Five-string viola Scroll and Neck Carving

Carving the scroll on a 15″ Five-string viola

Beginning with the Saw

When I first tried making an instrument (a viola) I did not know about using a saw to start, and I carved the entire scroll by hand with a set of small gouges my wife had presented me with a few years earlier. That took a long time, and it was very difficult to keep both sides symmetrical with one another.

Later, I saw a series of photos posted by a maker in Brasil, who showed how he used a thin-bladed saw to outline the scroll, making many small cuts, then removing the waste wood with a combination of saw and gouges. That was a bit of a revelation, and I enthusiastically embraced the change. It did, however, take a bit of practice to master the concept.

So here is the process:

{You can see the dark lines and spots in the wood. This is called “spalting” and is very popular with some people, though it actually is caused by a fungus. This particular Big Leaf Maple billet, along with that of the back, was salvaged from an old tree taken down on my wife’s family’s property, and is quite heavily spalted.)

First, I carefully laid out both sides of the scroll, then  I used my bandsaw to cut out the whole “footprint” of the scroll and neck.

Then I went back and laid out the volute, including the centerline, on the outside of the curve, all the way around, so I know what the scroll should look like from the front and back, as well as both sides. I also used a knife to scribe the centerline deeply enough that I will not lose it as I begin to shape the outside of the scroll.

Then I used the same bandsaw to remove the slabs from the sides of the pegbox, and a little way down into the neck: (You can see I already rounded the heel of the scroll a little, too, with a gouge. That is a personal quirk of mine…I want that heel looking “round” right from the beginning.)

Five-string viola Scroll with outline cut and slabs removed.
Scroll with outline cut and slabs removed.

 

Then I use a small pull-saw (Japanese style, but I don’t know what brand) to cut beside the scroll profile lines just down to where they nearly touch the sides of the volute lines around the outside of the scroll. It is very important to keep these cuts perpendicular to the centerline of the scroll.

Sawing to create the profile of the scroll on the 15" Five-string viola.
Sawing to create the profile of the scroll.

 

Then I use a combination of a thin saw and various gouges to remove the waste wood created by the saw.

Removing waste wood from the scroll of the 15" Five-string viola.
Removing waste wood.

 

Continuing to remove waste wood from the scroll of the 15" Five-string viola.
Continuing to remove waste wood.

 

At some point (usually, the earlier the better) I will decide to carve out the interior of the pegbox. I did not take any photos of that process this time, but there are a variety of options. Some makers use a drill to carefully excavate a series of small holes, so that it is easier to remove the waste wood between the holes. That is practical, but you have to be very careful to not go too deep, or too far off to either side. (It is easy to destroy your scroll, in other words… ask me how I know. 🙁 )

I outlined the opening with a small straight chisel, then used that same chisel to begin excavating the waste wood from the interior of the pegbox. You can also see the remaining layout lines for the neck, in this photograph.

Carving the pegbox for the scroll of the 15" Five-string viola.
Carving the pegbox.

 

After the pegbox was mostly complete, I began carving the turns of the scroll, as well. This is another place where it is very easy to make serious errors. I continually examine the scroll from all angles to see to it that both sides are progressing equally, and that I am achieving a satisfactory symmetry. If I can keep the two sides looking like mirror images of one another up until the final smoothing, then there is little danger that the final smoothing will change that symmetry.

Beginning to carve the turns of the scroll for the 15" Five-string viola.
Beginning to carve the turns of the scroll.

 

Continuing to carve pegbox and beginning to carve the scroll for the 15" Five-string viola.
Continuing to carve the pegbox and the turns of the scroll.

 

15" Five-string viola Scroll nearly complete; Pegbox essentially complete.
Scroll nearly complete; Pegbox essentially complete.

 

Once the scroll and pegbox were complete, I prepared the fingerboard and glued it in place temporarily. I need the fingerboard installed, in order to correctly set the neck. (I realize that some makers can successfully set the neck without the fingerboard, and I have done so in the past, but it is also easy to make a mistake. I like having the fingerboard correct, and use it to help me set the neck correctly.)

15" Five-string viola Scroll looking pretty close to complete: Fingerboard temporarily installed.
Scroll is complete: Fingerboard is temporarily installed.

Setting the Neck

(I did not take photos of this process, but it goes as follows:)

  1. Lay out the location and footprint of the neck mortise.
  2. Use a thin razor saw to cut the sides of the neck mortise, but not too deeply.
  3. Use very sharp chisels and gouges to remove the waste wood from within the mortise.
  4. Keep checking the fit and adjusting the mortise, until the neck fits perfectly.
  5. Glue the neck in place, using hot hide glue, and a clamp.
15" Five-string viola Neck properly set, glued and clamped. Glove is for padding.
Neck properly set, glued and clamped. Glove is for padding.

You can see in the above photograph that the neck heel has been left to be carved to the correct shape at the same time as the back button. (A lot of people do not realize that, in the violin-family instruments, the joint between the heel of the neck and the back button is critically important to the strength of the neck joint. It is not just to be pretty, as is sometimes the case in guitars.)

 

15" Five-string viola neck-set back view, showing plastic clamp-pad.
Neck-set back view, showing plastic clamp-pad and spalted Big-Leaf Maple back.

 

After I carved the heel to the correct shape, The instrument was essentially done, and final shaping and scraping for varnish preparation is the next step.

Side view of 15" Five-string viola, showing completed neck-heel.
Side view, showing completed neck-heel.

 

Back view of 15" Five-string viola, showing back button shape.
Back view showing back button shape.

 

15" Five-string viola, ready for final Varnish-prep.
Ready for final Varnish-prep.

 

I will save the varnishing process for the next post.

 

Thanks for looking.

Purfling, Edgework and Scroll on a 15″ Five-string viola

Purfling the 15″ 5-string Viola

Complete the slots

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.

Tools I used to cut the slots for the purfling in the Five-string viola.
Tools I used to cut the slots.

 

Front Purfling slots complete on the 15" Five-string viola.
Front Purfling slots complete.

 

Back purfling slots complete on the 15" Five-string viola.
Back purfling slots complete, including the upper and lower weaves.

 

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.

Front purfling dry installed on the 15" Five-string viola.
Front purfling dry installed in the Sitka Spruce top plate.

 

Close-up of glued purfling for the 15" Five-string viola, partially trimmed.
Close-up of glued purfling, partially trimmed.

 

Front Purfling glued on the 15" Five-string viola...no edgework done.
Front Purfling glued…no edgework done.

 

Back Purfling glued in place in the 15" Five-string viola.
Back Purfling glued in place.

 

Upper Weave complete on the 15" Five-string viola.
Upper Weave, in heavily spalted Big Leaf Maple back.

 

Lower Weave completed on the 15" Five-string viola back.
Lower Weave. No edgework, yet.

 

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.

Beginning the scroll-carving for the 15" Five-string viola.
Beginning the scroll-carving.

 

Thanks for looking.

15″ 5-string Viola Progress

Progress Report for the 15″ Five-string viola:

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 violins, violas or cellos. Flatback basses do have some other bracing, but they are a different “branch of the family,” so to speak.  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 on a Five-string viola.
Fitted, glued and clamped bass-bar. Still needs to be shaped.

 

Proposed general profile of the bass-bar for a Five-string viola.
Proposed general profile of the bass-bar.

 

Shaping the bass-bar in a Five-string viola, using a finger-plane.
Shaping the bass-bar, using a finger-plane.

 

Completed shaped of finished bass-bar for a Five-string viola.
Completed shape of finished bass-bar.

 

Five-string viola 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. Nowadays I 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 side 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, now: 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 of the Five-string viola 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 of the Five-string viola, showing the corpus: assembled, glued and clamped.
Front plate showing: Corpus assembled, glued and clamped.

Beginning Purfling the Five-string viola:

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 on the Five-string viola--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 on the Five-string viola.
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.

15″ 5-string Viola on the way

Five-String Viola in progress

Delayed Five-String Viola Completion

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 that had been 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.

Completed Rib Garland for Five String viola.
Completed Rib Garland. Linings and blocks still require shaping and scraping.

Five-string viola arching complete: ready to graduate the plates

I failed to take any photos while arching…so we are beginning with that portion complete.

Front and Back Plates for Five String viola.
Front and Back Plates, completed except f-holes, bass-bar, purfling, and edgework.

 

Graduation of back plate for Five String viola.
Graduation of back plate.

 

Carving the back plate for the Five String viola.
Carving “dots” with specific thicknesses. Notice the button graft, to replace damaged wood.

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.

"Connecting the Dots" on a Five String viola back plate.
Connecting the Dots.

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 using the planes.

Graduating Front Plate for a Five String viola.
Graduating Front Plate, using curved-sole plane.

Cutting the f-holes on the Five-String viola

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!

f-hole cutter in action, cutting the f-hole eye on a Five String viola.
F-hole cutter in action: this tool cuts a perfectly round hole for the eyes of the f-holes.

 

F-hole cutter mark on a Five String viola.
F-hole cutter mark.

 

F-hole cutter with plug removed from a Five String viola front plate.
F-hole cutter with plug removed.

 

Five String viola front plate with F-hole cutter work completed.
F-hole cutter work complete… Knife work remains.

 

Five String viola Plates essentially complete.
Plates essentially complete: bass bar, purfling, and edgework remain.

Beginning the Scroll for the Five-String viola

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:

Beginning the scroll of a Five String viola.
Beginning the scroll.

There is still a long way to go, but it is feeling more as if I was getting something done, at least.

Installing and cutting the Bass-bar is next.

Thanks for looking.

Commissioned Handmade Five-string Fiddle Beginning

Starting a new 5-String Fiddle

The Materials:

A few weeks ago I announced that a new fiddle would be beginning. Now I have a few photos to show:

The top plate is Sitka Spruce, from Bruce Harvie. The customer wanted “Oregon wood,” and the Big Leaf Maple is definitely from in my neighborhood, here in Oregon (I helped harvest it;) but the Sitka is just a species that grows here…I don’t know where it was harvested.

Wild-grain Big Leaf Maple for Five-string fiddle back and ribs!
Wild-grain Maple for back and ribs!

 

Fine-grained Sitka Spruce for Five-string fiddle top plate.
Fine-grained Sitka Spruce for the top plate.

 

Preview of the grain in the Five-string fiddle neck billet.
Preview of the grain in the neck billet.

 

Beginning the work of building a 5-string fiddle:

I book-matched the spruce, to form the basis for the front plate: a solid plate with a tight glue-line down the center.

I used the mold (or form, as many people prefer to call it) that matched the fiddle the customer liked best. Then I added willow blocks to become the corners and end-blocks, and I traced the intended shape of the blocks from the mold template onto the back-side of the blocks, where they are flush with the mold.

Blocks and mold with Five-string fiddle template.
Blocks and mold with template.

 

Five-string fiddle Preliminary block-shaping complete.
Preliminary block-shaping complete.

 

Added the ribs, of the spalted maple the customer liked, and glued them to the willow blocks. Afterward, I added linings, also of willow, and let them into the blocks and glued them to the ribs and the blocks.

Spalted Maple ribs and willow linings on beginning of Five-string fiddle.
Spalted Maple ribs and willow linings.

 

Five-string fiddle Rib garland nearly complete.
Rib garland nearly complete.

 

Then I traced the shape of the garland onto the top plate material, using a small washer as a spacer, and a ball-point pen as a scribe. I completed the corners using a straightedge and a series of circle templates. Finally, I marked the edge at exactly 4 mm thick, and carved the arching, using gouges and planes and scrapers.

Sitka top-plate arching complete for Five-string fiddle.
Sitka top-plate arching complete.

 

Then I marked the layout of the double purfling and the f-holes, and began incising them into the Sitka Spruce.

F-holes and purfling traced and cutting begun for Five-string fiddle.
F-holes and purfling traced and cutting begun.

 

Sometime in the midst of all the above work, I laid out and began carving the scroll and pegbox. That wild grain is very tricky to carve, as it changes direction constantly.

Rough-carved scroll and pegbox of Five-string fiddle.
Rough-carved scroll and pegbox.

 

I went ahead and completed the purfling and the f-holes, so that I could prepare the plate to be glued to the garland.

Completed top plate and neck work with garland for Five-string fiddle.
Completed top plate and neck work with garland.

 

I also added the bass-bar, chalk-fitting it to perfection, and gluing it in place, with hot hide glue. The bass-bar will be carved, planed and scraped to the proper shape after the glue dries.

Five-string fiddle Bass-bar glued and clamped.
Bass-bar glued and clamped.

 

Five-string fiddle Top plate glued and clamped to the garland, fingerboard glued to the neck.
Top plate glued and clamped to the garland, fingerboard glued to the neck.

 

The fingerboard is Ipé, as requested by the customer. It is an extremely dense hardwood, but not threatened as Ebony is beginning to be. It finishes to a dark brown and looks good, as well as wearing well. It is extremely difficult to work, though, so it may take time to become popular with makers. The saddle and the nut will also be Ipé, but the pegs will be ebony, simply because I have never mastered the lathe-turning of tuning pegs.

Working on the fingerboard for the Five-string fiddle.
Working on the fingerboard.

 

And that is pretty much where things stand, for now. I will try to post pictures as they become available.

 

Thanks for looking.

June 22nd Progress Report

Some Progress is better than none!

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:

garland and plates
Rib Garland and rough-cut plates for the “Strobelesque” fiddle.

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.

garland with plates
Rib garland with front and back plates for a 14-7/8″ 5-string viola.

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:

garland and plates
Rib garland and nearly completed plates for a 14″ five-string 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.

Thanks for looking.