15″ 5-string Viola on the way

Five-String Viola in progress

Delayed Five-String Viola Completion

I have been seeing increased interest in 5-string violas, lately, so I am working to “populate” my five-string viola stock. This is the viola design I began with over 20 years ago (The mold says 1999; it was my very first instrument.) and it makes a very nice small viola. So I decided it would probably make a great 5-string viola as well.

I began the work quite some time ago, but other projects took priority, so the little viola languished on the bench. The back is curly, spalted maple from a tree that had been taken down on my wife’s parents’ place, and the belly is Sitka spruce. Both the front and back plates are one-piece in this case…something I seldom do. (One-piece front plates are uncommon. One-piece backs are quite common, and I prefer them.)

The rib-garland had been completed and the plates traced out months ago; so, after delivering the last commissioned instrument, I finally felt free to get to work again on the viola.

Completed Rib Garland for Five String viola.
Completed Rib Garland. Linings and blocks still require shaping and scraping.

Five-string viola arching complete: ready to graduate the plates

I failed to take any photos while arching…so we are beginning with that portion complete.

Front and Back Plates for Five String viola.
Front and Back Plates, completed except f-holes, bass-bar, purfling, and edgework.

 

Graduation of back plate for Five String viola.
Graduation of back plate.

 

Carving the back plate for the Five String viola.
Carving “dots” with specific thicknesses. Notice the button graft, to replace damaged wood.

On the backs, especially, I make a practice of carving “dots” to specific thicknesses, following a plan in my mind. Once all the dots are correct, I “connect the dots” using small planes, until the entire interior is a smooth continuum, and all the correct thicknesses.

"Connecting the Dots" on a Five String viola back plate.
Connecting the Dots.

The Spruce is a lot easier to plane, so I tend to just measure and plane. Most people use gouges for all this work, but I like using the planes.

Graduating Front Plate for a Five String viola.
Graduating Front Plate, using curved-sole plane.

Cutting the f-holes on the Five-String viola

Once the plates are completed (which also involved laying out and incising the f-holes) I still have to actually cut out the f-holes. I used to do this using just a knife, but it was time-consuming, and I found it difficult to get the round parts “round.” My grown children bought this tool for me, a special tool for cutting just the upper and lower eyes of f-holes. It works beautifully!

f-hole cutter in action, cutting the f-hole eye on a Five String viola.
F-hole cutter in action: this tool cuts a perfectly round hole for the eyes of the f-holes.

 

F-hole cutter mark on a Five String viola.
F-hole cutter mark.

 

F-hole cutter with plug removed from a Five String viola front plate.
F-hole cutter with plug removed.

 

Five String viola front plate with F-hole cutter work completed.
F-hole cutter work complete… Knife work remains.

 

Five String viola Plates essentially complete.
Plates essentially complete: bass bar, purfling, and edgework remain.

Beginning the Scroll for the Five-String viola

While things were being sorted around, and different tasks became logical, I decided to get a start on the scroll and neck. Didn’t get very far, but here it is:

Beginning the scroll of a Five String viola.
Beginning the scroll.

There is still a long way to go, but it is feeling more as if I was getting something done, at least.

Installing and cutting the Bass-bar is next.

Thanks for looking.

New Five-string 14″ Viola

Wide 14" five-string viola.

14″  5-string Viola, with Extra-wide Lower Bouts

An experiment…

I began this instrument as an experiment, in 2010, but did not complete it. In fact, the only reason I know when I began it is that I wrote the date on the mold when I made it. It was intended to be a 14″ Viola with a very wide lower bout.

The wood for the neck, sides and the one-piece back is plain-sawn, Big-leaf maple with a two-piece Sitka spruce top plate. The workmanship is not as good as I try to produce today, so I might have simply discarded it, but, (I reasoned with myself) “it is just an experiment, to see what happens if you add a lot of width in the lower bouts.” If it turns out to work well, I will still have the mold and can simply make better, more professional examples of the same model.

What about a five-string Experiment?

So, back in September of 2019, it occurred to me that really I needed more 5-string fiddles on my website (especially violas), and that, if it worked, this was one I could complete more quickly…so I jumped back on it!

It still needs a good rubdown, a soundpost adjustment, and some play-in time, but today it is playing, and it sounds and looks OK, for what it is.

Front view of 14" Five String Viola
Front view of 14″ Five String Viola with wide lower bouts.

 

Side view of 14" Five String Viola.
Not a great photo, but here is the side view.

 

Back view of 14" Five String Viola.
Back view of 14″ five-string viola with wide lower bouts.

The voice is still a little too soft for what I want, but that could be the fact that the varnish is still pretty soft, too; and also, the soundpost is pretty tight  (which I know will need to change, but I also recognize that there is a tendency for the arching to relax a little and for the soundpost to be looser, after some time with strings on. Longitudinal compression of the top plate tends to try to shorten the top, resulting in a change in how the soundpost fits.)

All that to say, I am reticent to just jump in and trim the post, when it may actually need the extra length, in a few weeks, and with the varnish hardening off, and the playing-in beginning to take hold, I want to take my time about making changes.

The sound is (mostly) balanced across all five strings, but the C-string could use a little more focus.  Probably adjusting the soundpost and giving the varnish more time to harden will take care of all those issues.

Finally, because the repetitive tensioning and relaxing of the tuning is hard on strings, I have deliberately used an older set of strings for the set-up and trial period, so as not to sacrifice a brand-new set in what I know will shorten the life of the strings.

So! There it hangs in the dining room, where it will be warm, and we will see what the next week or so brings.

 

Thanks for looking.

Completed Five-String Fiddle

Commissioned Five-string fiddle complete.

Five String Fiddle is headed for the Bluegrass Festival!

The customer gave her enthusiastic blessing to my taking her precious new fiddle to the Wintergrass festival; hopefully to be played by some real professionals. Last night I completed most of the set-up, and I had it playing this morning.

So, here is most of the set-up process:

  1. Re-install the fingerboard.
  2. Carve and install the nut (final shaping later.)
  3. Ream peg-holes
  4. Carve and install the saddle.
  5. Install the end button.
  6. Install the soundpost
  7. Install the pegs.
  8. Cut the bridge to proper fit,  shape, and height.
  9. Install tailpiece and strings.
  10. Play it for final adjustment of soundpost, bridge, nut height, etc.

As you may recall, the customer chose Ipe wood for fingerboard, nut, and saddle. It is an extremely hard and dense wood, but not a threatened species, so it is still easy to obtain. In fact, the board I purchased was being sold for decking. I actually have some Apitong wood, too, salvaged from a railroad boxcar floor. Also very dense and hard, but not as pretty as Ipe.

The color of the Ipe wood looks good with the Oregon Big Leaf Maple and the Sitka spruce under their varnish. The only finish on the Ipe is a very light rub of linseed oil.

Shaping the nut of the Five-String Fiddle
Shaping the nut of Ipe wood, to match the fingerboard.

 

Ipe nut and fingerboard of the Five-String Fiddle
Nut and fingerboard installed and cut to preliminary shape.

 

Peg holes and nut grooves of the Five-String Fiddle
Peg holes reamed and nut grooves located, but not finished.

 

Pegs installed on the Five-String Fiddle
Pegs shaped, cut and installed.

 

Ipe saddle installed on the Five-String Fiddle
Saddle, of Ipe wood, installed with radiused corners to prevent cracks.

 

Bottom view of the Ipe wood saddle on the Five-String Fiddle
Bottom view of the Ipe wood saddle.

 

Completed end button with tailpiece of the Five-String Fiddle.
Completed end button with tailpiece.
Finished front view of the Commissioned Five-String Fiddle.
Finished instrument front view. End button and pegs are ebony: I can’t obtain Ipe pegs and fittings.

 

Bass side viw of the finished Five-String Fiddle
Finished bass side view.

 

Treble side view of the finished Five-String Fiddle.
Finished treble side view.

 

Finished back view of the Five-String Fiddle.
Finished back view.

 

Bass side scroll of the Five-String Fiddle.
Bass side scroll.

 

Treble side scroll of the Five-String Fiddle.
Treble side scroll.

“Playing it in.”

So, at this point, the main thing is to play the instrument as much as possible, so that it settles into its new life as a fiddle, instead of a bunch of pieces of wood! This period is called “play-in”, and there is much controversy as to what is really happening. But my observation is that there are definite positive changes that come about through vigorous playing of a new (or newly restored) instrument. I’m not going to try to “prove it:” it is just my observation and one I feel comfortable acting upon.

Five-String Fiddle Ready to play!
Ready to play!

How does she sound?

So far, so good! Very good, deep C-string tone, and well-balanced across all the strings. I would like a little more volume, and I may do some tinkering with the soundpost to that end, but I have to say, “Not bad for a brand-new fiddle!”

I think it is a winner! (Very pretty, too, but I didn’t do that…the tree did.)

Thanks for looking.

Carving the Five-string fiddle Back Plate

Five-string fiddle Inside Complete

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:

Five-string fiddle Inside complete, and back leveled.
Inside complete, and back leveled.

 

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:

Beginning Five-string fiddle Back Plate arching.
Beginning Back Plate arching.

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. :-))

 

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, late last night, but I had reached my physical 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 in violin-making 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.

 

Five-string fiddle 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 of Five-string fiddle 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!)

Five-string fiddle 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.

Five-string fiddle 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.

New 5-string Commission on the Way!

New Five-String Fiddle Request!

A client contacted me through this website and asked whether I could build a 5-string fiddle of primarily Oregon woods. (Sure!)

Test-Drive of existing fiddles

We made an appointment and she came for a visit. She played eight of my hand-made instruments (all good fiddles), finally declaring a particular one to be exactly what she wanted, except that she did not care for the look of the one-piece Sitka Spruce top plate. It had very wide grain on the bass side and narrower on the treble side. (It sounds great, but the looks were bothering her.) Soooo…

Custom-made Five-string!

I went into my storage and retrieved a really wild-grained piece of Big Leaf Maple, and two billets of very straight, even-grained Spruce: one of Englemann, and another of Sitka: she chose the Englemann and loved the maple. She wanted an instrument essentially the same as that first one, but without the odd-looking belly grain. (The same model; made on the same mold (form), and sounding just like it, as well.) It will be tough to do, because the one she really likes is already five years old; it has had time to settle, be re-adjusted, and settle again. (Yes, it sounds good!)

Select Woods and a Good Start

So, we went out to one of my other buildings and hand-picked some likely-looking wood for the neck and ribs, and we were ready to do business. She presented a deposit, and I suggested that she take home the one she loved, for the time being, to keep her interest up while waiting for me to complete her personal treasure. She went home happy, and I began sorting willow for blocks, finding my proper templates, and enjoying the prospect of a new five-string fiddle build. I will post follow-ups as they occur.

Thanks for looking.

I will post this over on the Bluefiddles page, as well.

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.

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.