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.

Getting “Closure!” What goes into the final assembly?

Setting the Neck

Front plate installed on five string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Artisanal Luthier, Chet Bishop.
Front, with rib garland, back, neck and fingerboard, nearly ready for assembly.

I failed to take photos of the actual neck-setting procedure on this violin. (Sorry.)  I will link to a series of photos from a previous instrument.  That one had a major “flesh-wound” mishap. (I accidentally thrust a gouge through my left thumb…but it does include the neck-setting process. And the wound healed!)

This one went very smoothly: I think it took less than an hour to achieve a perfect fit. Then I removed the interior mold, and installed the back linings, so that the corpus was complete and ready to receive the back plate.

Installing the back linings on a 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal Luthier.
Back linings, installed on an earlier instrument. Once again, I forgot to take pictures.

Completing the Back Plate

I also had to complete the back plate. I had already completed the outside arching, and most of the interior carving, as well. Still had to finish scraping the interior dead-smooth, then install the purfling, and the label.

Imterior of back plate of five string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal Luthier.
Completing the interior of the back plate.


Beginning the purfling weave on the back plate of a 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal Luthier.
Beginning the purfling weave on the back plate.


Partway done with back plate purfling on 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal Luthier.
Partway done with back plate purfling.


Completing the purfling weave on a 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal luthier.
Completing the purfling weave inlay.

Once the plate was truly complete, I added the label, and installed the back plate on the corpus.

Installing the back plate on a 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal luthier.
The spool clamps hold the entire perimeter while the glue sets. the spring clamp holds the neck heel and button tightly in place.
Back plate installed, on a 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier, Chet Bishop.
Back plate installed: notice that the button is far oversized. (See next photo.)
Side view of oversized button on a 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier, Chet Bishop.
The back button is deliberately left oversize, to be carved to final shape as a unit with the neck heel.
Button and heel carved to match, on 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier, Chet Bishop.
Neck heel and button carved to match.

Preparing for the Varnish

I removed the fingerboard, to give me easy access to all parts of the front of the fiddle. Notice that the fingerboard had only been held by three “dots” of hide glue. even so, the glue took off a microscopically thin layer of ebony when I removed the fingerboard. (That is what the “black stuff” is.)

5-string fiddle in the white, handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal Luthier.
Fiddle “completed in the white.” Ready for all varnish-prep work.

Edgework and Varnish Prep

All final shaping has to be completed at this point: any bumps, humps and hollows have to be carefully addressed, using a sharp scraper, before the mineral ground is applied. The mineral ground is a suspension of extremely fine particles that “plug” the pores in the wood, so that the varnish does not penetrate deeply and deaden the sound.

I apply it wet, with a brush, and vigorously rub it into the wood with my bare fingers, then rub off as much of the excess material left on the surface as I can. It is not supposed to be “on” the surface, so much as “in” the surface of the wood.

Wet mineral ground on 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier, Chet Bishop.
Front side, with wet mineral ground.

The wet mineral ground temporarily darkens the wood, but, as it dries, it turns stark white.

Dry mineral ground on 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal luthier.
Dry mineral ground.

The next step is always pretty amazing: when I brush on the sealer, it surrounds all the “white” particles in the wood, and they become transparent. Look at the “before and after” photos of the back plate, as the sealer is applied:

Back plate of five string fiddle with dry mineral ground. Handcrafted in Oregon, by Chet Bishop, artisanal luthier.
Back plate with dry mineral ground.
Back plate with sealer on 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Chet Bishop, artisanal luthier.
Same plate with sealer applied.

From this point forward, it is just a matter of applying numerous coats of varnish, and adjusting the color as the process progresses. Furthermore, I want all the parts to “fit together” in terms of color. (You can see that there is a difference between the front and back color, for example.)

Next time, we will talk about color varnish coats.

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.

Need More Fiddles! Beginning Six New Five String Fiddles!

I Failed to “Keep Up!”

I shipped the last three fiddles I had made, so the “cupboard” is looking pretty bare!

Unfortunately, I spent a lot of time messing around, this year, trying to build a travel case for the Travel Bass I built last summer. (I really need to complete it. The bass isn’t going anywhere without the case.) 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. I found it to be a busy year in a lot of other ways, too.

Sudden Changes

Two customers came, and rather abruptly, those two most recent fiddles  suddenly found homes.  I only have two five-string violin-size fiddles left, both of which I had made several years ago, and they both play very well. However, the ones I am building currently are my best work, and that is what I want to put in players’ hands.

The Plan

Therefore, I decided I had better “hit the Lutherie trail” in a big way. First, I selected six of my molds (five in the photo, below: the sixth shows up later.) Then, I glued the blocks in place, to begin a group of six new fiddles. Next, I plan to select and prepare materials, and match them together into “kits.” In this way, I know which top plate goes with which back plate. neck, and ribs, etc.

Afterward, I plan to begin building them in pairs, but I will always have another pair ready to begin, if things slow down at all.

5-string fiddle molds with blocks and a transparent template.
Five molds with blocks and a transparent template.

The Process:

Look closely, and you soon will see the transparent plexiglass template in the photographs above and below. Because the template is clear, it 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.

Template tracing block shapes for 5-string bluegrass fiddle made by Chet Bishop
I use the template to trace the exact shape I want for my blocks.


Next, I use a saw to roughly cut out the shapes. Afterward, I use an oscillating spindle sander to shape them more precisely. Using an old candle, I rub parrafin wax on all the exposed edges of the molds, so that an accidental drop of glue can’t bond them to a rib. Initially, I glue the ribs only to the blocks and linings. Ultimately, I will remove the mold, before closing the body of the instrument.

Molds with blocks shaped for 5-string bluegrass fiddle by Chet Bishop
Here are the blocks, shaped and ready for ribs.

Wood Choices

Then, 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. However, A friend (the late Terry Howell) gave me a great deal of curly maple, in log form. Immediately, I had someone mill it up for me on a large portable bandsaw mill.  In other cases, I have simply bought wood from tonewood dealers.

I have used a variety of woods for the back plates. These (below) are all Big Leaf Maple. But, I have used a wide variety of other woods.  When I build 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 Company. 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.

Wood for 5-string bluegrass fiddles made in Oregon by Chet Bishop.
Englemann Spruce and Big Leaf Maple.


MAple wood for a 5-string bluegrass fiddle made in Oregon by Chet Bishop.
Same piece of Maple…closer view.

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. (I did not make the traced “shape” visible in the above photo. That is just the way tonewood dealers “spark the imagination” of their customers.)

I sliced the back plate shape in half lengthwise, originally. Next I planed the two edges perfectly smooth and flat. Finally, I glued the halves together, to form the back plate.

planing center joint of a back plate for a Chet Bishop five-string fiddle.
Hand-planing the center joint.


Maple back for 5-string bluegrass fiddle made in Oregon by Chet Bishop.
Same billet, made into a back plate blank. The rest became ribs and neck.


While the glue was drying on the plates, I traced out all the neck billets. I used a bandsaw to cut them out, to produce “neck blanks.”

Neck billets for 5-string fiddles made in Oregom by Chet Bishop.
Looks like a “bouquet of fiddle necks.” They will be matched with their respective backs and ribs.


In addition to the preparation of the heavier components, I used a bandsaw to slice rib material from appropriate wood to match the wood of the backs. For example, a darker maple back required darker maple ribs. I then sanded them to 1 mm final thickness, using the oscillating spindle sander.

Ribs for 5-string fiddle.
I was glad I had rib material that matched the color of the old wood for this fiddle. That back (below) was harvested in September, 1983.


Wood for 5-string fiddle made in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Matching ribs and neck to back wood.


After thinning the ribs, I used a knife to cut the ribs to size.

Wood for ribs for 5-string fiddle made in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Each set of ribs requires three pairs, in lengths for upper, center and lower bouts.

Douglas Fir

Usually, I make the top plates of my instruments from some type of spruce. (Sitka, Englemann, European or other species all work well.) But, sometimes (rarely) I use other woods: this one is Douglas Fir.

Otto Erdesz used Douglas fir for the front plates on many instruments. I have seen and played one of the violas he made of Douglas Fir. When I found some Douglas Fir with great tone qualities and very straight grain, I decided to try it, emulating his success. Thus far, I have only used Douglas Fir once, but it turned out to be an excellent fiddle, so, I am doing it again. 

Wood Kit for a 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop.
A Douglas Fir top plate with a Big Leaf Maple back, neck and ribs.


And, finally, I see the “kits” beginning to emerge!

Materials for 5-string fiddles handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
These Kits will help me keep focused and encouraged about building the six new fiddles.


I will try to provide updates and to post progress reports.


Thanks for looking.

Varnishing a New Handmade 5-string Fiddle

back of handmade 5-string fiddle

5-string Varnish progress


Last post included the sealer, which, to be honest, looks awfully nice. But it isn’t varnish: it was just a resin dissolved in turpentine. The sealer is used to lock in the mineral ground and seal the pores against excessive varnish saturation (which could dampen the tone.) It looked like this:

Back view of handmade 5-string Oregon bluegrass fiddle with sealer.
Back view of 5-string fiddle with sealer.


So, from that point forward, the varnishing began:

Early Varnish

The first coats of varnish I use are pretty intensely yellow. I want that golden glow to shine through the other colors, wherever there is any wear, or deliberately thin spots in the color coats. After the yellow varnish I begin selectively darkening certain areas, corners, etc..The purpose of the selective shading is to enhance the overall look and feel, visually.

So, here are the front and back after the early coats of varnish. Pretty much all of this is from the first day or two of varnishing:

Front view of handmade five-string fiddle with early coats of varnish.
Front view, with early coats of varnish.


Back view of handmade Oregon 5-string fiddle with early varnish coats.
Back view with early varnish coats.


Later Varnish

After the early varnish is well-cured, I scrape or sand away any sags, drips, or brush-marks. I also remove any brush-hairs that might have been overlooked earlier. Then, I lightly sand over the entire instrument. The aim is to produce a smooth surface upon which to deposit subsequent coats of varnish. (Usually, there will be about eight coats, overall, by the time I am done varnishing.)

I add the deeper color coats, still striving to produce the shading that would go along with the old instruments that everyone finds so attractive. (I have numerous excellent photos of “old-master” instruments to study, from which to gain ideas as to what is “normal” wear.) So, here are photos of the front and back of the same instrument after further layers of varnish have been applied.

Front view of Handmade Bluegrass 5-string fiddle with later layers of varnish.
Front view of same 5-string fiddle with later layers of varnish.


Back view of handmade 5-string fiddle made of Oregon Big Leaf Maple.
Back view with later varnish layers. I like that back, of Oregon Big Leaf Maple!


Future plans:

I anticipate about two or three more coats of amber varnish to deepen the shine and improve the clarity. There will be some re-touching done as needed, of course. This will be especially true after I re-install the fingerboard and fit the pegs, to begin set-up. But, the varnish is looking pretty much the way it will when it is finished, in terms of overall color. The red will probably look a little less intense, but it will still be there.

I hope to have it playing next week sometime.

This is the “sister instrument” to a five-string fiddle made last year. Each was built from wood salvaged from the scraps after I built a five-string Double Bass last Summer.

Here are some clips of the sister instrument played by Andy Pastor:

And, here is a 15″ 5-string viola, currently for sale in Charlotte, North Carolina, at “The Violin Shoppe!”

Thanks for looking.

New Website Coming!

Coming Soon!

I just began a new website for teaching-related articles, photographs, and videos. The Layman’s Institute will be at and will have lots of teaching articles: whether math lessons, violin-making, or anything else.

No content is there, just yet: I will begin adding content in the next few days, I hope.

Hope to see you there.

Setting up the Bass

Instrument Set-up

The Plan:

  1. Fit and install the End Pin. (Already done on this instrument.)
  2. Fit and install the Saddle. (Already done on this instrument)
  3. Fit and install the Tuners (in the case of a double bass, that means “tuning machines.” Already done on this instrument.)
  4. Fit and install the Soundpost. (already done on this instrument.)
  5. Fit and install the Nut, file the string slots to the correct depth in the correct places.
  6. Establish the correct length for the Tail-gut (or tail-wire in this case) and install it.
  7. Fit and install the Bridge, filing the string-slots once the height is correct.
  8. Install the Strings.
  9. Play for sound adjustment, string clearance adjustment, etc.


On violins and violas, the end-pin (usually called the end-button) only serves as an anchor-point for the tail-gut. But, in cellos and double basses, it also must serve as a height-adjustment, so that the instrument will rest at the correct height for the particular player. In this case, I had chosen an Indian Rosewood plug with a tubular steel end-pin fully adjustable and locked by a thumb-screw on the bass side. I installed it earlier, so here it is, without details about shaping the plug or reaming the hole:

Endpin assembly installed on five-string double bass.
Endpin assembly installed.


I cut my saddles with a large radius on each of the upper corners, where the saddle is cut into the front plate. There is a strong likelihood, historically, that cracks will eventually develop, emanating from the corners of the saddle. They are so common that they have a name: “saddle-cracks.” There are two ways to try to avoid such cracks:

  1. The first is to make the mortise for the saddle (the part cut out of the front plate) a little wider than the actual saddle, by maybe a millimeter or so, so that, when (not if) the front plate shrinks during dry weather, it will not find itself up against the unmoveable saddle, and be forced to crack, to allow for the shrinkage. This is a good practice, and I try to follow it.
  2. The second is to make the saddle with sound corners so that there is no “notch” in the plate at the “corners” of the mortise, but rather a smooth rounded curve, which eliminates the stress-riser and minimizes the chance of a saddle crack in the first place. (Round discontinuities essentially do not cause stress risers, hence, do not cause cracks.) I always do this, (since about my sixth instrument) and will continue to do so.

I already explained all this, including the purpose of the saddle, in a previous post. Suffice it to say that this part is already completed.

Saddle with round corners, to prevent saddle cracks.
Saddle with round corners, to prevent saddle cracks.

Tuning Machines

There is a wide variety of choices for tuning machines for a double bass. Some are better than others, some fairly plain, but fully functional and reliable, others beautifully engraved or ornate in some other way, and understandably far more costly. Someone had to spend the time and money to do all that “pretty stuff,” so, if you want that, you gotta pay. I chose plain but functional. (They are pretty, too, but not fancy.)

Rubner tuning machine for a five-string double bass.
Rubner tuning machine (one of five.)

At any rate, they are already installed on this instrument, as of my last post:

Tuning machines installed on five-string double bass.
Tuning machines installed on five-string double bass.



The soundpost is a “dowel,” usually of fine-grained spruce, that spans the gap between the inside of the front plate and the inside of the back plate, just south of the treble bridge-foot. My understanding is that it transfers the vibration from the front plate to the back plate, and “couples” the two plates so that they work together to make the sound from the vibrations created at the strings (whether by bowing or plucking.)

There may be (probably is) more to this function: It is an important enough part of the set-up that in some languages, the soundpost is referred to as the “soul” of the instrument, and it is definitely one of the most important adjustments that can be made. It is held in place simply by the compressive force transferred through the bridge by the tensile stress on the strings. Adjusting the position of the soundpost has a profound effect on the character of the sound the instrument can produce.

I already installed the soundpost, but I fully anticipate that I will continue to adjust it as the instrument settles in, in an attempt to produce the best tone, volume and balance that I can achieve in the sound of the instrument.

Soundpost installed in a five-string double bass.
Soundpost installed, in preliminary position. Adjustments will be made from here.


The nut is the transverse piece of hardwood (usually Ebony, but in this case Ipé, ) across which all the strings are resting, directly above the fingerboard. It serves as a positive stop for all five strings,  so that the strings are not in actual contact with the fingerboard when the player is not fingering a note, but are suspended about 0.5 mm above the surface of the fingerboard. the idea is that an easy touch from the player’s finger should put the string in contact with the fingerboard at the correct position for the desired note. The nut is glued to the neck and fingerboard, usually, but in reality, it is held in place by string tension, and the glue is “just a formality.” (I glue them so that they can’t fall off and get lost, during transport or a string change.)

I carefully laid out the string locations, so that they are spaced equidistant, center-to-center, and then cut the slots for the strings using first a small razor-saw, and then a round file of the appropriate diameter for the string in question.

Nut installed and slots filed for a 5-string Double Bass.
Nut installed and slots filed for a 5-string Double Bass. The corners will be rounded later.


Tailpiece and Tail-wire

I chose to make the tailpiece of Ipé wood, to match the fingerboard, nut and saddle. The tailpiece fret (transverse bar forming a positive “stop” for all five strings) is also Ipé, and after being heated and bent, it resisted being glued. I eventually took it off entirely, scraped off all the failed glue-layers, washed it down with acetone to remove the oils in the wood, and reglued with epoxy. But this time, I anchored it with six small brass rivets. It is permanent, now! (Besides, I like the look of the shiny little brass rivets!)

I also attached the tail-wire; a 1/8″ diameter stainless-steel aircraft cable. I established the length so that the distance between the nut and bridge would be as close as possible to being in a 6:1 ratio with the distance between the bridge and the tailpiece fret.

Completed tailpiece assembly for a five-string double bass.
Completed tailpiece assembly for a five-string double bass.



I chose a bridge blank that was tall enough to serve with the projection angle I had already established, and wide enough to comfortably accommodate five strings.

I fitted the bridge feet to the surface of the bass front-plate, so that it would have an airtight fit when placed between the inner “notches” on the f-holes, and centered over the centerline of the plate.

Once the fit of the feet was established, I marked the bridge for the approximate height, hoping to achieve a string clearance of about 11 mm above the end of the fingerboard, but erring on the side of “too high.” (I can’t very well “put it back,” if I remove too much wood.) I then marked the locations of the strings, giving them 25mm from center to center. I filed the string slots, so that the strings would stay put when installed, and I went ahead and installed the strings.

Bridge for 5-string double bass.
Bridge for 5-string double bass.


As it happened, I ended up with about 14mm under the B-string, ranging to 12 mm under the G-string…way too high. No problem: I simply re-marked the bridge, this time having a better idea of where things would line up, re-cut the top of the bridge, re-filed the string slots, and tried again. This time I had 11mm under the B-string, and 6mm under the G-string, with the strings in the middle at about 8mm. That is acceptable, so I finished trimming excess wood from the bridge, tuned up the strings, and I  was ready for the final adjustments for sound.

Five-string double bass, set-up and ready for final adjustments.
Five-string double bass set-up and ready for final adjustments.


It is quite a relief to me to finally have this instrument nearly complete. It was actually begun several years ago; but it was set aside for a variety of reasons, and only resurrected as a project, this Spring.

The sound, at first set-up, is satisfactory, but I hope to achieve a better balance, more volume, and better clarity as the instrument “settles in’ a bit, and with subsequent adjustments of the soundpost. But for now, I’m happy with it. It looks good and sounds good. For a brand-new instrument, that is a good start.

Completed 5-string double bass with cello in the background
Completed 5-string double bass with cello in the background.


So, for now, that is it! There are a few “finishing touches” and re-touch of varnish, etc, as well as the aforementioned sound adjustments, but the bass is essentially complete!

I hope to make all the necessary adjustments, and then find a player or two to “test-drive” it for me, since I am not a player, and can’t do it justice.

I will post the “verdicts” from those players when they happen.


Thanks for looking.





Completing the Varnish

Completing the Varnish

Protecting the Color

The color varnish, as you might imagine, gets the instrument looking the way we want, but the clear coats keep it that way…we hope.

So, after the color coats were mostly complete, I waited a few days for the varnish to cure a bit and then added two clear coats as a protection for the color coats, so that they will not experience undue wear.

Final clear coats of varnish on five-string double bass.
Final clear coats of varnish on five-string double bass in sunlight.


Clear coat on double bass.
Final clear coat; Back view in sunlight.


Final clear coats in the shade on Double bass.
Final clear coats in the shade.

There is still a lot of work left to do at this point: There will be endless “re-touch” of spots in the varnish that I wasn’t quite satisfied with, but they can wait until after the set-up is under way.


I usually wait until the varnish is complete, before installing the saddle. The saddle is the transverse piece of hardwood upon which the tail gut rests, as it crosses the edge of the front plate. (Ebony, frequently, but, as I had opted for an Ipé fingerboard, Ipé seemed the right choice for the saddle as well.)

I make my saddles with radiused ends, to avoid saddle-cracks. To some extent, saddle cracks are caused by the shrinking and swelling of the spruce plate against an essentially unmoveable ebony (or Ipé) saddle. However, the other factor (possibly more important) is that, for hundreds of years, luthiers have cut the saddle with sharp-cornered, square ends, requiring a sharp-cornered square-ended mortise in the spruce…which inevitably inclined itself toward eventual cracks. Sharp corners are extreme stress risers.

Round discontinuities (holes, for example) do not cause stress risers, and are far less likely to cause cracks. I try to leave the ends just a little loose, as do most luthiers, but the fact is, the sharp notch is the primary cause of the cracks. So I make round corners.

Saddle with round-cornered ends.
Saddle with round-cornered ends.


Tuning Machines

The next task was the tuning machines. There are many possibilities to choose from: I chose these tuning machines partly based on looks, partly on cost, but primarily because, with the curvy pegbox, I wasn’t completely sure that any other style could be made to work. (There are some multi-piece tuning machines, which, I would imagine, could be made to fit nearly any configuration, but I have no experience with those, so I opted for something I knew about.)

Anyway, I knew that this type of tuning machine has a tapered spindle, which is not designed to go all the way through the pegbox, so I designed and built a small reamer, all wood, except for the blade, which is spring steel (just because that is what I had available.) It works well, but I have to be gentle with it, and stop periodically to clean the chips from the reamer.

Handmade reamer for fitting double bass tuning machines.
Handmade reamer for fitting double bass tuning machines.

I made a template, laying out the hole locations with the hope that I could avoid the strings from the G and D tuners rubbing on the tuners below them in the pegbox. I used the template to lay out the holes on the pegbox, then drilled to appropriate depths and used the reamer to taper the holes to match the spindles of the tuning machines.

Finally, I installed the machines and secured them with screws.

Tuning machines installed on five-string double bass.
Tuning machines installed on five-string double bass.


It was amazing to see how much weight the tuning machines added. The bass no longer easily balances on the two bouts: it wants to rock down and put its head on the floor!

Ready for set-up!

I installed the nut at this point, as well, so the bass was really complete.

Five-string Double Bass, ready for set-up!
Five-string Double Bass, ready for set-up!


If you have sharp eyes, you will probably notice the hole above the tuning machines on the bass side. The pegbox was narrow enough there, that I actually went through the second side by accident, and was forced to create a plug for the hole, from some leftover rib material. I cut it to exactly fit the hole, and glued it in place, pressing it home, so that it was nearly exactly flush, then scraped the wood of the plug to exactly match the wood of the pegbox, and was ready to begin varnishing to complete the repair.

Repairs in progress for pegbox damage.
Repairs in progress for pegbox damage. When complete, the repair will be virtually invisible.


Anyway… that is as far as I wanted to go today. Some of you may have known from other forums’ content, that I had also had trouble getting the tailpiece fret to “stay glued” in its slot. So I eventually gave up, removed the fret, scraped all the layers of glue down to clean wood, and washed the Ipé with acetone. Then I reglued with epoxy, but this time I drilled and anchored the fret with six brass rivets! (It’s permanent, this time!)

Completed tailpiece for 5-string double bass.
Completed tailpiece.

Next time, I hope to complete the set-up of the bass and have it ready to play!

Thanks for looking.