Archive for July, 2015

5-String Fiddle Progress Report #5: F-holes and Bass-Bar

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F-holes and Bass-bar

F-hole Drill

We had just completed the graduation in the last post; Usually, by this point, I am beginning to see the interior of the f-holes, too, because, as you may recall, I had incised them pretty deeply. In this particular case, I could just barely see some portions. I guess they were not as deep as I thought they were.

Once the inside is complete, I finish cutting the f-holes. Many people use a jeweler’s saw, a fretsaw, or a coping saw to cut out the f-holes. I generally just use the knife, except that I do have a special tool for cutting the round upper and lower eyes. I didn’t take any photos of it this time…here is one from an earlier instrument:

f-hole drill

F-hole drill being used to cut the lower eyes on a cello.

f-hole drill and holes

F-hole drill with completed eyes and cut-out plugs.

F-holes Completed and Clean

Just getting the f-holes cut is only part of the job…they need to be clean, and smooth, and relatively symmetrical. I will keep touching them up and tweaking them until the day I begin the varnish, most likely, but here they are; close to being complete, if not completely done.


F-holes essentially complete.

By the way, you may have noticed that on this instrument (and the last one) I purfled after installing the plates. I was taught to purfle early, but I always had trouble getting my overhang even, and my purfling parallel to the ribs. So I tried purfling after closing…works fine and looks better. Diff’rent strokes, I guess….

Bass Bar

When the f-holes are complete, and clean, I can fit the bass-bar. The bass-bar is a spruce brace supporting the bass-side of the bridge, and providing for a good sound on the low strings.

I lay out the location of the bassbar, 1/14th of the width off center, at both upper and lower bouts. It usually ends up about 15 mm off center at the lower bout and 12 mm off center at the upper bout. (Those were the exact measurements this time: the upper bout was 168mm wide and the lower was 210 mm wide. So 1/14th of each was 12mm and 15mm respectively.) When I lay the bass-bar blank along that line, the side of the blank should just about “kiss” the upper eye on the bass side. I make slight adjustments as needed to make sure it does not obstruct the f-hole at all, then scribe the line in with a flexible steel ruler and a soft pencil. The line ends 40mm from each end of the plate, so the bassbar is just under 11″ long, (and about 7mm thick where it contacts the plate, tapering to 5mm along the free edge.)

bass-bar layout

Bass-bar layout lines complete.

Chalk-Fit Trick

Then I do something a little unusual: lots of luthiers chalk-fit bass-bars…in fact, probably most of them do. I have only known one or two who can successfully “eye-ball” the thing in. But I do not like the looks of chalk-residue mixed with hide-glue, either. I can’t see the white chalk clearly enough to use it, and the others leave an ugly residue– expecially the green or blue chalks.

So… what to do? Someone, years ago (can’t recall who…probably my friend Jake Jelley), pointed out that the paper gauze tape sold in pharmacies will stick securely, you can see the line through the tape, and it holds the chalk very well. The tape (3M Micropore) is so thin and fragile that you get a very good fit, but when you take the tape off after the fit is perfect, all the chalk comes off with it. (Careful! It can pull splinters off, too!) Hey, Presto! Clean wood, and you are ready to glue in the bass bar!

Pre-Fitting the Bar

I pre-fit the bass-bar by eye, using a compass to mark the contour from both sides, then trimming with knife and plane until the fit is close.

Bass-bar pre-fit.

Bass-bar pre-fit by eye, using a knife and plane to trim the wood to a close fit. Chalk-fitting is next.

Then I apply the paper tape, darken the line on the tape as needed, and begin the chalk-fit process. It is important to learn to JUST plane or scrape away the portion of the bass bar with chalk on it, on each try. Don’t plane off whole sections…it is possible that only that one little place with the chalk was high.

paper tape for chalk fit.

There is the paper tape…you can still see my layout lines.

chalk-fitting bass-bar

Beginning chalk-fit.

chalk-fit complete

Chalk-fit complete, and tape removed. Notice the arrow on the upper end of the bar: that is to keep me from forgetting which end is which.

Final Check and Installation

I check the fit by clamping the bar in place, dry.

bass-bar dry fit

Dry fit and clamped for final check. Seems to fit acceptably…

Then I remove the clamps, and slather on the hot hide glue–carefully. I quickly re-position the bar and clamp it securely, then clean up, using hot water and a brush. The small amount of watered-down glue soaking into the wood around the bar doesn’t seem to hurt anything, so I don’t worry about it.

bass-bar glued and clamped

Bass-bar glued, clamped and brushed down with hot water.

Shaping the Bass Bar

When the glue is completely dry, I remove the clamps and shape the bar…”just so”.

sketched shape of bass-bar

The glue is dry… see the sketched-in proposed shape of the finished bass-bar. The dark area beside the bar is just a shadow, not glue.

I do not have a “scheme”, here, and I do not measure it beyond occasionally checking the center height. I am just going by feel, by eye, and by experience. I know if the bass bar is too weak, it will affect the sound of the bass string…so I err on the side of a tall bar. I am certain that many will frown upon this. I am not telling you how you should cut a bass-bar; just sharing how I handle mine.

So; I use gouges and finger-planes initially, to shape the bar, finishing up with scrapers, files, and even sandpaper. (Yes, I know…but it’s OK, honest!)

And…there’s the plate, completed and ready to install! Well…sort of….

The glue was a little too thin on one end of the bar and it popped off for about a 2″ section. So it has been re-glued and is drying.

bass-bar nearly complete

Bass-bar nearly complete. One end popped loose, and needed re-gluing.I will do a little final shaping before calling it done.

Besides, the inner edges of the plate will have to be rounded and smoothed before I can actually install it. But there are probably less than 30 minutes of work left before I can glue the front plate in place. So it’s almost done. I hope to install it tomorrow, but I have some other things to do, as well.

Some of you may wonder why I install the front plate first; I was actually taught to do the back plate first, and to install the neck last, but it finally occurred to me that I could fit the neck before installing the back plate, and before removing the mold, and get a perfect neck-set, then trim the back of the heel flush with the rib plane, and install the back last, after removing the mold and cleaning up the interior. It worked very well, so I have continued the practice. Again; different ways of doing things result from different skill-sets and different problem-solving methods. There is nothing wrong with either way. (I even knew of a fellow who set the neck before installing either plate…but I can’t see that one. On the other hand, that guy made over 1000 instruments before he died, and sold every one of them; he must have been doing something right.)

So, the next post will involve completeing the neck and fingerboard assembly, installing the front plate, and setting the neck. Could be a week away; I am going to be working a lot of overtime on my day-job, for the next several months it seems.

Later the same evening:

finished bassbar 1

Bassbar is finally complete!

bass bar side view

Side view…lighting is difficult, but you can see the profile.

Thanks for looking.


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Five-String Fiddle Progress Report #4: Graduation

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5-String Progress Report #4


Graduation begins with measuring in the spots where it already feels a little thin, so as not to make a fatal mistake and carve right through the plate. (It happens!)

Once I know where I am free to carve, and where I need to take it easy, I begin by carving cross-grain with a medium-large gouge. I check periodically with a caliper. When it begins looking closer to the right shape inside, I measure again, and double check those special spots.

carving inside violin front plate

Beginning graduation, using a gouge.

Then I go after it with a toothed finger-plane. This is really just an Ibex 18 mm finger-plane with a toothed blade, and a wooden handle added to save my fingers. I originally added that handle to keep from blistering my forefinger and thumb, as I had done so on every single instrument up to that point. (That was my #16 instrument– a cello.) I was surprised to discover that it also gave me much more power and control so that I was able to set the blade deeper and carve much more aggressively, taking off much thicker shavings.

Toothed plane use

Using a Toothed Finger Plane to further the Graduation process.

Once it is smooth inside, and within a millimeter or so of completion, I switch to a smaller finger plane and cut more gingerly, until it is all within a few tenths of a millimeter of the goal thicknesses, and then I finish with scrapers. Here is how the plate looks at that point:

graduation...inner arching.

Graduation nearly completed– the skewers are only there to create shadows so that the contiour will show in the photograph.

inner arching.

Another view, at a lower angle. There are still a few lumps to smooth out, but the graduation is essentially complete.

Usually, by that point, I am beginning to see the interior of the f-holes, too, because, as you may recall, I had incised them pretty deeply. Once the inside is complete, I finish cutting the f-holes. Many people use a jeweler’s saw, a fretsaw, or a coping saw to cut out the f-holes. I generally just use the knife, except that I do have a special tool for cutting the round upper and lower eyes.

And that is what I will show in the next post…which, hopefully will be sooner this time.

Thanks for looking,




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Five-String Fiddle Progress post #3

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5-string progress #3

Arching and F-holes

Last time, I had traced and cut out the top plate, and actually, I began the work on it, thinning the plate to the desired arching height– but that is when I discovererd that there was a bark inclusion that extended right through the upper bouts. So, for those “sharp-eyed” among you, who notice that the grain has changed; Yep. It surely has! Too bad…I liked the grain of the spruce in the plate I first chose, but it turns out it was just a little too interesting.

So, on this plate, all I have done is the outer arching and the layout and incision of the f-holes. After completing the arching, but before final scraping, I laid out the distance from the upper edge of the plate to the “stop” line (where the bridge will stand) at 195 mm, then laid out the distance between the upper eyes at 42 mm. I used a plastic template that I made years ago (cut out of an old flexible face-shield– the kind welders use when they are grinding steel) to lay out the shape of the holes, then incised them deeply with a thin knife. They would have been virtually invisible in the photos, so I traced them again with a sharp pencil after incising them, so that you could see them in these photos.

Arching and f-holes

Arching complete, f-holes laid out and incised.

Arching: Final Check

Next I checked the arching by sighting edge-ways at the plate, to see whether the main stem of each f-hole is fairly parallel to the rib-plane. Usually I find that I have left the arching a little too “puffy” around the lower stem and lower eye area of the f-holes and need to plane away a few more strokes to get the stems lined up. I don’t think the looks of the f-holes are the main issue, here– the shape of the arching is fairly critical to the sound, as best I can understand, and this is just a “marker” for me to check.

Side view of f-holes.

Checking to see that f-holes are aligned with rib-plane.

Obviously, this alignment is something I have to do before I try to complete the inside carving, or there might not be sufficient thickness left to do the final adjustment. I try to estimate and get this area as close to correct as possible before laying out the f-holes, but I have had to adjust them at least a little, every time, so far.

After I am satisfied with the overall shape of the arching, I use scrapers to reduce all the lines and ridges left by the finger planes into a smooth continuum.

Graduation: Beginning the Interior

Once I have the outside arching the way I want it, I can start on the inside, and the final graduation of the plate. I hold a pencil in my fingers so that about 9 mm protrudes onto the plate, and then run my fingers around the edges…nothing precise about it: it is just a guideline for carving. I want to leave this area untouched until the last bit when I am scraping the inside, before installing the bassbar. I use the same template that I use for the final shape of the end blocks to scribe the shape of the area to be glued to the blocks. I scribe in the corner blocks  with a curved scraper that just happens to fit the shape I want. All this outer perimeter area will be left flat until the last step before installing the bassbar, and/or installing the plate on the ribs. I want just the gluing surface flat when I am ready to install the plate.

Inside front plate, before carving

Inside carving plan.

Preparing for Graduation: Measure First!

It pays to use a caliper and check the thickness all over before beginning to carve. I do have a mental image of the desired shape of the interior, but I do not have a mental map of the thickness of the plate, so I measure at least the areas that already feel pretty thin to my fingers, and decide how much should come off in each area. As it turns out, this time, no areas are really borderline, but some are within 1.5 mm or so, so I will be careful around those places. I am aiming for about 3.5 mm down the middle, fairing down to 2.5 in the upper and lower flanks. and a few places 2 mm, very likely. I will try to leave some areas a little thick, where there is a likelihood of cracking, but in general, I expect this will be a pretty thin plate…the spruce is a little dense (which I have had good results with in the past), so it can stand to be a little thinner than usual.

After the inside is carved and scraped to my satisfaction, I will complete the cutting out and shaping of the f-holes, then chalk-fit and install the bassbar. I will post photos of all that.

Thanks for looking.

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Progress Report: Post #2

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Five-String Fiddle Coming Along Fine!

A day off from work means a long day on Lutherie!

I got up at 5:45 AM (usually I get up at 3:45, so this was luxury), had breakfast, watered some fruit trees, checked e-mail, and got to work. I knew the outbuilding shop where my power tools are was going to get hot very rapidly today (99 deg. F predicted, I think), so I did all I could do out there while it was still cool, then worked in the basement shop for the rest of the day.

  1. I took those rough-sawn ribs and thinned them to 1mm all over, using a fixture I made for my oscillating spindle sander (one of the few power tools I use), and cut out the neck block using my small bandsaw. I have a large bandsaw for cutting up large pieces of wood, etc. That is what I used to divide the back block into the two pieces to be joined at the back center seam (next.)
  2. I then cut out the back and front plate pieces, and joined them, book-matched, so that the grain is nearly symmetrical bilaterally, both front and back. It wasn’t easy this time. I don’t know why. I use a small hand-plane to flatten the edges until they fit nearly air-tight– definitely light-tight. I have a larger plane but this wood was so wild it required a very low-angle plane, set very light, or it tears out at all the curly grain.
  3. I glued the two halves of the front plate together using hot hide glue, and, while it was drying, I cut the ribs to the correct widths and lengths for each of the six pieces, planning as best I could to get the grain to line up appropriately at all junctions.
  4. Once the front plate was dry enough to remove the clamps, I glued up the back plate, in the same manner. Some people get a great center-join using a rubbed-joint method. I have done it that way, but I am more comfortable if I add three clamps after I do the rub.
  5. While the back dried, I planed the front plate to get it more or less level across the inner face.
  6. I took the neck blank and laid out all the measurements on it, and began shaping it a little while I was waiting for other things.

About 11:00 AM I decided I was hungry, so I had a salad and some coffee, and took a picture of the work as it stood:

All the wood in progress.

All the wood in progress.

Back to Work!

  1. I drilled 1/8″ pilot-holes in the scroll block for the pegs. When I drill them early like this I can use the drill press and get the holes perpendicular to the center line. My teacher does not do them this way– he says it risks sags in the varnish, and advocates drilling after all varnishing is complete. (He is probably right, but I can never seem to drill the holes correctly by hand, so I will risk the varnish issues.) I was right about working early in the outside shop– it is really getting hot out there now.
  2. I used the small bandsaw to cut the side cheek excess wood off the pegbox, and trued up the heel where it was too long. From here on out the scroll will all be hand-work.
  3. I used the electric bending iron to bend all six ribs, as well as the front linings. I will have to make some more lining stock– this was all I had for the moment. Fortunately they are easy to make. The linings add strength to the edges of those 1mm ribs, which are otherwise extremely fragile. They also triple the gluing surface of the rib edges, so the joint between the ribs and plates are much more secure. I try to get as much done as I can while the iron is hot, and then turn it off; for one thing, it takes about 20 minutes to heat up: but also, if you forget and leave it on, and then forget it is hot, you can get a bad burn. I keep mine at about 400 degrees F.
  4. I installed the C-bout (center) ribs, and glued them in place with hot hide glue, using wine-cork clamping cauls (donated by a friend) for the small-radius upper corners and broom-handle cauls for the lower corners. (This is really going to be a pretty instrument. The wood is gorgeous. I hope it plays well.) The upper and lower surfaces are an even larger radius, so they will be clamped using a section of large wooden closet rod. Sorry I didn’t take photos of these steps. Wasn’t thinking about pictures…I was just working.

More Pictures

Violin in beginning stages

Ribs and linings bent; Center ribs installed; Upper and lower corner surfaces shaped; Scroll begun.

As you can see, the ribs sprang back quite a bit after being bent. I should have thought ahead and prepared a block to which to clamp them while they were waiting to be glued in place. I have such a block–I just didn’t expect the springback to be so severe.

Close-up photo of the Scroll start

Close-up photo of the Scroll…pretty rough-looking, at this point, but that is how they start out…at least when I carve them.

Scroll layout lines

In this photo, you can see some of the layout lines of the pegbox. The wood is so dark that the pencil lines are hard to see.

As you can see above, after the glue was dry on the center ribs, I worked the final shape on the upper and lower surfaces of the corner blocks to ready them for the upper and lower ribs. Then:

  1. I installed the upper ribs, and, while the glue was drying on those ribs,
  2. I worked some more on the scroll. At this point the simplest way to begin removing excess wood is by cutting from the sides in to very near the layout lines for the scroll volute (the back of the scroll.) I do this by clamping the neck to a work-surface (in this case a lap-board.) and carefully starting the cuts, one at a time, spiraling up the scroll from each side. Usually I can then remove the waste wood with a knife or a flat wood-carving chisel, but the grain in this wood is too wild, so I had to try to follow the cuts around the scroll with the saw, then do the final cutting with sharp gouges and small planes.
Pull-saw and clamp

Pull-saw and clamp.

Wood Removal

Wood Removal.

Meanwhile, the glue was dry enough that I could remove the clamps from the upper ribs and install the lower ribs. When the lower rib glue was dry, I installed the front linings. These little spring clamps are really handy. I got them on a sale once, at Home Depot, for about 37 cents apiece, if I remember correctly. They are just right for this sort of work, and I bought over 100 of them…cleaned ’em out at Home Depot.

Lining clamps

Ribs and linings all installed…waiting for glue to dry.

I had been working on the scroll between other tasks, so it is coming along, too, but I am getting pretty tired, so this is about as far as I expect to get tonight. Here are a few more photos:

Side view of lining clamps.

Side view of lining clamps holding the linings while the glue dries.


The glue is dry enough to hold, so I am removing the clamps. Here you can see the linings contrasted against the dark wood of the ribs.

Front linings

All front linings visible, here. They will still need to be shaped (tapered and scraped smooth) before the violin is closed up.

Difficult wood.

This is difficult wood to work, but the scroll is progressing in satisfactory manner.

Treble side of unfinished scroll.

Other side (Treble side.)

Back of unfinished scroll.

And, the back; barely begun, but you can see the Volute beginning.

And that is it for today! Too tired…gonna call it a night. It is 11:45 PM

Thanks for looking.



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Progress Notes on Another 5-string (post #1)

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Five String Fiddle Progress

A fellow approached me a few months back, asking whether I could build a five-string fiddle of some exotic wood which he had bought almost 33 years ago, and which he had hung onto all this time. Of course I am delighted to make an instrument that is special to a client, so I said “Sure!”


Here is the wood (Nice stuff! I can see why he hung onto it!):

The wood from which this fiddle will be built.

The wood from which this fiddle will be built.


The neck, back and ribs will all be cut from this block. Actually there will be a fair amount left over, so I will try to use it in an efficient manner so that he can use the scraps for something nice, too. The front plate will be spruce. The blocks and linings are willow…not sure which specific variety.


Here is how the pattern will fit–with lots of room left over:

Wood with patterns

Plenty of extra from which to cut rib-stock.

The section from which the back plate will be cut will be sawn into two pieces, each half the thickness of the original block. The two pieces will be glued edge to edge, so that they are “bookmatched”: that is to say that the straight edge of the mold template will become the centerline of the back plate. (I will show photos of how it is done when I get to that part.) The same thing will happen with the spruce for the front plate.

Progress and Plans

The five string fiddle will be built to my usual “Oliver 5-string” Pattern. So, the first thing I needed to do was to cut the ribstock using a band-saw. (I sliced them off at 2mm thick, later to be thinned to 1mm thick before bending to shape.) I also cut willow blocks for the four corners and the two ends.

Ribs and blocks with wood and patterns

Ribs and blocks with wood and patterns

Then I needed to glue the blocks into the mold, and mark them for their outer shape. This shape will be the inside shape of the ribs, and the blocks will become a permanent portion of the finished instrument. The mold will be removed as soon as the rib structure is safely glued to the front plate (not pictured here.) Once the glue was dry, I laid the mold-template on the centerline of the blocks, and scribed around it with a pencil.

Blocks glued into the mold, and marked for shaping.

Blocks glued into the mold, and marked for shaping.

After the blocks were marked, I was ready to begin shaping them. I really only want the center curves shaped to their final profile: the rest of the corner blocks need to stay a little thick, so as to guarantee they will not deform when I am gluing and clamping the center ribs in place. I went ahead and shaped the end blocks as well, as that does not hurt anything.

C-bouts and end blocks shaped to receive ribs.

C-bouts and end blocks shaped to receive ribs.

Here’s a side view of the same thing:

Blocks and Mold, side view.

Blocks and Mold, side view.

Once the center ribs are bent to the correct shape, I will glue them to the center bout surfaces of the corner blocks, and after the glue is dry, I will shape the outer surfaces to receive the upper and lower ribs. From that point forward, it will begin to look more and more like a violin.

I will keep you posted.

Thanks for reading.

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