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Two Plates

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Two Plates

Top Plates First

Not every violin maker follows exactly the same path. I not only make my front plates first; I install the front plate before I install the purfling…and install the neck and fingerboard before removing the form (or mold.) After removing the mold and leveling the back of the garland, including the neck-heel, I can install the back plate.

I used to install purfling before installing the plates, too, because I was taught to do it that way. But I consistently had trouble with the plate overhang not being even, around the perimeter of the instrument, and it finally occurred to me to try doing the purfling after installing the plates, and after having established the final shape of the plates, so that the purfling followed the final edge of the plate, rather than installing the purfling first, and later finding that the garland has changed shape slightly, so that the plate no longer fits perfectly, and I have no option to modify the plate, because the purfling has permanently determined where the edge is supposed to be. Ah, well…I am just a slow learner, I guess. 🙂

So, here is a sort of “after and before” picture: the one on the right has been arched close enough to correctly, that I will be ready lay out and incise the f-holes next. The one on the right has only been traced and cut out, so all the carving remains to be done.

 

“After and before”: one plate fully arched, the other ready to carve.

 

Arching the Top Plates

I derived my arching-plan from the “The Strad” magazine posters. On this particular pair of posters, there are not only the traditional photos and line drawings, but they actually printed out CT scan images so that one can see exactly the shape and thickness of all parts of the violins.

I first mark the edges at 4mm thickness, then plane down to the lines. Most makers use gouges for this part, but I prefer small finger planes. I am sure that there are many good reasons to use the gouges instead, not the least of which would be speed in making, and I have certainly carved plates that way…but I prefer the planes. So, here is the carving of the second plate:

Second plate beginnings.

Second plate beginnings.

 

Rough Arching

Rough Arching

 

I use shadow lines to check the actual shape of the cross-sectional arching.

Using shadow lines to check the actual shape of the cross-sectional arching.

 

Finally, I use sharp scrapers to renove any lines or dents left by the planes, and narrow bamds of shadow to check the actual cross-sectional shape of the archings. I may still make later improvements, as I add the f-holes and the bass-bar, and, of course, after I install the purfling. But the archings of the two top plates are very nearly complete, so, the next time I post, it will be about f-holes.

So, here are the two plates, ready for f-hole incision, before being carved from the inside to be exactly as thick as I require. Other than the F-holes, bass-bars and purfling they are nearly complete. 🙂

Two Plates, with completed arching.

Two Plates, with completed arching.

 

I will try to keep going on photos.

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Beginning Two New Violins

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Beginning Two New Violins

First Things First:

I began by making sure that I had appropriate wood for both instruments: I wanted a one-piece back for the Guarneri model instrument, with deep flames sloping downward from left to right, and I wanted a heavily flamed two-piece back for the Stradivari model…both of European Maple, with ribs to match them, and European spruce tops. I had them, all right, so I bookmatched the two spruce tops, and the back for the “Titian” Strad attempt, and left them to thoroughly dry. Afterward, I visited my son’s guitar shop and used his power planer to flatten the plates, and bring them each down to the thickness I wanted for the arching height.

Prepared plates: European Maple and Spruce

Prepared plates: European Maple and Spruce

 

Working Vacation

I took a week off from work, intending to “get a lot done” on the violins, but ended up sick for most of the week. Besides, Winter is coming on, and we needed to get firewood in, so Ann and I loaded and hauled and stacked firewood for a couple of days, and I got about two good days of work on the violins. During that time, I installed blocks in the molds, shaped them to receive the ribs, thinned and bent the ribs, and installed them. Last, I installed linings, to add stiffness to the edge of the rbs, and additional gluing surface. The ribs, like the back plates, are European Maple, but the blocks and linings are willow…not sure what variety. I like weeping willow the best, because it carves and bends so nicely, but other willows work well, too, sometimes.

Guarneri form with blocks and ribs.

Guarneri form with blocks and ribs.

 

Ribs shortened

Ribs shortened

 

Adding linings.

Adding linings.

 

Linings installed, glued, and clamped.

Linings installed, glued, and clamped.

 

Then, once I had the linings in place, I trimmed the rib corners to their final shapes, and flattened the front face of garlands, after which I used the garlands themselves to trace out the shape of the top plates. Finally, I cut out the top plates and shaped them to the exact outlines I wanted, and I was ready to begin arching. I will do the same thing for the back plates later.

All four plates, both garlands, with neck blocks.

All four plates, both garlands, with neck blocks. Strad model on the right, Guarneri on the left.

 

Slow Start

I didn’t get much of anything else done, this week, as I was at work, mostly, annnd, Thursday, some fellow failed to yield on a roundabout, and totalled my wife’s car, as she was coming home from the grocery store. The roads were very wet, which may have contributed to why he was unable to stop, and why the impact spun her car around, 180 degrees, and hurled it off the road, into a field, next to the roundabout.

Ironically, she had also just gone to DMV, and had paid $193 to renew the DEQ testing, and registration, as well as filling her gas tank, to the tune of $40. So all that was wasted, too, but she is completely unhurt, for which we are deeply grateful. Guess it is time for her to get a newer car. 🙂 There was also a dented can of beans, and two squashed bananas…but I ate the bananas, and tonight we ate the beans. No loss there. 🙂

This evening, however, I got home fairly early, and I got most of the arching done on the Stradivari-model top plate, so at least that feels better, in terms of productivity. I will try to complete it tomorrow and repeat the effort on the Guarneri top plate.

I will post more pictures later.

 

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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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