15″ 5-String Viola Completed

Completion is a Relative Term

I would love to just say, “There! All Done!” but the fact is, I will always be able to see little things I wish I could change, and perhaps could not see until it was pretty much too late. That’s OK…it’s part of being a maker. I just have to know when it is time to say, “That’s as far as I am going!” and call it good.

Varnish

Last time, I shared how one of those decisions was how dark to make the varnish. I came to that decision about two coats past the last time I posted, so I allowed the varnish to harden for about a week, and then gave it a final once-over, and began the set-up procedures. Here is how it looked before I began set-up:

Five String Viola, Final varnish front view.
Final varnish front view.

 

Five String Viola Final Varnish, Back View.
Final Varnish, Back View.

 

Five String Viola Final varnish, Scroll.
Final varnish, Scroll.

 

The varnish took several days to harden enough to work on set-up, and even when I thought it was ready, it still easily took fingerprints. 🙁   I guess I should have known. Anyhow, it means there will be some rubbing out to be done after set-up is complete, and the varnish is even harder.

Set-up

I did not take many photos during set-up. Set-up includes:

    • Re-installing the Fingerboard,
    • Installing the nut,
    • Installing the saddle,
    • Installing pegs,
    • Fitting the soundpost,
    • Fitting the bridge,
    • Installing the end-button,
    • Installing and adjusting the tailpiece and strings,
    • Installing the chinrest, and
    • Playing while adjusting for sound (balance, tone, etc.)

So, I had a fairly frustrating day, wherein it seemed nothing went right on the first try. It took me twice as long as it should have, but I got it done. I only took a few photos:

Beginning to ream peg holes on Five String Viola.
Fingerboard installed: Beginning to ream peg holes.

 

Pegs, nut, saddle, end-button and soundpost installed on Five String Viola. Working on the bridge.
Pegs, nut, saddle, end-button and soundpost installed. Still working on the bridge.

 

Almost done with set-up of Five String Viola: chinrest and final adjustments remaining.
Almost done with set-up: chinrest and final adjustments remaining.

 

Sound

The 5-string 15″ viola had good sound from the first moment, but, as usual, it required some sound-post adjustment to achieve balance across all five strings. A sharp-eyed viewer also may notice all the mismatched strings; Jargar C, heavy Dominant G, D and A, and a regular Dominant E. I was unable to find the string sets I had bought recently (found them later), so, for the moment I simply used what I had, and adjusted accordingly. And, surprisingly,  it sounded quite good.

It has a huge voice compared to my violin-size five-string fiddles, and except for the C, the balance is very good. I adjusted the soundpost to bring the C-string into line, and it is much better, now. I am anxious to try an actual “set” of strings on it, to see what I can achieve in terms of balance and over-all tone.

Anyway, here is what it looked like immediately after full set-up:

Front view of completed 5-string viola.
Front view of completed 15″ 5-string viola.

 

Back view of completed 15" Five String Viola
Back view of completed 15″ 5-string Viola.

It still will need a final rub-down, but for now, I am playing it and just letting it finish hardening.

 

Thanks for looking.

 

15″ 5-String Viola Varnish Progress

Continuing the Varnishing Process:

Color Coats

On my last post, I had the base coat of yellow varnish applied and dry, so the next step would be to sand it smooth, removing any sags, runs, “orange-peel,” or other flaws, so that the color coats would lie down smooth and flat.

After sanding, and rubbing the dust away with a rag, I added heavily colored varnish, in very thin coats:

1st color coat, front: 15
1st color coat, front view.

 

1st color coat, side view.
1st color coat, side view.

 

1st color coat, back view.
1st color coat, back view.

 

1st Color coat, scroll.
1st color coat, scroll.

 

I let the varnish dry for a day, then sanded all over with 400-grit, to remove any flaws, and added a second color coat:

2nd color coat, front view.
2nd color coat, front view.

 

2nd color coat, side view.
2nd color coat, side view.

 

2nd Color Coat, Back view.
2nd color coat, back view.

 

2nd Color Coat, Scroll.
2nd color coat, scroll.

 

Decisions, Decisions!

After this, the challenge becomes “knowing when to stop.” (I like the looks of the instrument right now, but perhaps I would like it better darker. On the other hand, if I don’t like it better darker, I will be stuck with it.) So I have to spend some time looking at it in different lighting, and from different angles.

When I decide that I have enough color applied, I will add a clear coat or two, to anchor all the color, and protect it from wear. Then it will be set-up time!

 

Thanks for looking.

 

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.