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More Fiddle Progress

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Progress on the Small (14-inch) Viola and the “Plowden” Guarneri model violin

Here are some photos of what is happening with these two fiddles. I decided to add a third instrument to the bench, so to speak, a 3/4-size violin (separate notes on separate thread), so it is slowing me down just a little.

Progress Checklist

Both the viola and the violin are moving along:

  • Arching is complete on the front plates of both instruments.
  • F-holes are laid out on both instruments, cut out and complete on the violin.
  • The bass bar has been fitted, installed and trimmed in the viola.
  • Graduation is nearly complete on the viola, complete on the violin.
  • The scrolls are partially carved…still a fair way to go.
  • The back plates are arched, but there is still some work to be done on each before I would call them absolutely complete.
  • The top plate has been installed on the violin, and purfling installed.
  • The violin top plate and rib garland are nearly complete…the edgework is done, but some refining will still happen.
  • You can see that I trimmed a couple of millimeters off the corners of the violin front plate. I will do the same on the other three plates as well.

Here are some photos:

July 3rd status of Guarneri-model violin.

July 3rd status of Guarneri-model violin. (Wood for back, sides and neck is European Maple. Wood for top is European Spruce.)

 

July 3rd status Guarneri-model violin back

July 3rd status Guarneri-model one-piece violin back. Arching and graduation are nearly complete.

 

July 3rd status of Oliver 14

July 3rd status of Oliver 14″ Viola.

 

July 3rd status Oliver 14 inch Viola front plate

July 3rd status Oliver 14 inch Viola front plate. Arching and graduation essentially complete. F-holes laid out and deeply incised. (Wood is Sitka Spruce.)

 

July 3rd status Oliver 14 inch Viola back plate

July 3rd status Oliver 14 inch Viola back plate. Arching and graduation nearly complete. (Wood is spalted, highly figured Big Leaf Maple, harvested about five miles from my house.)

 

July 3rd status Oliver 14 inch Viola scroll and neck.

July 3rd status Oliver 14 inch Viola scroll and neck. (Wood is spalted Big leaf maple…from the same log as the back plate.)

Prognosis:

So…you can see that progress is happening. Not at a very exciting pace, but I hope the wait will be worthwhile.

My goal is to produce three very good instruments this summer/fall:

  • the 14-inch viola,
  • the Guarneri-model violin, and
  • the 3/4-size violin,

and then show them, along with a larger viola, to orchestra directors and teachers in the Greater Portland Area.

My rationale is that good small violas are hard to find, and so are good fractional sized instruments. If I can demonstrate to the teachers that I can produce very good instruments in smaller sizes, as well as the larger sizes, then perhaps they will recommend their students to me.

All I can do is try….

Thanks for looking.

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Fractional Instruments

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The Rationale for Building a Fractional Instrument

Why Fractional Sizes Exist at All

When I was a child, I don’t recall there being the option of using fractional instruments to start out. I am sure they had to have existed, but when I was (briefly) sent to a violin teacher, there was no suggestion that I be fitted with a ¾ or a ½ size violin, though it would have been appropriate (I was about 8 or 9, if I remember correctly.) I went to class a few times and then gave it up, probably due to lack of interest (I really wanted to play the French horn… so they bought me a cornet…but that is another story), however, the added difficulty of an oversized instrument could have been part of the problem.

But there are children who are delighted the first time they hear a violin, and passionately want to play one. They do have the drive to practice, but they are too small to comfortably use a full-sized violin, let alone a viola or cello. So, we try to supply them with a smaller instrument on which they can develop their skills until their physical stature catches up with their talent and passion.

The value of a good quality instrument is that it feeds the original delight of the child, and convinces him or her that his or her first impression was correct: that the violin is an exquisite tool to make exquisite music. The cost of a poor quality instrument is that the child may lose interest entirely. (Video games, anyone?) The price (good or bad) can only be determined by the long-run result…some things you pay the price up front, and get long-term value. Others, you get a great deal up front and pay the price later. Hard to tell, sometimes, which is which.

Why Few Luthiers Will Build Them

Because parents know the child will outgrow the smaller instrument in a short time, they are reluctant to buy a good, handmade (quite costly, and fragile, as well) fractional instrument. The only alternative seems to be an imported factory-made instrument (often of dubious quality.) Millions of cheap, fractional fiddles are purchased, therefore, with the thought that “Well, they will outgrow this by next year, and then we can get the next size up.” But by that time, the passion is gone, as they are not hearing the sounds they want to hear, and they are ready to quit. Not every child is silly enough to think that the scratchy, squawking sounds coming from under their ear is comparable to the gorgeous music that originally attracted them to the violin.

But, so long as very few parents can afford to buy a handmade fractional instrument, there will be few luthiers who feel it is worth making one. Without an existing order for such an instrument, it looks doubtful that the maker will ever see a return on his/her investment of time and money. I did see a photo, once, of the gorgeous ¼-size violin made by Roger Hargrave for one of the Buckingham Palace toddlers. (Nice work, if you can get it.)

For The Discerning Ear

Here’s the real issue: Most people can hear the difference between a great violin and a “violin-shaped-object” (ultra-cheap, poorly designed, poorly made, of poor-quality materials, strung with poorest quality strings, etc.) But many people cannot hear the difference between an average violin and a great one. It takes a good player to tell the difference in playability, and a discerning ear to hear the difference in tone. For the discerning ear, I want to offer the very best instrument I can make.

But, when dealing with folks who truly can’t tell the difference, I no longer try to convince them that the difference even exists, let alone how important it is to the player. I encourage them to buy the one that fits their perception of value. I am friendly and polite about it, and explain that the differences are subtle enough that it takes some practice to hear them.

But, if they go out and buy a very cheap VSO (violin-shaped-object) from eBay, or the like, and then bring it in, complaining about the sound and playability, I may simply opt out of working on it. The labor to make it playable will easily exceed the purchase cost of the instrument. Again, I am friendly and kind about it, explaining what the problem is. I am not dismissive…they are doing their best to make good decisions.

On the other hand, sometimes they have bought a fairly decent student instrument for a few hundred dollars, and, as they work with it, they eventually develop a discerning ear, enough to realize they have a cheap fiddle that (surprise!) sounds rather like…a cheap fiddle. At that point I am glad that I was friendly and accommodating when I first dealt with them, as they may feel more inclined to do business with me once they understand what I originally tried to explain.

What are the Other Options?

There are a few possibilities that I can see:

  • I can buy an unfinished violin of a given (small) size, and re-work it to sound much better (resolve arching and graduation issues, check rib thickness, etc.), then finish it much as I do my own work, and set it up to optimize sound. This will result in a very playable, nice-looking instrument, for less than a third the cost of a handmade instrument. But, in following such a plan, I am limited to the parameters dictated by the work already done at the factory: I cannot make the ribs and blocks taller, for instance. Also I can’t choose the wood from which the instrument is to be made to begin with, as I do my own.
  • I can hand-make a fractional sized instrument from scratch, which will take only a little less effort than building a full-sized instrument, and almost exactly the same costs for materials. That instrument will far exceed the capabilities of virtually any factory instrument, but we are back to the issue of cost…who wants to buy a violin at full price, knowing that it will soon be outgrown? So; my best option may be to sell that instrument to a parent at a deeply discounted price, with the provision that, if they bring that instrument back undamaged, when the young violinist is ready for a full-sized instrument, I will apply their full purchase price to a larger instrument at full price. In this way, they effectively have had the use of a top-quality instrument for nothing, as they grew into a larger instrument. Good deal for them…risky for me. I may be able to repeat that transaction several times, if everyone takes good care of the fractional size instrument in question. On the other hand, it may get destroyed the first time out.
  • Another possibility centers on adult players: I recently had an adult, petite, female violinist ask whether I make a ¾-size instrument. She was not interested in a trade-up; she wanted a better daily player for herself. I could build such instruments on speculation, hoping for such players to show up at my door. But if they don’t…well, then I will just have a rather expensive child’s instrument on my hands.

With all of this in mind:

I am beginning a ¾-size violin, patterned after the best of the old masters, but slightly altered to achieve optimum sound. The demands placed upon a diminuative violin are somewhat different than those on its full-sizes counterpart. I expect that it will exceed the power and playability of virtually any fractional factory instrument (as they arrive from the factory), and possibly most full-size factory instruments. If I sell it to an adult, who simply wants a smaller fiddle, then the price will be only a little lower than the full-size instruments; it will cost nearly the same to produce. But for a child, perhaps it can be sold at a more deeply discounted price, with the understanding that the instrument will be coming back in a year or so, to be traded in on a full-sized instrument.

I will also look into buying some white Chinese instruments, to work over and improve, to offer as student-grade instruments. We’ll see how it all works out. I don’t particularly want to get involved with that sort of thing.

The new 3/4-size violin is being made of highly figured Red Maple and Englemann spruce. (Really pretty stuff.) I’ll try to post photos of the instrument as it progresses.

Thanks for looking.

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Old Fiddle Repair Estimates

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Evaluating an Old Fiddle for Repair

(Not full restoration; just essential repairs for playability.)

© 2016 C. O. Bishop

A colleague asked me to document how I evaluate a fiddle for repairs needed. This is my pattern of thinking:

What am I Dealing With?

When I am presented with an old violin, regardless of the origin, there are certain things I am looking for: the very first thing is to determine, in my own mind, whether the instrument is one of the (literally millions of) mass-produced violins that came out of Europe in the late 1800s to early 1900s. If it seems, instead, to be a hand-made instrument, thus possibly of some greater value, then I may need to take it to someone who can appraise it, before I begin work on it. There are some instruments on which I do not feel qualified to work, and which I will not repair beyond minor things like an open seam, etc., though I have occasionally worked on instruments nearly 300 years old.

I look at the general finish (the old factory instruments all seem to have a similar look), the scroll (especially under the throat of the scroll—does the fluting end suddenly at about “6 o’clock”, or does it continue all the way around?), and the f-hole ends (is there any fluting of the f-holes? There usually is not on the cheaper instruments.) I also take a quick look at the purfling, to see if it gives me any clues. Some of the cheaper ones don’t actually have purfling—it is simply painted on, to look like purfling.

I glance at the label, but the fact is, unless it plainly says “Made in Germany” (or Czechoslovakia, or whatever), the label isn’t really going to tell me much, because virtually all of the old factory instruments were apparently made by “Antonio Straduarius” while he was on vacation in central Europe. That label is extraordinarily common, and is only a sign that it is a cheap copy. Some labels make less wild claims, but false attributions are so common as to be the norm. Usually, I am looking at what is effectively a “dead fiddle”, and am hoping to effect a “resurrection” of sorts.

Once I have determined that the old fiddle is not some priceless “Old Master Gem” (not likely), and that I am free to make the repairs needed to make it playable, I have to ask myself:

What Does it Need?

I then look at the general condition. I am looking for:

  1. Cracks, (how severe, and where are they?)
    1. Are the cracks clean, or packed with dirt and/or polish, etc.?
    2. A soundpost crack may be a deal-breaker…same for a bass-bar crack. Most other cracks are workable, so long as you are willing to open the instrument, and know when it is appropriate to do so.
  2. Open seams, (and are they clean or dirty?)
  3. Missing wood, (how much is missing, and where?)
  4. Pegs:
    1. Peg-hole diameters (will they need bushing, re-drilling, etc.?)
    2. Peg Taper: Is the taper of the existing pegs reasonable? Modern pegs are tapered to 1:30 ratio, but there are other ratios. Sometimes they are so steep that they will not reliably stay in tune.
    3. Either of the above (or broken/missing pegs) requires a new set of pegs.
  5. Neck joint: Is it tight, and at an appropriate angle? What is the height of the overstand? What is the height of the end of the fingerboard over the belly?
  6. Fingerboard: Will it need dressing? And is it thick enough to stand being dressed? A new fingerboard is not out of the question, but it is a lot more work.
  7. Nut: Is it serviceable? Sometimes a nut is missing or broken. Sometimes the string grooves are bad (too deep, too wide, or in wrong locations), requiring a replacement nut.
  8. Saddle: Is the saddle serviceable? And, does it need to be re-glued?
  9. End pin: (is it loose, or broken?)
    1. A badly worn end pin hole will probably require reaming, bushing and re-drilling/re-reaming as well as a new end pin.
  10. Interior: Using a light and dental mirror, can I see interior issues?
  11. Soundpost: Is there a soundpost in place? Does it fit appropriately? (I usually assume I will have to fit a new soundpost.)
  12. Bridge: I assume in advance that I will need to cut a new bridge, but if there is a bridge present, and it fits the top exactly, and it is the correct height, etc., I have been known to use them. Bridges don’t wear out, under normal use, provided they are maintained to prevent warping, etc.
  13. Fittings: Are there fittings present? Are they usable? I like to use an old tailpiece, as they frequently have a charming look, but many fiddlers want four fine tuners, and it is usually a mistake to use four steel tuners added to an ebony tailpiece, because the additional weight proves to be parasitic, and diminishes volume. If that is what is there, I mentally add the cost of a new tailpiece with four built-in tuners.
    1. It the tailgut serviceable? The old “genuine gut” tailguts worked just fine, but they will eventually break, so I usually replace them with a modern synthetic.
  14. Strings: New strings are a given. Choose your brand and style according to what the fiddle will be used for. I use Dominants if the violin is to be played in an orchestra or any other traditional venue, but if the player is a fiddler, I will use Helicores. (If there is a customer already involved, I will use their preferred string…these are just the ones I like to use.)
  15. Cleaning and (at least some) polishing are also a given. I do not want to produce a mirror-bright instrument, as a rule: “Old-Fiddle Chic” is the goal. It partly depends upon what the previous condition was. If it has obviously been kept glossy in the past, but is just very dirty, then cleaning and polishing will include bringing it back to the deep gloss that was intended.

 

What Will It Cost? (And what is the “Cut-off Point?” This is to the repairers, out there…)

Cost?

This will depend on the shop hourly rate you have set, and, to a lesser degree, how fast you work. In an automobile shop, there is such a thing as a flat-rate book, where the time required for a given task is laid out, and they call out the cost of a job by estimated time and materials. (If they say there is a 2-hour flat-rate charge to replace a radiator, for instance, you will pay for a new radiator plus two times whatever their shop-rate is.) If the mechanic gets the job done more quickly, he gets paid better…if it takes him longer, he loses money. Unfortunately, we don’t have a “flat-rate book” for luthiers, so you have to develop your own. You have to keep track, and see how long repairs actually take you…or should take you. Maybe ask around and find out how long similar repairs take other people, too. There are a few shops online who advertise their prices.

In my own case, for example, it usually takes me about an hour to fit a set of pegs and install them, ready to use…maybe a little less.  So, I add the cost of a set of pegs to my shop-rate for one hour, and that is what I charge. The same can be done for all of the above tasks. If the materials don’t cost much, sometimes I don’t even add the materials cost, though I probably should.

I guess I usually estimate about $200 for setting up an instrument, if that is literally all it needs. It will often be less, but sometimes there are more open seams or a peg needs more work than first seemed likely, and it’s nicer to surprise the customer with a lower bill than to wish I could to add to it (which I don’t do…ever.)

Cut-off Point?

If you add together all the estimated repair costs, plus materials, and the “repair estimate” far exceeds the potential value of the instrument after the repairs, then you have to re-think what you are about to do, and decide whether you want to do the job at all.

I do a fair amount of “pro bono” work, and that is my privilege…but I don’t pretend to be a non-profit organization, and there are some jobs I have turned away quite firmly, though politely, and with genuine regret.

On the other hand, if I think “this young player may come back later for a better instrument”, then I may decide to repair the current fiddle, at an extreme discount, to make it play as well as possible, and just count the work as an investment in my reputation and toward future business. Let the customer know what you are doing, but don’t be “pious” about it…explain that, in terms of market value, the instrument does not justify the repair, but that you try to keep people playing when possible, and that you choose to do this particular repair as a sharply discounted rate…and that you hope they will come back to you for a better instrument as their skills advance. (I like to hand them a series of nice instruments to play while they are waiting, and when they take their repaired instrument home, though it probably plays better than ever before, it still is nowhere near the sound of the instruments they were experiencing in my shop.) (Sneaky, huh?)

Sometimes I have done repairs that I knew would exceed the original cost of the (fairly new) instrument, let alone the re-sale value (we are talking cheap Chinese student instrument, here) just because I wanted the experience at performing that particular repair, and I knew I could not hurt anything by the attempt. (The one I am thinking of had a bad soundpost crack, where the post had been driven through the top in an accidental fall. It required a full-thickness inlaid patch. The result was nearly invisible, and it was a very good learning experience for me. I counted the labor time as “tuition” in my learning-curve.)

However! If you know that the amount you will charge for the repair will exceed the value of the instrument after repairs, you must inform the customer of that, before even considering the work. This is an ethical matter. Don’t do the work without the customer absolutely knowing what they are getting. I have done work of this sort, because the customer wanted “Great-Grandpa’s fiddle” back in playing condition. I explained very carefully that what they were buying would be the nostalgia of having great Grandpa’s fiddle, and that under no circumstances could they hope that it would be salable at that price. They wanted it anyway, so I went ahead and did the work.

Some luthiers will not do such work at all; that is their choice. But people buy very expensive boxes in which to keep their loved one’s ashes: so, what is wrong with an “expensive box with strings on it”, in which to keep the memories, and upon which to play the remembered tunes? It’s your call…. I choose to do the work.

One last thing to consider is “Do I want my name associated with this thing??”  That could be the deciding factor: Your reputation could be at risk. I have rejected work due to previous “repairs” done with epoxy. I knew I could not undo the damage, and the epoxy and (very bad) earlier repairs could end up being blamed on me…. So I flatly refused to do the repairs. They were not happy, but better just they were unhappy than them and me, too.

What is the Exception?

What if the fiddle belongs to you, and you are hoping to sell it?  Let’s say you have found it at a garage sale, and are trying to decide whether to buy it. Then you have to decide, “Am I willing to work for less money per hour, in this case, just because it is important to me to return this fiddle to the market?” If the answer is “No!” then you simply can’t repair it. And, if you are offered it, you can’t take it…it’s that simple.

There have been instruments that I have acquired, one way or another, and later realized they were so cheaply made, or so badly damaged, that I was simply unwilling to mess with them. In those cases I have either given them away to be used as a decoration, or, in some cases, I simply burned them. Sounds terrible, I know, but there is such a thing as a “violin-shaped-object” (VSO) that was truly junk the day it was brand-new.

Some Final Notes:

There is a pretty wide spread in prices to cut a bridge (and other tasks): Some luthiers offer a “student-cut” and a “professional-cut”. A student-cut bridge has feet that conform to the violin, and it holds the strings at the right heights. Other than that, it is simply cut to a standard set of measurements. A “professional” bridge has more care taken with the fitting, and is cut with the tone of the violin in mind. This may take hours. Also, the bridge blank may vary from as little as 2 or 3 dollars to as much as 20 or 25, or more.

The most expensive blanks are not appropriate on most instruments, but the difference between a $3 and a $10 blank may be quite noticeable, so the range of prices is understandable. I don’t think I can do a “professional” cut well enough to justify the claim, so I charge the same for a bridge, regardless. And I do careful work, regardless.

Your Hourly Rate

Try to be aware of what mechanics shops in your area are charging per flat-time hour. If you know you are charging less per hour than they are, then you can stand by your prices, and your customers can rest assured they are not being overcharged. That should help put the final bill in perspective. This is definitely “skilled-labor”—or you shouldn’t be attempting it. I did not begin charging for my work at all, until after I had repaired more than 50 of my own instruments, which I had bought in various states of disrepair, and used as learning tools. (They were mine, and, whatever I did, they were better off than when I got them. I sold them at low prices when I had them set up and playing well: their owners were delighted with them. It was a “win” all the way around.) Remember that if you are maintaining a shop, insurance, and the like, you must take all that into consideration when setting your shop hourly rate. Otherwise you will be losing money and won’t know where it is going.

I hope this is helpful… If I have a fiddle come in sometime soon, that fits this scenario, I will add photos; but for now, this is the best I can do.

 

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What is an Archetier?

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Bow-making! An Archetier is a Bow-maker!

Of course, some people just call them “bowmakers”. (This is, of course, not to be confused with a bowyer: Those guys make bows for archers.) An archetier (yes, yes… bowmaker!) is someone who makes bows for instrument players– violins, violas, cellos, basses, and so forth.

Violinmakers are seldom bowmakers, and vice versa. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, it is just that they are definitely two complimentary but very different skills. Few people actively pursue both.

However, Paul Schuback, who is an extraordinarily fine violinmaker, was also trained in bowmaking during his apprenticeship in France. There he met a young woman, Lynn Hannings, who was training as a bowmaker. She followed on in that discipline and became a well-known professional bowmaker, and Paul went on to be a famous violinmaker (luthier).

Both have been my teachers, though briefly, and I have long desired to try to learn bowmaking as well as violin-making. I had taken Lynn’s class once, in California, just to learn to correctly re-hair a bow; but as I watched her other students building bows from scratch, I found myself wanting more and more to try my hand at that discipline.

So…you guessed it! I am trying to build a bow. I decided to try a bass-bow, simply because I think they are likely a little more forgiving in terms of exactitude (not much, but a little), and because they are bigger, thicker,  and probably easier for me to handle. (I could be wrong….)

For anyone with similar interest, here is a link to a priceless list of resources.

Wood selection:

By far, the most ideal wood for violin-bows is Pernambuco, from the Amazon rain-forest in Brazil. But…that wood is now an endangered species, and illegal to cut or ship, so it will be harder and harder to acquire. There are tons of it already cut and dry, but it is difficult to get. Other woods include Brazilwood, Snakewood (also called “Amourette”), Ipé, and Bloodwood.

I am told that they are experimenting with farming Pernambuco in Brazil, planting the Pernambuco seedlings interspersed with the rubber trees on rubber plantations; but we won’t know for some time how that will work out. So, in the meanwhile: I can experiment with domestic woods, such as Osage Orange and Hickory and learn the hand/eye skills, then try some lesser tropical hardwoods, such as Ipé and Bloodwood. If I like it, and the bows turn out well (probably requiring a second (and third, etc.) “bout” with Lynn Hannings), then I may buy some pernambuco blanks and try some “real” bows. But Pernambuco is selling for around $200 per stick, now, so this is not for the faint of heart!

I ordered some Osage Orange, which is commonly used for archery bows (and sometimes double-bass bows), and while waiting for it to arrive, decided to experiment with hickory (also sometimes used, though not usually considered optimal). This time, however, I happened to have a select piece of straight, clear, vertical-grain hickory, about 20+ years old (OK, OK… it was a broken-off splitting-maul handle…but still: it was everything I just described), so it seemed a good way to get started.

Building Process:

I began by  “cutting away everything that didn’t look like a bass-bow”, and tapering it as I thought it should be. I heated it with a heat-gun, and cambered it (bent it to the correct arch). Then I drilled the screw-way and carved the eyelet mortise.

Hickory Bass Bow head

Still rough, but this is the general shape of the bow-head. Still have to cut the mortise and attach the metal tip, etc.

Bow-stick after cambering.

The bow-stick is cambered by heating it all the way through, and then bending it in my gloved hands. It has to be really hot all the way through to bend easily, without breaking.

Eyelet mortise and screw-ways.

The mortise is to allow the frog eyelet to travel smoothly back and forth as the player tightenes or loosens the hair. The Screw-ways is the channel through which the screw passes, to reach the eyelet.

The Frog:

Then I began a frog: I bought some African Blackwood remnants from a local hardwood dealer, and carved one into a bass-bow frog–still very rough-looking, but I am not done with it yet. I kept looking at a good frog someone gave me, to see what needed to be done next. There is still quite a long way to go, but I am waiting on some parts I ordered.

African Blackwood Bass-bow Frog interior, rough-carved.

This is the interior of a very roughly carved bass-bow frog, made of African Blackwood–similar to Ebony, but heavier and harder, I think.

Side view of rough-carved bass-bow frog.

Side view of same frog…still a long way to go.

Underside of rough-carved Bass-bow frog

Underside of the same frog. I intend to line it with stainless steel, since I haven’t any Nickel or Silver. (Should wear well!)

I ordered some gold MOP (mother of pearl) from a local supplier, and hair, screw and eyelet from a more distant supplier. (Here is a photo of how it looks so far:

Gold Mother of Pearl for inlay and slide.

The pearl slide will be cut from the blank stock. On a whim, I decided to inlay gold stars on the sides of the frog. The dot will go in the end of the bow-button.

(The hair and screw and eyelet were all ordered from the same distant supply place, and have not yet arrived.) I chose stainless steel for the ferrule and underslide, because it was readily available. (I went to a resale shop and bought some pieces of cheap stainless steel flatware in the thicknesses I needed…total outlay: $3, for enough metal to build several bows.)

How did it turn out? Not done yet. Tune in later for a progress report!

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Latest Violin Repair

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Repairs to Irene’s Violin

(Completed 5/27/14)

This was only intended to be a functional repair, not a full “restoration”. It turned out to be quite extensive, though, and somewhat intimidating at times. The owner is very happy with her “resurrected” violin, so all is well.

Before:

The violin came to me after a mishap involving a water-heater failure, which had resulted in a heavy steaming of an already fragile, old violin.​

Open seams and broken button

The violin had several open seams, obvious from the outside, and numerous older repairs. Some of the repairs were done in a workmanlike manner—some were not. (I am not pointing fingers; just stating a fact…it is a very old violin, and has had encounters with a variety of repairmen.)

Bass side scroll cracks

I could see that the pegbox had sustained some pretty severe damage, but did not immediately detect the cause: as it turned out, the scroll had been grafted (guessing around 1850, just because so many were done about that time, and this fiddle is old enough to have been around for that), and it was/is the poorest job of a scroll-graft that I have personally ever seen. Someone tried to correct it with some patches, but it was in pretty sad shape. I wasn’t sure I could do much to help it.

Treble side scroll--more cracks and worn-out peg holes

The peg-holes were so badly worn that they absolutely required bushing and re-drilling, reaming, and installing new pegs. (As it happened, the old pegs were in fair condition, so I simply shaved them to the correct size after all the pegbox repairs were completed, and so maintained some small sense of continuity.)

When I opened the body (by removing the top/front) I found that there were nearly 50 cleats inside, each to help reinforce the various cracks that had been repaired over the life of the instrument. The entire area around the neck block simply fell off. Some of the old cracks had re-opened because of the steam-bath, but most were holding, it seemed. The whole area under the soundpost area had (and still has) a patch about a millimeter thick, and 35mm by 50mm. Missing wood had been replaced haphazardly in many places, including the entire edge of the plate all the way around.

old inside repairs and relaced wood-- and lots of glue.

Same on the back plate, though not quite so severe:

back plate repairs--old, but mostly sound.

The neck was set incorrectly, with an extremely high overstand (10mm), and low projection, as well as being quite crooked. The ebony crown on the heel of the neck was broken, and simply crumbled, necessitating making a new one.

high overstand and low projection angle

crooked neck and cracked ebony crown

crooked neck

I am not sure what the rationale was with the insert up the back center seam, nor why it had been relocated so far off center. I wonder whether the instrument was originally something larger and was cut down to be what we see today, especially because the f-holes are so far apart.

The button was broken off at the purfling line, which seriously weakened the neck, so, after complete repair of the front plate, I removed the back plate and patched the button by removing a section of wood across the break and replacing it with a perfectly fitted patch, restoring strength to the joint. (Explained later)

The Repair Process: 

(Forgot to take pictures of the actual process…wasn’t in “Photography Mode”… sorry.)

First, I re-glued the section around the neck block which had dropped out—there were several patches from previous repairs that had come loose, but I glued them all back in just as they had been originally, and the joint now seemed secure. There were also some missing sections of spruce, so I replaced them, gluing in new wood. That also seemed to stiffen the area a good bit.

The cleats along the longest cracks were still holding, though the cracks had opened, so I cleaned the cracks with water, then worked hide-glue through the cracks and clamped the plate flat, so that the cleats forced the cracks shut, squeezing out the excess glue. I cleaned off the excess with a warm damp rag, and let it all dry.

Then I could tap the plate and listen for buzzes. There were lots of them! I would tap and listen, tap and listen, and then use a thin blade (palette knife) to pick at various things to find out what was moving. To begin with I found that many of the cleats were only barely holding, and were starting to come loose, so they were vibrating. I glued all the loose ones, one by one. Then I found cracks around the edges, and loose purfling, etc. and glued all of those sources. Finally I found enough of them that the buzzing stopped, and I glued the top back on the violin, after first removing the neck which I had determined to be crooked.

Once I had the body closed, I re-set the neck correctly and straight, ending with a 6mm overstand and a standard height (21mm) at the end of the fingerboard. The result is that I could not use the original bridge (not a surprise), so it got a new (taller) one. As I said, the ebony crown on the neck heel was very thin and cracked, so it simply crumbled off in pieces. I made a new one. It is also very thin, but not broken.  At some point in the violin’s lifetime, someone decided to move the neck (or the back plate?) off to one side…I can’t change that, but you can see the effect at the button—the center line seam is no longer in the center.

After setting the neck, I removed the back so that I could repair the broken button. I carved out a shallow curved scoop almost the full width of the button, and all the way through the neck-block gluing surface—about 1-1/4” long and almost ½” wide, by about 1/8” deep at the center. I used a curved scraper to perfect the shape, then chalk-fit the patch to match it perfectly, and glued it in place with hide-glue. After the glue was fully dry, I planed the patch down to be absolutely flush with the surrounding wood of the back plate. This patch restored the strength of the button, which (unknown to many) is the main strength of the neck joint. (Forgot to take a photo of this—too bad; I was very pleased with it.)

I reamed the peg-holes far enough to get into clean wood, then shaved down some tight-grained Eastern Red Maple into tapered pegs to plug the holes. Once they fit perfectly, I glued them in place with hide glue, and allowed them to dry. Then I cut them off inside and out, using a tiny saw, and shaved them flat with a small carving gouge. I stained the inside with dark brown spirit varnish to match the existing color, and matched the color of the outside of the box to the best of my ability, sanding between coats, and trying to make the patches as nearly unnoticeable as possible. (Bushed peg-holes are always visible, but they don’t have to look terrible. Many older violins have had the holes bushed more than once. This is a first for this fiddle.)

I re-drilled the peg-holes, shifting them a little, to establish a more normal location for each, then reamed them to a small size, and shaved the original pegs down to match the new holes.

I got looking at some of the gaping cracks in the pegbox, and decided I wanted to try to repair them, so I cleaned them out with a small knife and then shaved a small piece of red maple to fit and glued it into the crack. It worked surprisingly well, and I was pretty pleased with the results. Naturally, that required smoothing the patch down to be flush with the original surface, and retouching to match the varnish as best I could.

repaired scroll, bass side

repaired scroll Treble side

The original saddle and endpin were still useable, so they are in place—I think I probably could have used the original soundpost, but I made a new one before I thought of it, so, for the moment, it has a new soundpost. But I suspect that the original is nearly identical, though I used a very thick soundpost. Perhaps later a thinner one could be put in, if it seems too dampened by the thick post.

The nut, however, was very poorly made, and cut so deeply at the E-string that the string rested on the fingerboard. It broke when I tried to re-shape it, so I simply made a new one.

I was able to use the original fingerboard, though it had been coming off, and required some re-work to get it to fit well. I had to do extensive re-shaping and dressing of the surface, too, as it had a very round contour close to the neck, though normal at the wide end. Whoever originally put that fingerboard on did the violin a real disservice: there is a deep gouge of wood missing from the neck itself, all the way up the middle, and a similar deep gouge out of the inside of the fingerboard, so only about the outer third on each side has any contact. This wasn’t something I could change, so I cleaned it up and glued it back together. I assume they thought they were making the instrument lighter. (Not Good.)

Finally, I retouched the varnish anywhere it had been damaged, and tried to give it a good (gentle) polishing all over. I think it looks pretty good, but I never saw it in its “glory days” so I have no idea how that would compare.

finished front

finished side

finished back

The Result:

The owner has a playable violin again. It still has many repairs, some dating before any of us were born, some more recent. I have no idea of its market value, and, in my opinion, that is not important. Its value is primarily that it is cherished by the owner because of who she is and from whom she got it. As long as it is well cared-for, it should still give many years of service.

I uased the original fittings except for the bridge and soundpost, so it looks essentially unchanged from before the damage, except for the peg-hole bushings and repaired pegbox cracks, which she assured me were there when she got the violin originally, nearly 50 years ago.

I never heard the instrument before the damage, so I can’t compare that, either: all I can do is adjust it to what seems optimal now, and trust that, as the owner plays it, it will settle in to sound as good as she remembers it to have sounded. To me, it sounds pretty good, and well balanced.

(Later footnote: The owner contacted me and is thrilled with her violin. She swears it sounds better (and brighter) than she remembers it ever sounding before it was damaged, and she is again playing it in her local orchestra. That is nice to hear…)

Completed violin

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Student Finally Completes his Copy of the 1580 Gasparo da Salo Viola!

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Copy of 1580 Gasparo da Salo 15-1/2″ viola finally completed.

Student finally competes his viola!

It took a while, but he finally pulled it off! And it sounds great, with a huge, growly bass-end and very clear but not shrill, on the treble end..well balanced, very strong, and easy to play.
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Good Intentions…

This young man was recommended to me by his orchestra director, eight years ago. Originally I agreed to work with him weekends and evenings for that summer.  I said I thought he could complete it in 200 hours, with close supervision and diligent work…so I was volunteering weekends and evenings for 10 weeks, 20 hours a week. He agreed, and we got started.Within a week or two, I could see there were going to be glitches in the plan…he got a summer job, and started showing up at the time I needed to head for bed, as I was working a full-time job and had to be up at 4 AM. At the end of the summer, I think he had the rib garland done…maybe…and the plates traced and cut to size.So, we decided we would try again the next summer. It was even more spotty, but he got the scroll carved, as I recall. To be fair, I want to point out that the young man involved had never held a tool in his hands before– never built anything, never sharpened anything. Didn’t know what a “vise” was…etc. So this was ALL very new to him, and he made a great deal of progress over the journey.

Then he disappeared for a number of months and eventually called me during a Christmas vacation and asked if he could come up and work. My daughter was home from school, and I wanted to spend time with her, so I said I was not available at the time.

That time he disappeared for a couple of years or more…parts of his instrument were gathering dust in my shop, but I didn’t hear from him until the summer before last, I think. He wanted to come back and finish up…so…we started up again…Saturdays, if and when it was mutually workable.

Anyhow, it finally emerged from its “larval stage” as a full-fledged viola today. It is a copy of the 1580 Gasparó da Saló viola (a fairly asymmetrical, odd-looking instrument, but still played professionally after 430+ years), and, for a first try, not bad at all. It is quite similar to the original; I am very pleased, and, as you may imagine, vastly relieved.

Gasparó da Saló viola front

Front view .

Gasparó da Saló side

Side view .

Gasparó da Saló back

Back view .

First time maker with viola

New maker with new viola .

What a relief!

I guess he feels pretty good about it, too.

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Why a Five-String Fiddle?

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Why not a Five String Fiddle? 

Traditioooonnn, Tradition!!

Violins have been codified in terms of form, size, materials and tuning for over 400 years. Orchestras have 30+ violins, between which the untrained observer would have a difficult time distinguishing, let alone identifying as having come from a particular maker’s hand. And yet experts can frequently tell at a glance when, where and by whom that violin was made. And ALL of them have four strings (count ‘em): G, D, A, and E. No five-string violins in the orchestra!

The violas, too, have their four strings, always at C, G, D and A. They are less tightly defined, however and are all over the board in terms of size and shape. Some are so large that most normal-sized people can’t play them, and some are not much larger than a violin. But they all have those four strings, tuned exactly a perfect fifth below those of the violin. No five-string violas, either.

NON-traditional is OK, too.

Really, a viola works best at what it does, and a violin works best at what it does, as specialized tools…but when they are so close in size—indeed, sometimes overlapping—what prevents us from having one instrument that covers the full range of both? A five-string fiddle?

Well…that isn’t as easy as it sounds. The physical size of a violin is barely big enough to really produce the open G-string tone, so simply adding a low C-string will not work well…and the viola is almost too big to make good high-pitched notes, so adding a high E to a larger viola is usually not very satisfactory either.

Five-string fiddles specifically designed for five-strings

But it CAN work…with some tweaking. Honestly, probably a five-string fiddle would work best in the size of a small viola—say, 15”—or even 15.5”. But country fiddlers and bluegrass fiddlers, who are waking up to the desire for a fifth string, and a lower range, don’t want a “five-string viola”–they want their instrument to fit in a regular fiddle case—not a viola case. They want a handmade five-string bluegrass fiddle.

What has worked for me, so far, is to maintain the “footprint” of a regular violin, but increase the depth of the body a little; lengthen the pegbox, obviously, for the extra peg and string; thin the plates just a little more, and deepen the bassbar a bit. I may try widening the center bouts just a little, too, sometime. But for now, I have a working model, with which everyone seems very pleased: it is very easy to play, has good balance across all five strings, a big deep bass end on the C string, and clear, strong high notes on the E string.

So, when a fiddler wants to be able to go low and growly, he/she can do so. When he/she needs a high end for some special sizzle, it is there. All in one fiddle case. A five-string fiddle case.

 Oliver Five-string fiddle, by Chet Bishop. Sold.

Front view of Oliver Five-string fiddle, by Chet Bishop. Sold.

Oliver Five String Fiddle, by Chet Bishop (Sold)

Back view of Oliver Five String Fiddle, by Chet Bishop (Sold)

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Oil Varnish Glazing Procedure

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Glaze Procedure for Oil Varnish, Using Artist’s Oil Colors

Procedure for shading or antiquing oil-finish violins:

Water-based Stain procedure

1.      Using a clean brush, and very strong coffee or tea (with instant, you can make it as strong as you want), stain the instrument a nice tan color all over, including the “handle” area of the neck. This will probably take more than one application, but let it dry completely before repeating.

2.      The application of the (water/coffee) stain raises the grain as well, so, between applications of coffee, let the instrument dry completely, then lightly sand it with VERY fine micromesh, to get rid of any major irregularities but NOT diminish the texture (provided you like texture– I do; if you want less texture, sand more.). Sand the handle area mirror smooth between applications of stain. Warning: if you are using coffee or tea, absolutely do NOT use steel wool for smoothing. Iron reacts with the tannins in the wood and especially the tea and turns jet black…so if  tiny fragments of steel end up snagged in the fibers of the wood, they will leave black stains that will not come out. Some of us learn the hard way…

Seal the wood

3.      Once it is ALL the color of tan you want, and ALL the texture you want, and ALL dry, seal the instrument, using a mixture of oil varnish, yellow oil-soluble dye, and turpentine to thin the mix. (How much yellow? Depends on what you want to accomplish…I would say keep it very light.) The oil varnish is usually fairly thin to start with, so you won’t need a great deal of turpentine. It may take more than one coat to seal it–if so, make sure the WHOLE body gets the same number of coats, to avoid creating heavy areas. Allow the instrument to dry completely. I only apply this to the body and the scroll– not the handle portion of the neck. Incidentally, you want to seal the surface, not soak it all the way through. Go easy with this stuff. It is a good idea to sand (lightly, using 400-600 grit) before moving on, and wipe it down with a turpentine-dampened rag. This removes any unwanted particles, and leaves the surface clean and ready to coat again.

Color application

4.      Using Brown Madder Alizarin (Windsor-Newton) oil paint (get artist’s grade, not student grade; the artist’s grade has more pigment), thinned with a little oil varnish and a tiny amount of linseed oil in a small jar, get a mix that is soupy, but not water-thin. (You need the linseed oil to keep it from drying too rapidly) Incidentally, if you want a redder-brown, add a little Purple Madder Alizarin—it only takes a little.

5.      Apply the mixture using a fairly stiff brush, over the entire instrument except the neck (handle area). You might try just one area at a time, until you see what it will do. Get the color into every little crevice. Set the brush aside, and rub across the grain with your fingers. You want the mixture to be starting to set up a little, just as you get the glaze to the color you want. Remember that you will probably be applying two or more coats of glaze, so feel free to rub most of the coat off that you just applied. Rub harder in areas you want lighter, simulating wear. The reason you rub cross-grain is to encourage pigment to hang up in the deeper reeds, and stay there. I use the heel of my hand to get the look I want.

As the mixture begins to set up, you will feel it stiffening– at that point, you can rapidly pat it with your fingers, over and over, leaving hundreds of fingerprints, but removing all streaks. The “fingerprints” all blend together, making perfectly smooth color transitions, and if there are areas that are too dark, you can rub them a little (cross-grain) with a rag. At this point the dark reeds should be pretty visible, and the light areas are the only thing you are blending colors on.

6.      Once you have the whole instrument the color you want (but lighter than final planned color), and no bad spots, let it dry until it is hard to the touch. You can use your fingernail or the tip of a knife to carefully remove or press flat any “zits” that are sticking up.

Varnish between color coats

7.      Give it another coat of the yellow varnish, still pretty thin. When it is COMPLETELY dry, go over it with fine micromesh, to get any little “zits”, hairs, etc. off. Be careful not to rub through into the color coat.

8.      Subsequent glaze coats as needed. (The thinner the glaze coats, the more transparent the final effect—plan on several very thin coats, instead of fewer heavier coats.) Don’t go too far with this–you don’t want to obscure the wood. Check for any areas needing touch-up. Let it dry completely.

9.      Another coat of yellow varnish, or brown, if you want it darker. Allow it to dry, and lightly sand it, with extremely fine micromesh .

Final varnish procedure

10.  A last coat or two (or more, if you wish) of varnish, and final rubdown.

Neck Stain

11.  After the varnish is completely dry I used to use the neck stain from International Luthier’s Supply, in Tulsa (no longer available, as that company no longer exists). Six to eight coats, rubbed in vigorously, with a 4/0 steel wool rubdown between coats, seemed to work pretty well. Don’t apply this stuff before you are finished varnishing—the varnish doesn’t like it at all. (There are other ways to stain necks–take your pick…. Wish I knew what had been in the stuff I got from ILS, but they are gone for good. Too bad.)

12.  Note: I originally used tung-oil varnish for this process, but the process does not require the use of tung-oil varnish—any oil varnish would work; tung-oil varnish dries very rapidly, and just makes the process a lot easier to complete.

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Re-hairing a Bow

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Bow Re-hair

Horse-hair only…and rosin

Bowed instruments have an odd dependency on animal fiber…they depend on the force of a tight, well-rosined horse-hair ribbon driving a tight, carefully tuned string. The resulting friction produces a pattern of vibrations in the string, which is transferred to the bridge, and thus to the soundboard of the instrument. The soundboard and the rest of the instrument dissipate the energy by radiating sound.

Some players are not very aggressive with their bow-strokes. The hair on their bows may last for many years without apparent deterioration. Others need new hair every six months, while still others, very aggressive, may only get a few weeks out of a re-hair.

As long as the only service needed is the replacing of the horse-hair ribbon, the job of re-hairing a bow is not too time-consuming. Very experienced bow-repair craftspeople can rehair a bow in 30 minutes or less. I have known people who could do the job in 20 minutes, and watch television at the same time. I am not one of those people. It takes me an hour, if nothing goes wrong, and I don’t watch TV in the first place, let alone while working on someone else’s bow.

Basswood blocks

Usually, I have to replace the tiny basswood blocks (wedges) that hold the hair in the tip and frog mortises. Cutting a tiny block of wood whose six sides are not parallel, but which is trapezoidal in two directions. and a parallelogram in the third, is tricky, especially when it has to precisely fit a cavity in a very expensive piece of exotic wood. (Most violin-family bows are made of Pernambuco, an endangered species from Brazil. A growing number is made from Ipé or Bloodwood…still exotic, but less scarce.) If the wedge is too tight, it could split the bow-head. Too loose, and the hair will pull out. The same problems exist when cutting the wedge for the frog, but it is a little easier in my experience…there are less angles to worry about.

The hair

The hair itself is fractious, tangling easily, untangling with great difficulty. It expands longitudinally when wet, and shrinks as it dries. I buy the hair in bulk: a one-pound hank looks like a whole tail of a horse. I cut just the right amount of hair from the hank, using a gauge to measure the quantity (some people count the hairs), then tie one end of the hair as tightly as possible with a very strong nylon thread. I trim the hair back, close to the knot, then singe the cut ends of the hair, next to the knot, to swell the ends a little, and finally work superglue into the swollen hair-ends and the thread of the knot, to make sure it will not come loose later.

The Procedure

I fit the bow-tip end first, trimming the wedge to a snug (but not really tight) fit laterally, and a quite snug, but not excessively tight fit longitudinally. (Remember: too tight, and you split the bow-tip…that is catastrophe!) I press the wedge into place with a narrow piece of maple that I keep for that specific purpose. Then I comb and re-comb the horse hair until there are neither crossed hairs nor any tangles of any sort. If I find kinked or damaged hairs, I remove them.

I dampen the hair, being careful to not soak the portion near the tip—I do not want any water to get on that wedge, or wick up into it. If the wedge swells and cracks the bow, it is my fault. I comb out the hair again, and match it against the frog mortise, with the frog adjusted as far forward on the stick as it will go. I use a watercolor pencil marker to mark the hair ribbon where I want the frog-end knot, then grip the hair carefully and keep the ribbon from twisting or changing angles as I tie the frog end knot. I then treat it exactly as the tip-end.

Remember to put the ferrule back in place before wedging the hair into the frog!  If I forget, then I have to remove the frog wedge, install the ferrule, and re-fit the hair into the mortise. Once all is correct, I install the frog on the bow, and partially tighten the screw, to tension the hair just a little. I re-install the slide and ferrule, then carefully spread the hair into a smooth, flat ribbon, and insert the comb into it from between the stick and the hair. I insert the hair spreader wedge between the frog and hair ribbon, with a tiny dab of hide-glue on the hair side of the wedge, forcing the hair tightly against the ferrule, and jam the wedge in place with the stainless steel comb.

If all went well, that is a finished bow re-hair. If there are stragglers—hairs that didn’t quite attain the same tension as those around them, it is possible to “flame” the ribbon. This is accomplished by re-dampening the hair, tensioning the bow, and very rapidly running the bow back and forth through the flame of an alcohol lamp. The heat of the flame will shrink the looser hairs to match the tighter hairs, and flatten the entire ribbon. Understand: if there are many loose hairs, or the ribbon has been twisted sideways or something, so that it will not properly tighten, then flaming will not make a good re-hair out of a bad job. For this reason, many bow-repair people will not admit to ever flaming the hair. But, done correctly, and under the right circumstances, I think it does no harm.

Rosin

I prefer to rosin the bow as soon as the hair is dry, and try it out on an instrument. Some customers, however, are very particular about which rosin is used, and prefer to rosin it themselves. It is good to ask ahead of time, and avoid misunderstandings.

Different strokes…

Not all hair is the same. Coarser hair is usually used for bass and cello bows than that which is ideal for violins. Different colors (natural, of course, not dyed) tend to have different characteristics, as well. Some players prefer black hair for bass bows. An experienced craftsman knows what hair is best for each job. An experienced player knows when the bow/hair/rosin combination is “just right.”

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