Five String Viola Conversion

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First Five String Conversion

Contact from a Potential Customer

A young man contacted me by phone, over a year ago, asking about a large, five-string viola. He was very polite and not at all aggressive or assuming, but  he essentially had no money for such an instrument. The phone call was a very pleasant conversation, despite the lack of funds and I was at least able to answer all his questions.

After we disconnected, I simply assumed I would not hear from him again, and eventually forgot about it,

Second Contact

The same youmg fellow contacted me again. a year later. This time, he had been “saving his money, ” but, unfortunately, not quite enough. So we talked over the options. Eventually I offered to convert one of my earlier orchestral violas to a five-string viola at the price he could afford. He liked that idea, and eventually, after his final approval, I began the project.

An older 16-1/2″ Oliver Viola

I began with this viola– my own design. The viola played quite well, but, for some reason, no one had purchased, so far. (It was instrument #11, viola #4 from my Bluefiddles site.)

The Plan

As I usually keep my viola necks fairly narrow, for player comfort, I needed to make a wider fingerboard and nut, to accommodate the fifth string.

Obviously, I also needed to plug three of the peg-holes and drill four new ones. They had to be positioned so that all five would fit on the pegbox, and the strings would still not rub on another peg, when tuning.

Photographs

I did not take any photos of the fingerboard and nut changes, but here are a few photos of the scroll in progress. (Also, midway through the conversion, he asked whether I could darken the varnish. That really had not been part of the “deal.” But, after thinking about it, I decided that I could try to do it with minimal labor, and just count it “good customer relations.”)

So: here are some photos of the scroll after plugging the original holes and drilling new ones.  I capped all the plugs with figured maple, to avoid leaving the dark circles which usually remain after such an operation.

The different background and lighting (shifting position, trying to eliminate reflections) resulted in different apparent color…but they actually match.

Adding Color

About the time I reached this point in the conversion is when the customer requested the color change. It turned out that he liked the color of his current instrument, and hoped I could mimic that somewhat. 🙂 (Okeedoke...)

So, I began adding color; sparsely, at first, until I could see how it was building. About three very thin coats of a dark, red-brown varnish were required to offset the original golden brown, and produced the color that he wanted.

five string Viola conversion handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop Luthier
Dark front, still unfinished.
five string viola conversion made in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier
Here is the Dark back, still unfinished.
five string viola conversion made in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier
Dark treble side, still unfinished.
five string viola conversion made in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier
And the Dark Bass side, still unfinished.

Set-up and completion

At the point where I felt things were beginning to look correct, I added a clear coat, and allowed it to dry for a few days before setting the instrument up. But then I set it up with Evah Pirazzi strings, and it hung in my dining room, where it could dry still further, while waiting for a check to arrive. (This is where I frequently hang my instruments for final drying, as it is usually the warmest room in the house.)

five string viola conversion, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier
Front view, hanging in the dining room, waiting to be shipped.
Five string viola conversion, handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Dining room back view.

Finally, a check arrived, and I first sent a provenence document with clear photos of the instrument for identification purposes, (for insurance, and, in case of theft.)

Provenance Document

I always include a provenance document for my hand-made instruments, along with the bill of sale. That way, if the instrument ever gets stolen, they have clear proof that the instrument is theirs, along with good photos by which to identify it. The front page includes a dozen accurate measurements, and the back side (Two-sided document) has all the photos.

provenance document for five string viola handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Provenance document photo from Computer screen.

Shipping

Finally, I packed it carefully and shipped it off.

The 5-string viola arrived five days later, undamaged and still in tune. Most luthiers only ship their instruments with the strings slack and the bridge down, to minimize the chance of damage.

I don’t want to make the customer set-up the instrument, so I carefully wrap and pad the instrument inside a good case. Then I pack the case in an oversize carton, with yet more padding, and so far, the instruments have arrived safely, and  usually still in tune.

Soundpost magic

I’m not confident that the customer has access to a luthier who can set up and adjust five-string instruments. The soundpost fit and position is critical to the balance across the strings. That balance is touchy on a five-string instrument, and not everyone succeeds at it.

People odten tell me their 5-string fiddle sounds “dead” on the C-string. A five-minute readjustment of the soundpost brings it back into perfect balance. So…I go ahead and ship them fully set-up and ready to play.

five string viola handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Final appearance, front view.
five string viola handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Side view, final appearance,
Five string viola handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, Luthier.
Final appearance, back.
Five-string viola handmade in Oregon by Chet Bishop, luthier.
Final appearance Scroll

The customer loves his new Viola. He is thrilled with his new five-string, and is practicing the Bach Cello Suites on it now. He promised to send a video, once he gets accustomed to the “five-string feel,” so when the video comes, I will add it to the website.

Thanks for looking.

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