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.

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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Building a Cello–Step #9

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Step #9–Arching the Plates

Arching the Plates

If one looks at a violin-family instrument from the side, to see the front and back longitudinal arches simultaneously, it is easy to observe that the front and back are not arched the same. Some may argue that they began identical, but that since the stresses on front and back are not the same, the wood has crept, and the Old Master instruments are no longer the same shape they were when they were new. OK…I wasn’t there 300 years ago, so I don’t know…and if I had been, I’ll bet I wouldn’t remember. But we can see that, however they were back then, they are not the same now, and the best instruments have certain things in common: The back is essentially a circular curve; perhaps more accurately a curtate cycloid curve, or, possibly a catenary curve. The Curtate Cycloid seems to fit the best…it is sometimes called a hypocycloid, too. But the front is different– there is an area in the high middle that is nearly flat, by comparison with the back. The area between the f-holes and between the bouts flattens out considerably, compared to the back. This is an important difference, and is critical to the sound. Go online and look at a bunch of side-view photos of fine old violins. Once you see it, it is unmistakable.

Until a maker masters this aspect, it is really wise to make a set of longitudinal and cross-arching templates, and use them religiously until you can see the arching and tell whether it is right or wrong by personal experience. The archings will keep you out of trouble, just as using a map keeps a person from getting lost.

Make the templates and Use them!

I used the drawings on the back of the Davidov poster to trace and cut out a set of arching templates. I have enough experience to start out without the templates, but not enough that I trust my eye to just cut the arches by instinct, or something of that sort. Here is the rough arching before I used the templates…you can sort of see the “table” area in the middle, where the shavings are sitting.

Rough Front arching, showing the Semi-flat area in the center.
Rough Front arching, showing the Semi-flat area in the center of the Sitka Spruce Cello Top.

I rough out the front and back, using gouges and planes, and get the area around the edges pretty close to exactly the thickness I will want the finished edge. Then I intall purfling (which we talk about in the next topic), and use templates to finalize the arching. I have made a few instruments, so I have the confidence to get pretty far along in my arching before using a template. There is nothing wrong with using them from the first attack.

Here is the back, ready for purfling, but before using the templates. Still too “puffy” in places, but looking like a cello back.

Rough Back arching cello
Rough back arching, showing the curvature of the Oregon Big-leaf Maple cello back


Here are the templates in use (notice the purfling is in place).

Front arching Template in use

Front arching Template in use

Back arching template in use
Back arching template in use

Here are the transverse arching templates: they are used in the same manner.

Transverse arching templates
Transverse arching templates

When the arching matches the templates as closely as I can manage, I begin using scrapers to smooth and give final shape to the plates. Then it is time for inside arching. But first, we need to talk about purfling, since that was done in the middle of this article.

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2014 Musical Instrument Makers’ Show at Marylhurst University

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Marylhurst University Musical Instrument Show

For those who missed it:

The following photos were all taken before the public was allowed in, so the tables are not fully set up, but you can see the size of the room, and some of the instrument displays. I believe there were 80 tables, and each table had one or more makers exhibiting, so probably in the neighborhood of 100 makers. Possibly ten were violin-family makers. One was a maker of wooden flutes and drums. Usually there is an orchestral harp maker there, but he was not there this year. There were several mandolin and ukulele makers, some makers of middle-eastern or South American instruments, one or two banjo makers, and all the rest were either guitar-makers or vendors selling materials to makers.

Once the doors were open, I am told we had about 300 visitors the first day, and 500 the second day. I don’t know how accurate those numbers are, but it definitely seemed more crowded the second day.


No sales at our table this year, but lots of interest, and several good players. A good weekend all the way around. The one-piece-back cello, of Oregon Big-leaf Maple was very popular, as was the five-string fiddle and the Lion-head Viola.  I did not have a double bass there this year, but several people asked, so I intend to do so next year.

We had a very pleasant visit from violin-maker Kenneth Pollard and his lovely wife (who took the photo below), both of Nampa, Idaho. He and I have corrresponded in the past, but this was a first “face-to-face” meeting. Hope to see them again sometime…maybe at the next show, if not before.

Ken Pollard and Chet Bishop at the 2014 Marylhurst Musical Instrument Makers’ Show


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