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.
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.)
The last two commissions were a five-string on the original Oliver Pattern and a five-string on the slightly-wider Guarneri pattern. Both sounded great, and both customers are very happy. So that left me wondering which one to do next. The obvious answer: Both!
I’m trying a new neck and scroll design on the Guarneri model. I hope it works well, as I really like the graceful look.
The instrument on the left (modeled after the 1735 “Plowden” Guarneri, with modifications to acommodate five strings) is left-over Oregon Big Leaf maple from building a five-string double bass, last year (same as the Andy Pastor commission fiddle.)
The scroll, also Oregon Big Leaf Maple, is from a tree on the property where my wife grew up, as are the ribs. The back is from a tree on the next ridge of hills west: about ten miles by road, probably three miles in direct line-of-flight. (Same one from which the recent double bass was taken, as well as several other instruments I have made. The late Terry Howell, of Howell Tree Farm, gave me the entire log, so I have a good supply.)
I also decided to try an experiment: This will be the first time I have attempted a 5-string bluegrass fiddle with a belly of Douglas Fir, as opposed to Spruce. Otto Erdesz was famous for using it successfully in many of his instruments, so, when a friend gave me some very straight, split Douglas Fir, I decided to make the attempt, on the Guarneri model. It is quite dense compared to spruce, but it rings like a bell, when I tap it with my finger, so I think it will be good.
The back, ribs and scroll on the right-hand instrument above (the Oliver-model) are all from the tree on my Mother- and Father-in-law’s property. The belly, as usual, is Sitka Spruce.
So, that is where things stand, today:
Slow Start due to Repairs and other Responsibilities
This has been a slow start: 2021 saw me needing to repair my ancient bandsaw, and my drill press had succumbed to the misguided attention of a marauding mouse. (The little wretch had crawled up through the ventilation holes of the electric motor and chewed off all the insulation from about 4″ of wire!)
The bandsaw required disassembly and drilling out a worn, threaded hole, and retapping for a helicoil. The machine will probably outlast me, now.
The drill press motor had to be taken apart and a new wire soldered in place. (A friend did that one for me. I really lack confidence when it comes to electric motor repair.) Fortunately, the damage was limited to just that one wire. (Maybe the plastic insulation gave the mouse a belly-ache.)
At any rate, I now have both machines running again, and I was able to saw out the profiles for the remaining plates as well as drilling the pilot holes in each scroll.
I should be able to get more done, now. (Gotta prune the apple-trees, too… Spring is on the way!)
Wet down the wood,to raise the grain and accentuate “problem” areas
I wetted the whole bass down with coffee, mainly to raise the grain a bit, but partly to add a little color to the white wood of the Sitka spruce belly. The Oregon Big Leaf Maple is already pretty colorful.
Then I turned the lights off in the workshop and went over the whole bass, inch by inch, with a small flashlight, held at a low angle, to make shadows wherever there was a discontinuity in the surface. As I located them, I scraped or sanded away the problems, before moving on. It took quite a while, but I was pretty happy with the outcome.
The next step is to coat the wood with a mineral ground: a suspension of extremely fine particles of gypsum in water is what I use. I brush it on, one section at a time, rub it in vigorously, to get the tiny particles into the pores of the wood; then rub off any excess, with a rag. It always looks as though I took all of it back off, until it dries.
After the ground is fully dry, I sand all over with fine abrasive, to remove any dry patches of excess mineral. There will be very small discontinuities that have been filled by the mineral ground: this is desirable, and I am not trying to remove those places.
When the ground dries, the bass will be stark white, but when I apply the sealer, to lock the mineral particles in place, the mineral ground becomes completely transparent, permanently. It will never be visible again.
So, here is the bass, with the gypsum fully dry, mounted in my varnishing fixture, and ready for the sealer:
I am currently using rosin dissolved in turpentine and alcohol as a sealer. The liquid (alcohol first, then turpentine) evaporates, leaving the rosin in the pores of the wood. When dry, this helps prevent the varnish from soaking into the wood, so as to minimize the sound-dampening effect of excessive varnish penetration.
This is the part of finishing I like best: it seems almost magical to see the stark white of the mineral ground disappear instantly and permanently as the sealer permeates the gypsum and renders it transparent, so that the beauty of the wood is revealed.
After the sealer is dry, or just before it is completely dry, I rub down the surface of the wood with alcohol, to pick up any rosin that may have remained on the surface. When the sealer is fully dry, I go over the whole surface, lightly, with fine sandpaper, to pick off any bits of wood fiber that may have raised during the ground and sealer process.
I always begin with a yellow varnish: I like the way it shines through the darker pigmented varnish when all the finishing is complete. In this particular case the maple was dark enough that even the yellow varnish will end up looking pretty dark. So, though I will still begin with the yellow, I will have to add a good deal of darker varnish on the front, to balance the color with that of the back. This is just a type of “Judgment call” that the maker must always consider when finishing an instrument. As I add coats of varnish, I will pay attention to which areas need darker varnish, and which could use yellow or clear varnish.
The last time I posted, I had temporarily installed the neck, and (I thought) I had glued the neck heel root in place, as it was to be a permanent part of the corpus, glued to both the neck mortise and the back button.
So the bass looked like this:
The heel root looked like this:
I was so confident that everything was right, that I even sawed off the excess heel root, visible in the above photo, and planed it flush with the back of the neck block, in preparation for installing the back plate. But! When I broke the paper “break-away joint” (see the above photo) the heel root gently let go of the mortise and was completely loose. (Rats!)
It turns out that hide glue doesn’t stick to carbon fiber plate! Ok… so I had to start over, and this time glue it home with epoxy. I put a plastic bag around the neck heel to protect it, coated the heel root with epoxy on the bottom and two sides, and slid it all back into place, this time bolting the neck in solidly, and clamping the heel root tightly against it. It all worked this time.
Beginning the purfling of the back plate
While the epoxy was curing, I decided it would be a good idea to at least install the “purfling weave” portion of the back plate purfling, before installing the plate. I figured it would be easier while the plate was still loose. The reason I wait until the back plate is installed to do the rest of the purfling, is that the corpus often changes shape a little when the mold is removed, so I can’t guarantee that the overhang will still be the same. If I have already installed the purfling, then I am stuck: but if I have not, then I can maneuver the overhang to being as close as possible to what I wanted, and install the plate, then plane away excess all around until the overhang looks right again, and finally put in the purfling so that it looks as though everything just worked out right, to begin with.
This is a weave that I came up with for my very first five-string fiddle and which I have tried to incorporate on all my subsequent five-string instruments. It is just a modified “fleur-de-lis”…nothing really special, but I like it. I use the same design, upside down, in the upper end.
After cleaning the slots out, I used heat and water to bend the purfling strips to fit the curves of the weaves, and glued them in using hot hide glue.
I planed the weaves flush with the plate after they were dry, using a gouge, a small finger-plane, and a scraper. You can see the beginning of the rest of the purfling slots, how they will connect to the weaves.
Closing the corpus
I finished scraping the interior and then laid the corpus onto the back plate, positioning it carefully, adding spool clamps, and constantly checking the overhang all the way around. When everything was as close as I could get it, I removed a few clamps at the bottom block, used a thin palette knife to ladle in the hot hide-glue, and replaced the clamps, tightening them securely. I added more clamps over the glued area, then repeated the process for the next section on either side of the bottom block, and worked up around the sides that way: removing clamps, inserting glue, replacing the clamps and adding more…until it looked like this:
I still had not put the magnets into the cover plate, because, when I added the reinforcements to the cover plate, it changed the curvature, and it no longer fits cleanly into the access port flange. (Rats, again!) So I kept wetting and clamping the cover plate in different configurations until I got it to a close fit, then I added the magnets.
Annnd… it turns out they are too weak. (Sigh…) I will have to order some bigger magnets after all.
At any rate, I was now ready to correct the overhang all around, and begin the final purfling.
Carving the Channel
After the purfling was completed, I still needed to trim back the purfling and carve the plate channel. This involved marking the edge crest all the way around, about 2 millimeters inside the outer perimeter, and carving the channel to barely touch that line. I used a sharp gouge, in the manner of a drawknife, to carve the channel, then used a riffler file to smooth the outer curve, where it meets the crest line.
(I actually made a very short video of how this works, but I was unable to successfully link it to this post. Sorry.)
After the channel was complete, it was time to begin final edgework:
The goal is to make sure that the edge contour is correct all the way around, and that the plate channel fairs smoothly into the surface of the plate, without ridges or lumps. Getting the light at a low angle across the plate makes shadows which will show me where the lumps and ridges are so I can scrape them away.
It suddenly occurred to me that my bass-varnishing fixture requires that the end-pin hole be drilled, so I drilled the endpin hole but did not ream it to the taper it will eventually have. On smaller instruments I usually varnish before drilling the endpin hole, so that there is no likelihood of causing sags or runs where the varnish brush touches the hole. But on the bass, I have to have that hole as a place to attach the support for varnishing. (I can’t hold the bass in one hand, and the brush in the other, as I can with a violin!)
And, that is pretty much where it sits, for the moment! The bass is ready for final varnish-prep, which will involve wetting down the whole surface to raise the grain, so I can sand it smooth again, then repeating until the grain no longer responds to moisture. Then I will rub in a compound to add color to the wood itself (not a stain, which might “reverse” the grain colors) and a mineral ground to close the pores in the wood. Finally a sealer locks in the mineral ground, and I will be ready for varnish.
So there is the bass corpus, ready for final varnish prep!
When I last posted, the back plate was in progress, but even the arching was not completed, let alone the interior carving. Now it is all complete, the front plate has been installed, and the fingerboard, the neck and the tailpiece are underway! Things are moving along!
I did make a set of arching templates before moving on with the arching:
Those templates helped me to see the shape more clearly, and to know what changes to make, to improve.
So, here is the completed back arching, after scraping, so that you can see the flame in the Oregon Big Leaf Maple back:
Carving the interior is always a daunting task…that is a lot of wood to move! But, one scoop at a time, it does get done!
Once I had the whole plate beginning to take shape, I carved “dots” all over the plate, checking thickness as I carved, until I had a pattern of correctly graduated “dots all over the plate. Each dot had a measurement written in the center, matching the graduation “map” I had chosen to emulate.
Then it was time to “connect the dots.”
It is always amazing to me how light the plates become after all that waste wood is removed. In this picture, you can see how thin the plate is, with the graduation complete.
I took the plate inside, and stacked all the parts together so that I could see the progress:
What is next?
I needed to complete the neck, which means I needed to design, cut out, and shape the fingerboard and glue it to the neck block so that I could finish shaping them as a unit. Meanwhile, I could install the front plate, and get ready for the neck-set, once the neck was ready.
Front Plate installation
I completed a preliminary shaping of the blocks and shaped the linings, front and back. Then I carefully positioned the garland on the front plate, and temporarily clamped them together, using several spool clamps.
Then I removed the clamps from one area at a time, used a thin palette knife to slip hot hide glue into the joint, and re-clamped immediately, adding more clamps as needed. Then I moved to the next area and repeated that pattern. Soon I had the entire front plate glued, and secured to the garland with clamps.
And, when I removed the clamps in the morning, the project was beginning to look like a bass!
I liked the looks so much, I stacked the parts together again, to see how it would look, all together. The back plate is just sitting there, again, not bent to fit the garland or anything. I will add purfling after installing the plate, I think, so I can be sure the overhang is correct, and that the purfling follows the finished edge.
There is still a long way to go, but I will put more in the next post.
When I last posted, I had flattened the back plate, using a plane, but the shape was still oversized.
So I traced out the plate shape using a small section of plastic pipe as a guide, and a ball-point pen inside the pipe to make the mark. Then I cut out the plate using my very old Craftsman “Auto-Scroller” saber saw.
My beloved wife, Ann, bought me this saw when we had been married for less than two years, and it has served me well for the last 38 years, but this may be the final plate it will cut out. It overheated rather badly during the cut. 🙁
Once the plate was cut out, I used my curved-sole scrub-plane to remove waste wood, and rapidly bring the plate to near the proper thickness around the edge. As the thickness gets close to the target dimension, I switch over to the Ibex Finger-plane with the toothed blade and the wooden handle, to complete the thicknessing of the plate edge. The Oregon Big Leaf Maple is much more difficult to carve than the Spruce was, both because it is harder, and because the grain is highly flamed, meaning that it changes directions every centimeter or so, resisting all efforts to smoothly plane off the wood. The toothed plane helps, but when I start getting close to the right thickness, I will have to switch over to a scraper before the tear-outs from planing are too deep to be removed.
You can see the longitudinal arching template in the above photo: it is just a thin piece of plywood with an 11′-3″ radius circle section cut out of it so as to leave the correct arching height in the center. I used that to help me establish the longitudinal arching. The Ibex plane is on the plate, and the scrub-plane is almost out of sight behind a small block-plane in the background. The small block-plane is helpful for smoothing the ridges left by the scrub-plane.
I am working to the rough sketch I made before beginning, with the plan for the back arching: (I did change the plan a little. I realized that I could extend the arching a little further “north,” as I have tapered the entire garland a little, so that the bend in the upper bouts will not be so severe, and the arching may be able to follow it a little way before flattening out to avoid the compound curve. It’s worth a try, anyway, and will not hurt anything.)
My hands and shoulders were getting too tired, so I went inside and used small finger-planes, files, and scrapers to refine the scroll. I am waiting on an order of carbon-fiber reinforcement materials to complete the neck, but other than that, I am pleased with how it is turning out.
I also completed the scraping of the Sitka Spruce belly, and it is pretty much ready to be glued to the garland.
I pretty much wore myself out on this stretch: I’m looking like a tired old man, here. And I thought I was smiling…
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.
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:
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.”
I will show one more progress report during the varnishing process, and the last for set-up and playing.