I apologize for the long hiatus. Lots of things have been going on, so I haven’t taken time to post progress reports on the two instruments I began in late July.
I had anticipated being done with both by the second week in September, but there have been sufficient interruptions and side-tracks that I am still not done. (Rats...)
When I last posted, I had just recently set the necks in the instruments. I progressed fairly rapidly for a bit, thereafter, but failed to “Show and Tell.”
I carefully removed the molds, and cleaned up the interior of the two fiddles, then bent and installed the back linings.
The next step was to install the back plates. I had laid out and installed the back purfling weaves, but, because the rib garlands sometimes change shape a little after the molds have been removed, I avoided “locking in” the shape of the back plates until the plates were already installed. Then I could do any final trimming of the back plate, and afterward lay out, cut and install the remaining purfling.
I went ahead and installed the back plates, trimmed them to accurately match the ribs and then began layout and installation of the back purfling. I bent the purfling, using heat, then began gluing the sections in place in the proper order.
Final Varnish Preparations
The purfling channels and all the edgework remained before varnishing. Also, I turned off the artificial lighting, and used the dim light from a window to cast soft shadows across the wood, and reveal any humps and hollows I may have missed earlier. After completing all that work, I could begin the varnishing process.
I will outline the process and show pictures in my next post.
I had completed the first scroll and neck, and had begun working on the second neck, when, I “kinda took an unplanned detour.”
Then I Had a Small Mishap:
I had worked for 12 hours, Monday the 16th, and afterward, I was getting pretty tired. My hands were tired, brain was tired, too, I suppose…anyway:
I had begun carving the second scroll, completed the saw-carving part, and was removing waste wood with a small gouge, when, I slipped, annnnd, just happened to have my left hand in the path of the misdirected gouge. (sigh…)
Urgent Care? Emergency Room?
First we tried going to an Urgent Care clinic. We arrived there, and then discovered that (a) they only work by appointment, and (b) they don’t take medicare insurance, anyway. I asked what my options were, and they said, “Everything else is closed! Go to the ER!” (Sigh… very expensive option!)
So, about 30 minute later we arrived at the Emergency Room at St. Vincent Hospital. They were busy as usual, so we waited for about four hours. But after that, the ER people washed it out with sterile water, X-Rayed it to eliminate the possibility of torn bone or tendons, and applied two little “Steri-Strips!”
I guess that was normal, but it felt pretty “exposed,” and was very prone to bumps (which were pretty uncomfortable when they happened.) So, after we got home, Ann bandaged me up with a heavily padded dressing so that I could sleep without bumping it. That was a real help, and I slept well.
I kind of piddled around, the next day…partly too tired, I suppose, as we had arrived home somewhat after 3AM, and we got to bed after 4AM. Partly just not feeling real good. Anyway, I had other things that needed doing, so I didn’t work on fiddles for that day.
Back to Work!
I got back to work on Wednesday. It turned out that I really needed two hands for most things, so it slowed me down rather badly, having a bulky bandage on the left paw. However, I was finally able to get the fingerboard installed on the first scroll/neck so that I could shape them as a unit.
That was kind of encouraging, seeing some progress again.
Then I set the neck on fiddle #1:
After that, we had appointments with various people, so I didn’t get a lot done on Thursday or Friday. By the time the weekend had rolled around, I had the biggest bandages off, and was sporting a plain finger bandage, but I had to be pretty careful. Bumps were still pretty unpleasant.
So, after having removed the bulky bandage, I went back to work on fiddle #2, carving that “Red Violin” scroll into just a plain, “five-string fiddle scroll.” It looked as though the majority of the “gore” would simply be carved away: so, no “Red Violin!” (By the way, that little gouge, third from the right, is the one that perforated my thumb.)
I will post more again, soon. Sorry for the hiatus: it wasn’t intentional. 🙂
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. 🙂
My last post showed the six “kits” I had built. The post included bookmatching the five-string fiddle plates, cutting the profiles of the Big Leaf Maple necks and scrolls, and cutting appropriate ribs to size. As a result, I ended up with six kits, including bass bar blanks all cut from the same billet of Englemann Spruce, and a big pile of linings ready to bend. ( I thought the linings were willow, but I now suspect may be poplar, instead.)
Five of these front plates ar Englemann Spruce, but one is Douglas Fir. I rarely find Douglas Fir that will work for tonewood, but a friend brought me a pickup-load of firewood, and I found some that sounds great. (As you can see, I am not a “snob” about where I get my wood. If I need special wood, I buy it, but I frequently use Oregon woods.)
(In case anyone reading this is not aware, I build all my instruments (except the fittings, as a rule) entirely from the raw materials. I make all my molds by hand, and all my templates by hand. I have even made many of my tools. So every instrument is genuinely “handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop.”) 🙂
I set aside four of the six “kits,” just to get them out of the work area. Then I began work on the remaining two kits.
Beginning the Builds
The first step after shaping the blocks (last post) is to bend the ribs and linings. Then I can glue the ribs to the prepared blocks, using hot hide glue, and finally glue the linings to the ribs.
I rub a heavy coat of candle-wax (“paraffin” in the US) on the outer rims of my molds. This will prevent a “sneaky” drop of hide-glue from accidentally bonding the ribs to the molds instead of just to the blocks.
(A rib accidentally glued to the mold can be a disaster if I don’t realize my mistake in time. The glue is definitely stronger than the rib. It will destroy the rib, if I don’t catch it early enough to use hot water or steam to release it. But the wax coating pretty much eliminates that problem.)
I used a bending iron and a thin aluminum bending strap, to hand-shape the ribs, and then put them aside in paired sets, with the respective molds for which they are intended.
Installing the Ribs
I installed the center-bout ribs first: they can be difficult, so I’m glad they are first. But the realreason they are first, is that the upper and lower ribs will overlap the ends of the center ribs: they do not have a mitered corner, but a lapped corner, which if done correctly, is essentially invisible.
I frequently use these “French-style” molds, (flush on the back) which allow me to install the front linings and still easily remove the mold. (Italian-style molds are centered on the ribs…I use that kind, too.)
I used cylindrical clamping cauls of appropriate sizes (dowels, broom-handles…whatever) and f-clamps to quickly secure the rib ends before the hot hide glue gels. If I make a mistake, I can steam the joint loose with a teapot, and do it over, correctly.
After the center-bout ribs dry, I shape the ends of the ribs to match the curvature of the blocks. Then the upper and lower ribs can be glued to the perfectly-shaped block and rib. Finally, I begin installing the upper and lower ribs.
While waiting for glue to dry on the ribs, I laid out the necks so that I will be ready to begin carving them.
After trimming all the corners, so that they look as though the ribs come together as one, I begin installing the linings. I cut a small mortise on each side of each block, flush with the rib, so that the lining will be glued tightly to the rib, and into the block mortise. I secure them all using hot hide glue.
Next, I cut the linings to length, shaping the ends to closely fit the prepared mortises. Then, I coat about 7mm of the edge of the rib, and the entire mating surface of the lining with hot hide-glue and insert the lining into the mortises and push it to the correct level, corresponding to the ribs. Finally, moving rapidly, I secure it with small spring-clamps.
I made a good deal of progress yesterday, and had hoped to make more progress today, but there were some household repairs that needed to be addressed first; so I didn’t begin working on violins until mid-afternoon.
Tomorrow I will level the fronts of the garlands and trace the front plates… I hope. 🙂
I shipped the last three fiddles I had made and I am left with the “cupboard” looking pretty bare!
This had been a busy year in a lot of other ways, and I have spent a lot of time messing around, trying to build a travel case for the Travel Bass I built last summer. (Without the case, the bass isn’t going anywhere, so I really need to complete it.) Also, the last two fiddles I had made were literally hanging around the house, and so, I wasn’t feeling pressed to build more of them right away.
But those two fiddles have suddenly found homes. The only two five-string violin-size fiddles I have left are ones I made several years ago: they both play very well, but the ones I am building currently are my best work, and that is what I want to put in players’ hands.
So…I decided I had better hit the Lutherie trail in a big way: I took six of my molds (five in the photo, below…the sixth shows up later) and glued the blocks in place, to begin a group of six new fiddles. I plan to select and prepare materials, and match them together into “kits,” so that I know which top plate goes with which back plate…and neck, and ribs, etc.
Then, I plan to begin building them in pairs, but I will always have another pair ready to begin, if things slow down at all.
You have to look closely to see the plexiglass template in the photograph above (and below.) The template is hard to see, but it gives the precise shape I want for the outline of my blocks. I use a ballpoint pen to trace the shape onto the blocks.
Then, I use a saw to roughly cut out the shapes , and an oscillating spindle sander to shape them precisely. I apply wax to the edges of the molds so that an accidental drop of glue can’t bond them to a rib. The ribs are only glued to the blocks and linings, initially…the mold will be removed.
Next, I cut the ribs from wood that match the back and neck, as closely as possible. Usually, I try to get them all out of the same billet of wood. Over the years, I have harvested some of my wood, myself, or it was given to me by a friend, in log form, and I had someone mill it up for me. At other times, I have bought other wood from tonewood dealers.
I have used a variety of woods for the back plates: These (below) are all Big Leaf Maple, and I have used a wide variety of other woods; but when I build for classical orchestral instruments, I use only European Maple and Spruce.
I bought the wood (in the pictures below) from Bruce Harvie, of Orcas Island Tonewood Co. That piece of Big leaf maple on the right measures 2″ thick, about 6″ wide, and 16″ long, or more. The large billet allowed me to cut the ribs, neck and two-piece back all from the same billet. I cut up the Englemann Spruce billet on the left to provide two tops and nine bass-bars.
Processing the materials:
To begin with, I used a bandsaw to slice off the rib material. Then, I laid out the actual shape I needed for the back and neck. (The traced “shape” visible in the above photo is not my mark: it is just the way tonewood dealers catch the imagination of their customers.) 🙂
When I cut out the back plate shape I had to slice it in half lengthwise, and glue the halves together, to form the back plate.
Then, I traced out all the neck billets and used a bandsaw to cut them out.
Next, in addition to the work on the heavier components, I sliced ribs from appropriate wood to match the wood of the backs: a darker maple back required darker maple ribs. They will be only 1 mm thick when finished.
After thinning the ribs, I used a knife to cut the ribs to size.
I usually build the top plates of spruce (Sitka, Englemann, European or other species.) Sometimes (rarely) I will use other woods: this one is Douglas Fir. Otto Erdesz used Douglas fir for front plates on many instruments. So far, I have only used Douglas Fir once, but it turned out to be an excellent fiddle, so I am doing it again. 🙂
And finally, I see the kits beginning to emerge!
I will try to provide updates and to post progress reports.
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…
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.
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. 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 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.