Need More Fiddles!

I Failed to “Keep Up!”

I shipped the last three fiddles I had made, so the “cupboard” is looking pretty bare!

Unfortunately, I spent a lot of time messing around, this year, trying to build a travel case for the Travel Bass I built last summer. (I really need to complete it. The bass isn’t going anywhere without the case.) 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. I found it to be a busy year in a lot of other ways, too.

Sudden Changes

Two customers came, and rather abruptly, those two most recent fiddles  suddenly found homes.  I only have two five-string violin-size fiddles left, both of which I had made several years ago, and they both play very well. However, the ones I am building currently are my best work, and that is what I want to put in players’ hands.

The Plan

Therefore, I decided I had better “hit the Lutherie trail” in a big way. First, I selected six of my molds (five in the photo, below: the sixth shows up later.) Then, I glued the blocks in place, to begin a group of six new fiddles. Next, I plan to select and prepare materials, and match them together into “kits.” In this way, I know which top plate goes with which back plate. neck, and ribs, etc.

Afterward, I plan to begin building them in pairs, but I will always have another pair ready to begin, if things slow down at all.

5-string fiddle molds with blocks and a transparent template.
Five molds with blocks and a transparent template.

The Process:

Look closely, and you soon will see the transparent plexiglass template in the photographs above and below. Because the template is clear, it 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.

Template tracing block shapes for 5-string bluegrass fiddle made by Chet Bishop
I use the template to trace the exact shape I want for my blocks.

 

Next, I use a saw to roughly cut out the shapes. Afterward, I use an oscillating spindle sander to shape them more precisely. Using an old candle, I rub parrafin wax on all the exposed edges of the molds, so that an accidental drop of glue can’t bond them to a rib. Initially, I glue the ribs only to the blocks and linings. Ultimately, I will remove the mold, before closing the body of the instrument.

Molds with blocks shaped for 5-string bluegrass fiddle by Chet Bishop
Here are the blocks, shaped and ready for ribs.

Wood Choices

Then, 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. However, A friend (the late Terry Howell) gave me a great deal of curly maple, in log form. Immediately, I had someone mill it up for me on a large portable bandsaw mill.  In other cases, I have simply bought wood from tonewood dealers.

I have used a variety of woods for the back plates. These (below) are all Big Leaf Maple. But, I have used a wide variety of other woods.  When I build 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 Company. 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.

Wood for 5-string bluegrass fiddles made in Oregon by Chet Bishop.
Englemann Spruce and Big Leaf Maple.

 

MAple wood for a 5-string bluegrass fiddle made in Oregon by Chet Bishop.
Same piece of Maple…closer view.

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. (I did not make the traced “shape” visible in the above photo. That is just the way tonewood dealers “spark the imagination” of their customers.)

I sliced the back plate shape in half lengthwise, originally. Next I planed the two edges perfectly smooth and flat. Finally, I glued the halves together, to form the back plate.

planing center joint of a back plate for a Chet Bishop five-string fiddle.
Hand-planing the center joint.

 

Maple back for 5-string bluegrass fiddle made in Oregon by Chet Bishop.
Same billet, made into a back plate blank. The rest became ribs and neck.

 

While the glue was drying on the plates, I traced out all the neck billets. I used a bandsaw to cut them out, to produce “neck blanks.”

Neck billets for 5-string fiddles made in Oregom by Chet Bishop.
Looks like a “bouquet of fiddle necks.” They will be matched with their respective backs and ribs.

 

In addition to the preparation of the heavier components, I used a bandsaw to slice rib material from appropriate wood to match the wood of the backs. For example, a darker maple back required darker maple ribs. I then sanded them to 1 mm final thickness, using the oscillating spindle sander.

Ribs for 5-string fiddle.
I was glad I had rib material that matched the color of the old wood for this fiddle. That back (below) was harvested in September, 1983.

 

Wood for 5-string fiddle made in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Matching ribs and neck to back wood.

 

After thinning the ribs, I used a knife to cut the ribs to size.

Wood for ribs for 5-string fiddle made in Oregon by Chet Bishop
Each set of ribs requires three pairs, in lengths for upper, center and lower bouts.

Douglas Fir

Usually, I make the top plates of my instruments from some type of spruce. (Sitka, Englemann, European or other species all work well.) But, sometimes (rarely) I use other woods: this one is Douglas Fir.

Otto Erdesz used Douglas fir for the front plates on many instruments. I have seen and played one of the violas he made of Douglas Fir. When I found some Douglas Fir with great tone qualities and very straight grain, I decided to try it, emulating his success. Thus far, I have only used Douglas Fir once, but it turned out to be an excellent fiddle, so, I am doing it again. 

Wood Kit for a 5-string bluegrass fiddle handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop.
A Douglas Fir top plate with a Big Leaf Maple back, neck and ribs.

 

And, finally, I see the “kits” beginning to emerge!

Materials for 5-string fiddles handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop
These Kits will help me keep focused and encouraged about building the six new fiddles.

 

I will try to provide updates and to post progress reports.

 

Thanks for looking.

New Handmade Five String Fiddle

fiddle with sealer

Handmade Oregon Five-String Fiddle in Progess!

Just an update: This week was a hard one, in terms of getting things done. Unfortunately, I had some repairs to do; but I did complete the varnish prep work on the most recent five-string violin. Then I rubbed into it the mineral ground I use to fill the wood pores and prevent excessive varnish saturation.

The mineral ground (a suspension of fine particles of Gypsum, in coffee) dried rapidly. This allowed me to accomplish the final rubdown before varnishing began. Consequently, this evening, I applied the sealer, (a solution of rosin in turpentine) which is designed to soak in, and lock the mineral in place. After  the solvent evaporates, leaving only the resin in the wood, I can begin varnishing. I rubbed off the excess with a rag and alcohol to make sure no unwanted residue was drying on the surface.

Next Step: Varnish!

So, here is how it looks today. From here on out, it will be varnish and set-up: It promises to be a great fiddle! (And, it did!) I will post varnish progress soon.

This is the “sister instrument” to the earlier one I made of off-cuts from the  Five-string Double bass I had made. This one is from the other side of that Bass back plate.

front with sealer
Front view with sealer. I must have moved just a little, as I see it is blurred a little. But the color is accurate.

 

Treble side of five-string bluegrass fiddle, with sealer
Treble side, with sealer. I think those ribs are going to be beautiful!

 

Bass side of handmade Oregon 5-string fiddle with sealer.
Bass side, with sealer. Looks even nicer on this side!

 

Back view of Oregon Big Leaf Maple five-string fiddle with sealer.
Back view, with sealer. I like this best of all.

Drying Time

I always hang the fiddles in the dining room to dry, since we heat with wood, and that is where the woodstove is. The room stays warm, especially up near the ceiling. It really pays to allow sufficient time between coats, for the varnish to get dry.

Back of oregon five-string blurgrass fiddle with sealer drying.
Hanging in the dining room to allow the sealer to dry.

 

This is a pretty accurate view of the color, so far: I intend to use yellow varnish as my base coat(s) to produce a golden glow from within the color-coats.

Thanks for looking.