Before I could prepare the back plate of this five-string fiddle, I had to complete the rest of the corpus (body of the violin:) First, the inside willow blocks and willow linings had to be tapered and shaped so they are completely smooth. Then, the back of the entire corpus (including the heel of the neck) has to be leveled, so that it will lie flat on the back plate. So, here is the main part of the 5-string violin, with the interior clean and smooth, and the back leveled and flat:
Beginning the Back Plate
I clamped the corpus flat on the back plate billet, then traced around the ribs, using a small washer to establish the correct rib overhang. Then I corrected the corners, using a straightedge and a series of circle patterns. Finally, I cut out the plate “footprint”, and began the arching process. Oregon Big Leaf Maple is a relatively soft maple, but it is still a good deal harder and tougher than Sitka spruce, so the back plate is a lot more work to carve. Here is the beginning:
In the above photo, the back plate is sitting in a work cradle, so that it will stay in place while I carve it. The Ibex plane in the photo has been slightly modified, to add the palm-fitting handle. This reduces the stress on my fingers and transfers the force to the palm of my hand as opposed to my thumb and forefinger. (To Ibex plane-owners: you will observe that I have removed the adjusting screw and reinstalled it upside down to allow insertion of the maple handle.)
I have been on vacation for two weeks, which has allowed me to accomplish more work than usual, in a shorter period of time. I go back to my regular job, on Monday, though, so things are about to slow to a crawl. (Sorry…that’s life. :-))
(Further progress on building a custom-made 5-string bluegrass fiddle.)
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
I am beginning to hear a call for Five-String Violas as well. This would have the same range of pitch as a five-string fiddle, but the physical instrument will be whatever size of viola is preferred by the customer. 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, would be that the (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 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.