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.

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


Back of Myrtle and Port Orford Cedar Five-String Fiddle.
Back of Myrtle and Port Orford Cedar 5-string