So, moving forward, the next thing was to complete the front plate,
Once the arching was nearing correct values, I carved most of the interior and then began laying out f-holes and purfling lines. The Douglas Fir is extremely difficult to work with, because the winter reeds are incredibly hard, while the summer reeds are nearly as soft as spruce… so the knife tends to follow the winter reed, instead of your intended path, making it very difficult to cut a smooth line.
It was discouraging seeing how rough my beginning looked. But, as things progressed, I was able to clean up my lines a little and they began to look more acceptable:
And then, The outer purfling. I was being careful to not inlay the purfling too deeply, for fear of causing problems, but that meant the purfling did not want to stay in the slots by itself, while the glue set. So I had to clamp it down until the hot hide glue gelled and set up.
But it looked pretty good after I planed it all flush with the Douglas Fir.
When the interior and exterior were correct, I could finish cutting out the f-holes.
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, but 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 was also cut a just 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. Some of them are still being played professionally, 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. As I was splitting it, I heard the split-off piece hit the ground, and 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.)
This man showed up at my shop and he played all the five string instruments I had. (He really had not been used to 5-string instruments before, and 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, and 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 had thought things over, and he wanted one that was built especially for him! (Sure! We can do that!)
And, as it turned out, that was a good thing: A week later, thenext 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!
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” momentarily, but it will be gone immediately after completion.)
The commissioning customer also wanted localwood, so that he could say, “My violin was made 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.
Here is a closer picture of the maple:
I book-matched the spruce, by cutting a single billet in two equal halves and gluing them together to make the front plate.
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.
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.)
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:
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 otherside. 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.
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 wereiron.)
(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:
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.
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.
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.
Thanks for looking! I will try to keep everyone posted as to progress.
I shipped it to him and it arrived just after his birthday. He has been playing it ever since.
The young man truly has been pleased with it: He loved the tone, loved the balance, etc. But he was reluctant to allow me to publish a video of him playing it. He wanted more time to practice.
He just had a hard time getting used to having five strings. Quite a few classically trained players have told me that this was a problem. They felt that strings just seemed to appear in the wrong places. (I can understand that: there is a string right down the middle of the fingerboard that wasn’t there before! Besides, the angle in string crossings demands more of the player: it is much flatter, requiring more precision.)
He sent me several “progress reports,” over the next few months. All of them sounded good, to me, but he was still working on “getting comfortable” with the new instrument, and did not want them made public. Until today, I did not have his blessing to share any of them.
One of his stated goals was to be able to play Bach’s Cello Suite #6 on the viola. It was originally written for a 5-string cello: A very good cellist can play it on a four-string cello. But, the best violist cannot play Suite #6 on a classical 4-string viola in the original key. The classical cello used “thumb-position” fingering to play it. “Thumb-position” is not usable on a viola.
The young man bought the 5-string viola to overcome that specific hurdle, so he is working on that piece in this video :
I especially appreciate this video. It showcases both ends of the range of the Viola, and it shows that the instrument speaks quickly and easily, in fast attacks.
He hasn’t “spoken up” online yet (and he may not) but the music tells me he is happy with the instrument.
Build Progress for a couple of new “5-string Bluegrass fiddles:”
Last post showed the garlands complete, and ready to be leveled:
I began the leveling process using a file and a finger plane, until the fragile rib-edges were level with the linings.
Then I completed the leveling by rubbing the garland on a sanding board.
Tracing the plates
Once the garlands were flat, I could use them to trace the outline of the plates: I used a small washer as a tracing tool– as a spacer, to give me the overhang distance I want (3mm.)
Correcting the corners and cutting out the plates
I really don’t want the “round corners ” produced by the washer, but they do give me a starting point from which to correct the corners before cutting out the plates:
Arching the plates:
Arching the plates is a critical step, because the arching pretty much controls the tone quality. In fact, it may be the single most inportant factor in achieving good tone. I begin by scribing the edge-thickness of the plates and then I begin removing waste wood to complete the rough arching:
I use arching templates to establish the shape of the arching, and then fair-in the parts in between the templates. (The templates for the back plate are slightly different, but all of these things matter: I have to use them correctly. And, although I can get the arching “close” without the templates, quite honestly, “close” isn’t good enough.)
Laying out F-holes, and incising them.
After the arching shape is very close to correct, I use templates to lay out the f-hole shapes and locations, and then use a knife to incise the lines deeply, so that I can’t accidentally remove the lines through further shaping.
Then I refine the arching, using gouges, planes and scrapers, until the shape is exactly what I want.
The word “purfling” evidently comes from the old Italian “por filo” meaning edging. It supposedly helps strengthen the edge, and it certainly helps “define” the edge, and…it looks nice. Though there are examples of old intruments without purfling, allof the better “Old Master” makers used it, and I will never make an instrument without it. (Besides…I like it.)
I position the purfling beginning at 4mm inside the outer rim of the plates, and mark the location of both sides of the slot, using a purfling marker (sometimes called a purfling cutter.) The marker won’t work for the corners, so I have to lay them out using a pencil.
Then I use a knife to incise those lines deeply enough to receive the actual purfling strips.
Finally, when the slots are complete, I can begin inserting the actual purfling strips. The strips come as 32″ long three-ply veneers, and are very brittle. I have to use the bending iron to prepare them for insertion into the slots.
Gluing the Purfling:
After the purfling strips are correctly fitted, dry, I carefully lift them out, one by one, and slip hot hide glue into the slot beneath each strip, then quickly force the strip back into the slot, ramming it home with a special tool.
When all is complete, I allow the purfling to dry, before moving on to cutting the channel, performing the final edgework, and fairing the channels into the arching…but those are stories for another day. 🙂
This and several other of my instruments are all from a log given me by the late Terry Howell. I have made one cello, one bass and several five-string fiddles from the wood of that log, and I still have a lifetime supply, thanks to Terry’s generosity. (see that story, here)
The front plate, however, is a first for me: Douglas Fir! This is unusual, but not unheard of: there are a number of professional instruments by Otto Erdesz out there being played whose front plates were made of Douglas fir. Will I always use it? Nope! But this turned out very well indeed! I am more confortable using spruce, and probably will continue to mostly use spruce, but it was quite an eye-opening experience to try the Douglas Fir.
The sound is very big, with a very clear, deep C-String, and perfect balance across all five strings. This fiddle will “cut through the mix” in a band, but can also play pianissimo when needed.
Overall, I am very well satisfied with the final result on this fiddle. I am confident that a buyer will find it a thrill to play.
The last two commissions were a five-string on the original Oliver Pattern and a five-string on the slightly-wider Guarneri pattern. Both sounded great, and both customers are very happy. So, that left me wondering which one to do next. The obvious answer: Both!
I’m trying a new neck and scroll design on the Guarneri model. I hope it works well, because I really like the graceful look.
The instrument on the left (modeled after the 1735 “Plowden” Guarneri, with modifications to acommodate five strings) is left-over Oregon Big Leaf maple from building a five-string double bass, during the summer of last year (same as the Andy Pastor commission fiddle.)
The scroll (also Oregon Big Leaf Maple) is from a tree on the property where my wife grew up, and so are the ribs. The back is from a tree on the next ridge of hills west: about ten miles by road, probably three miles in direct line-of-flight. (Same one from which the recent double bass was taken, as well as several other instruments I have made. The late Terry Howell, of Howell Tree Farm, gave me the entire log, so I have a good supply.)
I have also decided to try an experiment: This will be the first time I have attempted a 5-string bluegrass fiddle with a belly of Douglas Fir, as opposed to Spruce. Otto Erdesz was famous for using it successfully in many of his instruments, so, when a friend gave me some very straight, split Douglas Fir, I decided to make the attempt, on the Guarneri model. It is quite dense compared to spruce, but it rings like a bell, when I tap it with my finger, so, I think it will be good.
The back, as well as the ribs and the scroll on the right-hand instrument above (the Oliver-model) are all from the tree on my Mother- and Father-in-law’s property. The belly, as usual, is Sitka Spruce.
So, that is where things stand, today:
Slow Start due to Repairs and other Responsibilities
This has been a slow start: 2021 saw me needing to repair my ancient bandsaw, and, even more depressing, my drill press had succumbed to the misguided attention of a marauding mouse. (The little wretch had crawled up through the ventilation holes of the electric motor and chewed off all the insulation from about 4″ of wire!)
The bandsaw required disassembly and drilling out a worn, threaded hole, and retapping for a helicoil. The machine will probably outlast me, now.
The drill press motor had to be taken apart and a new wire soldered in place. (A friend did that one for me. I really lack confidence when it comes to electric motor repair.) Fortunately, the damage was limited to just that one wire. (Maybe the plastic insulation gave the mouse a belly-ache.)
Back in business:
At any rate, I now have both machines running again, and I was able to saw out the profiles for the remaining plates as well as drilling the pilot holes in each scroll.
I should be able to get more done, now. (Gotta prune the apple-trees, too… Spring is on the way!)