Posts Tagged ‘viola’

Two Violas from Obscurity

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Violas in Obscurity

Unsung Heroes

These two violas never had their photos shown, though both have been played by professionals; sometimes in public recitals. I was just starting to put together a website at the time, and had no clue about a weblog, as that was not much of a “thing” back then. When I built this site, I came to realize that it was in fact, a weblog, and that I should be entering posts on a semi-regular basis. So I began to do so.

But, the other day, when I was trying to update the “Chronology” page, I realized that one instrument was completely missing (The Forgotten Violin), while a few others had very poor pictures, or none at all.

So: this post will be an effort to remedy that condition.

My First Really Small Viola (14″):

My #5 instrument was actually intended to be a violin, modelled after the 1728 “Milanollo” Stradivari violin. But I was pretty ignorant about arching, and did not follow the arching of the original instrument at all, but bulged it outward, allowing the arching to rise almost directly from the purfling, with very limited “recurve.” I thought I was increasing inside air volume and thereby increasing the size of the resonating cavity, and (hopefully) increasing the sound output of the violin. In fact the results were very perplexing: every person who played it, and who knew anything about how violins were supposed to sound, got an odd look on his or her face, and said, “This sounds like a viola!” I was too ignorant to understand what they meant, so I was puzzled and frustrated, thinking, “It is the size of a violin, the shape of a violin, and it is strung with violin strings…and tuned to violin frequencies! How can it sound like a viola??” But they were right: there is a difference in the sound, just as there is a difference between most men’s voices, and most women’s voices. Much later, I learned more about the physical differences between violins and violas, and even learned to hear some of the difference in timbre. I realized that I had simply, inadvertently built a 14″ viola. So, despite the label inside that proudly says it is a violin, it really is a viola…and sounds like one. So I re-strung it with viola strings, and it turned out to be an astonishingly good viola for its size.

It still has a lot of “marks of the beginner”, in terms of workmanship, but it plays quite well, and, the reason it looks like the work of a beginner is simply… that it is.

 

My first very small viola (14

My first very small viola (14″)

 

14

14″ Viola side view

 

14

14″ Viola Back

I made the little Viola from “European Maple and Spruce” that I bought on the internet, so I have no idea of the Country of Origin, nor even a way to find out, since back then I was buying on eBay, not from a reputable source (ignorance again…). The few professionals who have played this instruments were really surprised at its open, easy responsiveness and power.

 

A 14-7/8″ Viola–The “Brian”

This is my third small Viola, and the second from this mold. It is the same mold as the first instrument I ever made, a viola for my son, Brian, hence the name of the mold. All the violins off this mold bear the label of “Brian”. When I began this viola, I was helping a young man by coaching him through his first instrument, a 15-1/2″ viola modelled after the 1580 Gasparo da Salo  “Kievman” viola. It had a charming purfling weave on the back plate, and double purfling, which I liked, so I decided to incorporate those two features into my viola that I was building while he worked on his own. (As it turned out, he took an exceedingly long time to complete his instrument, while I pressed on and completed mine the next summer. His turned out very nicely, by the way.)

The viola took a little while to “wake up”, so to speak: The lower frequency notes were a little flabby, at first, but with continued playing, and soundpost adjustments, it opened up very well, and is a easy-to-play, good-sounding viola today.

So, here is the Brian viola:

14-7/8

14-7/8″ Brian Viola

 

14-7/8

14-7/8″ Brian Viola Side

 

14-7/8

14-7/8″ Brian Viola Back

 

The wood for this instrument is Big Leaf Maple and Englemann Spruce, both from John Tepper, at Tepper Tonewoods.

I updated the “Chronology” page, and added the photos that were missing, there, as well as here.

Thanks for looking.

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Lutherie and Gift-making

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Viola Box

Gift for my Grown Daughter

With Christmas around the corner, it suddenly occurred to me that, as the children were growing up, though I had frequently made things for each of them, I had made some fairly nice handmade gifts for my two sons (handmade hunting knives with hand-tooled scabbards for each, and a viola for one), but I had never made anything comparable for my daughter.

Time was running out, so, while she and my wife were out shopping, I hit it hard in my workspace, and made a bentwood box with a viola theme:

Viola Box Open

Viola-box, open, showing the bent, figured maple sides, and the violin purfling.

 

The scroll is one I had begun for a large viola, but it wasn’t working out right. The top and bottom are CVG Douglas Fir, left over from my closet-making project. Inner blocks are Englemann Spruce, left over from some instrument. Bent portion is probably Big Leaf maple, unused, and sitting in my shop waiting for a project. So is the scroll, for that matter.

 

Viola Box, closed

Viola Box, closed.

 

The stub of a scroll is inletted into the Doug Fir top, and secured with Titebond glue.  No fasteners are used. The workmanship isn’t great, but I got it done in one long day…applied the last coat of varnish early the next morning, and it was dry and ready to wrap for Christmas.

Everyone was happy with it, including me.

I had a nice photo of her with the box, but she forbade me to post it. 🙁

Thanks for looking

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Five String Finished

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Varnished, Set-up and Ready to Play!

Here’s the most recent five-string fiddle, handmade in Oregon, varnished and ready to play.

The sound is balanced across all strings and has good volume. I guess I would say it still sounds a bit “new”, but that is to be expected with less than five minutes play time. The strings are Helicore, and were sold specifically for a five string fiddle. I have set them up with Dominants, and they sound good that way, too.

Just as I began to take photos (on my car again) the sun came out from behind a cloud, and the varnish glowed very nicely. (I love it when that happens.)

Varnished Five-string Fiddle in the Sun

Varnished Five-string Fiddle in the Sun

 

Varnished 5 string fiddle back

Varnished 5-String Fiddle Back

 

 5 string fiddle side view with the varnish in the Sun

And the side view with the varnish in the Sun

 

I am looking forward to hearing a good fiddler (old-time, country, bluegrass, celtic) put this one through its paces. Or a violist or a violinist…I’m not particular.

Thanks for looking.

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Completed 16-1/2″ Oliver model Lion Head Viola

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Pinterest

The Lion-head Viola is Finished!

As always, I am sure there are things I may do differently next time, particularly with the hand-carved lion-head, but, overall, I am satisfied with the results on this viola. It plays easily, has a big, deep voice, and is becoming more responsive day by day. Here are some photos:

Completed lion head viola, front view.

Completed lion head viola, front view.

 

Side view Lion-head viola

Side view Lion-head viola

 

Back view Lion-head viola

Back view Lion-head viola

 

Treble-side Lion-head Scroll

Treble-side Lion-head Scroll

 

Bass side Lion-head Scroll

Bass side Lion-head Scroll

 

Three-quarter view Lion-Head Scroll

Three-quarter view Lion-Head Scroll

 

The style is closely related to the Andrea Guarneri “Conte Vitale”, but has been changed significantly enough that it is simply my own design, hence the “Oliver” model designation. It definitely qualifies as a large viola, so only players who are comfortable with a big viola will like it, but, that being said, it is a relatively easy-playing viola, too.

I realize that lion-head scrolls are not terribly conventional, but I also remind myself that Jacob Stainer made a few lion-head instruments, and a whole bunch of German copyists followed his lead…still they are maybe one in a thousand.  I changed one last thing and attempted a little more realism. Perhaps it will be difficult to sell; I don’t know. But it is one of the best violas I have made, and I trust someone will eventually see it as the one they have been waiting for. 🙂

Thanks for looking. Feel free to contact me.

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Lion-Head Viola Progress.

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Lion-Head Viola Progress:

OK, here are some photos of the way things ended up tonight: The color is due to a fresh coat of strong coffee…I had intended to take the pictures before I soaked the whole thing in coffee, but slipped a cog, there, somewhere, so this is what you get.

Front view Lion-head viola before varnishing

 

side view lion-head viola before varnishing

 

back view lion-head viola before varnishing

 

front view lion-head scroll

 

side-view lion-head scroll

 

You can tell I got my peg holes a little off– I will have to move them, or my strings will definitely end up rubbing on the adjacent pegs.

I hope to be varnishing by this weekend. I will keep you posted.

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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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Lion-head viola in progress

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Not your “typical” Lion-head viola

So many of the “lion-head” instruments of the past have been either so highly stylized that they were unrecognizable, or so poorly carved as to achieve the same result, or, when done in a completely recognizable fashion, were representative of a snarling, dangerous beast which I find difficult to associate with a viola. I wanted the dignity and power of the lion– the majesty, to coin a cliché, and not the predatory beast.

Grafted Scroll

I wasn’t even sure I could carve such a head, so, rather than risk a perfectly good neck-billet on a gamble against my questionable artistic ability, I decided to plan a grafted scroll. I have done this in the past, but this is the first time it was planned. Usually, a scroll graft is a repair, or a major alteration. In some (relatively rare) instances, a maker will perform a scroll graft in the new-making process, so that the new instrument will seem to be old. (No deception involved, it is just that virtually all instruments made before 1850 now have a scroll-graft, as a result of a shift in musical demands, and changing construction styles. Most of the “baroque” instruments were re-worked in this way, so that very few have the original neck.) The scroll-grafts I have done were repairs, up until now.

Knowing that there was a very good chance that my lion-head might not turn out well, I chose a very hard, even-grained maple block for the head, and only enough of the pegbox area to permit a graft. When/if the head turns out acceptably, I have a viola neck billet prepared to graft into the hard maple head, and after that it can be treated as any other scroll/neck for a viola.

Lion-head in the making

This is how the Lion-head looks for the moment. The mane will have to fair into the cheeks of the pegbox–(which haven’t been sawn out, yet, as full-width is easier to hold in the vise.) That will have to happen soon, to finalize the shape of the head and mane.

Oliver Lion-head Scroll (unfinished)

Lion-head scroll from bass side

 

Oliver lion-head scroll (unfinished)

Lion-head scroll front quarter

Oliver Lion-head scroll (Unfinished)

Lion-head scroll from Treble side

16.5″ Oliver Viola

The proposed viola is 16.5″ on the body, with a one-piece big-leaf maple back, and Sitka spruce top. The neck is big-leaf maple, except for the hard-rock maple head. (BTW, that hard-rock maple really earns its name– it was really hard to carve). As the viola is one of my own design, it is labelled an “Oliver” viola (my middle name, and that of my Dad and Grand-dad.) I use that name for all the instruments I design myself. Any design I copy from someone else’s work, I label as “Modelled after…”

The other violas I have made to this design (same body as #11 Oliver Viola– see the chronology) have had very good tone…I seriously doubt that the lion-head will affect the tone significantly for better or worse. But some people like a traditional scroll and will not like the lion. Others may find the lion attractive. We’ll see how folks respond. So far, I like it.

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So–What’s a Luthier, anyway?

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What is a “Luthier” (definition)? What is “Lutherie”?

 So…What IS a Luthier?

The old French word simply meant “a lute-maker”. And his business was called lutherie.

“Loot-yeh” is pretty close to the French pronunciation. We Americans have a cheerful disregard for the pronunciation rules of the languages from which we borrow our vocabulary, so we typically pronounce it “Loothy-er”. The work of a luthier, lutherie, is usually pronounced “looth-er-y”

What does it mean Today?

The meaning has shifted, over the years, to cover the builders of all  stringed instruments. Lute-makers are still luthiers, but so are guitar-makers, ukulele-makers, mandolin makers, and, of course, violin-makers. Violas, basses, cellos, five-string fiddles and dulcimers are also made by luthiers.  Banjos, pianos, violas da gamba and harps, among others, are also built by luthiers. And the process of building and/or repairing stringed instruments is also called “lutherie”.

Usually when one is looking for a luthier, they are not looking for someone who made one guitar for a summer project, or something of that sort– they are looking for someone who is at least a competent worker, and who can reliably repair an instrument, without further damage. That takes some training and experience.

Some people have the privilege of attending a full-time, extended training program, or serving a term as an apprentice, under a master maker. This last is still likely the best training, although some fine schools are now available.  Some cannot take the time from their established responsibilities to go away to school for an extended period, and learn from books, and/or piecemeal from a variety of teachers.

Workshops are now available in many parts of the United States, wherein one can begin to learn the skills to make guitars, violins, bows, etc. (Incidentally, one who makes violin-family bows is called an “archetier”… another French word.)

Some Violin Lutherie schools:

North Bennett Street School

Chicago School

Salt Lake City school

University of New Hampshire

Redwing college

Some Guitar Lutherie schools:

Galloup school: My son graduated from this school– I can recommend it.

Roberto-Venn school: I have heard good things about this school too.

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