Beginning the Varnishing Process

Varnish Procedure For a 15″ Five-String Viola

First things first: Mineral Ground

The raw wood is quite porous, and would soak up varnish like a sponge…which would dampen the sound. So we don’t want that to happen! The solution to the problem seems to be to fill the pores of the wood with very fine particles of mineral of some sort. I don’t particularly want something that would form a concretion, as some makers have done, because I think that also changes the sound, but in a different way.

I used Gypsum, ground very fine in a mortar, then suspended in water, and daubed onto the surface; then vigorously rubbed into the pores. After rubbing the mineral into the entire surface (except the “handle” area of the neck) I used a damp cloth to rub all the excess gypsum back off. While it is wet, it just looks like wet wood, but as it dries, it turns chalk-white, assuring me that the surface is truly saturated with the particles.

Partially dry mineral ground, front side.
Partially dry mineral ground, front side.

 

Partially dry mineral ground, back side.
Partially dry mineral ground, back side.

 

Then, after the gypsum suspension is completely dry, I use fine sandpaper to remove any excess mineral from the surface, so that there are no thick patches of mineral.

Dry Mineral ground, rubbed clean.
Dry Mineral ground, rubbed clean.

 

Locking the mineral ground in the wood: Sealer

As you can see in the above photograph, the mineral is still saturating the surface, and obscuring the grain. However, when I apply the sealer (in this case, a mixture of rosin, turpentine, and alcohol) the mineral ground will become completely transparent, and will permanently disappear. The varnish will then be free to show off the grain of the wood.

Front side with sealer.
Front side with sealer.

 

Side with sealer.
Side with sealer.

 

Back with sealer.
Back with sealer.

 

Making it Shine: Beginning the varnish

It takes a while for the sealer to dry, because of the turpentine content, but as it dries, the alcohol evaporates first, then the turpentine, leaving the rosin in the wood (which is where rosin comes from in the first place, of course) locking the gypsum particles in place. and further sealing the wood against saturation with varnish.

Before proceeding to the varnish, I carefully sanded all over, to clean up any spots that still felt rough or sticky, then wiped the entire instrument down with alcohol to remove any rosin residue from the surface.

Then I applied a first coat of yellow varnish, as I have noticed that many of the old instruments seem to have something yellow under the darker red or brown varnish. You can especially see it in the areas where the colored varnish has worn thin, or is completely gone. (Not all of them have this color, but I like it, so that is what I have chosen to do.)

So, here is the base coat of yellow varnish:

Base coat of yellow varnish on front side.
Base coat of yellow varnish on front side.

 

Base coat of yellow varnish on the side.
Base coat of yellow varnish on the side.

 

Base coat of yellow varnish on the back side.
Base coat of yellow varnish on the back side. The grain of the spalted maple is showing better, again.

 

Base coat of yellow varnish on scroll and neck heel.
Base coat of yellow varnish on scroll and neck heel.

 

I do not apply varnish to the “handle” portion of the neck until everything else is completely done. After everything else is done, including set-up, I will rub down the handle area with 400-grit abrasive one last time, and then put about a dime-sized dot of shellac on a rag, on the end of my finger, and vigorously rub it into the wood of the handle area, until it is completely dry. This somewhat seals the wood against sweat and dirt, without leaving a heavy, “slick” coating that would cause drag on a player’s hand.

The rest of the varnish coats will be building color toward the final look of the instrument. I will include them in another post.

 

Thanks for looking.

 

Commissioned 5-String Varnish Progress

Varnish Progress on the Commissioned 5-String Fiddle

Varnish Procedure for All my Instruments:

  1. Complete all scraping, shaping and smoothing: varnish preparation.
  2. Wet the instrument down to raise the grain, then
  3. Lightly sand with fine-grit abrasive, to remove rough bits of raised wood.
  4. Rub in a mineral ground, then use a rag to remove excess.
  5. After the ground dries, sand lightly again, to remove any rough excess mineral.
  6. Seal using turpentine and rosin.
  7. After the sealer is dry, begin adding coats of varnish.

Following the above format, here are the results:

Dried Mineral Ground, compared with varnished instruments.
Dried Mineral Ground, compared with varnished instruments.

 

front view with sealer
Front view with sealer…mineral has disappeared.

 

Side view with sealer
Side view with sealer…the grain is visible; the ground is transparent.

 

back with sealer
Back with sealer; the grain is very visible, the ground has disappeared.

 

Now the varnishing begins!

The mineral ground was intended to close all the open pores in the wood so that the varnish will not saturate the wood. Then the sealer locks the mineral ground in place and causes it to become transparent. (Think “wet t-shirt material.” White stuff becomes transparent when wet, as a rule.)

So, now the varnish further seals the wood and begins to add gloss and protection from moisture, dirt, etc. And, if we do it correctly, it will add the color we want, as well, without losing transparency.

I have used both oil varnishes and spirit varnishes. I believe the old masters used oil varnish, but currently, I have moved to spirit varnish. Perhaps one day I will use oil varnishes again

Spirit varnish dries so rapidly that I can usually apply four coats of varnish the first day. So here is the fiddle with four coats of spirit varnish:

four coats varnish front view
Front, with four coats varnish…still pretty yellow.

 

side with four coats varnish
Bass side with four coats of varnish: Too much contrast between side and front plate.

 

back plate with four coats of varnish
Back plate with four coats of varnish… looking pretty nice!

 

Leveling the varnish

So, then, after the first few coats have dried hard,  we sand lightly to remove brush marks, sags, drips, etc. and begin to add color coats. Usually, I have a pattern of shading I use, to emulate light “wear” patterns. This one has very little of that.

Final color front plate
Final color front plate…the light patch on the upper left is a reflection.

 

Final color treble side
Final color treble side: notice that the front and side match nicely, now.

 

Final color bass side
Final color bass side.

 

Final color back plate
Final color back plate.

 

Final color bass side scroll
Final color bass side scroll.

 

Final color treble side scroll
Final color treble side scroll.

 

Final Finish Work

So, now we will let the varnish thoroughly dry, and harden; after which there may be retouching and minor changes to make, but the main focus will become set-up after that. (In case anyone is interested, the customer has been kept abreast of every step in the build, and is getting quite anxious to take possession.)  🙂

Thanks for looking!

Commissioned 5-string fiddle

5-String Fiddle nearing completion

Custom Made Fiddle Choices

Back in December, I received a commission for a new 5-string “Bluegrass” fiddle. It was to be made on the same form as one of my earlier instruments but have a two-piece, straight-grained Sitka spruce top and a very wild-grained Oregon Big Leaf maple back, sides and neck. The customer specifically requested Ipe for the Fingerboard, saddle and nut. Ipe is extremely hard, dense wood, but not threatened or scarce, as ebony is becoming. It is an odd color when under the knife, and leaves a bright yellow dust when it it is scraped, but it finishes a nice dark brown and darkens further with age.

Wild Grain Makes for Tough Carving

The last time I posted, I was just beginning the back plate arching. It was tough carving, as it is extremely “wild” flame, and the grain is anything but straight. The result, of course, is some very beautiful wood. But it is hard work, regardless. The blades must be kept

The purfling requested was not only double purfling (favored by a few of the early masters) but was to include a purfling weave, as well, in the form of a modified “fleur-de-lis.”  This is a design I came up with on my first five-string fiddle, and have continued to use, in a variety of forms, ever since.

Back Purfling begun
Working on the back purfling slots.

I like the look of the double-purfling and the weave, but it is pretty hard on my hands, as I still do all my purfling inlays by hand. I know a lot of makers use a Dremel-tool, or something similar. Perhaps I will succumb to that as well.

At any rate, here is the back plate, with the purfling complete:

completed back plate
Back plate complete, ready for final scraping and graduation.

Closing up the “Corpus”

I closed up the corpus a few nights ago: all that is left to do before varnishing is to complete the final carving of the neck heel, and all the final edgework, so that the wood is “varnish-ready.”

Closed corpus, side view.
Closed corpus, side view. (Note the heel yet to be carved; edgework incomplete.)

 

Closed Corpus Back
Closed Corpus, back view…button still too long; heel uncarved.

 

Closed Corpus, Front view
Closed Corpus, Front view. Corners and edgework still not done.

I will show one more progress report during the varnishing process, and the last for set-up and playing.

Thanks for looking.

More 5-string Fiddle Progress

Five-String Fiddle Progress

(Further progress on building a custom-made 5-string bluegrass fiddle.)

Neck Set

The neck was ready to set into the neck-block, last night, but I had reached my limit. So, today, I prepared both the neck and the garland, by ascertaining that all angles and dimensions were correct, and then laying out the shape of the neck mortise on the neck block of the garland.  This is a critical step, and always raises my blood pressure a little, as I know that, if I make a mistake, it will require serious rework to get back to a usable status.

However, this time, the job went pretty smoothly, and I was able to set the neck in a fairly short time. One thing I do a little differently than I was originally taught, is that I set the neck before installing the maple back plate. This allows me to achieve a good fit with the rib garland and neck block, and not have to worry about the fit against the back plate button. Then I saw off the stub of the neck heel, and plane and file it flush with the rib garland. After I remove the mold and add the back linings, I will level the back of the garland, and be ready to trace the back plate shape.

 

Neck Set Complete.
Neck Set Complete: still have to remove the neck-heel stub.

 

Here is the completed corpus (Sitka Spruce top plate and Big Leaf maple ribs still on the mold) with the wild-grain Big-leaf maple back plate billet.

Completed Corpus with Back Plate Billet.
Completed Corpus with Back Plate Billet.

 

Mold Removal

So, the next step was to remove the plywood mold. This is another stressful step because it involves literally using a hammer and chisel, to break the glue-bond between the blocks and the mold, so as to release the garland from the mold.  I used to have a difficult time doing this, because occasionally a drop of hide glue had seeped between the rib and the mold, and anchored the fragile rib material to the very solid mold. The likelihood of breaking a rib at that point became nearly 100%. Eventually, however, I learned to liberally coat all the non-gluing surfaces of the mold with candle-wax (paraffin,) by vigorously rubbing a candle over all the areas I felt were likely to get a drop of glue on them.

The result today was that, when I removed the mold, it went smoothly, and I could see a place where glue had definitely intruded but it had dried with zero adhesion to the waxy mold. (What a relief!)

Mold removed, ready for back linings.
Mold removed, ready for back linings.

Installing the Back Linings

The linings are important for two reasons: they strengthen the fragile rib-edges, and they triple the gluing surfaces between the rib-garland and the front and back plates.

So, I cut the mortices in both sides of each of the six blocks to receive the lining strips, and then inserted the linings dry, to get a perfect fit.

Afterward, I removed each lining, one by one, coated them liberally with hot hide-glue, and re-inserted them, clamping immediately with small spring-clamps.

Back linings installed, glued and clamped.
Back linings installed, glued and clamped.

Shaping Blocks and Linings

If you look closely you can also see, in the above photos, that I had trimmed the blocks on the front side, before removing the mold. After the glue is dry on the back linings, I will also trim the back side of the blocks, to achieve a smooth, curved surface on the interior of all the blocks. At that same time, I will taper the linings so that they are very thin on the edge toward the middle of each rib, but still 2 mm thick at the edge where they will contact the back and front plates.

After that, it will be time to level the back surface of the entire corpus (garland and neck-heel) so as to fit tightly against the back plate billet. Then I can trace the final shape of the back plate, cut it to shape, and get going on completing the back plate.

For now, I am satisfied to allow the glue to dry, and take the rest of the evening off.

 

Thanks for looking.

Commissioned Handmade Five-string Fiddle Beginning

Starting a new 5-String Fiddle

The Materials:

A few weeks ago I announced that a new fiddle would be beginning. Now I have a few photos to show:

The top plate is Sitka Spruce, from Bruce Harvie. The customer wanted “Oregon wood,” and the Maple is definitely from in my neighborhood, here in Oregon (I helped harvest it;) but the Sitka is just a species that grows here…I don’t know where it was harvested.

Wild-grain Maple for back and ribs!
Wild-grain Maple for back and ribs!

 

Fine-grained Sitka Spruce for top plate.
Fine-grained Sitka Spruce for the top plate.

 

Preview of the grain in the neck billet.
Preview of the grain in the neck billet.

 

Beginning the work:

I book-matched the spruce, to form the basis for the front plate: a solid plate with a tight glue-line down the center.

I used the mold (or form, as many people prefer to call it) that matched the fiddle the customer liked best. Then I added willow blocks to become the corners and end-blocks, and I traced the intended shape of the blocks from the mold template onto the back-side of the blocks, where they are flush with the mold.

Blocks and mold with template.
Blocks and mold with template.

 

Preliminary block-shaping complete.
Preliminary block-shaping complete.

 

Added the ribs, of the spalted maple the customer liked, and glued them to the willow blocks. Afterward, I added linings, also of willow, and let them into the blocks and glued them to the ribs and the blocks.

Spalted Maple ribs and willow linings.
Spalted Maple ribs and willow linings.

 

Rib garland nearly complete.
Rib garland nearly complete.

 

Then I traced the shape of the garland onto the top plate material, using a small washer as a spacer, and a ball-point pen as a scribe. I completed the corners using a straightedge and a series of circle templates. Finally, I marked the edge at exactly 4 mm thick, and carved the arching, using gouges and planes and scrapers.

Sitka top-plate arching complete.
Sitka top-plate arching complete.

 

Then I marked the layout of the double purfling and the f-holes, and began incising them into the Sitka Spruce.

F-holes and purfling traced and cutting begun.
F-holes and purfling traced and cutting begun.

 

Sometime in the midst of all the above work, I laid out and began carving the scroll and pegbox. That wild grain is very tricky to carve, as it changes direction constantly.

Rough-carved scroll and pegbox.
Rough-carved scroll and pegbox.

 

I went ahead and completed the purfling and the f-holes, so that I could prepare the plate to be glued to the garland.

Completed top plate and neck work with garland.
Completed top plate and neck work with garland.

 

I also added the bass-bar, chalk-fitting it to perfection, and gluing it in place, with hot hide glue. The bass-bar will be carved, planed and scraped to the proper shape after the glue dries.

Bass-bar glued and clamped.
Bass-bar glued and clamped.

 

Top plate glued and clamped to the garland, fingerboard glued to the neck.
Top plate glued and clamped to the garland, fingerboard glued to the neck.

 

The fingerboard is Ipé, as requested by the customer. It is an extremely dense hardwood, but not threatened as Ebony is beginning to be. It finishes to a dark brown and looks good, as well as wearing well. It is extremely difficult to work, though, so it may take time to become popular with makers. The saddle and the nut will also be Ipé, but the pegs will be ebony, simply because I have never mastered the lathe-turning of tuning pegs.

Working on the fingerboard.
Working on the fingerboard.

 

And that is pretty much where things stand, for now. I will try to post pictures as they become available.

 

Thanks for looking.

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.

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