15″ 5-string Viola Progress

Progress Report:

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

Bass-Bar

The next step was to install the bass bar. The bass bar is the only fixed, interior brace in the violins, violas or cellos. Flatback basses have some other bracing, but they are a different “branch of the family,” so to speak. But 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.
Fitted, glued and clamped bass-bar. Still needs to be shaped.

 

Proposed general profile of the bass-bar.
Proposed general profile of the bass-bar.

 

Shaping the bass-bar, using a finger-plane.
Shaping the bass-bar, using a finger-plane.

 

Completed shaped of finished bass-bar.
Completed shape of finished bass-bar.

 

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. I now 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 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: 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 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 showing: Corpus assembled, glued and clamped.
Front plate showing: Corpus assembled, glued and clamped.

Beginning Purfling:

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--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.
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.

New Five-string 14″ Viola

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

An experiment…

I began this instrument as an experiment, in 2010, but did not complete it. In fact, the only reason I know when I began it is that I wrote the date on the mold when I made it.

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

What about a five-string Experiment?

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

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

Front view of 14

Front view of 14″ 5-string viola with wide lower bouts.

 

Side view
Not a great photo, but here is the side view.

 

Back view
Back view of 14″ five-string viola with wide lower bouts.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks for looking.

Five String Fiddles in the White

“Shop-made” 5-strings

Not my preference, but…

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.

five string fiddles in the White
A 5-string violin and 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.

Possible Glitches

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….)

Thanks for looking.

Why a Five-String Fiddle?

Why not a Five String Fiddle? 

Traditioooonnn, Tradition!!

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.

See samples below:

 Oliver Five-string fiddle, by Chet Bishop. Sold.
Front view of Oliver Five-string fiddle, by Chet Bishop. Sold.
Oliver Five String Fiddle, by Chet Bishop (Sold)
Back view of Oliver Five String Fiddle, by Chet Bishop (Sold)

 

Myrtle and Port Orford Cedar 5-string (Sold)
Front of Myrtle and Port Orford Cedar 5-string (Sold)

 

Back of Myrtle and Port Orford Cedar 5-string
Back of Myrtle and Port Orford Cedar 5-string