When I last posted, I had only begun cutting the outer purfling slots (I planned double purfling plus a weave for the back), so the next thing was to complete those slots.
Inserting and Gluing the purfling
The next step is to insert and glue the purfling in place, using hot hide glue. First I bend the purfling, using a hot iron, then I cut the ends to match the joints where the various sections meet. I insert the pieces dry, to ascertain that they fit, then, one-by-one, I pick the pieces back out and insert hot hide glue into the underlying slot, and quickly re-insert the purfling, forcing it to the bottom of the slot.
So that was the completion of the purfling. Edgework was next, shaping the channel through which both purfling slots will travel, as well as the outer edge and how the channel fairs into the front and back plate curvature. I used gouges, small planes and files, to get the edges to the required shape of a finished instrument.
While all this was happening, I was also getting going on the scroll, pegbox, and neck, but I will save that story for another post.
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
I had originally begun this little viola ten years ago, wondering what effect it would have to go extra-wide on the lower bouts without changing much else: I was sidetracked with other, more pressing projects, so the little viola sat, partially completed, for ten years. I was somewhat disinclined to complete it, now, because my skills have increased significantly over the intervening years, and I can’t undo some of the “marks of the amateur” which now glare at me accusingly. But, I also felt the need to get some 5-string violas going, and if it didn’t work then I could still toss it out, or whatever…at any rate, it was just an experiment.
I completed the little 5-string viola about the time I completed the recent commission, so I numbered it accordingly, and set it up. It has a great big voice, and is balanced and clear across all five strings! What a surprise!
I sent pictures to a violist friend, and her immediate response was “A 14” Tertis! Bet that would have made the old boy mad!”
I had heard of Lionel Tertis, and his famous contribution to the viola world…but had never seen one of his instruments. So I looked up photos on the internet, and, to my surprise, it really doeslook like my little fiddle! So, I inadvertently retraced the steps of Mr. Tertis, and produced a fairly powerful little five-string “Tertis-style” 14″ viola! He, of course, was on the other end of the spectrum, trying to achieve a very large, but still playable, viola. (My apologies to the Maestro! I wasn’t being deliberately irreverent!)
Here are some photos:
The back, ribs and neck are Big Leaf Maple, harvested near my home, and the belly is Sitka Spruce. I used spirit varnish, as usual.
I have been seeing increased interest in 5-string violas, lately, so I am working to “populate” my five-string viola stock. This is the viola design I began with over 20 years ago (The mold says 1999; it was my very first instrument.) and it makes a very nice small viola. So I decided it would probably make a great 5-string viola as well.
I began the work quite some time ago, but other projects took priority, so the little viola languished on the bench. The back is curly, spalted maple from a tree taken down on my wife’s parents’ place, and the belly is Sitka spruce. Both the front and back plates are one-piece in this case…something I seldom do. (One-piece front plates are uncommon. One-piece backs are quite common, and I prefer them.)
The rib-garland had been completed and the plates traced out months ago; so, after delivering the last commissioned instrument, I finally felt free to get to work again on the viola.
Arching complete: ready to graduate the plates
I failed to take any photos while arching…so we are beginning with that portion complete.
On the backs, especially, I make a practice of carving “dots” to specific thicknesses, following a plan in my mind. Once all the dots are correct, I “connect the dots” using small planes, until the entire interior is a smooth continuum, and all the correct thicknesses.
The Spruce is a lot easier to plane, so I tend to just measure and plane. Most people use gouges for all this work, but I like the planes.
Cutting the f-holes
Once the plates are completed (which also involved laying out and incising the f-holes) I still have to actually cut out the f-holes. I used to do this using just a knife, but it was time-consuming, and I found it difficult to get the round parts “round.” My grown children bought this tool for me, a special tool for cutting just the upper and lower eyes of f-holes. It works beautifully!
Beginning the Scroll
While things were being sorted around, and different tasks became logical, I decided to get a start on the scroll and neck. Didn’t get very far, but here it is:
There is still a long way to go, but it is feeling more as if I was getting something done, at least.
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″ 5-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.
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:
Re-install the fingerboard.
Carve and install the nut (final shaping later.)
Carve and install the saddle.
Install the end button.
Install the soundpost
Install the pegs.
Cut the bridge to proper fit, shape, and height.
Install tailpiece and strings.
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 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.
“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.
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.)
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 is an odd color when under the knife, and leaves a bright yellow dust when it it is scraped, but it finishes 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 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
The purfling requested was not only double purfling (favored by a few of the early masters) 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 will succumb to that 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.
Before I could prepare the back plate of this five-string fiddle, I had to complete the rest of the corpus (body of the violin:) First, the inside willow blocks and willow linings had to be tapered and shaped so they are completely smooth. Then, the back of the entire corpus (including the heel of the neck) has to be leveled, so that it will lie flat on the back plate. So, here is the main part of the 5-string violin, with the interior clean and smooth, and the back leveled and flat:
Beginning the Back Plate
I clamped the corpus flat on the back plate billet, then traced around the ribs, using a small washer to establish the correct rib overhang. Then I corrected the corners, using a straightedge and a series of circle patterns. Finally, I cut out the plate “footprint”, and began the arching process. Oregon Big Leaf Maple is a relatively soft maple, but it is still a good deal harder and tougher than Sitka spruce, so the back plate is a lot more work to carve. Here is the beginning:
In the above photo, the back plate is sitting in a work cradle, so that it will stay in place while I carve it. The Ibex plane in the photo has been slightly modified, to add the palm-fitting handle. This reduces the stress on my fingers and transfers the force to the palm of my hand as opposed to my thumb and forefinger. (To Ibex plane-owners: you will observe that I have removed the adjusting screw and reinstalled it upside down to allow insertion of the maple handle.)
I have been on vacation for two weeks, which has allowed me to accomplish more work than usual, in a shorter period of time. I go back to my regular job, on Monday, though, so things are about to slow to a crawl. (Sorry…that’s life. :-))
(Further progress on building a custom-made 5-string bluegrass fiddle.)
The neck was ready to set into the neck-block, last night, but I had reached my limit. So, today, I prepared both the neck and the garland, by ascertaining that all angles and dimensions were correct, and then laying out the shape of the neck mortise on the neck block of the garland. This is a critical step, and always raises my blood pressure a little, as I know that, if I make a mistake, it will require serious rework to get back to a usable status.
However, this time, the job went pretty smoothly, and I was able to set the neck in a fairly short time. One thing I do a little differently than I was originally taught, is that I set the neck before installing the maple back plate. This allows me to achieve a good fit with the rib garland and neck block, and not have to worry about the fit against the back plate button. Then I saw off the stub of the neck heel, and plane and file it flush with the rib garland. After I remove the mold and add the back linings, I will level the back of the garland, and be ready to trace the back plate shape.
Here is the completed corpus (Sitka Spruce top plate and Big Leaf maple ribs still on the mold) with the wild-grain Big-leaf maple back plate billet.
So, the next step was to remove the plywood mold. This is another stressful step because it involves literally using a hammer and chisel, to break the glue-bond between the blocks and the mold, so as to release the garland from the mold. I used to have a difficult time doing this, because occasionally a drop of hide glue had seeped between the rib and the mold, and anchored the fragile rib material to the very solid mold. The likelihood of breaking a rib at that point became nearly 100%. Eventually, however, I learned to liberally coat all the non-gluing surfaces of the mold with candle-wax (paraffin,) by vigorously rubbing a candle over all the areas I felt were likely to get a drop of glue on them.
The result today was that, when I removed the mold, it went smoothly, and I could see a place where glue had definitely intruded but it had dried with zero adhesion to the waxy mold. (What a relief!)
Installing the Back Linings
The linings are important for two reasons: they strengthen the fragile rib-edges, and they triple the gluing surfaces between the rib-garland and the front and back plates.
So, I cut the mortices in both sides of each of the six blocks to receive the lining strips, and then inserted the linings dry, to get a perfect fit.
Afterward, I removed each lining, one by one, coated them liberally with hot hide-glue, and re-inserted them, clamping immediately with small spring-clamps.
Shaping Blocks and Linings
If you look closely you can also see, in the above photos, that I had trimmed the blocks on the front side, before removing the mold. After the glue is dry on the back linings, I will also trim the back side of the blocks, to achieve a smooth, curved surface on the interior of all the blocks. At that same time, I will taper the linings so that they are very thin on the edge toward the middle of each rib, but still 2 mm thick at the edge where they will contact the back and front plates.
After that, it will be time to level the back surface of the entire corpus (garland and neck-heel) so as to fit tightly against the back plate billet. Then I can trace the final shape of the back plate, cut it to shape, and get going on completing the back plate.
For now, I am satisfied to allow the glue to dry, and take the rest of the evening off.
A client contacted me through this website and asked whether I could build a 5-string fiddle of primarily Oregon woods. (Sure!)
We made an appointment and she came for a visit. She played eight of my hand-made instruments (all good fiddles), finally declaring a particular one to be exactly what she wanted, except that she did not care for the look of the one-piece Sitka Spruce top plate. It had very wide grain on the bass side and narrower on the treble side. (It sounds great, but the looks were bothering her.) Soooo…
I went into my storage and retrieved a really wild-grained piece of Big Leaf Maple, and two billets of very straight, even-grained Spruce: one of Englemann, and another of Sitka: she chose the Englemann and loved the maple. She wanted an instrument essentially the same as that first one, but without the odd-looking belly grain. (Same model; made on the same mold (form), and sounding just like it, as well.) It will be tough to do, because the one she really likes is already five years old; it has had time to settle, be re-adjusted, and settle again. (Yes, it sounds good!)
Select Woods and a Good Start
So, we went out to one of my other buildings and hand-picked some likely-looking wood for the neck and ribs, and we were ready to do business. She presented a deposit, and I suggested that she take home the one she loved, for the time being, to keep her interest up while waiting for me to complete her personal treasure. She went home happy, and I began sorting willow for blocks, finding my proper templates, and enjoying the prospect of a new build. I will post follow-ups as they occur.
Thanks for looking.
I will post this over on the Bluefiddles page, as well.