And, The Finish!

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This is how a violin is completed:

Last time I posted, I had just completed the commissioned five-string fiddle, up to and including the sealer.

Sealed five string fiddle handmade in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop
Sealed instrument, Front View
back view of sealed five string fiddle, handmade in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Sealed instrument, Back View.

Varnish:

The “magic” of the sealer was that it caused the mineral ground to disappear forever. The instrument instantly went from stark chalk-white to a natural wood color, and the mineral will never be visible again. I always enjoy that transformation.

The Varnish, on the other hand, is a series of relatively small changes, wherein the violin not only achieves the color we want. Furthermore, the increasing clarity and depth of the varnish gives the impression of being able to “see into the wood.”

I always begin with a couple of coats of deepyellow or amber varnish, as an undercoat which will shine through the later color coats.

Yellow First

Here is the violin after the two coats of yellow varnish:

Yellow varnish base coat on a commissioned 5-string fiddle handmade in Oregon by artisanal luthier, Chet Bishop
Front View, with Yellow base coat.
Yellow base coat varnish on treble-side of commissioned 5-string fiddle, handmade in Oregon by artisanal luthier, Chet Bishop.
Yellow base coat, Treble Side View.
Yellow base coat on back side of 5-string commissioned instrument, handmade in Oregon by artisanal Luthier, Chet Bishop.
Back View with Yellow base coat.

Color Coats

Next, I bagan layering the color coats, building to the look I planned. (Each “coat, in reality is usually two coats, applied in quick succession. There were about eight total color coats, but I will call them “first through fourth.”)

First color coat on front of 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop
First Color Coat, Front
First color coat on treble side of commissioned 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier, Chet Bishop
Treble Side, with First Color Coat.
First color coat on back of commissioned 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier, Chet Bishop
First Color Coat, Back
First color coat on bass side of commissioned 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Bass Side, with First Color Coat.

This maple is really beautiful wood. I wish I had a lot more of it, but, sadly, I only was able to salvage a little of the tree from which it originated. The “donor tree” was removed from the property where my wife and her siblings grew up. It had finally rotted and was becoming dangerous, so they removed it. But the wood is gorgeous. You can see the stump in this article….

Continuing color coats

As you can see, the yellow base coat is still showing through pretty strongly. That is good, but I still wanted to move the color toward a deep reddish brown,  with the golden yellow shining through. Therefore… I needed more color coats!

Second Color Coat on 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop
Second Color Coat, Front
Second Color coat on back of 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop
Back, with Second Color Coat.

The color is headed in the right direction, but still needs to be deeper. I will add extra color in any areas that should be darker.

Third Color Coat, front side of 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop.
Third Color Coat, Front.
3rd color coat on back or 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop
Oregon Big Leaf Maple Back, withThird Color Coat.

I was getting pretty close to correct, so I began taking the instrument out into natural light, to check the color there.

Fourth color coat on five string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop.
Fourth Color Coat, Front.
4th color coat treble side of 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop
Treble Side with Fourth Color Coat.
4th color coat, back side of five string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop.
Back, with Fourth Color Coat.
4th color coat bass side of commissioned 5-string fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by Artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop.
Bass side, Fourth Color Coat.

The color was pretty close to what I had hoped to produce. Therefore, I felt that I was ready to  reinstall the fingerboard, Afterward, I would hand-rub the varnish to a good polish.  Finally, I allowed it to hang in my dining room and cure a little more fully.

Fingerboard

First I carved the underside of the fingerboard to remove extra mass. This affects the sound, as well as the feel of the instrument. (Extra, unnecessary mass tends to absorb vibration rather than resonate.)

Underside of fingerboard
Underside of fingerboard beginning. It was fully carved and smoothed before installation.

Then I carved a tiny notch, dead center on the upper end of the backside of the fingerboard, where it would contact the neck. After carving the notch in the fingerboard, I drilled a shallow 1/16″ hole in the neck, to accomodate a tiny nail.

That nail is temporarily installed, to serve as a guide and an anchor while installing the fingerboard. The hide glue is very slippery while it is still hot, and liquid. There is a tendency for the fingerboard to “drift” under the clamps, before the glue can gel.

The notch in the fingerboard fits on the nail. The nail, then, serves as a temporary stop, so the fingerboard stays put. (I remove the nail after the glue has set.)

Fingerboard installed on 5-string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Fingerboard installed. Notice the tiny nail used to temporarily position the fingerboard.

Beginning Set-up

After a few more days, I began set-up. First, I installed the soundpost, saddle, nut, and end button. Next, I fit the pegs, and was ready for the bridge and the strings.

Nut installed on 5-string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Nut installed: it will be filed lower before installing strings.
Saddle
Saddle installed, still requiring final smoothing and retouch.

You can see in the above photo that the varnish was still very soft. Everywhere I touched it, it also resulted in my leaving fingerprints. I had to “French-polish” the whole instrument afterward, and let it hang until the varnish was harder. Then it would be easier to handle. (But it was good to have the set-up nearing completion, too.)

Completed five-string fiddle ready for retouching.
Completed five-string fiddle ready for varnish retouch.

Pegs

After the varnish had hardened a little more, I then installed the pegs.

Pegs installed, front view of five string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop,
Pegs installed, Front view.
Bass side with pegs, Five string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal Luthier Chet Bishop.
Bass side view with Pegs.
Back side of five string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Back Side View with Pegs.

Final Set-up

I installed the Bridge and Strings and Tailpiece, and then the fiddle was complete. I still let it hang in my dining room for a week or so, too, so that the varnish would continue to harden without damage.

competed 5-string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Hanging up to cure.

Final photos

Final front
Final look at the Front before delivery.
Close-up look at the f-hole area.
Close-up of the f-hole on the Oregon Douglas Fir Front.
Bass side final look before delivery.
Bass side: final look before delivery.
Close up of the Scroll.
Close up of the Scroll.
back side of five string bluegrass fiddle handcrafted in Oregon by artisanal luthier Chet Bishop.
Final look at the back of the fiddle before delivery.

I prepared the instrument’s documents (Bill of Sale and Provenance Document) and afterward, when the varnish had cured for another two weeks, the customer took delivery at the end of July, 2023.

He was delighted, and played the instrument for a long time at my house. Further (which is a joy to me,) he has contacted me since then, expressing his continued joy in the new fiddle. That is the kind of thing that makes this work a great pleasure.

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Artisanal Lutherie? Artisanal Violin Making? What Now?!?

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“Artisanal Violin Making!”

Until recent years, I had never even heard the word “artisanal.”

For 23 years, I naively thought I was “just a violin maker!”  But then, I began hearing about “artisanal bread,” and “artisanal cheese,” and “artisanal restaurants.” And then someone sent me a satirical video about artisanal firewood! It was very tongue-in-cheek: definitely making a joke of the whole idea.

So, I looked the word up on the internet, hoping for a clear definition. There was a whole interesting article on Wikipedia about the term, giving the history, and all.

It turns out that I qualify! (So does every traditional luthier, but this is news to me!)

It reminds me of an old joke:

(“Last week I couldn’t spell [insert professional title] and now I are one!”)

Does it Really Matter?

It turns out that possibly part of the reason people are beginning to call me for “bespoke, custom-made, commissioned” violins and five string fiddles (yes, I know those terms amount to redundancy) is just because I do “make them one by one and almost entirely by hand.” But, so do most makers. (I use a bandsaw to cut out the rough billets. I also use a drill press to make parallel 1/8″ pilot-holes for the tuning pegs. But mostly hand tools.)

Possibly part of the reason they come to me is that I can tell them exactly where the wood came from: I can even show them the actual stump from which it was cut, in some cases.

(That particular Oregon Big Leaf Maple stump was the source of a small stash of wood I salvaged when the tree was removed because it was becoming dangerously rotten.) It was a sad day, when they removed the tree, as my wife and her siblings had played there, and climbed in its branches, during their growing-up years. But it was the source for a few instruments like this one:

Possibly it is because they enjoy the step-by-step continual progress reports, which I send them, every few days, and they get to see their instrument “being born.” They get to choose the overall “flavor” of the look and feel of their fiddle. Some have particular expectations in terms of color, texture, etc.

It is all rather strange, as, to me, that is “just how I make violins.” I had never applied the word “artisanal” to myself before. I just made things, and I did business the “old way.”

But that’s fine: it doesn’t change anything, really. It is just a new perspective for me.

“Artisanal Lutherie!”

It does have a certain ring to it!

🙂

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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.

Here it is!

Practicing the Bach Cello Suite #6

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New Book Available

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The Bread Bag Fiddle is now “Live!”

Some of you know that I have written numerous articles over the years, and posted some on my various websites, including a couple of books in .pdf format; but this is the first time I have attempted to use the Amazon Kindle Publishing software. I felt pretty intimidated by the huge array of choices, almost all the way through: but it turned out to be fairly user-friendly, once I got over the “fear of the unknown” aspect.

Anyway, this is a small work, only about 3,800 words, and about 30 photographs, chronicling the “Resurrection of a Dead Violin” which literally had arrived at my shop in a plastic bread-bag, with the top tied off to prevent the loss of loose parts.

As it turned out, a customer wanted an “old fiddle,” and agreed to have me resurrect the old junker. They are delighted with the result, and it is a daily player, today.

Here’s the link, if you are interested in looking:

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=the+bread+bag+fiddle&i=digital-text&fbclid=IwAR0ruyNsAt4mJ8qlbr0sLREES-C0H9cppji7jC6Q9fAMwNOtZJaPKF6BhgU&ref=nb_sb_noss

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New Five-string Fiddle Progress

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Hanging in the dining room to dry.

I completed the varnish-prep work on the newest five-string fiddle, inculding the sealer. The back, sides and neck are Oregon Big Leaf Maple. The belly (a first for me) is Douglas Fir. I have never tried Douglas Fir in the past, but there was a famous maker (Otto Erdesz) who used to make professional level instruments, using Douglas Fir for the front plates. So, I decided to try it.

You can see the results here:

https://fivestringfiddles.com/2021/03/19/new-handmade-five-string-fiddle/

Should be playing in a couple of weeks.

Have a look!

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Latest Development

5-streing fiddle
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15″ Five String Viola in North Carolina!

A shop in Charlotte, NC has agreed to take one of my fiddles on consignment.

The shop is called “The Violin Shoppe” and is a pretty important outlet in that area for stringed instruments, so I am thrilled to be represented there.

One of the owners, Glen Alexander, is a great fiddler, and demonstrated the posiblities offered by my little five-string viola, on his facebook page as well as on YouTube.

Here is the YouTube video: Glen Alexander putting my 5-string fiddle through its paces.

I’m gratified to see an Oregon Five-string fiddle, there, and to hear him play it!

Meanwhile, I have others on the way. 🙂

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