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Five-String Double Bass

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Five String Double Bass on the way!

I began this bass some time ago, but it was set aside for several years, because of other jobs that came in, and because I was very dissatisfied with how the rib-bending was going. I had a huge, propane-heated bending iron I had made, which simply did not get hot enough. 

This year I made a new bending iron, heated with electricity, and it worked very well. So I am up and going again.

 

Steel tube with a charcoal-briquette lighter inside, controlled by a 600W dimmer switch.

I completed the rib garland, and, more recently, traced the front plate outline, cut it out, and now I am shaping the outer arching of that plate.

For more information on my five-string offerings, please visit https://fivestringfiddles.com

Thanks for looking!

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Bandsaw Repair

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The old saw needed help!

A number of years ago, I had a sudden opportunity to buy an 18″ Jet bandsaw (for which I had yearned, lo, these many years...) and I jumped on it without hesitation. It has been a great saw, but it was gradually becoming more and more impossible to saw a straight line.

New Guides

My youngest son looked it over, and pointed out that the original guides were worn out, and that conversion kits were available to make all the guides roller bearings, instead of sliding surfaces. But the kits were $250, or so, and I hesitated. I attempted various adjustments, to no avail, and finally went online, and watched a number of videos explaining why the saw behaved the way it did, and decided that, since the saw was effectively useless the way it was, it was well worth the upgrade cost.

So I ordered the correct kit from Carter tools, after watching a bunch of videos by Alex Snodgrass, and installed it, expecting the change to be instantaneous. (Well, almost: It still took meticulous re-setting of several variables: the blade had to be correctly positioned on the drive wheels, the guides had to be correctly adjusted for the size of the blade, and the blade had to be correctly tensioned…and I did all that.)

Upper guide kit correctly installed.
Lower guide was harder to photograph, but there it is, also correctly installed.

Results? Not exactly what I expected.

It sawed exactly the same as before! (Augggh!)

I attempted a re-saw, and the blade dived for the left edge.
See the angle? There was no resisting it…it was determined to go left!

Back to the Manual

So I went back to the computer and downloaded a manual that was for almost the same machine as I have, and looked at the trouble-shooting list.

It turned out that the blade I was using had been damaged, and the teeth had lost their set. I installed a new blade, readjusted everything (different size blade) and tried again:

Just an old chunk of 1 x 4 fir, chosen for the test. Perfect re-saw!

And that was it! It turned out that, while the guides really were worn out, and needed replacing, the blade was also worn out, and remained as the final issue. Now that it has been replaced, the saw cuts like magic!

Results!

So now I have begun resawing all the chunks of maple I have set aside for fiddles! 🙂 I can saw rib-stock, and neck billets, and backs, and have them come out usable again. What a relief!

Thanks for looking

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Instrument Show May 4th and 5th

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The Northwest Handmade Musical Instrument Show will be this weekend, May 4th and 5th, at PCC Sylvania campus, from 12 noon to 5 PM, Saturday and Sunday.

My newest two violins will be there, to try out, along with about eight other violins, violas, five-string fiddles, and one cello.

I really hope to see you all there.

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The Forgotten Violin

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I Forgot a Violin! (Oops!)

Pressed for Time: didn’t take pictures.

I don’t know how I managed to do it, as I always take photos of my work, but I somehow skipped one.

In March of 2015 I completed a very good quality violin, just before the 2015 Northwest Musical Instrument Makers Show, at Marylhurst University. I vaguely recall that I was pressed for time, and got it playable literally the day before the show, or thereabouts. But, for whatever cause, I neglected to take photos of the build-process, and even of the completed violin. It wasn’t until I was trying to update my “Chronology” page that I realized something was missing

Then I had to go back and look at the dates inside instruments (as well as my archived weblog posts) in order to figure out what had happened. This was the Forgotten Violin:

Oliver Long Form

Oliver Long Model

A Different Mold:

This is only the second violin I have produced from this particular mold: The other was actually the first violin I ever made, so the two can’t really be compared. I changed some things since then anyway, so I have dubbed this mold, as it now stands, the Oliver “Long Model”, since it is a little narrower in the upper and lower bouts, giving it a “long” look, though it is really about the same length as the others.

European Wood–(mostly)

I am pretty certain that the front and back plates are European Spruce and Maple, respectively, but the ribs and neck are not European. I believe the neck is Red Maple that I bought from Elon Howe, in Michigan, and the ribs may be, as well. I wish I had written down all this information when I made the instrument, but I didn’t, and my memory is not coming up with any certainties. Sorry.

Cycloid arching

The one thing that made this violin special in my mind, is that it is the first one on which I attempted to use the “Hypocycloid” or “Curtate Cycloid” curves to establish the arching. In the past, I either slavishly copied the arching of the old master instrument I was trying to emulate (which can work very well, provided the instrument you are copying worked very well), or I just winged it, and established the archings the way I thought they ought to be. This time I actually established my curves differently, using math, a compass and straightedge, and actual little wheels of thin plywood I made. (Sounds strange, I know…but it was math that was definitely available to the old master makers, and technology that was available to them, as well, so I wanted to try it.)

And it worked out very well. I had very positive reviews from professional players from this instrument as well as those whose arching reflected the Cremonese master (Guarneri del Gesu) I had attempted to copy on those instruments. (Why?) Evidently that is how they originally perfected their arching, as the templates I made from scratch closely matched the templates I lifted from their work. It was an interesting experiment at any rate, and I still have the templates, if I want to use them, and I know how to establish all the curves again, if I need to do so. In the meantime, this is a very good violin.

A Violin for smaller hands

I deliberately made this instrument on the “delicate” side: just a little narrower at the neck than usual, and a daintier scroll than I usually make, because there was a small-stature player I was hoping to interest in the violin…but (naturally)… it turned out they were not in the market at the time. (Sigh…) This is an exceptionally easy instrument to play, though, and has very good projection and tone. So…I guess I will simply hope to find another player with small hands. 🙂

At any rate, here is the violin:

Oliver Long Form Front

Oliver Long Model Front

 

Oliver Long Form Side

Oliver Long Model Side

 

Oliver Long Form Side

Oliver Long Model Side

 

Spirit varnish, and… Not Antiqued

This is one of the few instruments on which I chose to apply my finish without deliberately induced “antiquing.” I don’t do it often, because I really like the antiqued look…but I like this one, too, so I may do some more like it.

Anyhow– that’s the story of the “One that almost got away.” …”The Forgotten Violin.”

Thanks for looking. 🙂

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Small Viola Set-up

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Setting Up the 14-inch Viola

What is “Set-up?”

Set-up can include a fairly wide range of things not related to the actual building of the instrument:

  • Dressing the fingerboard
  • Adjusting the string-height at the nut
  • Fitting the bridge
  • Fitting and adjusting the sound-post
  • Fitting (or lubricating) new tuning pegs
  • Installing strings, tailpiece and chinrest
  • Final adjustments for sound and playability
    • Height of strings above the end of the fingerboard
    • Balance of tone across the strings (adjusted at the soundpost)

Usually the instrument already has the fingerboard and saddle when “set-up” begins.

This Instrument

In this particular case, I had already installed, but not dressed the fingerboard, so I still had to:

  • Dress the fingerboard,
  • Install and finish the tuning pegs,
  • Drill the holes in the tuning pegs for the strings,
  • Fit and install the nut
  • Cut the slots in the nut, to receive the strings,
  • Drill and ream the hole for the end button, and fit the end button
  • Fit the soundpost, to a preliminary position,
  • Fit the bridge and adjust it for height,
  • Install the tailpiece, strings and chinrest.
  • Perform any “final touches”, to repair small varnish flaws, etc.

I have been swamped with other responsibilities, so, this time, I made no effort to record the process as it was being done. If anyone is interested, one can search the archived articles on this site, to see photo-essays of set-ups. Here is the completed instrument, from various views:

Completed saddle, end-button and tailpiece

Completed saddle, end-button and tailpiece: notice the curved ends on the saddle.

 

Completed 14-inch viola front side

Completed 14-inch viola front side: sitka spruce.

 

Completed 14-inch viola side view

Completed 14-inch viola side view. The instrument was slightly tilted away, making the body look large.

 

Completed 14-inch viola back.

Completed 14-inch viola back. That big-leaf maple is pretty stuff. This was donated by Terry Howell.

 

Completed neck;

Completed neck; If you check back a few posts, you can see how different the neck looks before and after polishing and sealing.

 

Completed treble-side scroll.

Completed treble-side scroll. This big-leaf maple, for the scroll and neck, was cut in my wife’s parents’ yard, some time ago.

 

Completed Bass-side scroll.

Completed Bass-side scroll.

 

Completed bridge, from the tailpiece side

Completed bridge, from the tailpiece side. Those are Helicore strings, and a Josef Teller bridge.

 

Bridge viewed from the fingerboard side.

Bridge viewed from the fingerboard side.

 

Bridge and sound-holes viewed from the front of the instrument.

Bridge and sound-holes viewed from the front of the instrument.

 

So! That is the 14-inch Viola! I will add a chinrest in the morning, but I wanted to get these pictures posted.

So far the sound is good. It is a little unfocused on the C string, but I usually expect some of that at first. I adjusted the soundpost to enhance the C-string, and tomorrow I hope it will have improved. I could tell it was opening up within 20 minutes of hard bowing, so I expect it will be a good viola. I would prefer orchestral strings, I think, but it is difficult to find a C-string for a 14″ viola.

This will make a very good viola for some player with small hands.

Thanks for looking.

(Edit: Here is the finished instrument WITH the chinrest. And, as I hoped, it sounds even better this morning. :-))

Completed 14-inch viola with chinrest.

Completed 14-inch viola with chinrest.

 

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More Progress on the 14-inch Viola

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More 14-inch Viola Progress

As I work by myself, I frequently fail to take pictures. I did take a few, though. (If you are impatient, you can scroll down and peek at them.)

F-holes Cut Out

I used a special tool to begin the cutting out progress: It is called an “f-hole drill”, but all it really amounts to is a specialized twin-blade hole-cutter. My children bought it for me, one year, and it has been a wonderful tool. In the first place, obviously, it is a time saver, but the biggest difference is that I can now make the upper and lower eyes of my f-holes perfectly round, to begin with, and work any special shaping in, starting from the already round holes.

I remove the waste wood from the uprights of my f-holes with a small sharp knife—many makers use a saw, and I have done so as well, but I eventually reverted to the knife. Just personal preference, I suppose.

Bass Bar

Once the f-holes are cut out and close to perfect (always allowing for later nit-picking), I install the bass bar. The bass bar is a gently-arched brace supporting the bass-side foot of the bridge. Guitars have a whole collection of similar bracing, supporting what amounts to a nearly flat (and very thin) plate. The violin family instruments depend primarily upon the compound curves of the arching to supply strength, and only need the one brace to support the bass-side bridge-foot. The other side of the bridge is supported by the soundpost, which, while it is not directly under the treble-side bridge-foot, it is very close to it, and is in a location on the treble side matching the lateral position of the bass-bar on the bass side.

I lay out the position of the bass-bar, and then use a compass to transfer the shape of the inside of the front plate to the bass-bar blank. Then I use a knife to remove most of the waste-wood, and begin checking the results against the inside curve of the front plate. When the fit is getting close to correct…close enough that it is becoming difficult to see what needs to change…I apply a strip of paper-gauze adhesive tape (available in pharmacies) to the inside of the plate, covering the bass-bar position, and I rub blue chalk into the tape. I happen to use a product sold as “sidewalk chalk;” they are big sticks of chalk, and supposedly are easy to wash off of sidewalks. But they work well for me, and the blue is high-enough contrast that I can see it easily.

I press the nearly correctly-shaped bass-bar into the chalked tape, and check to see where the chalk transferred. I cut, plane or scrape just the chalked places from the bass-bar, repeating until, finally, when I press the bar into the tape, the whole thing comes up lightly coated with chalk. Then I remove the tape, clean off any remaining chalk from both pieces of wood, and install the bass-bar, using hot hide glue and clamps. I have a specialized set of wooden clamps made for this task.

When the bass bar glue is completely dry, I remove the clamps and trim the bar to the desired shape. I make my bars a little higher than most luthiers do, in the center, but tapering to about 5-6mm high for the last few centimeters of both ends. (I will take some pictures after I remove the inside mold, so you can see the final shape.)

Edge Preparation

It is much easier to do the inside edge-work if I do it before I install the plate on the garland. So, I use a tiny finger-plane, along with round and flat files, to round the inner edge of the plate, all the way around the perimeter. I may have to do a little correction later, but I want it as close to perfect as is possible, before gluing the plate to the garland.

Installing the Front Plate

I line up the plate on the garland as accurately as I can, matching the center-line of the plate to the centerline of the garland, and then use spool-clamps to hold it in place. I was originally taught to use tiny pins to assure good placement, but eventually discontinued the practice. We know for a fact that the old masters did this, as we can see the remnants of those wooden pins in their violins, still today. Perhaps I will eventually resume using pins. For now, I do not.

Once I have the plate perfectly aligned and securely clamped, using a very thin palette knife, I slip hot hide-glue into the joint between plate and garland, and then add more spool clamps to draw the joint closed. This is a very “stress-free” way to glue plates in place. I used to experience near-panic every time I installed a plate, racing to clamp the joint before the glue gelled, but now it is a very easy and relaxed task.

Purfling

As you may remember, I have not yet installed the purfling. I wait until the plate is on the garland before purfling nowadays, because the purfling “locks-in” the location of the plate edge, and I have had problems in the past with the rib garland changing shape a little, between my tracing the plate and trying to install it. so, after gluing the plate to the garland, the first step is to double check my over-hangs, to see that they are all pretty close to the same. If I need to change them, I do so: I am free to adjust the shape of the plate to match the garland again. When the overhangs are all acceptable, I begin purfling.

Purfling is fairly simple-sounding:

  • mark the groove location
  • cut the groove,
  • fit the purfling,
  • glue the purfling,
  • mark the edge crest, and
  • cut the channel.

It sounds easy, but I still find it a hard job to do perfectly. I want my miters perfect, my bee-stings clean and sharp, and all my borders parallel. This is my 30th instrument from scratch, and I am still finding it to be challenging. Guess I am a slow learner. 🙂

Cutting the Channel

Before I begin cutting the channel I use a compass to mark a line all the way around the instrument, 1.6 mm in from the outer edge. Then, using a sharp, curved gouge, I cut my channel to that edge crest line, trying to cut the whole channel to intersect the surface of the purfling and that pencil line.

Fairing in the Channel to the Arching

Once I have the purfling completed and the channel cut, I still have to fair-in the surface of the rest of the plate to match the curvature of the channel. I do not want there to be any sudden changes; humps and hollows catch the eye of the person looking, and call into question the skill of the maker. (Besides, I think they are ugly….) I use a very sharp finger-plane to begin shaping the surface of the plate and approximating the final curves I want. Finally I use sharp scrapers to bring the curvature of the whole plate to its final shape. I use a low-angle light to cast shadows from any humps or hollows, so that I can spot them and scrape them away. At this point, the scraper has to be sharp, and I have to use a gentle touch. The changes I am making are frequently much thinner than a piece of paper.

Outer Edgework

After the whole plate is the shape I want, the last task is to shape the outer edge. I begin by using a tiny finger-plane to take the outer corners down at a 45 degree angle, then use half-round files to shape the edge all the way around, bringing the curve of the outer edge up to just intersect the edge-crest line I established earlier. I get it as smooth and even as I can, using a file, but I know when I stain the wood with coffee, it will raise the grain terribly along these edges, so I will eventually re-smooth all of them, using abrasive paper of some sort. In this particular case, I did the outer edgework after setting the neck. No special reason…that is just what I did.

Neck Set

I measure carefully, and cut the tapered mortise using a razor-saw, then use a sharp chisel to remove the waste wood of the mortise. If I do the job correctly, it works very well. I check the sides and bottom to the mortise to see that they are flat and straight, then begin attempting to fit the neck. I have already joined the fingerboard to the neck and have shaped the heel where it will join the neck-block. So, from this point forward, all the shaping and adjustment will be done to the mortise, not the neck. When I am satisfied that the fit is correct, the neck will have to be centered. straight with the centerline of the front plate, straight with the centerline of the end block (not twisted at all), and at the correct angle to place the end of the fingerboard at the right height. Also, of course, the neck has to be set so that the distance from the nut to the edge of the front plate is correct. I check and re-check, until everything works correctly. Since I set the neck before installing the back plate, I want the heel of the neck to protrude past the back end of the neck-block. I will plane it flush after the glue is dry.

Completed neck-mortise

Here is the completed mortise, cut for the neck. The outer edgework has yet to be completed. You can see the edge-crest marks.

 

ready to set the neck

The mortise is complete, and I am ready to set the neck.

 

dry-fit neck set

There is the dry-fit neck set. Notice the overhang of the heel of the neck beyond the neck-block. That will be planed off after the glue is dry.

 

dry-fit assembly

So there is the dry-fit assembly. It is starting to look like a viola!

When every measurement is correct simultneously, and the fit is tight, I remove the neck one last time and slather hot hide glue into the neck mortise. Immediately I jam the neck into place, and quickly check all those measurements again. Bingo! They are all correct, and I can relax while the glue dries! Once the glue is dry, I plane off the neck heel overhang, flush with the neck-block.

ready to remove the mold

The glue is dry, and the neck-heel overhang has been planed flush with the neck block. I am ready to remove the mold.

In this picture, I have filed the outer edge curvature already, and, though you can’t see it in this photo, I have also completed the graduations on the back plate, and have filed its inner edges, so it is ready to install. But; before I can do that, I have to remove the mold and add the back linings.

 

Ready to remove the mold.

Ready to remove the mold.

 

Dreaming of the next step!

Dreaming of the next step!

I am getting tired, though, and have some other things that need doing, so the viola will have to wait until another day to move any further toward completion.

Thanks for looking.

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Progress on the “Plowden”-model violin

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Progress on the “Plowden” Guarneri del Gesu-model violin

The Plowden is “in the lead” and pulling ahead!

One fiddle is running ahead of the others. That is how it usually turns out when I am building more than one instrument simultaneously. Something catches my attention in one instrument, and I bolt for the finish line with it. I don’t know why…happens every time, though. I think this will be one of my best efforts, and should turn out to be a concert-quality violin. We will see, though.

Scroll and neck complete– Fingerboard temporarily glued in place

There will still be fine-point tweaking and smoothing I will do, up until the day I begin varnishing, but the scroll was nearly enough complete that I went ahead and mounted a fingerboard on the neck, and began shaping the two of them together. The string “nut” (the tiny bar of ebony that will cross the top of the fingerboard as a support and anchor for the strings as they cross over into the pegbox) will be fitted and installed pretty much the last thing before the bridge, soundpost, and final set-up.

Scroll and neck with fingerboard

Scroll and neck with fingerboard

 

Setting the Neck

Once I had the entire neck shaped, with the exception of the final shaping of the heel (which is completed after the back plate is installed), I could begin setting the neck.

Now: I used to install the back plate and then install the neck, but that meant that when I set the neck, I had to continually worry about the angle of the heel as it presented itself to the button (the top “tongue” of the back plate that overlaps the heel of every violin-family instrument…critical to the strength of the joint.) If I install the neck first, making sure that the heel overlaps the neck block at least a little, so that I can plane it absolutely flat before installing the back plate, I eliminate the struggle to get that perfect heel-to-button joint. It becomes perfectly easy.

So…for all you luthiers reading this, yes, I am aware of the traditional way to fit this joint. I learned this particular option from reading the work of the late David Rubio. It took me a few years to recognize the value of the change, and I tried it for the first time when working on my first cello. It worked so well that I have gradually begun to do it on all my instruments.

Here is the back of the instrument, mold still in place:

Back view of instrument with neck set, but mold still in place.

Back view of instrument with neck set, but mold still in place. The heel of the neck is just barely extending past the neck block. Also, the front plate is in view, through the clamping holes in the mold.

 

Here is the side view:

Side view of instrument with neck installed.

Side view of instrument with neck installed.

And the front view:

Front view of instrument with neck installed, and mold still in place.

Front view of instrument with neck installed, and mold still in place. The mold is visible, through the f-holes.

 

What’s Next?

The next step will be to level the back of the corpus, so that the blocks and the neck-heel are all in the same plane. I may have to wait until the mold has been removed before completing that task: the mold is pretty much level with the blocks, and I have no desire to sand the mold. So, I may end up removing the mold, installing the linings, and then levelling the back of the corpus, along with the heel of the neck. Then I can clean up the inside of the corpus, shaping the linings and blocks, and cleaning up any rough spots. Then I can install the back plate and get moving on the purfling. After that it will be time to do all the final preparations for varnishing.

So…that is the progress report for this week.

I will try to catch up on the 14-inch viola and the 3/4 size violin soon.

Thanks for looking.

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Building a Double Bass: Shaping the Blocks

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Shaping the Double Bass Blocks

Lots of Wood to Move!

As you may recall from the previous post, the blocks on this upright bass were pretty huge, compared to what they needed to be, so there was really a lot of wood to remove.

Mold with blocks and ribs

Mold with blocks and ribs. Blocks are still way oversized, and the ribs are still straight. Gotta change all that.

 

“Kutzall” Tool

So! A drastic need makes for drastic measures. Ordinarily, on a smaller instrument, I would use the bandsaw and oscillating spindle sander to shape the blocks, but this  mold is reeaaalllly heavy (over-built, I think…oh, well, it will be removed and the bass will be normal), even though it is a soloist bass, so I can’t see trying to manhandle it around on my big bandsaw. The saw could handle it, but the table for the saw is not big enough to hold the mold steady, and I am not strong enough to just hold it up there by sheer strength…. So… what to do?

This tool (carbide abrasive disc) is something my wife bought for me a year ago (Christmas), but I had never used it much. It is called a “Kutzall”, and it tears away wood incredibly rapidly, without loading up, and without burning the wood. So I used it to remove the large rough sections, then used the plane to remove the torn surface, and finally, to shape the blocks:

Kutzall disc, with 5

Kutzall disc, with 5″ DeWalt angle grinder: Not for the faint of heart! Absolutely wickedly effective, but not as dangerous as the Lancelot tool.

 

Stanley #100-1/2 Squirrel-tail Plane

It was about 37 degrees, F, outside, but the sun was bright, so I worked outside.

Smoothing and shaping the corner block

Smoothing and shaping the corner blocks, using a Stanley “Squirrel-tail” #100-1/2 hand-plane.

 

The little plane is somewhat hard to control, because the curvature of the sole is so extreme, but, if it is sharp and if the blade is set for a very shallow cut, it works well.

sharp plane

It does have to be sharp! (Time to sharpen….)

 

Stanley # 100-1/2 curved-sole plane

Stanley # 100-1/2 curved-sole plane…for those of you who are unfamiliar with it.

 

stanley plane

I was able to shape the blocks pretty close to finished shape with the little plane, but there are some irregularities. I have another tool for that problem.

 

The bottom block was planed entirely with a low-angle plane (also Stanley– can’t recall what number.) but it worked very well, and the bottom block was easy…I didn’t use the grinder at all on this one. So here are all the blocks, pretty close to finished:

Bottom block planed with a small, flat-sole, low-angle plane.

Bottom block planed with a small, flat-sole, low-angle plane.

 

And, here you can see the finished blocks, ready for sanding:

All the blocks, ready for coarse-sanding.

All the blocks, ready for coarse-sanding. The small plane leaves ripples. The sanding tool should remove them all.

 

Homemade PVC Sanding Tool

As I mentioned earlier, the oscillating spindle sander I have would not be tall enough for these blocks even if I could manhandle the mold up onto the machine. So, I made this little sanding tool out of re-claimed PVC fittings from the “Habitat for Humanity Re-Store”, and spent more on the little can of PVC cement from the hardware store than I did on all the other materials…about $2.50 at the Habitat store. I used PVC cement to affix the abrasive cloth to the pipe, too, and bound it up with strips of plastic bag until the solvent outgassed and the cement was set.

PVC sanding block

Sanding block fabricated from four PVC fittings and a 2″ section of 2″ PVC pipe, with a little piece of wood for the handle grip. Comfortable, efficient, and cheap.

 

The homemade sanding tool worked extremely well for the small corner blocks, and did very smooth work. On the neck block I used it cross-grain, holding the tool parallel to the “trough” of the curvature, and sliding it up and down the curve. It worked well, there, too, just not as perfectly as on the corner blocks. All in all, it is a very satisfying tool.

Sanding corner blocks.

Sanding the corner blocks.

 

Sanding the neck block,

Sanding the neck block, I kept the block parallel to the “trough” of the curve, and pushed it up and down, across the grain to get a smooth surface.

 

Change of Plans

You may have noticed that, though I had planned to use Willow for blocks and linings, those blocks are not willow: the corner blocks and end block are all Douglas Fir, and the neck block is laid up of three layers of clear, vertical grain Sitka Spruce. It was a matter of availability. I do have willow for the linings, and, as that in my preferred wood when I have a choice, that is what I will use. It cuts easily, bends easily, and is very pleasant to work with for both linings and blocks.

I have really felt that I was “spinning my wheels” on this project. It is large enough that I feel the necessity to work outdoors whenever possible, but the weather has not cooperated very well…it rained nearly every day for the last month. In addition, I have been struggling with a cold or some such virus. Today I was cold in the house when the thermometer read 75 degrees, so that is not normal. I finally felt a little better, this evening, and went outside for the few minutes it took me to sand the blocks, but it has been cold out, so I didn’t stay long.

Ah, well, that’s life. I’m grateful to be back on the project again.

Thanks for looking.

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Resurrection of a “Dead” Fiddle

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Resurrecting an Old Fiddle

Basket-Case Fiddles

We frequently hear the term “basket-case” in reference to one’s mental-state, but it originated in the reality of all the parts of a dilapidated mechanism or household furnishing being literally placed into a basket and delivered to a craftsperson who (it was hoped) could put it back together and make it functional.

There have been a few times when I have received such a violin…usually either having belonged to the customer’s Great Aunt, or Grandfather, or something, or a relic from their own childhood (which they are trying to hang onto.) In some cases it is worse– the customer simply acquired the instrument at a garage sale (or some similar “depository of fine musical instruments”), in pieces, and wants me to make it work.

In all of the above cases, I try to kindly explain that the labor involved will cost far more than the instrument will be worth when completed, and they must decide whether they want the instrument badly enough to pay that much to have it playable. (We are not talking about a full restoration, just bringing a dead fiddle back to life.)

“Bread-Bag Fiddle”

In the particular situation at hand, it was a mix: The violin was coming to pieces, and was literally in a bread-bag, with the mouth of the bag tied off, to prevent the escape of any pieces. BUT, the person who brought it to me was not asking me to fix it for him…he simply offered it as a potential “project” fiddle. I gave him what he had paid for it at a junk-shop (styled “Antique Shoppe”) and tossed the bagged corpse in a box to gather dust, thinking that perhaps someday I could do a photo-story of sorts with it, in a “sow’s-ear-to-silk-purse” type of story. (Given the relative quality, I should probably edit that to say, “calico-handbag” as opposed to silk purse, but that is another matter.)

A few months ago, however, a parent contacted me, asking whether I had an “old fiddle” (full-size) for sale at a reasonable cost, to replace her daughter’s fractional size violin. Initially, I told her I did not, but upon further reflection, it occurred to me that I had the “bread-bag fiddle”. I told her exactly what it was, to the best of my knowledge (I had not opened it sufficiently to see some of the surprises), and suggested that, if I could make it a reasonable player for a price she could afford, that perhaps it would meet her expectations.

I sent her some photos, so she could see that, at least for now, it sort of “put the ugh in ugly”, and that it would never win any prizes for looks, regardless of what I did.

Front plate condition

Front plate condition

 

Back was not as bad

Back was not as bad, but very plain.

But–some folks like old fiddles! As it turned out, she and her family were pleased with the prospect, and told me to carry on with the “restoration.” (I repeat…this is not a true restoration, but rather a “revival” or “resurrection” of a dead or nearly-dead violin.) I had another commission going at the time, and I let them know that I could not begin immediately, but they were not in a hurry, so it was agreed that their project was next in line. I was able to begin about a month later.

Diagnosis: YOW!

Outside

The back had come loose from the ribs, partway around, and the (monstrous) lower block was separated from the ribs, as well, and (despite my best attempts) would not fit together perfectly. (sigh…)

Loose ribs, detached saddle, separated top and bottom plates.

Loose ribs, detached saddle, separated top and bottom plates. End pin was long-gone.

 

Three of the four corners of the spruce top had missing wood, along with one lower-bout edge. One of the three had wood broken off, not just chipped or worn.

Missing corner wood, snapped off at the purfling miter.

Missing corner wood, snapped off at the purfling miter.

Inside

The exterior was bad enough, but when I opened the corpus I found the history, literally written on a label, and proudly claiming responsibility for the carnage within.

Repair/innovation label; June 1923

Repair/innovation label; June 1923.

 

And, as usual, the “Tony Stradivari” label is there to confuse things further: I left it there, of course, and glued it down securely, so it would not fall out. 🙂

The inevitable strad label.

The inevitable “Stradiuarius” label: inserted in literally millions of instruments churned out of factories and cottage industries in the late 1800’s.

 

Here is a photo of the tail-block and loose ribs:

End block with loose ribs.

Those chips of spruce stuck to the end block were glued back in place in the top plate, along with other, earlier missing wood.

 

The “repairer-rebuilder-innovator” had removed the normal blocks and replaced them with very heavy, oversized, hardwood blocks. That was bad enough, but he had also (in response to a bass-bar crack) installed a bar at about a 20 degree angle across the longitudinal axis, rather than the 2 degree (or thereabouts) angle that is normal.

One thing to be observed, too, is the peculiar “mottled” look of the inside of the top plate, and how much fresher the wood appears here, than inside the back. From this, I see that this instrument was originally one of the very cheap fiddles for which the maker took not even the trouble of smoothing the inside of the top plate, but left it extremely rough, like chainsaw sculpture, in the knowledge that few, if any, would ever see it, whereas the back was very smooth inside, where any eye could glance inside and see the work. The “re-builder” smoothed all the rough gouge-work, removing the original “integral” bass bar (which had been carved in place, out of the same billet as the rest of the top, not carved separately and fitted to the plate), and had continued by adding the big blocks, slanting bar, etc.

How do I know? Because I have smoothed such an instrument myself, and that is how the top plate looks afterward. The areas where the most wood was removed are quite bright, whereas the places where only a little smoothing was in order are darker, showing the oxidation of the years. No harm done, there, and he did a fair job of it.

 

bad bass-bar

Whack-o bass-bar. Bad-repair of center-seam, too.

The ribs (as they came from the low-end European factory) were 2-3 times the thickness they should have been , in the upper bouts, though pretty close to normal in the lower and center bouts. There were several cracks. Some I had seen from the outside– some became obvious when I opened the box.  Inside (due to inexpert top removals over the century or so of the fiddle’s existence), sufficient wood had been lost in the areas of the corner blocks that I felt it was necessary to replace wood there, as well.

 

First things First

Since the back was relatively undamaged, and it had to be re-secured to the blocks so that I would have a firm foundation from which to build, I reglued the blocks to the back, and

Re-gluing the back to the garland

Re-gluing the back to the garland. You can see that I was also working on the top plate.

I scraped and scraped the block and ribs, to try to get the loose ribs to fit back in place perfectly, but, in the end, they still were pretty rough. I kept telling myself that this was not a restoration, just a resurrection.

I soaked loose the old, dirty glue in the center seam, and pulled it together as tightly as possible, then re-glued and clamped it. I went ahead and glued as many cracks as I could manage at the same time, wedging them in or out, as was needed to make them flush on the outside and tight, edge-to edge. I added the orange clamps as two pairs of “legs”, so that the plate could stand on edge and not twist under its own weight and that of the clamps.

Multiple repairs in progress

Multiple repairs in progress: center-seam, cracks, and missing corners.

As you can see, I also began replacing the corners at that time; here is how it works:

Spruce block glued in place, and shape of corner traced on the block.

Spruce block glued in place, and shape of corner traced on the block.

 

Two blocks required on this corner.

Two blocks required on this corner.

There was a third corner needing a minor wood-replacement, and a lower-bout edge worn (and splintered) off, as well. the procedure for replacement was the same in all cases.

After the glue was dry on the replaced corners, I carved and filed the new wood to match the old shape.

One new corner nearly complete.

One new corner nearly complete.

 

Replaced Corner nearly complete.

Another replaced corner nearly complete.

 

One lower bout had a missing edge, too, so I glued new spruce in place, and, after the glue was dry, I carved and filed it to match the original curve.

Missing wood replaced on lower bout edge.

Missing wood replaced on lower bout edge. The wood will be filed and carved to shape.

 

Replaced edge ready for coloring and varnishing.

Replaced edge ready for coloring and varnishing.

Later, I will stain the new wood to match the old, using coffee, dirt, and ash, then retouch the varnish to match the old varnish.

Heavy repairs

The bass-bar had to come out, so, after the glue had dried in the various cracks, I planed out the old bar, (and glued “cleats” on the inside along each crack) and prepared to fit a new bar. The bass-bar was going to have to be shorter than usual, as the huge end blocks crowded the normal position.

Cracks and center-seam cleated from inside; old bassbar planed out, and new one ready for fitting.

Cracks and center-seam cleated from inside; old bassbar planed out, and new one ready for fitting.

You can see that I had already begun replacing the wood missing from the inside corners: I sawed a 1 mm-thick “veneer” of clear, vertical grained spruce, glued it to the smoothed and flattened corners, and later planed it flush with the surrounding areas.

The bass-bar fitting went quite smoothly, using chalk on the inside of the top plate, and pressing the bar against the chalked area to disclose the high spots on the bar. I had it ready to glue in a pretty short time, and trimmed it the next morning, after the glue was dry.

New bass-bar, glued and trimmed.

New bass-bar, glued and trimmed.

 

Side view of new bass-bar

Side view of new bass-bar, stained with coffee (which also raised the grain.) I sanded it afterward, to smooth it again.

 

Almost Ready for Re-assembly

Once the entire interior was smooth, with all missing wood replaced, I could start thinking about closing up the body of the violin. I re-fit and glued in place the saddle that had come with the fiddle.

Completed interior.

Completed interior.

Meanwhile, I had checked the back and ribs for appropriate thickness– a few areas of the back were abnormally thick, so I planed and scraped a millimeter (or so) of wood out of those areas, then even more from the upper bout ribs, where the wood was three times the normal 1 mm thickness. Perhaps it will help….

Scraped upper bout ribs showing white against the patina of age.

Scraped upper bout ribs showing white against the patina of age.

 

Lower back was too thick on the treble side.

Lower back was too thick on the treble side. Other than that it wasn’t too bad.

 

So, I was ready to close:

Ready to close!

Ready to close!

 

Looking hopeful!

Looking more hopeful!

 

I dry clamped the whole corpus (body) in exactly the way I wanted it to go together, using spool clamps, just like the ones used when I was gluing the back to the garland, above.

Then, when I was sure everything was right, I heated hide glue, and, loosening a few clamps at a time, I used a palette knife to carefully insert the thin, hot, hide glue between the front plate and the linings and blocks. Then I re-applied those few clamps and repeated the process with the next few clamps until I had glued all the way around. I seldom think to take photos of thsi process, so…there aren’t any.  Sorry.

Once the glue was dry, I could take off the clamps and get ready to begin final touch-up of varnish, and general polishing.

Closed, and ready to begin finishing.

Closed, and ready to begin finishing. Old strings still tangled on the pegbox.

 

Back view.

Back view.

 

Front view.

And, the front! Still lots of “owies…” But, when I tap it, it tries to talk…I think it’s gonna sing pretty good!

 

So, I spent a few evenings cleaning, and touching up varnish, so that nothing sticks out as damaged, nor as “new”. Not too shiny, but not too grubby, either. What I am attempting is “Old fiddle Chic.”

New Helicore strings because that is what the customer prefers. (Installed after the photos.)

Looks as though the bridge was a little crooked when I snapped the photos– it was straightened later, as well. 🙂

Completed fiddle.

And, there it is, ready for new adventures! Just a tad over 100 years, and ready for another century. 🙂

 

Warm, friendly old Fiddle, headed for a new home.

Warm, friendly Old Fiddle, headed for a new home.

 

Not all of the old scars have become invisible (though some have)…some are a permanent part of this old fiddle’s character, and simply show that is has been well-loved and well-played. Future things will undoubtedly include a new fingerboard (someday) and new pegs (eventually). But for now, it is ready to sing.

The old fiddle turned out to have a rich, deep voice, and the new owners are very happy with it. I hope to hear the young lady play someday.

Thanks for looking.

 

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