First Complaint!

Nice Problem to have!

Addictive Fiddle!

I got a text message from Andy Pastor, stating his only complaint so far, regarding the new five-string fiddle he bought last week:

He isn’t getting enough sleep!

He finds that fiddle to be utterly addictive, and has been staying up ’til midnight playing the thing, even when he knows he has to get up and go to work in the morning! 🙂

Great problem to have!

Here is Andy, playing his new fiddle:

Playing the new 5-string Fiddle
Happy Fiddler!


And here are two sound clips (actually recorded in his bathroom where there are high, vaulted ceilings, producing a bit of an echo-effect…which he likes. )


First one is “St. Ann’s Reel” Second is “Arkansas Traveler.”

Thanks for looking!

5-string fiddle from bass back

5-string Fiddle Back from Bass Back Scrap!

I don’t like wasting tonewood!

So, when I saw that there were two sections of “scrap” left over, near where the neck end of the five-string double bass back was cut out, I realized that a 5-string fiddle back could fit into each of those two pieces.

So, I salvaged the wood, and not only got two backs, but also the neck blanks for two 5-string fiddles.

Five-string fiddle back cut from the scrap left from a 5-string double bass back.

Five-string fiddle back cut from the scrap left from a 5-string double bass back.

Arching the Plate

Five string fiddle begun, with back and neck from scrap from a 5-string double bass back.
Five string fiddle begun, with back and neck from scrap from a 5-string double bass back.


I really like the look of the Oregon Big Leaf Maple back wood. I enjoyed arching the plate.

Five-string fiddle back arching nearly complete.
Five-string fiddle back arching nearly complete. It is sitting on the five-string double bass garland whose back provided the scrap for the fiddle-back.

Purfling the Plate

On all my five-string instruments I usually include a purfling weave. It is a modified fleur-de-lis I designed for my first five-string fiddle and have continued to use on subsequent work.

Five-string fiddle back with purfling slots incised and ready to complete.
Five-string fiddle back with purfling slots incised and ready to complete.

In this photo, the slots for the purfling have been incised, but not cut deeply, so the next step is to slice deeply enough that the waste wood can be removed from between the cuts, and the purfling strips inlaid in the resulting slot.

I will include the purfling process in subsequent posts.


Thanks for looking.

Beginning the Plates

Beginning the Plates

Bookmatching the Plates

When I last posted, I had the garland pretty much complete, and the materials were prepared for the neck and the front and back plates.  I had cut the back plate roughly to shape, in order to use as much of the “fall-off” material from the back plates, as possible, from which to make the neck.

I went ahead with the neck and scroll, just because I find it encouraging to have some of the “pretty” work done, as it makes me feel that I am making progress. You can see the neck progress, here.

But at some point, one has to go ahead with the task of bookmatching the plates and getting them ready to carve.

Sitka Spruce front plate halves for the five-string double bass.
Sitka Spruce front plate halves for the five-string double bass.
Rough shape of five-string double bass back plate, and template for the neck.
Rough shape of the five-string double bass back plate, with the template for the neck. The neck was cut out of the scrap from the back.


So, for the front and back plates, the next thing on the agenda was to plane the center-joints absolutely flat and straight and then glue them together. It took two tries on each of them, as it turned out that while they were technically “straight”, and if I put a try-square at any given point, they seemed to be square…in reality, there was a longitudinal twist to the surface I had planed, and the fit was not acceptable. (sigh…) No big deal… I just had to saw the joint back apart, and try again.

Finally, I got everything lined up correctly; then I glued and clamped the plate halves together, and produced the plate banks, ready to trace the actual shapes.

Sitka spruce front plate for five-string double bass, bookmatched and ready to glue.
Sitka spruce front plate for five-string double bass, bookmatched, and ready to glue.


Front and back plates for five-string double bass, bookmatched and ready to trace shapes.
Front and back plates, bookmatched, and ready to trace shapes.

Tracing the plates

Sitka spruce front plate for five-string double bass, ready to trace the shape.
Sitka spruce front plate, ready to trace the shape.


Ready to trace the shape of the front plate of the five-string double bass.
Ready to trace the shape of the garland onto the front plate.


Using a pipe spacer to trace the shape of the five-string double bass front plate.
Using a pipe spacer to trace the shape of the garland onto the Front plate.


Tracing the plate out with a pipe spacer like that enables me to establish a very even overhang of about 4.5 mm. The problem is, it also makes round corners, which I did not want. So I had to correct, the corners, using a long straightedge to “point” the corners toward the center of the plate at the far end, and then use circle templates to extend the curvature of the plate edge above and below the corner to meet the straight lines. (Incidentally, the reason I have stopped using a washer for a spacer, is that any washer small enough to have the right distance from outside to inside also is so thin that if there is the smallest change in the fit between the plate and the garland, the washer will slide under the garland, changing the overhang distance to zero. The thin slice of PVC pipe never does that.)

Cutting out the Front Plate

I used an old Craftsman “Auto-scroller” saber-saw (Hand-held jigsaw) to cut out the perimeter of the front plate. Ann, my beloved wife, bought me that saw 36 years ago, when we had been married for only about three years. That little saw has a lot of miles on it!

Cutting out the completed shape of the front plate for the five-string double bass.
Cutting out the completed shape of the front plate. I am not attempting to cut exactly to the lines. I will correct to the lines, after the arching has been completed.


Cutting is complete: the front plate for the five-string double bass is ready for arching.
Inside view: the cutting is complete: the front plate is ready for arching.


Outside view of the front plate for the 5-string double bass.
Outside view of the front plate.

Arching is Next:

Before I could begin arching, I needed to mark the intended plate thickness: I used a marking tool to scribe a line all the way around the plate at 6 mm. Before the plate is done, this will be reduced to 5 mm in most areas. I used a ballpoint pen to highlight the groove so that I could more easily see it when I am working, and not accidentally go past it.

Edge-thickness scribed into front plate for the 5-string double bass.
Edge-thickness scribed into front plate.


Then I secured the plate in a cradle especially made to fit this design, and secured it in place by affixing small squares of 1/4″ plywood around the perimeter so that the plate will not shift laterally, while I am working on it. The reason the little stop-blocks are so thin is that I do not want them to be in the way when I am planing the edges.

Front plate for the 5-string double bass secured in a work cradle.
Front plate secured in a work cradle.


Tools for arching the five-string double bass.
Tools for arching: cradle, gouges and planes.


Sculpting the front plate arch for a five-string double bass.
Sculpting the front plate arch.


five string double bass arching in progress.
Front plate arching in progress!


Planing the arching surface smooth on a 5-string double bass.
Planing the arching surface smooth.


Planes used to shape the 5-string double bass.
Some of the planes used to shape the bass.


Shadow line defining the longitudinal arching shape of the 5-string double bass.
Shadow line defining the longitudinal arching shape.


Transverse arching shape of the 5-string double bass.
Transverse arching shape.


Arching for the 5-string double bass nearing completion.
Arching nearing completion.


Arching and outline completed for the 5-string double bass.
Arching and outline completed.


Time to lay out the F-holes!

F-holes laid out for 5-string double bass.
F-holes laid out, incised, and inked.

When I build the smaller instruments, I inside the f-hole perimeters quite deeply, knowing that, without exception, I end up needing to correct the arching, using the f-hole side-profile as a guide. I want the “stem” portion of the f-holes to be essentially parallel to the plane of the garland-plate joint when viewed from the side. On the violins and violas I have built, I have universally found that, in spite of my best intentions, I have left too much “puffiness” in the area of the lower wings of the f-holes and I need to plane away more wood. If I have incised them deeply enough, I don’t lose the marks when I remove the wood.

I was quite pleased to find that, on this instrument, the side profile was exactly what I had hoped for, as soon as I laid it out.  So I incised them, but not very deeply, and then inked them with a ball-point pen, so that I could easily see them while perfecting the arching later, using a scraper.

So– the next step will be to complete the “graduation” of the plate– carving away the majority of the wood thickness from the inside of the plate, so that the plate is the correct thickness all over…ranging from 9mm at the center, all the way down to 5mm in the flanks.

Ready to carve the front plate graduations of the five-string double bass.
Ready to carve the front plate graduations.

But…I will leave that post for another day.

Thanks for looking.


16-1/2″ 5-string Viola Varnish Sequence

Varnishing Process for the 16-1/2″ five-string Viola:

All Smoothing and Varnish-prep is done:

When I last posted, the final woodwork had been completed. I had twice wetted down the wood, to raise the grain, and scraped and sanded away the rough raised grain. The wood was stable enough to commence the tanning process.

After the wood is smooth, there will be:

    1. a tanning treatment,
    2. a mineral ground treatment,
    3. a sealer, to lock the mineral ground in place, and
    4. finally, the varnish itself in a series of 6-12 coats, depending on color.

Tanning the Wood

People who live in very sunny regions (New Mexico, for instance) need no light booth: they simply hang their instrument out in the sun for a few hours and it takes on a deep yellow-tan color. I live in Oregon. Western Oregon, between Portland and the coast. We are more likely to achieve a patina of bird-droppings than a sun-tan, if we hang instruments outdoors. (Sigh…)

So, a number of years ago, I bought an old cabinet, about seven feet tall, lined it with aluminum foil as a reflector, wired it with a strong UV source (two 48″ fluorescent UV tubes in a shop-light fixture), and I hang my instruments in it overnight. To heighten the effect, I brush on a coat of very diluted Sodium nitrite and let it dry before I expose it to the UV. This works pretty well, and I have pretty much adopted it as a normal pre-varnish treatment.

Tanned front of 16-1/2" 5-string viola
Tanned front side of the 16-1/2″ five-string Viola.


16-1/2" Five String Viola tanned back side.
Tanned back side of the same instrument.

Mineral Ground:

Years ago, an excellent luthier in Europe posted a detailed explanation of why and how he employs a mineral ground in his instruments, to improve projection. I tried it (because, “if it is good enough for Roger Hargraves…”) and immediately started getting better reviews on the sound of my instruments.

So…obviously, that became part of my process, as well. I use gypsum powder, suspended in coffee (gotta wake up the tone!) so as to achieve a little deeper color in the same move. I rub it in vigorously, trying to get the particles of gypsum to actually penetrate the pores of the wood, then rub off the excess with a rag, before it is fully dry.  When it is dry, it obscures the grain, and turns a chalky white color.

Mineral ground drying on 16-1/2" Five-String Viola.
Mineral ground drying on 16-1/2″ 5-string Viola. (5-string bass beginning in background.)


Mineral Ground is dry on the 16-1/2" Five-String Viola.
Mineral Ground is dry. I will sand off any excess mineral, and then apply the sealer.



16-1/2" Five-String Viola with Sealer coat, front view.
Sealer coat, front view.


16-1/2" Five-String Viola with Sealer coat, back view.
Sealer coat, back view.


The sealer, in this case, is simply rosin, dissolved in turpentine and alcohol. The mixture soaks into the wood, causing the mineral ground to become transparent, then the solvents evaporate, leaving the rosin in the wood. The mineral ground will never again be visible.

Varnish Beginning

When the sealer is dry, I sand lightly, using 320 grit, to remove any lumps I may not have seen, and then I am ready to begin varnishing. I always begin with two base-coats of very yellow/gold varnish, so that the gold color will shine through the darker color coats.

16-1/2" Five-String Viola with Two coats of yellow varnish, side and front view.
Two coats of yellow varnish, side and front view.


16-1/2" Five-String Viola with Two coats of yellow varnish, back view.
Two coats of yellow varnish, back view.

I like the way the European Maple and Spruce are shining through the varnish. I think they will sound great, too. Tapping on the corpus, it sounds as though it will have a big, deep voice.

I will follow the completion of the varnish process in a later post.


Thanks for looking.


Final woodwork on 5-string 16-1/2″ Viola

Last “woodwork” tasks on the 16-1/2″ five-string Viola:

Last time, we finished up with the neck set, and the corpus closed, but all the edgework (and final shaping of the neck heel, etc.) left to be done.

Closed corpus of the 16-1/2" five-string Viola: purfling weave sketched, heel/button need carving.
Closed corpus, purfling weave sketched, heel/button need carving.


Carving the heel/button combination

The neck heel and the back button, together, make up the majority of the strength of the neck-joint. I once had a cello come in for repair, fully up to tension, but “something was loose.” Yeah, the ONLY glue still holding in the neck-joint was the glue between the neck heel and back button! I removed the neck, cleaned out the old glue, and re-glued the entire joint: but I never forgot that the heel/button connection alone had held the entire load of the string tension! So I make certain that this joint is perfect, and the two are carved as one piece after gluing.

There is also a specific measurement from the center of the neck-heel curve to the top edge of each side of the front plate where it joins the back: in violas, I shoot for exactly 27mm.

Heel and button carved on the 16-1/2" five-string Viola: ready to begin purfling.
Heel and button carved: ready to begin purfling. I have laid out the purfling and incised it.



I used to struggle with cutting the purfling slot (I still do, but for different reasons) because I was trying to cut the full depth in a single pass, or maybe two. One of my teachers corrected me, saying that the first pass around, with the knife, is just to “darken the lines” left by the marker. Then it is relatively easy for the blade to follow the groove for subsequent fast passes, each making the slice a little deeper. Finally, I use a special tool to pick out the waste wood from between the lines.

Purfling pick with front plate of 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
Purfling-pick with front plate.

One problem I faced with the back plate that I had not noticed so much, on the front plate, even though it had the same issue: This purfling is a little wider than what I usually use, so, in spite of the fact that I marked out the correct width, my pick tools (all of them) are made for the narrower purfling, and they do not readily make the slot the correct width. That meant a lot of going back and widening things just a little bit (0.5 mm, usually.) The European spruce of the front plate is soft, and quite forgiving. The harder European maple back plate does not give at all, so if the slot is too narrow, the strip is not going in, at all.

Another issue is that the purfling weave is on top of a fairly thin portion of the back plate, so I could not cut my slots as deeply as I wanted to. Thus, there was very little wood-support for the purfling, and the pieces were difficult to fit, whereas, around the perimeter, I could cut a slot for the full depth of the purfling strips and achieve full support. Ah, well…that’s life. But there were some joints I am not so happy with.

Anyway, this is how the purfling went:

I cut the center bout slots, first, along with the corners of the 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
I cut the center bout slots, first, along with the corners.


The goal is to complete the whole slot before inserting any purfling on the 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
The goal is to complete the whole slot before inserting any purfling. (Notice the shallow purfling-weave slots.)


Installing the purfling

As I did on the front plate, I installed the center-bout strips first, dry, and then the rest of the perimeter. I glued the perimeter in completely, before beginning the purfling weaves, themselves.

In the case of the purfling weaves, since the slots were so shallow, I glued each piece as I installed it, then worked on the other end of the instrument while the glue from that piece set up and began to hold.

Outer perimeter complete...working on the purfling weaves for the 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
Outer perimeter complete…working on the weaves.


Purfling weave nearly done on the 16-1/2" five-string Viola. Notice that some joints are not as clean as others.
Purfling weave is nearly complete. Notice that some joints are not as clean as others.


Completed purfling weave on the 16-1/2" five-string Viola: still needs to be planed flush.
Completed purfling weave: still needs to be planed flush.


Completed purfling weave on the 16-1/2" five-string Viola...warts and all.
Completed purfling weave…”warts and all.” I may elect to go back and improve things a little. (Probably not.)
The other weave on the 16-1/2" five-string Viola turned out a little better.
The other weave turned out a little better.

The Channel

Once the purfling is all in place, and planed flush, it is time to carve the “channel.” This is a slight “ditch” that runs all the way around the perimeter: the bottom of the “ditch” is usually at the purfling, while the outer edge of the ditch ends exactly at a line called the “crest,” which is about 40% of the distance in, from the outer edge of the plate to the outer edge of the purfling. The inner edge of the “ditch”  will be planed and scraped back to “fair” into the surface of the arching, without any lumps or hollows.

Notice the pencil-line marking the crest of the edge on the 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
Notice the pencil-line “crest”, between the purfling and the plate-edge.



Finally, after all the surface of the plate is correct, I plane, scrape and sand the edges themselves, so that the outer curve of the plate edge perfectly meets the inner curve of the channel, all the way around the plate.

In this case, I did not take the picture until after I had completed the next step, which was to wet the whole structure down with water, in order to deliberately raise the grain, so that any imperfections, or compressed areas, will rise up and be seen…and subsequently, be scraped and sanded flush again. All this to say, please understand the “rough” surface of all the wood.

Edgework of the 16-1/2" five-string Viola complete, but still rough with raised grain.
Edgework complete, but still rough with raised grain.


So…that means the whole instrument is now complete, minus the varnish prep-work, and the actual varnish and set-up!

16-1/2" five-string Viola Front ready for varnish.
Front ready for varnish.


16-1/2" five-string Viola Side ready for varnish.
Side ready for varnish.


16-1/2" five-string Viola Back ready for varnish.
Back ready for varnish.


Varnish Sequence

I will post the varnish sequence as it occurs, but, for now, know that the sequence will include at least two “wet-it-down, let-it-dry, and scrape/sand-it-smooth” iterations. The idea is to produce a surface that will no longer respond to moisture by raising the grain. This is particularly important on the handle portion of the neck, where the moisture from players’ hands will certainly be in contact with the wood, every time the instrument is played. But, under the varnish, the slightest discontinuity will become glaringly obvious, so that is important as well.

After the wood is smooth, there will be:

    1. a tanning treatment,
    2. a mineral ground treatment,
    3. a sealer, to lock the mineral ground in place, and
    4. finally, the varnish itself in a series of 6-12 coats, depending on color.


Enough for today.


Thanks for looking.






More Progress on the 16-1/2″ Five-String Viola

Progress on the 16-1/2″ five-string Viola

Beginning the plates

When I last posted, I had traced the shape of the garland onto the plates and was ready to cut out the plates. I decided to wait on the back plate, but the front plate was ready to go,  so I cut it out, using my band saw, and smoothed the edges, using the spindle sander and files. (I have built precisely one instrument without power tools of any sort: One of my early teachers required it, so I complied, but it convinced me that, at my age, I need to save my joints for the things that I have to do by hand, rather than beating them to death just on principle. Besides, I am convinced that if the old masters had possessed power tools, they would have used them without question. They were very practical people.)

So, with the front plate cut to shape, I first marked the edge at a thickness of 4.5 mm. I used a wheel-style marking gauge, with a sharp disc, to mark the thickness and scribe it into the edge of the plate, all the way around. Then I began cutting away waste wood to achieve the desired arching shape. I checked a poster (Published by The Strad) of the “Conte Vitale” 1676 viola by Andrea Guarneri . It is one of the most frequently copied violas in the world, as it is a large viola that works very well, and copies of it frequently work very well, too. I am modifying the pattern a little for superior playability, but I have made this model before, so it is not “guesswork.”

I forgot to take pictures, initially, but here are a couple, belatedly:

Remaining scribe-line for edge-thickness on the 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
Remaining scribe-line for edge-thickness. I plane down to the line all around, eventually.


Line beginning to disappear on the edge of the 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
Line beginning to disappear.


Arching complete on the front plate of the 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
Arching complete.


Arching complete and f-holes laid out for the 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
Arching complete and f-holes laid out.

F-hole Layout and Incision

Once the arching was complete, right down to scraping, I laid out the f-holes, and incised them deeply into the European Spruce of the front plate. Incising the f-hole outline allows me to turn the plate and sight over the edge of the plate at the profile. I want the main stem of the f-hole to be essentially parallel with the plane of the ribs, when seen from the side. I use this as a final correction for the arching, and without exception, it has required me to correct the shape of the arching before moving on.

F-holes laid out and incised deeply on the front plate of the 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
F-holes laid out and incised deeply.


Once the arching is truly completed, and I am satisfied with the f-holes, I begin graduating the inside of the plate. This means that I am carving the inside of the plate to “match the outside,” in that it will be an appropriate thickness all over. I usually want the center area between the f-holes one thickness, the band running up the center to each end slightly thinner, and the wing areas outside that area quite a bit thinner. There is no “set” thickness, and each luthier has to make choices in order to achieve what he or she wants from an instrument. Getting what you hope for depends on those choices you make, and the choices were (hopefully) made intelligently,  based on the type and density of the chosen wood, the shape of the arching, and so forth. Getting the arching and graduations right is a lot of carving on a large instrument, but it pays off in quality of sound.

beginning to carve the interior of the front plate of the 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
Beginning to carve the interior for thickness graduation.


Carving away the waste wood from the interior of the 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
Carving away all this waste wood produces a lot of shavings. Fortunately, we heat our home with wood, and the shavings are great for starting the morning fire. 🙂


Carving thickness "dots" for the front plate of the 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
Once I am getting close, I carve “dots,” calibrated to specified thicknesses.


Connecting the thickness "dots" on the front plate of the 16-1/2" five-string Viola, by planing.
“Connecting the dots,” using a finger plane.


Frequently I can see the traces of the incised f-holes from the inside by the time I am finished with the graduation of the front plate. And, believe it or not, I  always can easily see light through the spruce plate, in the thinner areas, if I hold it up to a lamp.

Cutting out the F-holes

I use a special tool to cut the upper and lower eyes of the two f-holes, then use a small knife to finish cutting them out.

f-hole cutter, boring the "eyes" of the f-holes on the 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
I use an f-hole cutter to open the upper and lower “eyes” of the f-holes.


Ready to cut out the stems of the f-holes on the 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
Ready to cut out the stems of the f-holes. (Earlier instrument…I forgot to take pictures…)


Bass Bar

Once the f-holes are cut out and refined, the next thing is the bass bar. This is the only brace attached to the inside of a violin, viola or cello: it supports the bass foot of the bridge, and provides for clarity and strength to the bass notes. An instrument with a weak bass bar will not sound good.

Bass bar fitted, glued and clamped, in the 16-1/2" five-string Viola front plate.
Bass bar fitted, glued and clamped.


With no point of reference, it is hard to realize the size of that plate: so here is a standard violin-sized plate for comparison: A 16-1/2″ viola is pretty big.

Size comparison with violin plate and bassbar: 16-1/2" five-string Viola compared to a violin.
Size comparison with violin plate and bass bar.


Bass bar glued into the 16-1/2" five-string Viola, and ready for trimming to shape.
Bass bar glued, and ready for trimming to shape.


Proposed shape of completed bass bar in the 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
Proposed shape of the completed bass bar.


I cut the bass bar to the desired shape, using gouges, planes and scrapers.

Completed bass bar in the 16-1/2" five-string Viola.
Completed bass bar.


Another size comparison between the 16-1/2" five-string Viola and a violin.
Another size comparison. Same violin plate.


Inner Edgework

I know it will be difficult to accomplish the inner edgework after the plate is installed, so I always do that first. I also trim and shape the linings, so that they taper smoothly into the ribs.

Installing the Front Plate

I dry-clamped the plate to the Garland, and then, using a thin palette knife, slipped hot hide glue (on the thin side, for easy removal if needed) into the unclamped areas and immediately applied padded spool clamps to tightly hold the plate until the glue could dry. Then I removed the first few clamps and inserted glue there, and reclamped. My wife thinks the instrument looks as though it is wearing hair-curlers at this point. 🙂

Front plate of the 16-1/2" five-string Viola installed, glued and clamped to the garland.
Front plate installed, glued and clamped.


And that is where the instrument rests for tonight.


Thanks for looking.

15″ 5-string Viola Progress

Progress Report for the 15″ Five-string viola:

When I last posted, I had completed the carving of both plates and the garland, but had not begun assembling the corpus.


The next step was to install the bass bar. The bass bar is the only fixed, interior brace in violins, violas or cellos. Flatback basses do have some other bracing, but they are a different “branch of the family,” so to speak.  All members of the violin family have a bass bar– a spruce brace, which runs “north-south” at a slight angle, nearly parallel to the centerline of the front plate of the instrument, and just inboard of the bass-side f-hole, so that it supports the bass-side foot of the bridge.  In a five-string instrument, this becomes an even more critical part as the instrument has a broader range and has to have good support on the bass side, as well as the ability to sing in the higher registers.

I first carve the bass bar bottom to exactly fit the inside curve of the front plate, along the correct location, and at the correct angle, then glue and clamp it in place, using hot hide glue and special clamps, padded with cork, so as not to damage the soft spruce of the front plate.

Fitted, glued and clamped bass-bar on a Five-string viola.
Fitted, glued and clamped bass-bar. Still needs to be shaped.


Proposed general profile of the bass-bar for a Five-string viola.
Proposed general profile of the bass-bar.


Shaping the bass-bar in a Five-string viola, using a finger-plane.
Shaping the bass-bar, using a finger-plane.


Completed shaped of finished bass-bar for a Five-string viola.
Completed shape of finished bass-bar.


Five-string viola corpus assembly:

Now the plates are ready to be installed. Before doing so, I used a small finger plane and half-round files to shape the edge all the way around on the inner face of each plate, hoping to avoid having to shape it after installation. (I am aware that sometimes adjustments have to be made, so I may have to do some tight-clearance work later on, in spite of this precaution. That’s OK.)

The next step was to install the back plate. This is an older-model mold, or “form,” (my first, in fact, as I mentioned in an earlier post)  so it has some peculiarities, compared to my newer ones: it is a two-part mold, made to collapse, thus easing removal of the mold after installing the first plate. But in later iterations, I moved toward installing the front plate first, and installing the neck before removing the mold.

In this model, originally, I had planned to install the back plate, then remove the mold, and finally install the front plate, after which I could install the neck whenever I was ready to do so. Nowadays I personally find it easier, however, to install the neck before the back plate is in place, because I don’t have to concern myself with the back side of the heel aligning with the back plate button.  (Annnd, it would have been a simple matter of planning, to still do that with this mold, if I had been thinking ahead: just label the front side of the mold as being the side without the screws (which have to be accessible) and you can install the front plate first, then remove the mold after installing the neck; no problem.) However…I wasn’t thinking ahead, and I used the mold exactly as I had originally designed it, so I have no choice, now: I am forced to install the back plate first, remove the mold and then (after shaping the blocks and linings and cleaning the interior of the corpus) install the front plate. So that is what I did. (By the way, in case you are thinking that the shape of the front and back plates are mirror-image of one another, the fact is, they virtually never are exactly mirrored, and are nearly never bilaterally symmetrical even if they were. So the front plate will not fit the back of the mold, and vice-versa.) Ah, well…hindsight, etc.

Here is the back plate, glued in place: the mold is still inside, holding everything rigid. Notice the spalting and curl in the maple back. This is a striking look, and some people love it…others do not.

Back plate of the Five-string viola glued and clamped in place on the garland.
Back plate glued and clamped in place on the garland.


After the back plate glue was dry, I removed the mold, shaped the interior blocks and linings, and cleaned up the interior of the corpus, so that it was ready for the front plate to be installed. I also installed the signed and numbered label, marking this as one of my handmade instruments.

Then I clamped the front plate in place, dry, just as I had done with the back plate, removed a few clamps at a time, and used a thin palette-knife to insert hot hide glue between the plate and the blocks and linings. As soon as I had the glue in place, I quickly replaced whatever clamps I had removed, before the glue could gel.

Once the plate was glued and clamped all the way around, I went back around with a blade, and picked out any gelled, cooled hide-glue that had squeezed out of the joint, so as not to have to deal with it later, in the form of hard, jagged chunks of dry hide glue. Then I tightened the clamps a little, and brushed hot water all around the joint, so as to reconstitute any glue that had gelled too soon, and allow the joint to close even more tightly.

Here is the corpus, all glued together.  The next step will be to adjust the overhangs as needed, and lay out the corners so as to begin purfling.

Front plate of the Five-string viola, showing the corpus: assembled, glued and clamped.
Front plate showing: Corpus assembled, glued and clamped.

Beginning Purfling the Five-string viola:

I used to do my purfling before closing the corpus, but I frequently discovered that the rib garland had moved a little, during the removal of the mold…or in some other way, things had changed, and then my plates no longer fit the garland, and I could not change the plates, because I had already installed the purfling…which locks in the shape of the plates, irrevocably (sigh…). So, I began waiting until after the corpus is closed and whatever needed overhang adjustments have been made, and then begin purfling.

I use a two-blade purfling marker to sketch in the location of the twin, parallel cuts needed to make the purfling slot, but I have to sketch the corners in by hand, with a pencil, because the purfling marker will not correctly lay out the corners.

I went ahead and began both the front and the back plates, but got too tired to complete them last night.  (Today was spent getting last-minute things done, as we have heard they are mandating that all Oregonians stay at home, due to the coronavirus scare. Went and bought flour and other groceries, filled the car with gas, and got the snow-tires removed, as that deadline is soon upon us as well.)

One thing about the maple and spruce plates: the spruce is very soft, compared to the maple, but it is tricky to carve, because of that. The winter grains (reeds, they are called) are so much harder than the summer reeds, that the blade has a definite tendency to swerve and follow the grain instead of the line you are trying to follow. The maple is much tougher to cut, because it is hard all over, but it is much easier to follow your lines without digressing.

So, here is what the little viola looks like, today:

Back purfling-slot begun on the Five-string viola--far from finished.
Back purfling-slot begun: the dark strip at the top is the only area where I already picked out the slot.


Front purfling-slot begun on the Five-string viola.
Front purfling-slot begun: none of the slot has been picked out.


In both cases, the plan is to cut the two incisions, pick out the wood between them, and then dry-fit the purfling strips, before removing them one-by-one and gluing them in place with hot hide glue.

That will be the next post, unless I take a break and carve the scroll. Either way, it is starting to look like a fiddle!



Thanks for looking.

Beginning of a “Chez Les Eveques” Five-string fiddle.

Advanced Student Instruments, including Five String Fiddles

A less expensive option:

I had originally hoped to only build “new, made from the raw wood” instruments, but, as it turns out, fewer people are willing (or able) to pay for the labor involved in building such an instrument. So, reluctantly, some years ago, I began to offer “advanced student instruments,” which meant I bought an unfinished instrument “in the white”, and completed the building, finishing and set-up as if it were my own creation, but labeling it as having been “from my shop” (meaning, not made by me,) and selling it at about 1/4-1/3 the price of my handmade instruments. For better or worse, these were a popular option, as the buyer gets a very good violin or viola, for a low price, and a 100% trade-in, if they later decide to buy one of my original handmade instruments. I named the new line of instruments “del Atelier Chez les Eveques” (From the workshop at the Bishops’ place.) I like the sound of it, and it sounds a lot more “bien sophistique” in French,  for some reason. 🙂

Five String “Chez Les Eveques”

I recently found that there were now also 5-string instruments available in the white, and, as an experiment, I bought two of them: a five-string fiddle (which seems to simply be a regular violin with a 5-string scroll,) and a 15″ 5-string viola (which, again, seems to be a normal 15″ viola body with a 5-string scroll.)

5-string violin and 5-string viola in the white
5-string violin and 5-string 15″ viola, in the white.

A good starting place:

As had been my experience in the past, the workmanship is quite good. The rest is up to me, as a rule. I do see some improvements I would make if I were in charge of the factory producing them, but that is OK, too. (Can’t give away all the secrets!)

I began the finishing process as if they were my own work; but with no specific plan, as I had no customer in mind, so I could not ask their preference.  Just my usual gound, sealer, and first varnish coats.

five string fiddles early varnish look
Early varnish look for both instruments.


Annnd … a Customer!

I was also in the midst of completing a commissioned instrument, so that was taking priority, but sometime along in the middle, there, I received a message from an individual who wanted this level of five-string fiddle. Annnd, she wanted to see what it looked like as it stood now… I actually had the customer on the phone, when I went into the next room and clumsily took two photos with my phone (see below) and sent them to her.

Five-string fiddle snapshot front
Snapshot of front.


Snapshot of back of Five-string fiddle.
Snapshot of back.


Bingo! She liked it, and said, “Let’s get it done!” So, we were off and running!

I asked questions as to her preferences, saw photos of her current existing instruments, and got a clear idea of where I was going with the look: (fairly deep color, some antiquing, etc.), and I began laying on color to suit, but sending her progress reports with photos, for approval.

Five-string fiddle Varnish getting close to completion.
Varnish getting close to completion.


Once the varnish was nearing completion, I installed the fingerboard and began set-up:

Front view of Five-string fiddle with fingerboard.
Front view with fingerboard.


Back view of Five-string fiddle with fingerboard.
Back view with fingerboard.

Having received assurance that all was well, so far, I continued on into set-up, and completed the instrument.

 Front view of Completed Five String Fiddle.
Front view of the completed instrument.

That tailpiece is hand-carved of Osage Orange, per the customer’s request: she was classically trained and does not like the multiple fine-tuners I usually supply.


Side view of the completed Five String Fiddle.
Side view of the completed instrument.


Back view of the completed Five String Fiddle.
Back view of the completed instrument.


Close-up of Five String Fiddle scroll.
Close-up of the scroll.

So…you may be thinking, “How does it sound?

Well, actually, disgustingly good! I always hope that my handmade instruments are just “head and shoulders above” the ones I buy in the white, but this is really a good five-string fiddle! The main advantage of the handmade original is that the customer gets to choose what type of (and in some cases what specific pieces of) wood will be used, as well as the overall look, and set-up. I can tailor an instrument to the needs of the specific player, if I start from the beginning with that player in mind. Not so much with the factory-made, in-the-white instruments. But, in this case, I think we have a winner!

The customer is a violist, so she knows good viola sound, and will undoubtedly mix and match strings until she finds the perfect match for her, but she is starting off with excellent balance across all five strings: nothing flabby or unfocused about that C-string at all! So, she should be able to put her favorite strings on it and get “instant gratification.” I expect so, anyway… There are so many possible combinations that I can’t say for certain that they will all work. I will ship it with a decent set of strings that work very well, and after that, it is the customer’s game, for life! 🙂

Here is her new baby, hanging in my dining room, ready to ship!

Five String Fiddle Ready to ship
Ready to start a new life!


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.

Commissioned 5-string fiddle

5-String Fiddle nearing completion

Custom Made Five-string fiddle Choices

Back in December, I received a commission for a new 5-string “Bluegrass” fiddle. It was to be made on the same form as one of my earlier instruments but have a two-piece, straight-grained Sitka spruce top and a very wild-grained Oregon Big Leaf maple back, sides and neck. The customer specifically requested Ipe for the Fingerboard, saddle and nut. Ipe is extremely hard, dense wood, but not threatened or scarce, as ebony is becoming. It has an odd color when under the knife, and leaves a bright yellow dust when it is scraped or sawn, but it finishes to a nice dark brown and darkens further with age.

Wild Grain Makes for Tough Carving

The last time I posted, I was just beginning the back plate arching. It was tough carving, as it is extremely “wild” flame, and the Big Leaf Maple grain is anything but straight. The result, of course, is some very beautiful wood. But it is hard work, regardless. The blades must be kept razor-sharp, and cuts must be kept shallow in depth.

The purfling requested was not only double purfling (favored by a few of the early masters, especially those of Brescia) but was to include a purfling weave, as well, in the form of a modified “fleur-de-lis.”  This is a design I came up with on my first five-string fiddle, and have continued to use, in a variety of forms, ever since.

Five-string fiddle Back Purfling begun
Working on the back purfling slots.

I like the look of the double-purfling and the weave, but it is pretty hard on my hands, as I still do all my purfling inlays by hand. I know a lot of makers use a Dremel-tool, or something similar. Perhaps I eventually will succumb to that “new-fangled” tool as well.

At any rate, here is the back plate, with the purfling complete:

Completed Five-string fiddle back plate
Back plate complete, ready for final scraping and graduation.

Closing up the “Corpus”

I closed up the corpus a few nights ago: all that is left to do before varnishing is to complete the final carving of the neck heel, and all the final edgework, so that the wood is “varnish-ready.”

Closed Five-string fiddle corpus, side view.
Closed corpus, side view. (Note the heel yet to be carved; edgework incomplete.)


Closed Five-string fiddle Corpus Back
Closed Corpus, back view…button still too long; heel uncarved.


Closed Five-string fiddle Corpus, Front view
Closed Corpus, Front view. Corners and edgework still not done.

I will show one more progress report during the varnishing process, and the last for set-up and playing.

Thanks for looking.