This instrument was actually begun last winter, but is only now coming into completed form. The back, sides and neck are all salvaged from a tree taken down years ago on my wife’s parents’ property, where she grew up. (I buit a commissioned instrument from this same tree last year.) I wish I had a lot more of it but much of the tree was lost to rot. Too bad… it is pretty wood. The Sitka spruce top came from somewhere here in the northwest, but I don’t know esactly where: I bought it from a local wood dealer.
Eventually I had the corpus (body) completed and had begun working on the neck and scroll. Arthritis was plaguing me a little, so it was slow progress.
Then it was time to set the neck. This is one of the most exacting steps in building a violin: everything has to be correct, or it will be impossible to correctly set the instrument up for playing.
Once the neck mortise is completed, such that the neck fits perfectly and all angles and dimensions are exactly right, I liberally coat the mortise and neck-heel with hot hide-glue, and quickly ram the neck into place, check all measurements one last time and clamp it with a single clamp at the heel.
After all the woodwork was completed, I varnished the instrument: The first coats are quite yellow, to provide a “golden glow” from under the color coats.
Finally the instrument was fully varnished and set-up:
The sound on this fiddle is very strong and clear: it has a well-focused C-string and is well-balanced across all five strings. I think this is possibly my best instrument so far.
This and several other of my instruments are all from a log given me by the late Terry Howell. I have made one cello, one bass and several five-string fiddles from the wood of that log, and I still have a lifetime supply, thanks to Terry’s generosity. (see that story, here)
The front plate, however, is a first for me: Douglas Fir! This is unusual, but not unheard of: there are a number of professional instruments by Otto Erdesz out there being played whose front plates were made of Douglas fir. Will I always use it? Nope! But this turned out very well indeed! I am more confortable using spruce, and probably will continue to mostly use spruce, but it was quite an eye-opening experience to try the Douglas Fir.
The sound is very big, with a very clear, deep C-String, and perfect balance across all five strings. This fiddle will “cut through the mix” in a band, but can also play pianissimo when needed.
Overall, I am very well satisfied with the final result on this fiddle. I am confident that a buyer will find it a thrill to play.
This week was a hard one, in terms of getting things done, because I had some repairs to do; but I did complete the varnish prep work on the most recent five-string violin, and then rubbed into it the mineral ground I use to fill the wood pores and prevent excessive varnish saturation.
The mineral ground dried rapidly, allowing me to accomplish the final rubdown before varnishing began: so, this evening, I applied the sealer, which is designed to soak in, and lock the mineral in place, after which the solvent evaporates, leaving only the resin in the wood. I rubbed off the excess with a rag and alcohol to make sure no unwanted residue was drying on the surface.
So, here is how it looks today. From here on out, it will be varnish and set-up:
I always hang the fiddles in the dining room to dry, since we heat with wood, and that is where the woodstove is.
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.
There was a famous maker, years ago, (Otto Erdesz, 1917-2000) who often made top plates for violas and violins out of Douglas Fir. Professional players bought and played his instruments, and they are still being played today, although many classical players insist that European spruce is the only “proper wood” for an instrument soundboard. Frankly, I usually would have agreed: all my experience with Douglas Fir seemed to indicate that it would not be a very good choice, even though I have played one of his instruments, and it was excellent. So, until this instrument, I simply didn’t try it.
Early this winter, a friend gave me a load of clean, dry Douglas Fir firewood. I heat with wood, and we had all been told it would be a bad winter (it wasn’t) so I really appreciated the gift. As I split some of it, I noticed that, unlike most Douglas Fir, it had no twist at all, and split easily and cleanly. When I picked up a chunk and tapped it, it gave a very clear, bell-like ring. (Hah! That spells “time to try some fir!”)
So I found one of the few pieces long enough to use, and carefully split it into useable billets, then sawed a center-line to book-match a plate.
I have been using a pattern modeled after the 1735 “Plowden” Guarneri del Gesu, a lot, lately, so I installed blocks in the mold, bent the ribs, and got going!
I had one more piece of “scrap” of Oregon Big Leaf Maple, from the 5-string Double bass I built last year, too, and I was looking forward to making a fiddle out of it. I had already made one 5-string fiddle from scrap from the other side of the bass-back, (sold to a bluegrass fiddle player in Ohio) and it turned out very well, so I was anxious to get the “sister” instrument made.
Back Plate Arching nearly complete:
The neck actually came from a tree on my wife’s parent’s place. I got started on it, as well:
Beginning to cut out the scroll requires a lot of saw-cuts, to outline the actual curl of the scroll, and then to remove the waste wood, using either a saw or a gouge…I used the saw, in this case.
Then I use various gouges and chisels to complete the scroll and the inside of the pegbox.
After the scroll and pegbox are very close to complete, I will prepare and attach the fingerboard and shape the two as a unit. That hasn’t happened, yet, so the handle portion of the neck is still rough and untouched.
Completing the Front Plate
Meanwhile I completed the carving of the front plate, laid out and cut the f-holes and began the purfling. Cutting the purfling slots by hand on Douglas Fir is quite difficult, because the winter reeds are exceedingly hard, compared to the softer summer reeds, and the knife just “pops” over them so that it feels as though it is running over corrugated roofing. It took me much longer to purfle this plate than it usually does for a spruce plate. (Ah, well!Perhaps that is one reason so few use it!) But the tap-tones of this plate are exceptionally strong and clear: I still have high hopes for the power and tone of the resulting instrument.
Garland leveled and Front Plate installed!
(I neglected to get photos of the bass-bar process: it is also Douglas Fir, from the same billet. I will show it after I remove the mold…sorry.)
The graduations for the back plate are nearly complete, but today was a long day, and I will have to finish them tomorrow. So, here is where the progress stands, for tonight:
Tomorrow! (yeah, tomorrow!)
I hope to get the back plate completed tomorrow, except for the purfling, which will wait until after I install the plate. Then I will prepare the fingerboard and get it glued onto the neck, and I will feel as though I am “On the home stretch!” (But it won’t really be true: there still will be a great deal of work left to do, before it is anywhere close to completed.)
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.