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.
A few weeks ago I announced that a new fiddle would be beginning. Now I have a few photos to show:
The top plate is Sitka Spruce, from Bruce Harvie. The customer wanted “Oregon wood,” and the Maple is definitely from in my neighborhood, here in Oregon (I helped harvest it;) but the Sitka is just a species that grows here…I don’t know where it was harvested.
Beginning the work:
I book-matched the spruce, to form the basis for the front plate: a solid plate with a tight glue-line down the center.
I used the mold (or form, as many people prefer to call it) that matched the fiddle the customer liked best. Then I added willow blocks to become the corners and end-blocks, and I traced the intended shape of the blocks from the mold template onto the back-side of the blocks, where they are flush with the mold.
Added the ribs, of the spalted maple the customer liked, and glued them to the willow blocks. Afterward, I added linings, also of willow, and let them into the blocks and glued them to the ribs and the blocks.
Then I traced the shape of the garland onto the top plate material, using a small washer as a spacer, and a ball-point pen as a scribe. I completed the corners using a straightedge and a series of circle templates. Finally, I marked the edge at exactly 4 mm thick, and carved the arching, using gouges and planes and scrapers.
Then I marked the layout of the double purfling and the f-holes, and began incising them into the Sitka Spruce.
Sometime in the midst of all the above work, I laid out and began carving the scroll and pegbox. That wild grain is very tricky to carve, as it changes direction constantly.
I went ahead and completed the purfling and the f-holes, so that I could prepare the plate to be glued to the garland.
I also added the bass-bar, chalk-fitting it to perfection, and gluing it in place, with hot hide glue. The bass-bar will be carved, planed and scraped to the proper shape after the glue dries.
The fingerboard is Ipé, as requested by the customer. It is an extremely dense hardwood, but not threatened as Ebony is beginning to be. It finishes to a dark brown and looks good, as well as wearing well. It is extremely difficult to work, though, so it may take time to become popular with makers. The saddle and the nut will also be Ipé, but the pegs will be ebony, simply because I have never mastered the lathe-turning of tuning pegs.
And that is pretty much where things stand, for now. I will try to post pictures as they become available.
A client contacted me through this website and asked whether I could build a 5-string fiddle of primarily Oregon woods. (Sure!)
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. (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 build. I will post follow-ups as they occur.
Thanks for looking.
I will post this over on the Bluefiddles page, as well.
There are folks who want a five-string fiddle, and who can’t justify the expense of a hand-made instrument, made by an American luthier. I completely understand that, so I am going to try an experiment of sorts: I bought two instruments in the white …unvarnished, incomplete, etc. One is a five-string violin (standard size), with a one-piece back, and the other is a 15″ 5-string viola.
The viola looks much larger than the violin in this photo, but, in reality, the body is 1-1/16″ longer than that of the violin, with a proportionately larger neck and scroll.
I can see some potential problems, and I will see whether I can correct them before completing the instruments. There are certain details necessary to a good instrument that have been overlooked in these two. Specifically, it is needful to arrange the locations of the pegs in such a way that the higher strings do not rub on the pegs that are lower in the box. Both of these instruments fail that test pretty badly, but other than that, they seem to be very well-made, if possibly a little heavy.
Up until now, I have only bought standard, four-string instruments-in-the-white, and they have all turned out quite well. I hope I can make these two turn out to be great instruments, too, but… as I said, this is an experiment, of sorts.
At any rate, I will go over them carefully to try and bring them up to my standards as far as those things go. The workmanship is very good, though: I hope they sound great. I guess we will have to wait and see.
Shop Instruments, as a Principle
The advantage of using an imported, unfinished instrument like this, is that it drastically reduces my labor investment, and I can pass the savings on to customers who want a good instrument, but may not want to spend so much.
I label my shop instruments as “Atelier Chez les Eveques“, (the Shop at the Bishops’ Place.) Unlike my handmade personal instruments, they are not signed or numbered. But they are good instruments, and all who have bought them have been well-satisfied.
I will show progress on these two instruments as time permits. (We have had a host of home-repairs to worry us, lately….)
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.
Violins have been codified in terms of form, size, materials and tuning for over 400 years. Orchestras have 30+ violins, between which the untrained observer would have a difficult time distinguishing, let alone identifying as having come from a particular maker’s hand. And yet experts can frequently tell at a glance when, where and by whom that violin was made. And ALL of them have four strings (count ‘em): G, D, A, and E. No five-string violins in the orchestra!
The violas, too, have their four strings, always at C, G, D and A. They are less tightly defined, however and are all over the board in terms of size and shape. Some are so large that most normal-sized people can’t play them, and some are not much larger than a violin. But they all have those four strings, tuned exactly a perfect fifth below those of the violin. No five-string violas, either.
NON-traditional is OK, too.
Really, a viola works best at what it does, and a violin works best at what it does, as specialized tools…but when they are so close in size—indeed, sometimes overlapping—what prevents us from having one instrument that covers the full range of both? A five-string fiddle?
Well…that isn’t as easy as it sounds. The physical size of a violin is barely big enough to really produce the open G-string tone, so simply adding a low C-string will not work well…and the viola is almost too big to make good high-pitched notes, so adding a high E to a larger viola is usually not very satisfactory either.
Five-string fiddles specifically designed for five-strings
But it CAN work…with some tweaking. Honestly, probably a five-string fiddle would work best in the size of a small viola—say, 15”—or even 15.5”. But country fiddlers and bluegrass fiddlers, who are waking up to the desire for a fifth string, and a lower range, don’t want a “five-string viola”–they want their instrument to fit in a regular fiddle case—not a viola case. They want a handmade five-string bluegrass fiddle.
What has worked for me, so far, is to maintain the “footprint” of a regular violin, but increase the depth of the body a little; lengthen the pegbox, obviously, for the extra peg and string; thin the plates just a little more, and deepen the bassbar a bit. I may try widening the center bouts just a little, too, sometime. But for now, I have a working model, with which everyone seems very pleased: it is very easy to play, has good balance across all five strings, a big deep bass end on the C string, and clear, strong high notes on the E string.
So, when a fiddler wants to be able to go low and growly, he/she can do so. When he/she needs a high end for some special sizzle, it is there. All in one fiddle case. A five-string fiddle case.