A 5-String Fiddle is Headed “North to Alaska!”

A Call From an “Unknown Person”

This sort of thing has happened often enough that I ought to not be surprised: I get a call from some unfamiliar place, and I automatically suppose it to be “spam” of some sort, since I do get a lot of unsolicited calls trying to sell me something or another.

But then the caller says they are looking for a five-string fiddle, and the game changes instantly! I have to mentally “change gears,” pretty quickly. (No complaints! That is a nice surprise, when it happens.)

Call from Alaska

Ann and I were out walking,  in January, just trying to get the exercise we need. We live on the very top of a steep hill, and we were walking back up that steep hill, toward home. We had maybe a third of a mile left to go,  when my cell phone rang.

I saw that the call originated in Anchorage, Alaska!  Ironically, I do have a cousin in Anchorage, but it was unlikely to be him. I commented to Ann, “It’s probably spam…” and I answered the phone.

The woman identified herself immediately: she stated that she was looking for a five-string fiddle for her eleven-year-old son. Evidently he is an up-and-coming fiddler, and wanted a 5-string fiddle.

(Cool!) But I really don’t recomend buying a $6,000 instrument for a beginner who may change his mind in a year or less. So I cautioned her that these hand-made fiddles may not be appropriate for an 11-year-old.

I suggested that I buy a “fiddle in-the-white” (woodwork completed, but just bare wood, unfinished, and not set up) and complete that for her. In that way, I could provide  an instrument at one third the cost of handmade. She immediately agreed: that is exactly what she wanted.  I offered to call her back for more details after we arrived home and she agreed to that as well. So, we sealed the deal by telephone, and I began the work.

“Atelier Chez Les Evêques” Fiddles

Usually, this means beginning with a white instrument, checking all measurements and the resonance of the corpus, and then going ahead with varnishing. Since I am not making these instruments, but only completing someone else’s work, I do not put my label in them but rather my “house-brand” label (which only means “From the shop at the Bishops’ place.”)

But, sadly, for this example, I neglected to take any pictures until late in the varnishing process.

So, about February 1st, I sent the lady this photo of just the back, letting her know I was working on it. She had made plans to come to my area in April in regard to a different project, anyway, so I had plenty of time to make delivery.

fiddle back
Fiddle back with first coats of varnish complete.


She was quite happy with the look, so I continued without further photos until it was done.

Then I sent these:

completed front
Completed front.


completed bass side
Bass side completed (fancy pegs on this one!)


Completed back
Completed back: she loved the figured maple!


The customer was quite happy, so I hung the fiddle up in my dining room to continue drying while I waited for her to arrive in my area.

Hanging for extended dry time
Hanging for extended dry time.


Now the little fiddle is back in Alaska and being played. Everyone is pleased with it, including the young fiddler.

She sent me a video of the youngster playing “The Road to Lisdoonvarna” and he sounded pretty good! I hope he becomes a hugely successful fiddler and needs a handmade fiddle someday! 🙂


Thanks for looking!

Lots of Delays and New Project

Lots of Delays and New Project


Home repairs and equipment repairs.

We had a few break-downs this summer. The lawn tractor, a faithful beast of thirty years, suddenly quit working. Turned out to be a bad PTO clutch. I was eventually able to order new parts online, and do the work myself, but it was a discouraging project, as I am really not a mechanic, by inclination. But it works again.

Meanwhile, it also turned out that one of our toilets had been leaking under the floor, and had ruined the floor, so the whole underlayment had to come out. I replaced it with something called “wonderboard”…a concrete product, reinforced with fiberglass… nasty stuff to work with, but relatively impervious, so I was glad to go ahead with it.  mudded all the screws so they were flush, and all the seams, etc., then sanded the whole mess flat. Then linoleum, and sealer, and wallpaper. Finally got everything back in place, working, no leaking pipes, etc.,  just Wednesday of this week. Glad to be done with that.

New Project:

5-String Violoncello Piccolo

A fellow called me a while back, having seen my 5-string fiddles, and asking for a custom-made five-string cello, using all Oregon woods, if possible. (No problem…but most of the historic 5-string cellos I am aware of were piccolos…considerably smaller instruments, and quite rare. Only a few surviving models.) Nope, he wanted a full-size. Okeedoke, no problem. They even sell Cello-string sets for full-size 5-string cellos.

But he thought it over, and now is leaning toward a piccolo, just because. (They really are a special instrument!) But, now I do have a problem: I don’t have one to show him.

So, since I am short on time, I am making an experimental mock-up of the correct size, using a fractional-size hybrid cello (laminated sides and back; carved top), and replacing the normal neck with a neck and scroll specifically designed for a five-string instrument. It will not be the quality instrument he will expect in a custom-made cello, but it will give him the opportunity to experiment with the smaller size and the five strings.

I had plenty of maple on hand, but not thick enough for the neck, so I laminated two 1-1/2″ slabs, side by side, to make a thick billet, and then sawed out the blank.

Piccolo Neck Blank
Piccolo Neck Blank


I laid out the details of the scroll and neck; then used a saw to begin removing excess material. It is hot and humid, today, and I tired pretty rapidly, so I only got partway done:

Piccolo neck and scroll in progress
Piccolo neck and scroll in progress.


Piccolo Scroll with more cuts

Piccolo Scroll with more cuts.


Starting to smooth up a bit, but still a long way to go.
Starting to smooth up a bit, but there is still a long way to go.


I hope to have the scroll and neck complete in a day or two. I then intend to make a fingerboard and nut of Ipe, a non-threatened hardwood, and install the assembly on the hybrid corpus, immediately thereafter.

At that point, it should be down to the final finish of the neck and fingerboard, and set-up of the instrument in its new life as a  five-string cello piccolo. The corpus is already in good shape, so it should not require additional attention.

I will post photos, as they become relevant.

Thanks for looking.

Five String Instruments

Five-String Fiddles

I get a fair amount of demand for five-string fiddles; in my case, that means a five-string instrument with the same footprint and scale-length as a violin, but with the added C-string, so that it carries the full range of both a violin and a viola. I have mastered this genre to the point that the low end of my five-string fiddles sound like a good, small viola, and the high end sounds like a good violin…and the neck width is just barely wider than that of a violin (25 mm) so that it plays like a violin.

Teachers like them, because they can teach the viola part or the violin part, without having to change instruments.

Wood Selection

One of the beauties of a five-string fiddle is that, because it is non-traditional, I am not under the burden of using traditional woods, so I am free to experiment, and, as it turns out, there are other woods that work quite well: I have made them of domestic woods; Big Leaf Maple/Sitka Spruce (or Englemann Spruce), but I have also used Koa/Sitka Spruce, Myrtle/Port Orford Cedar, and all these combinations worked quite well. I will soon try a five-string fiddle of Bubinga and Sitka Spruce and am open to other experiments.
I will continue to build and sell five-string fiddles either on speculation or on commission, as the demand increases.

Five-String Violas

I am beginning to hear a call for Five-String Violas as well. These have the same range of pitch as a five-string fiddle, but the physical instruments are whatever size viola is preferred by the customer. Though I have already built several sizes, until I get an increased demand, these will likely remain as custom commissions, not just built on speculation, such as how I currently produce the five-string fiddles.
The practical difference, then, between a five-string fiddle and a five-string viola, is that the (usually larger) five-string viola will usually have deeper, richer, louder tone, just because it has a larger resonating body, both of air and wood. But not everyone can comfortably play a larger instrument, so this is a matter of personal choice.

Five-String Cellos

Five-string cellos are not a new thing. The cello-piccolo and the cello da spalla have been extant for centuries, and music has been specially written for both. I hope to see a rising demand for these instruments, but, for the moment, they are a rarity. I can build both, and hope to soon have some to display here, but, for the moment, I do not. I have had customers ask about them, but usually, it was just an idea they had, and they were not prepared to place an order.

Five-String Double Basses

Five-string double basses are increasingly common, as people want the freedom to reach for lower bass notes, and not have to have a “B-Extension” added to their bass (which can also be done, of course, but it does add length to the bass scroll, and an additional source of fragility.)
I build an occasional double bass, but they are a lot of work, and they completely monopolize my small workspace when they are a work in progress; so I am more likely to default to smaller instruments. There is a special thrill, however, in building a huge instrument, seeing the beauty of the beast, and feeling the floor shake when I draw out long bass notes with the bow. I can certainly understand why players fall in love with the double bass, and especially the five-string double bass, with the lowest-of-the-low B-string at their beck and call.