Posts Tagged ‘five string fiddles’

Myrtle and Port Orford Cedar Oliver 5-String Fiddle; and an upcoming Show

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New Five-string Fiddle

Myrtle Wood and Port Orford Cedar

Some time ago, a friend (Cliff Stansell, of the Pistol River Trio) asked me to build (strictly on speculation) an Oliver five-string fiddle of Oregon Myrtle wood (for back, sides and neck) and Port Orford Cedar (for top and bassbar). He prevailed upon his brother (Les Stansell, a maker of Guitars and Ukuleles, using those woods) to donate the wood for the experiment. This is the result:

New 5-string fiddle

New 5-string fiddle

Back view

Back view

 

Front view

Front view, hanging up

Back view hanging up

Back view hanging up

What about Sound?

Well, quite honestly, it has been strung up for less than 12 hours, and, though I have spent some time playing it, and adjusting the soundpost, etc., it is really still too early to be sure how it will sound.

So far, I feel pretty positive about it. I know the arching and graduations are good, but I have never used this combination of woods before, so it is hard to be sure what is a product of the wood, and what is a product of the luthier.

It feels heavier to me, quite naturally, simply because Myrtle is a harder, heavier wood than Maple. But that may be OK. I know that Bubinga (even harder and heavier) is regularly used for five-string fiddles, and I actually have some Bubinga to try someday soon.  The Koa I used for the 5 string fiddle last year was also very hard and heavy, and it turned out to sound very good. So I am hopeful that this one will too. It already sounds good…but I want it to sound Great!

(Update: by the next morning the sound had improved remarkably, as new instrument frequently do: I had adjusted the soundpost just before calling it quits for the night, and such adjustments frequently take a few hours to “settle in”.)

Marylhurst Show is coming up in two weeks.

For anyone interested, the Annual Marylhurst Musical Instrument Makers’ Show  (click the link for details) will be April 30th and May 1st this year. I hope to see you there. Come and test-drive this fiddle and the others.

Thanks for looking.

 

 

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Neck and Scroll Carving Procedure

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Two Hand-carved Five String Fiddle Scrolls in Progress

First: Lay out the Side Profile

I created a template for a five-string fiddle neck and scroll when I made my first 5 string blue-grass fiddle. The template is fairly crude; just a cutout of thin plywood (door-skin material). I have other templates I have made of aluminum, and still others of plexiglass plastic. But that is the starting place, regardless of template materials. I know how thick the billet needs to be, and how long, so I simply place the template on the billet of curly maple, and trace around it with a ball-point pen. (I used to use a pencil, but the ink is easier to see against the wood.)

Violin neck billet laid out for cutting.

Violin neck billet with profile laid out. Notice that the pegbox is a little shorter, because it only has to accommodate four strings.

 Next: Cut out the Profile

I use a band-saw to cut out the profile of plates and necks. I do have a bow-saw that I made for such work, and I can use it if need be. but I find the bandsaw so much easier to control and so much faster, and the results are so much better, that I quit using the bow-saw after about two instruments. It looks nice, hanging on the wall.

Power Tools vs. Hand Tools?

Some people are insistent that the “only right way” to make a hand-made instrument is to use nothing but hand-powered tools. I have built one instrument using only hand tools. I will probably never do so again. There is a reason that bandsaws, drill presses, etc were developed: they not only save wear and tear on your body, they do better work, as a rule. Can they cause damage? Absolutely. So can any tool.

I use a practiced eye and steady hand to guide the billets through a bandsaw. I complete all the carving of each hand-carved instrument using gouges, planes, chisels, and scrapers.

The vast majority of my work is done using hand tools, but there are certain tasks for which I use the appropriate power tool, and make no apology for doing so. (By the way, I live eight miles outside a small town, and when I go to town, I drive…I don’t have a horse, and my time is too valuable (and limited) to walk that far just to satisfy some atavistic “back in time” quirk. I use electric lamps, etc., too, unless we have a power outage.) (sigh… OK, rant over…)

Violin neck billet with side profile cut out.

Here’s that same violin neck billet with the side profile cut out.

Lay out the Front and Back Shapes

I have a table of measurements I use, to lay out the front and back lines of the scroll and neck. The top of the neck is just over 24mm, the widest part of the pegbox front is 26mm, the distance from the leading edge of the nut to where the neck intersects the top plate is 130mm, and so forth.

I lay these out using a metric rule, a compass,  and a flexible straightedge. The main straightedge is just a stainless steel ruler with a cork backing that I bought from a fabric store. But I need a very flexible straightedge when I am laying out the curly portion of the scroll, so I cut a spiral strip out of a large soft-drink can (actually it was one of those oversized “energy drink” cans. Someone at work had it, and was going to throw it out, so I snagged it and made good use of the thin aluminum sides.) It is about 40mm wide, and long enough to wrap around the scroll, giving me a clean, smooth curve to scribe in with the pen. Aluminum flashing would work, too, but this was free. You can see the layout lines in the next step.

Cut off the Excess Wood from the Pegbox

I use the bandsaw, again, to trim all the waste wood from about two inches down the neck up to where the pegbox begins to disappear under the curve of the scroll. I leave the scroll and almost all of the neck full thickness, so that the billet will sit flat on the drill press table, and I can get the pilot holes for the pegs drilled parallel– perpendicular to the centerline of the neck.

Another nice thing about leaving the handle portion of the neck for last, is that it leaves me two parallel surfaces, so I can clamp the scroll in a vise, and use both hands to control the gouge, plane, saw, or other hand tool.

Front and back profiles laid out; excess wood trimmed from cheeks of pegbox.

Front and back profiles laid out– excess wood trimmed form cheeks. You can see, too, that I already began carving the heel (or chin) of the pegbox. Just a personal preference.

Layout and Drill the Peg Pilot Holes

Some people wait until the whole violin is completed, including varnishing, to drill the peg holes, but I find it too difficult to get them parallel with one another that way. If I can drill a 1/8″ pilot hole for each of them, using a drill press, so that they are exactly perpendicular to the center of the neck, I find it much easier to complete the neck later, than if I have to try to get them right with no flat surface from which to reference the perpendicularity of the holes. You’ll see these holes in the next blog post. So long as they get done before I cut the excess wood from the neck and scroll, I will be OK, because the neck will still sit squarely on the drill press table.

Carve the Pegbox

There are several ways to do this. A lot of makers use a drill to hog out the waste wood from the hole, and then use chisels and gouges to smooth and complete the work. I usually just use the chsels and gouges right from the beginning…one mistake with the drill, and the scroll becomes firewood.

I use a narrow, flat chisel to begin the work, and develop some depth, then use a wider, flat chisel to flatten the inside of the pegbox “cheeks,” and to deepen the box floor. I have to be careful to not go too deep. I have (once) cut so deep that, later, when I cut the fluting (volute) from the outside, I cut through into the interior of the pegbox. That is another good way to transform a nice scroll into firewood. Pretty sad when that happens.

I tend to begin by carving the outside of the pegbox heel… it makes me feel better about the scroll, if something about it is already starting to look like a finished scroll.

Four preliminary steps shown all together.

Here you can see all four of the preliminary steps, including the beginning of carving out the pegbox. You can see, too, the extra length in the five string fiddle pegboxes (on the right).

I will show photos of the succeeding steps in the next blog post. What you see above, though, is the beginning of all those nice violin, viola, cello, bass and five string fiddle scrolls you have enjoyed looking at.

Thanks for reading.

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Back view of Oliver 5 string fiddle

5-String Fiddle Finally Complete

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Five String Fiddle completed…just in time for the Show!

The Maryhurst University Musical Instrument show is this weekend,  Saturday and Sunday, the 3rd and 4th. Admission is only $3 … this is a really good deal, and a great “peek” at up-and-coming makers, as well as the more well-established ones.

Last year there were two banjo-makers, three or four mandolin makers, one double-bass maker, one maker of traditional Persian instruments, one maker of electric Kalimbas, one maker of traditional Mexican instruments, three or so Ukulele makers, possibly  ten makers of violin-family instruments, a couple of cigar-box ukulele makers, one orchestral harp maker and probably fifty to sixty guitar makers, of all varieties.

Handmade Bluegrass fiddle took months to complete

I have had more discouraging setbacks on this instrument than in any instrument of the last ten years, probably. I got sick early in the making, and was very busy with work as well, so that slowed things down. Twice I made errors and had to scrap the neck and start over. (Boy, is that frustrating!) Then I somehow got a serious muscle spasm in my back, and could hardly walk for several weeks.

However, perseverance pays off, and I finally completed the five string fiddle last night. There are still some spots to touch up on the varnish, and some other cosmetic issues, but for purposes of practicality, it is complete– and playing very well.

Oregon Bigleaf Maple and Sitka Spruce

The maple wood is from the same log  from which I made last year’s five string fiddle. The flame is not quite as spectacular, as it came from a different portion of the log, but still definite eye-candy–the back looks like a cloudy golden sunset in the right light.

If you’d like to try it out, please come to the Marylhurst show this weekend. Meanwhile, here are some photos:

Front of Oliver Five String Fiddle

Front of the fiddle– colors are close, but in person it is more brown/red…less yellow.

 

Back of Oliver 5-String Fiddle

The back looks pretty good, but it is better, of course, in person…you can see the flame better.

Close-up of Oliver 5-String Fiddle Back

Here is a closer view of the grain of the back. It really requires the changing angle of the light, to get the best view of it.

Back of Oliver Five-String Fiddle neck

Here’s the back of the scroll. I really like the flame in the neck.

Side View of Oliver Five-string Fiddle scroll

And, finally, the side of the scroll itself. Not much flame in the wood, but I like the way it turned out, anyway.

Come and try it out at the show. I’ll hope to see you there.

 

 

 

 

 

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Five String Fiddle (slowly) Handmade in Oregon

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Five String Fiddle Progress

Life is what happens while you are making other plans, they tell me. This season has been loaded with distractions. I worked a lot of late hours at Gunderson, Inc. where I was teaching classes on Welding Supervision.

Two young fellows were coming to the house a couple of times per week to work on instruments they were building. One was working from a kit, but had zero experience with tools, so it required a great deal of personal attention; the other built from scratch, and is nearly finished with a very nice 15-5/8″ viola, a fairly faithful copy of the 1580 Gasparo da Salo viola. (Funny, when those young fellows are here, I don’t get a thing done on my own work.) I did begin three 5-string fiddles, months ago, but have only made measurable progress on one; the Spalted Maple 5 string fiddle.

I took two weeks vacation between Christmas and New Years, but ended up being sick nearly the whole time. Besides, my daughter was home from school for that two weeks, so I had reason to be distracted. 🙂 I did get a couple of work days in, but it has been a struggle.

Finally, I have several repair jobs going, each of which really needs to be done, so, to make a long story slightly shorter, things haven’t turned out as planned.

Double Purfling Complete, Including Purfling Weave on Back

The maple for the one-piece back is some Oregon Big Leaf Maple that was given to me by a local landowner and forester a few years ago. This is the third instrument I have made from that tree. It is a relatively soft maple, and has had a very nice tone, so far, in my experience. I have made one five string fiddle from it, so far, and one cello.

The Spruce is Sitka– a one-piece sitka front plate–  only the second time I have ever seen one, and it is some of the toughest spruce I have ever worked with, which I think will make a good, thin, top plate for the instrument, as I have made one instrument before with very similar spruce, and it turned out a winner, as a bluegrass, celtic and country fiddle. But it was not fun cutting the double purfling by hand, as every “winter grain” was so hard it would catch the knife blade and try to turn it.   However, here is the progress so far:

Progress on 5 String Fiddle

Progress on Five String Fiddle

Today I will make the final corrections on the front and back arching and cut in the f-holes (I hope), then begin graduating the front plate. Hopefully, by next week, I can have the corpus nearly completed. Maybe somewhere in there, I can get a good run at the other two fiddles, as well. I really need all three completed by the time of the show in April. There will be about 500 people per day, coming through that show, and some of them will be fiddlers. 🙂

We will see; I am feeling somewhat less than optimistic, however, after the experiences of the last three months.

Thanks for looking.

Chet

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Beginning Three New Five-string Fiddles

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Three 5 String Fiddles On the Way

Different Molds

I decided to make two new molds, so that I could have more than one handmade five-string fiddle in the works at any given time. The new molds are made from the same half-model template, so they are very similar in character, but I did notice that somehow my original mold had been a little narrower in the center bouts than I had intended (don’t know how it happened), so the new ones are wider there, which may make the sound even more deep and clear. The instruments from the first mold have all been very good, so I am hoping the ones off the new molds are even better.

Different Materials

The original Oliver 5-string mold has the ribs and linings in place, and the chosen material for ribs, back and neck is spalted maple. This is an unusual choice, from a classical perspective, but a five-string fiddle is an unusual instrument, and I think it will prove a good choice. I really like the looks, so far. The second and third Oliver Molds (essentially identical, otherwise) have higly figured Oregon Big-leaf maple and Oregon Myrtle, respectively, for the backs and ribs. The Myrtle is a two-piece back, and the neck on the Myrtle fiddle is Big leaf maple; otherwise all the fiddles have matching ribs, backs and necks. The other two are each a one-piece back, also.

I am planning to use Port Orford Cedar for the two-piece front plate on the Myrtlewood  fiddle. This will be the first time I have used anything other than spruce for a violin top, but I have been told it is exceptionally good for other types of instruments, and a friend gave it to me to try in a fiddle. I plan to use Sitka Spruce for the on-piece top of the curly big-leaf maple fiddle, as well as for the spalted maple fiddle. I am hoping to experiment with front plates made of Alaskan Yellow Cedar sometime soon, too.

Different fittings

Depending on the way they look when completed, I may vary my fittings a little, too…haven’t decided yet. I tend to like simple fittings, but I have used fancier fittings, once, and they did look nice– I am just not sure they belong on a bluegrass five string fiddle. Perhaps I can get a set of Oregon Mountain Mahogany pegs, or something. Mountain Mahogany is a very hard wood native to Oregon, but much lighter in color than Ebony, so it adds a different look.

Same Workmanship

I intend to use the same methods as always, including the double purfling that adorned the previous five-string fiddles. I will still use a scraper for the final contour and texture, though perhaps I will leave a little less “corduroy” texture on these than on some others. Some people like less.

Same Varnish

I will use the same Spirit varnish that have always used on all three fiddles, as well as the same graduation scheme and internal arrangements (bass-bar shape and size, etc.), so the sound should be the same.

Same Strings

I will use the Helicore five-string sets, as usual, though I have found some other combinations that work remarkably well.

Progress reports to come

As things progress, I will post photos, so you can see each of the three fiddles grow from a small stack of wood to a completed instrument.  Each will emerge as a brand-new, handmade bluegrass 5 string fiddle when complete.

Stay tuned… (no pun intended). 🙂

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2013 Marylhurst University Musical Instrument Makers’ Show

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2013 Marylhurst Musical Instrument Makers’ Show

Here are some photos from the 2013 Marylhurst University Musical Instrument Makers’ Show: (Most were taken before the show was open to the public– these people are all the makers and vendors.)

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It wasn’t all guitars and fiddles, as you can see. This couple makes Persian instruments called “Tars” (the larger ones) and  Setars, (not “Sitars”, which have 30 strings…traditionally, a Setar has three strings, but apparently about a century ago, a tradition of four-string setars began.) That little thing to the right of center is a setar.

There were also two banjo makers, several ukulele makers, mandolin makers, an orchestral harp maker, and, yes, even a few fiddle makers. And every kind of guitar imaginable.

The table in the next photo was mine…I was sharing it with my son, who makes guitars. That worked out well. We had someone at our table nearly constantly.

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In the picture above, Brian, my youngest son, had not yet arrived. In the one below, his girlfriend was helping set up his display.

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There were approximately 500 visitors each day…it was a pretty encouraging weekend.

The five string fiddle (left-most in the rack) sold, so that was nice, but unfortunately there were not very many cellists in the mix…only two stopped and played the cellos, but they really liked both of them. The five-string was the real star. 🙂

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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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Annnd… I’m Back. With a New Fiddle.

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Resurrected Website: Bluefiddle’s West Wind Strings

A couple of months ago, in my befuddled, well-meaning, bungling way, I killed my website entirely.

The host was able to save it, but I had been in the process of changing hosts, so that was a bit awkward. I have switched from Joomla, which I was just beginning to understand to WordPress, regarding which I understand nothing…and have bought the requisite book: “The Complete Idiot’s Guide…”  Sounds as though it was written for my kinda guy. A friend has reconstructed the site using WordPress, and has assured me that I will be able to master the new software.  I trust he is correct.

New Five-string fiddle

I did complete one new instrument since I last posted: a five-string fiddle (sometimes called a “bluegrass fiddle”), using the wood from the Big Leaf maple log I had been given a few years ago. This is the first instrument I have made using that wood, and I am delighted with the look, response and sound. Here are a few photos of the new, handmade in Oregon, bluegrass fiddle:

Read More…

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