view of Oliver Five String Fiddle, by Chet Bishop (Sold)

 

Myrtle and Port Orford Cedar 5-string (Sold)
Front of Myrtle and Port Orford Cedar 5-string (Sold)

 

Back of Myrtle and Port Orford Cedar 5-string
Back of Myrtle and Port Orford Cedar 5-string