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.

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New Five-String Fiddle Commission on the Way

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New Five-String Fiddle Request!

A client contacted me through my other website (fivestringfiddles.com) and asked whether I could build a 5-string fiddle of primarily Oregon woods. (Sure!)

Test-Drive

So, she came for a visit and played eight of my hand-made instruments (all good fiddles), finally declaring a particular one to be exactly what she wanted, except that she did not care for the look of the one-piece Sitka Spruce top plate. It had very wide grain on the bass side and narrower on the treble side. (It sounds great, but the looks were bothering her.) Soooo…

Custom Build!

I went into my storage and retrieved a really wild-grained piece of Big Leaf Maple, and two billets of very straight, even-grained Spruce: one of Englemann, and another of Sitka: she chose the Englemann and loved the maple. She wanted an instrument essentially the same as that first one, but without the odd-looking belly grain. (Same model; made on the same mold (form), and sounding just like it, as well.) It will be tough to do, because the one she really likes is already five years old; it has had time to settle, be re-adjusted, and settle again. (Yes, it sounds good!)

Select Woods and a Good Start

So, we went out to one of my other buildings and hand-picked some likely-looking wood for the neck and ribs, and we were ready to do business. She presented a deposit, and I suggested that she take home the one she loved, for the time being, to keep her interest up while waiting for me to complete her personal treasure. She went home happy, and I began sorting willow for blocks, finding my proper templates, and enjoying the prospect of a new build. I will post follow-ups as they occur.

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Two for the Show!

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Two Fiddles for the Show

1735 “Plowden” copy finally completed

The varnish is still pretty soft (so players at the show will just have to be gentle); but the Plowden is finally complete, and playing well.

Completed Plowden Front
Completed “Plowden” copy front

 

Completed Plowden Back.
Completed “Plowden” copy back.

 

The 1715 “Titian” Stradivari copy and the 1735 “Plowden” Guarneri del Gesu copy will both be there at the Corvallis Hilton Hotel, for the “Violin-Tasting Event” hosted by Jon Franke, from 12PM to 5PM March 10th.

I’ve been playing them, to my best ability, to get them opened up and the strings settled in, a bit, but I hope that far better players will be there tomorrow at the show.

Playing them in.
Playing them in…sort of. I’m not a very good player at all.

 

Anyway, here they are (finally): completed, and ready for a lifetime of music.

Two for the Show!
Two for the Show!

 

I also expect to exhibit violas, five-string fiddles, and a cello.

 

Hope to see you there!

 

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Plowden Nearly Completed

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Plowden Nearly Completed

Varnishing process nearly finished

I have been in a mad rush to complete this violin before the upcoming show (“Violin-Tasting Event”) this coming Sunday, at the Hilton hotel, in Corvallis, so I took very few photographs, but here are a few:

Varnished front, before pegs, saddle, or endpin.
Varnished front, before pegs, saddle, or endpin.

 

Varnished back, before pegs, saddle or endpin.
Varnished back, before pegs, saddle or endpin.

 

Once the varnish had hardened, I sanded it back very gently, installed the endpin, pegs and saddle, and then applied one more coat of varnish. It is very soft, now, so I scarcely dare touch it, to re-install the fingerboard, let alone set a bridge and add strings. I have it hanging up in our dining-room, where the woodstove is keeping things warm, in spite of the snowy weather we’ve been having. Hopefully it will be dry enough, by this evening, so that I can add the fingerboard and then complete the set-up tomorrow. I don’t want to rush things, but I am running out of time.

Anyway, here is how it looks right now:

Varnished front with pegs, endpin and saddle
Varnished front with pegs, endpin and saddle.

 

Varnished back with endpin, saddle and pegs.
Varnished back with endpin, saddle and pegs.

 

The instrument definitely still needs a rub-down, and I hope I will get to do all that before Sunday.

It looks and feels as though it will be a very good violin. Time will tell, of course.

 

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More Plowden Progress

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More Plowden Progress

Graduation

Graduating hard maple can be a tough, laborious job. Besides, there is always the possibility of carving too deeply and ruining the plate. So, I try to cut the risks by creating a “map” by marking the thickness every few centimeters, and then carving the “dots” until each “dot” is about the thickness I want. Finally, I connect the “dots”, using planes and scrapers, checking for thickness as I progress.

Creating the dots.
Creating the dots. The circled numbers are already the correct thicknesses.

 

Checking thickness.
Checking thickness. Pretty thin plate!

 

Connecting the dots.
Connecting the dots.

 

Getting there!
Getting there!

 

Grafted Scroll and Neck-Set

Once the graduations are complete, and the inside of the back plate has been scraped completely smooth, I install the label and I am almost ready to close the corpus. In this case, however, I also had decided to use the scroll I had carved, but graft a new neck to the scroll, as the original neck was too thin: so there was a good deal more work involved. Here is the grafted neck, partially shaped, with the completed back plate:

Completed back plate with neck-grafted scroll.
Completed back plate with neck-grafted scroll. The heel was still not shaped.

I had been anxious to complete the back plate, and had not yet set the neck. So I completed the neck and installed the fingerboard.

Fingerboard installed.
Fingerboard installed.

 

Next I set the neck, so that the angles were all correct.

Neck-set, front view.
Neck-set, front view. The mold is still in place.

 

Neck-set, side view
Neck-set, side view. Notice that the neck heel has not been trimmed flush, yet.

 

Closing the Corpus

Then I removed the mold, and installed the inside linings on the back edge of the ribs, shaped the linings and the blocks, flattened the back of the garland, and installed the back plate. I use spool clamps and a single large spring-clamp to close the corpus. My wife thinks the spool-clamps look like old-fashioned hair-curlers.

Closed corpus with spool clamps and a spring-clamp.
Closed corpus with spool clamps and a spring-clamp.

 

Trimming the Button and Neck Heel

Once the glue was dry, I removed all the clamps, cleaned off any glue that had squeezed out of the joint, and trimmed the button and heel. The dimension from the juncture of the top edge of the front plate and the side of the neck heel (from each side) to the very center of the curve of the heel, should be right at 26 mm. You can see the two marks I laid out with a compass, testing that distance: it was still a little too high in the center of the curve, so the neck needed to be trimmed a little more.

Ready to trim the button and heel.
Ready to trim the button and heel.

 

Purfling the Back Plate

Once the neck-heel and button were trimmed, I still had to perfect the outline of the back plate, making certain that the overhang was even all around, as much as possible. Then I laid out the purfling slot, using a purfling marker, and began incising the outlines of the slot.

Incised purfling slot.
Incised purfling slot. It will be corrected, and fine-tuned as I work, and look good with the purfling.

 

Next I cut the slot out, using a small knife and a purfling pick, then dry-fit the purfling, after bending it on the bending iron. Finally I glue it in place, using hot hide-glue.

Purfling installed, and glued in place.
Purfling installed, and glued in place.

 

Edge-Work

I marked a crest-line, about 1.6 mm in from the outer edge, then used a gouge and scrapers to carve the channel, and fair it into the plate surface. The edges were all still quite rough,and crude, so I began shaping them, using a small plane, and a half-round file, then sandpaper to get a smooth edge all around. I don’t use sandpaper much, but this is one place where it is appropriate.

Trimmed purfling, smoothed channel, and edges taking shape.
Trimmed purfling, smoothed channel, and edges taking shape.

 

The front edges have to be finalized as well.
The front edges have to be finalized as well.

 

Finishing Process Begun

Once all the varnish preparation is complete, I brush a coat of coffee all over the instrument, to tan the wood a little, and raise the grain. When that is dry, I sand off most of the raised grain, using 400-grit sandpaper. This ensures that the grain will not raise too much during application of the spirit varnish, later. Afterward, I rub in a coat of gypsum in a coffee suspension, to fill the pores of the wood with particles of the mineral. This keeps the varnish from saturating the wood, and possibly dampening the sound.

Mineral ground drying.
Mineral ground drying. See how it obscures the wood? that goes away when the sealer is applied.

 

Back with sealer.
The sealer renders the mineral ground transparent, and it will never be visible again.

 

I expect that, by tomorrow, the sealer will dry sufficiently that I can begin varnishing. I am getting anxious, as the show is a week from tomorrow, and I am far from completing this instrument.

 

Thanks for looking.

 

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Completed Titian Copy

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Completed “Titian” Stradivarius Copy

Final work completed

I will probably polish it more, and make adjustments, here and there, but the violin is essentially done.

The photo below is not a good representation of the color– the flash made it look unnaturally bright. The back photo is pretty accurate, though:

flash changed the color.
Unnatural colors, here. Sorry. The previous photos were pretty accurate for color.

 

Better colors, here.
Better colors, here. I’m guessing the flash caused the problem above.

 

better colors
This is closer to the true colors. Maybe not as clear, however.

 

Anyhow, that is where it stands. I have a show in March, in Corvallis, as I announced earlier. I still hope to take this instrument as well as the “Plowden ” Guarneri del Gesu copy to that show, along with a few others: violas, five-string fiddles, and at least one cello.

Hope to see you there.

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More Progress

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More Progress

Plowden Progress

Purfling and Graduation

While varnish was drying on the Titian model, I went back to the Plowden model, and began purfling the front plate and graduating the back plate:

Graduation about half done.
Graduation about half done. 

 

Graduation progress and purfling installed.
Graduation progress and purfling installed.

 

Also, I finalized the finishing process on the Titian model, and an ready to begin set-up. The pegs are trimmed, polished and drilled for strings. The nut is at the correct level and has been slotted for strings. The saddle is installed, too. The end button and soundpost were both installed quite some time ago. So, really, all that is left is the bridge and strings, and final adjustment. I don’t tend to count the tailpiece, but, as a matter of fact, it, too requires some adjustment. So does the chinrest, so I shouldn’t treat them as non-entities. The feet opf chinrests virtually never fit correctly as shipped. Tailpiece adjustment requires trial and error fitting, to get the ratio between vibrating string length and after-length (string between bridge and tailpiece fret) adjusted to a 6:1 ratio.

Anyway, here is where it currently stands. I could probably finish it tonight, but then I would be too tired to go to work in the morning…so, tomorrow will have to do. 🙂

Titian front, ready for set-up.
Titian front, ready for set-up.

 

Titian back, ready for set-up.
Titian back, ready for set-up.

 

Nut and pegs complete, ready for strings.
Nut and pegs complete, ready for strings.

 

Saddle installed, ready for set-up.
Saddle installed, ready for set-up.

 

So, I hope to take both of these instruments to the show in March (“Violin Tasting Event” at the Hilton Hotel, March 10th in Corvallis, OR), as well as the one in May (which used to be the Marylhurst show, but it will now be at Portland Community College, Sylvania campus: still called the Northwest handmade musical instrument show.) Anyway: lots of work left to do, in order to get ready.

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Finishing the Finish

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Finishing the Finish

Color Coats

When I last posted, I had only the yellow, base coats of varnish in place, so the violin looked like this:

Yellow Varnish
Yellow varnish

 

I added a rapid series of color coats; very thin, deeply-tinted varnish, and then it looked like this:

Color coat front
Color coat, front; emulating the wear patterns on the original 1715 “Titian” Stradivarius violin.

 

Color Coat, Back.
Color coat, back. Sorry for the poor quality photo…I used the zoom on my phone. Bad choice.

 

After that coat was good and dry, I continued to build the color in the areas that needed more, and trying to leave it appropriately light in the areas where the Old Master instrument had the most severe wear. I also noticed that there was a “bump”–a ridge in the spruce, near the purfling, which I had not been able to see in the clean, fresh wood, but which, under a reflective layer, became quite apparent. (Sigh...) So, I used a sharp scraper to bring the ridge down flat, and then began rebuilding the varnish layers to match the rest of the area.

Corrective
Corrective “surgery”…removed a ridge in the spruce that I had missed earlier. Rebuilding the varnish, now.

 

The back was looking pretty nice, though:

Back nearly complete.
Back nearly complete.

 

And, today, I installed the soundpost, and then applied two coats of clear varnish. Afterward, I installed the end-pin, the tuning pegs, and the fingerboard. Here it is with the clamps still in place.

End-pin, fingerboard and pegs installed
End-pin, fingerboard and pegs installed; pegs still need to be trimmed to length.

 

Endpin
Endpin couldn’t be seem in the previous photo…here it is.

 

Violin front, prior to set-up
Violin front, prior to set-up.

 

Violin back, prior to set-up.
Violin back, prior to set-up.

 

So: That’s as far as I got, today. Next time; the saddle, the nut and final set-up. This violin is nearly completed!

 

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