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A Change of Plans

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A Change of Plans:

No oversize Violas, no Violoncellos da Spalla…Just a couple of violins.

I visited with a well-established luthier recently, and he pointed out several small changes that I could adopt in my making, in order to improve my “serve”, so to speak. All of them were relatively small things, but with potential to make my instruments sound more powerful and to look more professional. I had been getting fairly discouraged, as, though I had been selling sporadically, for a number of years earlier, I had sold no new instruments for the last few years, and, with many other demands on my time, I was begining to feel like abandoning the making of instruments altogether. I was aware that part of the issue was due to the very unstable and depressed economy (several luthiers had told me their sales were extremely slow, too), and I tried to keep telling myself that things would turn around.

The economy has been improving, I think. I am not so much reading the stock-market reports as watching to see how many freight-cars are sitting idle on sidings: no shipping means no manufacturing, and the manufacture of durable goods, the building of homes, and shipping of lumber, oil, coal, and other things needed in a growing economy are things I can see. I don’t have to take some journalist’s or politician’s word for it.  In the last year or so, I have seen the sidings which were full of empty freight-cars disappearing, and moving, full loads of lumber and shipping containers seem to be taking their place. But I am afraid it may take time for people to regain confidence, and regain the conviction that music is important, and, perhaps, that good, handmade instruments are a good value. Visiting with my friend made me decide to push harder to improve what I have to offer, so that, hopefully, when the consumer confidence returns, I will be there, waiting, with top-quality instruments.

New Plan:

So: the idea is simple: I will make two violins, side-by-side: one a copy of the 1735 “Plowden” Guarneri del Gesu violin, and the other a copy of the 1715 “Titian” Antonio Stradivari violin, and attempt to put into practice the tips he gave me. I have good photographs of each original master instrument, along with accurate drawings, and measurements, courtesy of the “The Strad” posters. Also, I already have templates and forms made for each, although I will want to double-check my arching templates. Some people can trust their eyes to get it right, but when I use the templates, the arching always turns out better.

I have made “Plowden” copies before, with good results, so I feel pretty good about that one. I have never tried the “Titian,” technically, but, years ago, someone had given me a set of templates and measurements for the 1715 “Dolphin” Stradivari violin. At the time, I simply took it at face value, but later, when I discovered that there were no published dimensions, and very few good photographs of the “Dolphin,” I began to suspect that the information they had provided might not really be accurate. Still, about that time, I was told by the late Rene Morel that, in his opinion, the 1715 “Soil” Stradivari (currently played by Itzhak Perlman) was “the best violin in the world,” and that “the ‘Dolphin’ is exactly like it.” So; I looked for photographs of each, and, though there were not many available, I could see that the grain on the back was very similar, as if they had been made from billets side-by-side from the same tree. But there were no published dimensions for the “Soil”, either.

However: when I bought the “The Strad” poster of the 1715 “Titian” Stradivari violin, I saw that the grain on this instrument, too, was very similar, and that all three seemed to have been made on the same form. I guessed, then, that, with three instruments made by the same man, the same year, of the same wood, and on the same form, there is a good chance that the measurements will be similar. So: I took the templates I had been given years ago, and the measurements, and checked them carefully against the “Titian” poster:  they matched quite well! So, though I have no idea how or when someone lifted those values and patterns, so long ago, I am satisfied that they are relatively accurate. So accurate, in fact, that I will be using the old form, and templates, to make the new design, with the exception that, this time, I have better data to accompany the figures, and a great set of photographs to look at as I attempt to emulate the old masters.

New Violins on the Way

So, today, after double-checking all my forms, measurements, etc., I book-matched the European spruce tops for both violins, and the heavily-flamed, two-piece European Maple back for the “Titian” copy. The “Plowden” copy will have a heavily-flamed one-piece European Maple back; so, no book-matching necessary. Next, I cut corner-blocks, neck-blocks and end-blocks for both forms, and glued them in place. In the next few days I will shape the blocks, thin the ribs appropriately, and begin bending the ribs to install them on the two garlands.

The last violin I made, I completed about six months ago. I am glad to be “moving” again. Six months in the doldrums is a long time. This feels a lot more encouraging. 🙂

I will post pictures later.

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Current and new Projects

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Current and New Projects

A Double Bass

That Double Bass I began (quite some time ago) has sat in the corner of my shop, sneering at me every time I look that way. That has to stop…but the only way to stop it is to finish the project. (sigh…)

One of the things that was holding me back is that my old home-made bending iron simply wasn’t good enough. So, the first step toward completion is to make a new, hotter, smaller diameter bending iron. The old one was heated with a propane torch, but it was quite large, and it took a long time to get it barely hot enough to function. This one will have an electric element for heat, and much smaller diameter, as well as much less mass. I hope it works well. Another maker shared how he made his bending iron, and I am attempting to emulate his example. If that works, I can get moving and complete the bass this fall.

Another Cello

A few years ago, I had salvaged some curly Big Leaf maple from a very large tree that was being removed from my wife’s childhood home. I promised I would build her a cello from the wood, so she would have a treasure from her childhood. So, the wood is fully dry and seasoned, now, having sat out in my shop for several years. It has humidity-cycled through the changing seasons, and should be quite stable, now. A friend (Steve Stevens, now deceased) had given me a cello top set of Red Spruce, so that will go into the mix as well, making it a treasure to both of us.

What I hope to do, is to give special attention to getting good pictures of every step of the construction and finishing of this cello, so as to post a running commentary and tutorial as I work. On every project thus far, I have had a tendency to get engrossed in the work and forget all about pictures. So, I may recruit Ann to take the pictures, so that I can keep rolling.

A Large Viola…or maybe a Viola da Spalla

I haven’t decided just how large, yet…the largest violas I have made in the past have been 16-1/2″ on the body, which is pretty good sized, and already too big for some folks. But I am considering either a 17″ (or larger) viola, or a “Viola da Spalla”, sometimes called a violoncello da spalla, or a small Violoncello piccolo. The Viola da spalla is played off the right shoulder, so that the chin is over the bass lower bout, but not on a chinrest. A strap holds the instrument up under the player’s chin, and the bowing hand reaches up from beneath, to access the strings. Frequently they are made as a five-string cello, and that is how I would approach it. Tuning, then, is in the same range as a cello, but adding one higher string: C, G, D, A, E.

Either way, I realize I am probably building something I will never be able to sell, as there isn’t much market for either instrument. (Ah, well… some things we do out of love.) Anyway, this one is not a very high priority.

Another Violin

The last violin I made received good reviews, but I can see things I could improve, so…I will probably make another one soon. (This lutherie stuff is addictive!)

Coming Soon

I hope to begin at least two of the projects soon, and begin posting photographs.

 

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New Page: Books!

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New Page! Download Books!

Photo-Essays on lutherie, offered as E-Books

Right now there are only two books, but hopefully others will eventually appear there, as I write them.

  1. The first is the chronicle of an acoustic five-string fiddle build.
  2. The second is the story of the completion of the Jensen Cello.

Click on this link, or simply return to the home page, and click on the “Books” page at the top.

In E-book form, they are being offered free of charge. They would be quite expensive to print, because of all the color photos.

 

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Final Assembly and Set-up

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Final Assembly and Set-up

Fingerboard and Nut

The varnish was about as good as it was going to get, for the moment, so I began asssembling the violin: I re-installed the fingerboard and added the nut, then allowed it to dry.

Fingerboard and nut installed

Fingerboard and nut installed.

 

Saddle and End-pin (and Soundpost)

I drilled and reamed a hole in the center of the tail block, and installed the end-pin, then cut the saddle and installed it. In this photo it had just been glued in place. Later I decided to remove the saddle and re-install it. I did a better job the second try. (It had been just a little crooked the first time.) I make a radius on each end of the “footprint” of my saddles, to minimize the chance of saddle cracks. The round-cornered mortise makes for much lower stress to the wood at that point.

Although it is not visible in this photo, I also had installed the soundpost.

Saddle and End-Pin

Saddle and End-Pin

 

Tuning Pegs

I shaped, fitted and installed the tuning pegs, and had intended to complete the violin that evening, but there were a lot of interruptions, so that was really all I accomplished that evening.

Tuning pegs installed.

Tuning pegs installed.

 

Bridge, Tailpiece, and Strings

Finally, I cut the bridge, and fitted it to the belly of the violin, then adjusted the tailgut for the position of the bridge. (I try to position the tailpice so that, from the tailpiece “fret” to the bridge is 1/6th the distance from the bridge to the nut.) I drilled the string holes in all four pegs, and began installing the strings. As it usually happens, my initial bridge cut was too high, so I removed it and cut it lower, then set the violin up to play it. I went ahead and installed the chinrest, while I was at it.

Completed violin.

Completed violin. Only varnish re-touch and sound adjustment remain.

 

Side view of completed violin.

Side view of completed violin.

 

Back view of completed violin.

Back view of completed violin.

 

Now the violin is hanging up in the dining room, where it will live while I am completing all the final touch-up for looks and sound.

Completed violin awaiting final touches.

Completed violin awaiting final touches.

 

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Varnish Process

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Varnish Process

Sealer Coat is Dry: Start Varnishing!

Since the sealer was dry, I gave the violin a careful rub-down with worn 400-grit paper, and began to add varnish. I am using a spirit varnish, the first coat of which was a yellow varnish, which I had actually hoped would be a little more “amber” in color, but I think it will be OK.

First coat of varnsih on back plate.

First coat of varnish on the Back plate.

 

1st coat varnish on side.

First coat of varnish on the Side.

 

First coat, Front plate.

First coat of varnish, on the Front plate.

 

2nd Coat of Varnish

The first coat of varnish was really only intended to lay down a yellow under-coat, and I am satisfied that it accomplished that purpose. From here on out, though, I will be trying to lay down more color in the areas indicated, to try and match the original after which I am modeling this violin. So, here are coats two and three. Notice that I leave some areas light, as the original violin has fairly severe wear in those areas.  (If you are interested, click here to see photos of the original.)

2nd coat of varnish.

2nd coat of varnish, on the Front plate.

 

2nd coat on side

2nd coat of varnish, on the Side.

 

2nd coat on back.

2nd coat of varnish on the Back.

 

3rd Coat of Varnish

And, a third coat, in the same manner:

3rd coat, front.

3rd coat of varnish, Front plate. The light was a little better, so it looks brighter.

 

3rd coat, side.

3rd coat of varnish, Side view.

 

3rd coat, back.

3rd coat of varnish, Back view.

 

4th Coat

The first few coats are thin enough that it is difficult to see the changes…but it is gaining a little more color and gloss.

4th coat, front view.

4th coat of varnish, Front view.

 

4th coat, side view.

4th coat of varnish, Side view.

 

4th coat, Back view.

4th coat of varnish, Back view.

 

5th and 6th Coats

It is pretty obvious, now, even on the ribs, that certain areas are getting less color added. As I explained above, those are the areas that typically get the most wear, so, to imitate the wear patterns on the original instrument, I am minimizing the color added to those areas.

Also, I have been making the varnish coats quite thin, right now, trying to adjust the color early, instead of trying to fix it later…so, from here on, I posted the pictures as I saw relevant changes, rather than after every coat of varnish. I also switched over to a more intensely colored varnish for the 5th and 6th coats:

6th coat, front view.

6th coat of varnish, Front view. Lots of changes still to come.

 

6th coat, side view.

6th coat of varnish, Side view.

 

6th coat, back view.

6th coat of varnish, Back view.

 

Starting to look closer to what I had in mind. 🙂

 

Final color coats, and two clear coats

I gave a careful look to the poster, again, and tried to get the “wear areas” closer to the original. It is still far from accurate, but it is beginning to at least have the “flavor” of the original. My color is still too bright, and some areas still too light, but it is getting closer.

Front, nearing completion of color coats.

Front, nearing completion of color coats.

 

Side, nearing completion of color coats.

Side, nearing completion of color coats.

 

Back, nearing completion of color coats.

Back, nearing completion of color coats.

 

“Dirt” and “Age”

There were a few areas to which I wanted to add more color…and to rub some pigment into the grain, to emulate dirt. (I had already rubbed in some real dirt, but it wasn’t very convincing-looking.) Then, I locked it all down with a clear coat or two, and will polish it to completion. But this is pretty much the final color:

Final color, with

Final color, with “dirt” and “age”.

 

Side, with final color.

Side, with final color.

 

Back, with final color,

Back, with final color, “dirt”, and “age.”

 

What’s Next?

The next thing will be to re-fit the fingerboard, dress the fingerboard, and begin set-up. I will continue to address “polish and finish” issues as I see them.

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Sealer Coat

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Sealer Coat

Cleaning off the Excess Gypsum

I used scrapers, very gently, in tight corners, and very worn 400-grit abrasive paper, more aggressively, on the easily accessible areas, to remove all the loose, or overly thick areas of the gypsum pore-filler from yesterday. It took longer than I expected, but this was the result:

Front, ready for sealer.

Front, ready for sealer.

 

Side view.

Side view.

 

Back, ready for sealer.

Back, ready for sealer.

 

You can see that the grain is somewhat obscured, and the color is quite light. I am wondering whether I did not succeed in rubbing the gypsum into the wood, as thoroughly as usual. Usually, the color has been nearly chalk-white. I can see the gypsum in the wood, though, so I am going to press on with the sealer coat.

 

Sealer Coat

This time, the sealer consisted of ordinary rosin in a solution of “pure spirits of gum turpentine”.  I probably should have made it a little thinner. It was about like light syrup; so, afterward, I dipped the brush in plain turpentine, and went back over the instrument to help the stuff penetrate a little better. The turpentine will all evaporate over the next few days (I hope), leaving only the rosin, solidifying in the pores of the wood.  It is always impressive to see just how completely the gypsum disappears, under the sealer.

The back plate, with the sealer coat applied.

The back plate, with the sealer coat applied.

 

Front plate and side, with the sealer coat applied.

Front plate and side, with the sealer coat applied.

 

Different angle

Different light angle shows the curl in a more attractive mode.

 

Now What?

Until that sealer dries completely, I will have to find other things to do.  But it is hanging in a warm room, so it should dry rapidly.

After that, It will be varnish coat after varnish coat, until it it is all done. Then the final set-up can occur.

 

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Beginning of the Finish

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Beginning of the Finish

Gypsum Mineral Pore Filler

A world-class luthier in Germany (Roger Hargraves) shared this publicly…he accomplished it a little differently, in that he prepared his gypsum by hydrating plaster of paris very thoroughly, and using the carefully washed fines as his filler. I used the finely-ground gypsum available in gardening stores, stirred it into a suspension of strong coffee and ethanol (only there to keep the coffee/gypsum mix from developing mold, sitting on the shelf), and brushed and rubbed the mixture into the wood of the violin. Then I rubbed it back off, using a soft rag, getting as much as possible back off while it is still wet. The goal is that the fine particles of gypsum will plug the pores of the wood, so that the subsequent coats of varnish will not penetrate into the wood. I can’t say whether my method works anything like that of Mr. Hargraves. Perhaps someday I will try something else. But for now, that is what I do.

First, I removed the fingerboard, and did some miniscule corrections to the scroll, pegbox and button. Then I painted on the stirred-up suspension, coating everything except the handle area of the neck.

Corrected scroll, before gypsum.

Corrected scroll, before gypsum.

 

Corrected pegbox before Gypsum.

Corrected pegbox before Gypsum.

 

Gypsum mixture on the back...still wet, but already beginning to dry.

Gypsum mixture on the back…still wet, but already beginning to dry.

 

Side view with wet gypsum suspension.

Side view with wet gypsum suspension.

 

Lots of uneven coloration.

Lots of uneven coloration. I’m not certain why, and it may present a challenge during varnishing. Not my usual experience.

 

Gypsum on scroll, beginning to dry.

Gypsum on scroll, beginning to dry.

 

Gypsum on back-- dry.

Gypsum on back– dry.  Notice how the flame is obscured.

 

Side, with dry Gypsum.

Side, with dry Gypsum.

 

Front, dry.

Front, dry.

 

I’m not certain why the spruce acted the way it did. I had wetted it with coffee before, without any mishaps. I am wondering whether I somehow compressed certain areas, in re-scraping, and they responded differently. I can’t be sure. But I have enough experience with varnish that I am not worried about the outcome. (After all, it was a very old, worn instrument I was copying.) 🙂

 

What’s next?

So…the next step will be to rub off all the excess dry gypsum, and clean up any rough areas where the grain may have raised again. (I’m not really expecting any, but I will be looking for them. Then, tomorrow evening, I hope to apply the sealer that will lock in the gypsum. It is always a little astonishing to me, to see the grain and flame suddenly “pop” out and become very visible. The gypsum becomes completely transparent, and is never evident again.

 

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Final Shaping and Scraping

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Final Shaping and Scraping

The Channels and Edges

The last time I posted, the back purfling had been installed, but the back channel had not been begun, nor were the edges trimmed and rounded. I drew in the edge crest line, just as I did on the front plate, and carved the channel with a gouge, then began scraping the channel and fairing the curve of the channel up into the curves of the arching.

Beginning Channel

Beginning the channel

 

Sample corner, after preliminary scraping.

Sample corner, after gouging and preliminary scraping.

 

After I had gone over the entire instrument under a low-angle light, looking for “lumps and bumps” (any little discontinuity that will be visible under the varnish…and they all are), I wetted a cloth with black coffee, and rubbed the whole instrument down with the damp rag. This accomplishes two things: it begins to lend a very light yellow cast to the wood, and, more importantly, for now, it raises the grain, so that every little splinter that was pressed down by the scraper, instead of being severed and removed, will now stand up and be visible…easy to find and remove, using either a very sharp scraper or, eventually, a very fine abrasive. (In general, I avoid abrasives, because I am not convinced that the surface left by fine abrasives is the same as the surface left by a sharp scraper. But, as a means of smoothing between varnish coats, or just before varnishing, I feel it is viable. I also use it on the edges of the plates…especially the spruce.)

So…here is the instrument, dampened with coffee. When the coffee is dry, I will continue the smoothing and shaping process.

Coffee rubdown.

Coffee rubdown. When it dries, it will leave a pale yellow stain…very slight.

 

coffee surface

You can see the pale yellow color, and the shape of the corners. The surface actually feels rough, now, though it looks smooth.

 

Scroll with coffee dampening.

Scroll with coffee dampening. Notice the splinters on the edge of the curves.

 

Front of scroll.

Front of scroll. See how rough the wood looks…lots of scraping still to come. And maybe some abrasive smoothing.

 

Back plate with coffee stain.

Back plate with coffee stain.

 

Final Scraping of the Whole Surface

Once the coffee was completely dry, I went to one of the few places in the house where I can get a fairly dim, very low-angle light across the violin, and went over the instrument, intently searching for either rough patches or places where the smooth continuum of the arching is interrupted by a ripple, a ridge, or a bulge, etc. I want the arching to be as close to perfect as possible, and every transition from curve to curve to be flawlessly smooth.  (I have never actually achieved this level of perfection, but that remains the standard. Every time, however, after the varnish is applied, I find things I missed.)

After scraping every surface, very gently, with a sharp scraper, until all seem to be very smooth, I rub the instrument down with coffee again. Usually, this time, the grain will not raise as agressively as before, because I did not press the grain with the scrapers but just “brushed” the surface, taking off mere dust, but leaving the channels and transitions looking finished and shiny-smooth.  This is an important time to watch for anomalies of any sort, because once the varnish is applied, it is very difficult to go back and “fix” things. Several of my earlier instruments have an odd pattern of dark stripes in the upper front bass bout, following the curve of the outer edge, and adjacent to the neck. These could have been avoided by careful scraping under a low-angle light.  They remain as permanent record of my “learning curve.” (sigh…)

Here is how the instrument looks, ready to begin the finishing process:

Front plate, ready to begin finishing process

Front plate, ready to begin. (I will remove the fingerboard first.)

 

Side view

Side view.

 

Detail of Scroll.

Detail of Scroll.

 

Back view.

Back view.

 

Detail of button and neck heel.

Detail of button and neck heel.

 

Detail of Center bout, ribs and corners.

Detail of Center bout, ribs and corners.

 

As you can see, there are are a few things I will probably want to touch-up just a little more before I actually varnish, but, overall, I am satisfied that I am ready to move forward. There will always be little things I change at the last minute, but that is just my nature.

 

What’s Next?

So…the next “big” thing is to remove the fingerboard (easy to do…I only held it on there with three dots of hide glue), and then I will rub very fine gypsum mixed with coffee into the whole instrument, and rub it back off before it dries. The goal is to fill the pores, so that the varnish will not saturate the wood.

After that is dry (and it will look chalk-white), I will apply a coat of sealer (rosin dissolved in turpentine, at the moment), to lock the gypsum down, and further seal the pores. After that; varnish time!

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Button and Back Purfling

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Button and Back Purfling

Trimming the Button and Heel

When I installed the back plate, the heel had been trimmed flush with the back of the garland, but the upper surface of the heel was still quite irregular, and the upper end of the button was ridiculously oversized. The excess wood made it easy for me to install a clamp, and get the back plate glued on securely. So…when I removed all the clamps, this is what it looked like:

Back plate installed; button and heel not yet trimmed.

Back plate installed; button and heel not yet trimmed.

 

Tools for completion.

Next, I will trim the button and heel, then add purfling, then scrape. These are the tools I will use.

 

Button shape.

This is roughly the shape the button will be, but a little more refined, I hope.

 

Side view of heel and butto

Side view of the heel and the button. The closeness of the camera warps the picture a little.

 

Installing the Purfling

The next thing was to scribe in the purfling slot. I used the purfling marker to scribe the double line exactly 4mm from the outer perimeter of the plate, except the corners, where I used a sharp pencil to sketch the “bee-stings” in by hand. Then I incised the lines all the way around, just barely deepening the lines, so that they are more visible, and a little easier to follow with the blade of my small knife.

Purfling slot lines lightly incised.

Purfling slot lines lightly incised.

 

Then I slice in pass after pass, trying to get the lines deep enough for the purfling I will install. I usually find that, especially on the hard maple, I have to cut the slot in two layers: the first gets about half the depth I want, and the second finishes the slot. Here is the slot at half-depth:

Purfling slot, half-depth.

It looks good, but it is not deep enough.

 

Purfling slot ready for purfling.

Purfling slot ready for purfling.

 

Back purfling installed...glue still wet.

Back purfling installed…glue still wet. 🙂

 

Front view

And the Front!

 

Back to Work!

As most of you know, I had undergone hernia surgery, just after Christmas, and had a 6″ x 8″ polypropylene mesh patch installed in my abdomen. I have been convalescing, and just this week, have finally been feeling better. So…I just received word that I will return to my work at Gunderson, Inc., tomorrow at 6AM. I think I had better call it a day, and try to get some sleep. 3:30AM comes at the same time, every morning, whether I am ready or not. I will get home sometime after 4PM, I expect. Maybe I can jump back in where I left off. 🙂

Tomorrow evening, then, I hope to complete the purfling channel and the outer edgework of both the front and back plates, and begin the final scraping in preparation for varnishing. Any little glitch, regardless of how tiny, will be very visible under the varnish. So this part has to be done with great care.

 

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