Purfling and graduating the back plate

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Purfling and Graduating the Back Plate

Purfling came first, this time.

I decided that I would prefer to purfle first, then graduate, on this plate. Maple is much tougher than spruce, and I wanted maximum mobility as I cut the purfling slot, as well as avoiding any danger to the rest of the indtrument when forcing the purfling into the glue-filled slot. It can require a great deal of pressure.


I used the purfling marker to trace out the location of the purfling slot.
I used the purfling marker to trace out the location of the purfling slot.


Then I began incising the sides of the slot, and removing the waste wood.
Then I began incising the sides of the slot, and removing the waste wood, with a purfling pick.

I always forget, between instruments, just how tough the European maple is. I always find that I have to take breaks once in a while, and allow my hands to rest.


Back purfling slot.
I always find the back purfling to be physically difficult, but it is easier to do clean work.


Back purfling slot complete.
Back purfling slot complete.


After cutting the slot and removing the waste wood, I double-check the width ans depth of the slot by inserting a scrap of purfling into the slot, and dragging it around the entire slot, so that I know the purfling will fit cleanly.

Then I use a bending iron to bend the purfling, I cut the miters for the “Bee-stings”, and I insert the purfling, dry, to get a perfect fit.


Purfling installed dry.
Purfling installed dry.


Before I start gluing, I also take time to mark the edge of what will be the “crest” of the edgework, so that I don’t gouge too deeply or too wide, when cutting the channel. After gluing, it is difficult to get the pencil to mark on the wood, if it is either damp or glue-coated.

pencilled-in crest marks.
If you look closely, you can see the pencilled-in crest marks.


Finally, I lift out each purfling segment, one at a time, and slip hot hide glue under the purfling, then quickly press the purfling back down into the slot. I use a hard plastic roller to help force the purfling deeply into the slot.


The purfling is glued in place
The purfling is glued in place, and I can cut the channel now.

In this case, I chose to work on the graduation, next. I did not get it done, but I am within an hour of completion. Then I can conplete the plate, add the label, remove the mold, and close the corpus.



Graduation in progress.
Graduation in progress.

I will also complete the channel and the inner edgework, before removing the mold and installing the plate. But it is getting there…

Vacation is a hard time to get things done, because the people take higher priority, and everything eats up the time. (Ah, well…always good to spend time with family.)


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Two Bass Bars

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Two Bass Bars

How I install bass bars:

The bass bar in a violin-family instrument serves to support the bass-foot of the bridge, and the bass-side of the front plate (also called the “table” or, the “soundboard.”) Without adequate support in the proper place anong that side, the bass tones will sound quite flabby and unconvincing. The following is only a description of how install the bass-bar, not telling anyone else how it ought to be done.

We always make the bass bar of European spruce, with the grain vertical to the plate; thus, flat-sawn to the bass-bar, itself. I begin by laying out two locations, one seventh of the distance from the center seam to the widest part of the bass-side edge at both upper and lower bout. That usually translates into about 15 mm off the center, at the widest point of the lower bout and 12 mm off center for the same place in the upper bout. I strike a line through those points , checking to see if it is far enough away from the inner eye of the bass-side f-hole to actually accommodate the completed bass-bar If it is not, then I move the line over a couple of millimeters, as needed, to gain clearance at the f-hole. Then I measure 40 mm inboard along the line from the upper and lower edges of the plate, to designate the end locations for the bass bar.

I cut the bass-bar blank to length, and plane it to the appropriate thickness, then hold it on the lines I have laid out, essentially perpendicular to what will be the plane of the ribs. I use a compass, set to the maximum gap at the bottom center of the bassbar, to scribe the contour of the plate onto each side of the bass bar. (Notice that, due to the compound curves of the violin plate, the two marks will not be the same. This is important.) Once I have both sides traced in accurately, I carve away the excess wood outside the line, to follow the line as closely as I can manage. I try to achieve a straight line between the two, regardless of where the two lines go, because that will follow the complex curves of the plate.

I double-check the bass-bar against the plate, and usually it is surprisingly close to fitting, at this point. So I use a strip of the paper-gauze tape available in pharmacies, about an inch wide, to cover the layout lines I had scribed into the plate, and then proceed to chalk-fit the bass-bar on top of that tape. The tape is very thin, so that I can see the lines through it (although I do trace them again onto the tape, to make them even easier to see.) But the tape is also so thin that, if I can get a perfect fit on the tape, when I remove the tape, I will have a perfect fit on the plate, as well, and no chalk residue to remove.

The hardest thing for me to learn in chalk-fitting, was to only remove the transferred chalk and the wood immediately under it, not the whole area. Frequently the culprit in an imperfect fit is actually quite a small area, so it is counter-productive to remove too much wood.

I chalk the tape, along the layout lines, and then press the bar into place, sliding it lengthwise a few milimeters back and forth to pick up some chalk;. I plane or scrape off the high spots where the chalk transferred, then try again. When I get a more or less full transfer of chalk from tape to bass-bar, I know the fit is acceptable. Then I carefully remove the tape, and (finally) glue and clamp the bar into place. Usually, I trim the bar a little, first, so it is nearly the correct shape on the top surface, so the clamps will fit more easily.

One bass bar is complete: the other has only been trimmed to make it easier to clamp.
One bass bar is complete: the other has only been trimmed to make it easier to clamp.


After the glue has dried and the bar is rigidly secured, I use finger-planes to trim the bar to the size and shape I want.

Beginning with a medium-sized finger-plane.
Beginning with a medium-sized finger-plane.


Finishing with a small finger-plane.
Finishing with a small finger-plane.


Final touch-up with small plane and scrapers.
Final touch-up with small plane and scrapers. The camera angle is what is making the two bars look so different.


Installing the top plates

So, the next task is to complete the inner edgework, and then install the top plates on the rib garlands. I plane a tiny bevel around the edge of the plate that will face the ribs; then file it to a curve, nearly quarter-round, flush with the outer rim of the plates. Then I position the plate on the garland as precisely as possible (sometimes things seem to have moved a bit, so I have to compromise a little.) Finally, I loosen a few of the spool clamps at a time and slip hot hide glue into the joint, using a thin palette knife. I clean up all around, so as to not leave glue on the outside of the violin.

Spool clamps can look like these, or even more simple: sections of closet rod with all-thread bolts. There are a lot of possible options.


Finally, the plate is fully glued and clamped, and I wait for it to dry.

Guarneri copy top plate installed with hot hide glue and spool clamps.
Guarneri copy top plate installed with hot hide glue and spool clamps.

After the top plates are installed, I trace the European Maple back plates and cut them out. Here are the two garlands with the top plates installed and the back plates cut out:

Completed Garlands with plates.
Completed Garlands with plates.


Next stop will be arching the back plates.


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Beginning Two New Violins

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Beginning Two New Violins

First Things First:

I began by making sure that I had appropriate wood for both instruments: I wanted a one-piece back for the Guarneri model instrument, with deep flames sloping downward from left to right, and I wanted a heavily flamed two-piece back for the Stradivari model…both of European Maple, with ribs to match them, and European spruce tops. I had them, all right, so I bookmatched the two spruce tops, and the back for the “Titian” Strad attempt, and left them to thoroughly dry. Afterward, I visited my son’s guitar shop and used his power planer to flatten the plates, and bring them each down to the thickness I wanted for the arching height.

Prepared plates: European Maple and Spruce
Prepared plates: European Maple and Spruce


Working Vacation

I took a week off from work, intending to “get a lot done” on the violins, but ended up sick for most of the week. Besides, Winter is coming on, and we needed to get firewood in, so Ann and I loaded and hauled and stacked firewood for a couple of days, and I got about two good days of work on the violins. During that time, I installed blocks in the molds, shaped them to receive the ribs, thinned and bent the ribs, and installed them. Last, I installed linings, to add stiffness to the edge of the rbs, and additional gluing surface. The ribs, like the back plates, are European Maple, but the blocks and linings are willow…not sure what variety. I like weeping willow the best, because it carves and bends so nicely, but other willows work well, too, sometimes.

Guarneri form with blocks and ribs.
Guarneri form with blocks and ribs.


Ribs shortened
Ribs shortened


Adding linings.
Adding linings.


Linings installed, glued, and clamped.
Linings installed, glued, and clamped.


Then, once I had the linings in place, I trimmed the rib corners to their final shapes, and flattened the front face of garlands, after which I used the garlands themselves to trace out the shape of the top plates. Finally, I cut out the top plates and shaped them to the exact outlines I wanted, and I was ready to begin arching. I will do the same thing for the back plates later.

All four plates, both garlands, with neck blocks.
All four plates, both garlands, with neck blocks. Strad model on the right, Guarneri on the left.


Slow Start

I didn’t get much of anything else done, this week, as I was at work, mostly, annnd, Thursday, some fellow failed to yield on a roundabout, and totalled my wife’s car, as she was coming home from the grocery store. The roads were very wet, which may have contributed to why he was unable to stop, and why the impact spun her car around, 180 degrees, and hurled it off the road, into a field, next to the roundabout.

Ironically, she had also just gone to DMV, and had paid $193 to renew the DEQ testing, and registration, as well as filling her gas tank, to the tune of $40. So all that was wasted, too, but she is completely unhurt, for which we are deeply grateful. Guess it is time for her to get a newer car. 🙂 There was also a dented can of beans, and two squashed bananas…but I ate the bananas, and tonight we ate the beans. No loss there. 🙂

This evening, however, I got home fairly early, and I got most of the arching done on the Stradivari-model top plate, so at least that feels better, in terms of productivity. I will try to complete it tomorrow and repeat the effort on the Guarneri top plate.

I will post more pictures later.


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Leveling the Garland

Last time I posted, I had installed the back linings, shaped the blocks and linings, and was nearly ready to close the box. It looked like this:

The blocks and linings are shaped.
The blocks and linings are shaped…but the garland is not leveled, yet.


To the unassisted eye, the back of the garland really looked pretty flat. In fact, I had used a hand-operated abrasive tool (a Sandvik tool…they apparently went out of production, years ago…but I love the few I have) to try to level it all the way around, thinking it might be easier. But when I clamped it up, to test the plan, it was not even close to level…so, back to the sanding board!

To level the garland, I made pencil marks all around the mating surface of the garland, and then rubbed the entire structure on the abrasive surface until all the marks disappeared. Presto! Flat!


Installing the Back Plate

Then, while the glue was heating up, I carefully went over the perimeter and inner surface of the back plate and made sure the curves were smooth and consistent. Once I was satisfied with it, I carefully aligned the back plate on the garland, pushing and pulling a little to get the overhang even, all the way around. I clamped only at the blocks, initially, then began using a thin-bladed palette knife to insert glue into the joint. I removed the clamps at the bottom block, first, and inserted glue so that the joint between the bottom block and the back plate was fully coated, then slid the blade left and right, as far as it would go, spreading glue on the joints between ribs/linings and back plate. I quickly reapplied the clamps at the bottom block, and added more between there and the corners. Loosened the next set of clamps, and repeated the routine.

Once the entire perimeter was glued and clamped, with an extra clamp at the button-to-heel joint, I could set the whole assembly aside to dry. It is closed!  (I really like looking at that one-piece European maple back.) 🙂

Closed corpus, back view.
Closed corpus, back view.


Closed corpus, side view.
Closed corpus, side view.


Closed Corpus, Front view.
Closed corpus, front view.

I will let the glue dry overnight, then remove the clamps and trim the heel to the correct profile, trimming button to match the heel, so that they are shaped as one unit. Then I will carve the slot in the back plate for purfling, install the purfling, and, finally, prepare the whole instrument for varnishing. I hope to be ready to begin the finishing process by this weekend.


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The Plates

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The Plates

Shaping the linings

Last time, I had the Garland complete, except for trimming (shaping) the linings, and levelling the front of the garland so I could trace the shape of the plates from the completed garland. I shaped the linings, using a small sharp knife and a scraper:

Shaped linings
The linings are shaped using a small sharp knife to cut the taper, and then scraped smooth, using a scraper.


Leveling the Garland and Tracing the Plates

I leveled the garland by rubbing it on a sanding board (coarse abrasive cloth glued to a flat aluminum plate, in this case), and then used a washer to trace the shape onto the front plate. The washer adds 3 millimeters around the perimeter of the garland, to allow for the plate overhang on the finished instrument. I still have to shape the corners separately, as the washer simply makes them round:

Tracing the plate perimeter
Tracing the plate perimeter, using a washer and a ball-point pen.


The Front plate perimeter as initially traced: notice the round corners.
The front plate perimeter as it was initially traced: notice the round corners.


Corrected corner shapes.
Now the corners have been refined and corrected. I am deliberately leaving them on the long side; I will trim them later.


Cutting out the Plates

I used a bandsaw to cut out the plates, as close to the lines as I could, without touching them. Then I used a spindle sander to bring the perimeter exactly to the lines, and, finally, I used files to smooth out any ripples left by the sander. I am really not comfortable looking at these extra-long corners, but, once the garland is glued to the plate, it is very easy to trim them to the exact length I want; and much more difficult to put wood back, if I remove too much.

Front plate cut out.
Front plate interior, cut, refined, and ready for carving. The lines show the margins, and the corner and end-blocks’ shapes.


I am deliberately leaving my corners abnormally long, as one of the problems noted by my teacher is that I have had a pattern of making rather short corners. (Ironically, I had only done so as an over-correction to an early tendency to make my corners too long. Sigh…)

I handled the back plate in similar fashion to the front, and completed it next. It was very important that I remember to trace the front plate off the front of the garland, and the back plate off the back. The two look very similar, and will match very well when complete, but they are not precisely symmetrical about the centerline, so; if I forget and trace them both from the same side, then one of them will definitely not fit. (Ask me how I know….)

Now I am ready to begin plate-carving. I will begin with the front plate, simply because it is easier on my hands. Furthermore, the pattern of building I follow requires that the front plate be completed first anyway. But, honestly, the older I get, the more it stresses my hands to carve the maple, so it is nice to have the front plate completely done, and to feel good about that while I begin to tackle the back plate.

Both plates, along with the completed garland.
Both plates, along with the completed garland. Looking at the interior of each plate, and the front side of the garland.


To you sharp-eyed observers, the reason the slant of the “flame” on the back is going up from left to right, instead of down from left to right, is that you are looking at the inside of the plate. When I turn it over and carve the outside, you will see that it slopes the same way as the one in the poster.

Over the next few days, I will move toward completing the carving of the front plate. Then…well, you can follow along and see. 🙂

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New Project!

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New Project!

“Pellegrina-esque?” Violoncello da spalla?

I had been pondering (glumly) what to build for the next show at Marylhurst University, and had nearly decided upon one of two “niche-market” items…either a very large “violoncello da spalla”, or an emulation of David Rivinus’s “Pellegrina.” I had spoken to Mr. Rivinus a couple of years ago, and he told me that, for years, he had encouraged other luthiers to use his design, as a partial solution for some of the “work-related injuries” associated with playing large violas…but no one took him up on it, so he just produced them himself for the rest of his lutherie career, ultimately making 100, or so, of the odd-looking instruments. They were all sold, ultimately, and he has stopped taking orders, so I considered “taking up the mantle”, so to speak, and producing instruments modelled after his work. But, as I said, that really is rather a “niche-market” viola.

The violoncello da spalla is possibly even more specialized, as, though it is strung very much like a regular violoncello (cello), it has a fifth string (E), above the standard C-G-D-A of the cello, is only 19-20″ long on the body, and is generally played off the right shoulder, so that the lower bass-side bout is under the chin, and the bowing arm comes up from underneath, so that the player is nearly as comfortable as when playing a small viola, but the sound is that of a cello or extremely large viola–take your pick. Very little classical music has been written for these instruments, so I doubt there would ever be a lot of market for them, though I would love to build them.

But! in the midst of these ponderings, I had sent one of my teachers a couple of sets of photos of two of my recent violins, and, while he was quite encouraging and positive, he took the time to give me a carefully-considered, and quite detailed critique (what a treasure!) of both instruments, telling me what changes he would want to see, when comparing my work to one of the Old Masters (Guarneri del Gesu, in particular.) So! I changed course, and figured that I have just enough time to attempt another copy of the 1735 “Plowden” Guarneri del Gesu violin, of which I already have the “The Strad” poster, with actual CT-scans of the original instrument, and exquisite photos of the outside, along with technical drawings and tables of measurements.  Game on! New Project!

Guarneri del Gesu

(Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri 1698 – 1744) was a violin maker  living and working in Cremona, Italy. He was one of the sons of Giuseppe Giovanni, and, though he was not very successful in his lifetime as a luthier (having to supplement his income by other means) compared to the more famous Antonio Stradivari, some of his later instruments are highly prized today, and sell for more than perhaps the very best Stradivari violins. Currently the very highest price (undisclosed, but reportedly in excess of $15M) was paid for the 1741 “Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu, on lifetime loan to Anne Akiko Meyers. I have never attempted an instrument modelled after the “Vieuxtemps”, but I have made two or three modelled after the 1735 “Plowden.” So that is the chosen model, again.

Starting from Scratch, Again

Checking the Mold Template against the Poster CT-Scan.
Checking the Mold Template against the Poster CT-Scan…I thought it had been exact, but there were some tiny discrepancies.


The black-marked edges are the places I corrected next. (Not much, really, but striving for perfection, here.)


Strad Poster of the Plowden
These are the photos on the poster front. The poster does not want to lie flat– I store it in a mailing tube, to keep it undamaged.


Checking the mold.
Checking the mold against the corrected mold-template: as it turns out, the corrections were all within the areas of the blocks– the mold is fine.


Blocks cut and fitted
Blocks cut and fitted…notice the differing heights, marked on the ends.


Blocks glued in place.
Blocks glued in place. I use Titebond for this task, but nearly nothing else.


Block shapes, as traced from the mold template.
Block shapes, as traced from the mold template.


The Wood for the New Violin

This will be a one-piece back of European Maple, neck and ribs matching the back, and a two-piece front plate of European Spruce. All were obtained from International Violin Co., of Baltimore, MD.

One-piece back, neck and ribs of European Maple, front of European Spruce.
One-piece back, neck and ribs of European Maple, front of European Spruce.

That trace on the back plate was put there by the wood-source people…it does not reflect the shape of this violin at all.

So! That is the Beginning!

I will carve the inner curves of the center-bout blocks next, so that I can bend and fit the center ribs to match those curves. Afterward, I will carve the outer curves of those same blocks as well as the tail and neck blocks, before bending and fitting the upper and lower ribs.

As a precaution against accidentally gluing the ribs to the mold, I already rubbed a paraffin candle all over the edges of the mold, where the ribs will touch, so that if an accidental drop of hide-glue ends up there, it will not stick. (Been there…broke the rib, before I figured out what was amiss.)

This is as far as I am going today…I am still recovering from hernia surgery last week, and I find I still tire easily. But I’m on my way, and will try to keep you posted, with progress reports, here

Thanks for looking.

Chet Bishop


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Varnishing Sequence: Part One

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Varnishing a New Violin

Finishing Sequence: Sealer coat first

In the last post, I showed the photo of the violin with just the turpentine/pitch sealer coat in place, and not totally dry. Remember that this was applied over a coffee stain, and a mineral ground that I had rubbed into the wood.

Sealer coat.
Sealer coat.

When that coat was finally dry, I checked for any distortions (from the coffee stain, I guess) and corrected them with plain water, just moistening any low areas with a damp rag, and watching them come back to normal. Since I just barely moistened those areas, they stayed in the correct position after drying the second time. This has been a rare occurrence in my experience, but I was grateful that it turned out to be a relatively easy fix.

Then I sanded lightly with worn 400-grit, to remove any bits of loose debris and/or any little fibers of wood that had lifted above the smooth surface. I had already done this after staining (both times), but it always pays to go over things again.

First Coat of Varnish

The first coat on this instrument was a very blond spirit varnish; not my usual. I am not entirely pleased with the result, but it is acceptable.

first varnish coat
First varnish coat, side view.


First coat of varnish, back view.
First coat of varnish, back view.

Scond Coat: Darker Yellow

I sanded it lightly, again, and then applied a darker yellow varnish. Fortunately, spirit varnish dries very rapidly, so I can sometimes get two or three coats in one day, early in the sequence. As the varnish gets thicker, it dries more slowly. I assume that this is because it can no longer soak into the wood at all, so every bit of the drying has to happen from one side of the varnish film; but perhaps there is more to it than that. At any rate, as the instrument nears completion, I have to allow longer time for drying. The other side of the “fast-drying” coin (or two-edged sword) is that it is extremely sensitive to the next coat of varnish, as the solvent in the new coat can easily lift the previous coats, forcing me to completely start over, in some cases. I really need to be patient, and work carefully, applying many thinner coats, rather than fewer thick coats.

Second coat of varnish-- darker yellow-- side view.
Second coat of varnish– darker yellow– side view.


Yellow varnish second coat.
Lots of room for improvement, here– and that is how spirit varnish works. I keep adding color, and “evening things out” until it looks right.


Yellow varnish back second coat.
Yellow varnish back– still pretty pale-looking, after that second coat.

Third Coat: Red-Brown varnish

After the yellow varnish dried I began adding (several coats of) a darker red-brown varnish, allowing each coat to dry, and sanding lightly between coats, to make sure the finished result is good. This is the first coat of the red-brown varnish, so, actually the third coat, overall. It will get at least five or six more coats of varnish before it is done, but the differences become less and less obvious, as the varnishing nears completion. I am enjoying looking at the beautiful European maple and spruce. I ordered this wood from International Violin Company, in Baltimore.

third coat of varnish
Third coat, using red-brown varnish.


third coat of varnish on back
Back, with the third coat of varnish. (Quite an improvement isn’t it?) You can see the brush-marks in the varnish, but they will be sanded smooth before I apply the next coat.


The Plan:

As I continue to add coats of varnish, I am keeping an eye on the general “flavor” of the instrument. I may skip certain areas for several coats, to leave the varnish thin in those areas. I deliberately  try to emulate the look of some of the more gently-used “Old Master” instruments. I am not attempting to “fake age”, so much as attempting to capture some of the charm and appeal of those intruments. If anyone has a question about my motives, all one has to do is check the label: every instrument is signed, numbered, and dated. The date on the label is the day I actually closed the corpus, so, perhaps a few weeks prior to final completion, but no more than that.

I also may switch back to a yellow varnish at some point, to shift the color back toward gold, rather than just a red-brown. And, occasionally, I have stripped everything back off and started over. As the original maker, I have that option. and, invariably, the result the second time was far better.

I will post more varnish photos as the violin nears completion.


Once the varnishing is complete, I will replace the Fingerboard and begin the final fittings and set-up of the violin.

  • Fingerboard
  • Saddle
  • Tuning pegs
  • Nut
  • End Pin
  • Soundpost
  • Bridge
  • Tailpiece
  • Strings
  • Chinrest

Hopefully, all of that will be covered in the next post.

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More Fiddle Progress

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Progress on the Small (14-inch) Viola and the “Plowden” Guarneri model violin

Here are some photos of what is happening with these two fiddles. I decided to add a third instrument to the bench, so to speak, a 3/4-size violin (separate notes on separate thread), so it is slowing me down just a little.

Progress Checklist

Both the viola and the violin are moving along:

  • Arching is complete on the front plates of both instruments.
  • F-holes are laid out on both instruments, cut out and complete on the violin.
  • The bass bar has been fitted, installed and trimmed in the viola.
  • Graduation is nearly complete on the viola, complete on the violin.
  • The scrolls are partially carved…still a fair way to go.
  • The back plates are arched, but there is still some work to be done on each before I would call them absolutely complete.
  • The top plate has been installed on the violin, and purfling installed.
  • The violin top plate and rib garland are nearly complete…the edgework is done, but some refining will still happen.
  • You can see that I trimmed a couple of millimeters off the corners of the violin front plate. I will do the same on the other three plates as well.

Here are some photos:

July 3rd status of Guarneri-model violin.
July 3rd status of Guarneri-model violin. (Wood for back, sides and neck is European Maple. Wood for top is European Spruce.)


July 3rd status Guarneri-model violin back
July 3rd status Guarneri-model one-piece violin back. Arching and graduation are nearly complete.


July 3rd status of Oliver 14
July 3rd status of Oliver 14″ Viola.


July 3rd status Oliver 14 inch Viola front plate
July 3rd status Oliver 14 inch Viola front plate. Arching and graduation essentially complete. F-holes laid out and deeply incised. (Wood is Sitka Spruce.)


July 3rd status Oliver 14 inch Viola back plate
July 3rd status Oliver 14 inch Viola back plate. Arching and graduation nearly complete. (Wood is spalted, highly figured Big Leaf Maple, harvested about five miles from my house.)


July 3rd status Oliver 14 inch Viola scroll and neck.
July 3rd status Oliver 14 inch Viola scroll and neck. (Wood is spalted Big leaf maple…from the same log as the back plate.)


So…you can see that progress is happening. Not at a very exciting pace, but I hope the wait will be worthwhile.

My goal is to produce three very good instruments this summer/fall:

  • the 14-inch viola,
  • the Guarneri-model violin, and
  • the 3/4-size violin,

and then show them, along with a larger viola, to orchestra directors and teachers in the Greater Portland Area.

My rationale is that good small violas are hard to find, and so are good fractional sized instruments. If I can demonstrate to the teachers that I can produce very good instruments in smaller sizes, as well as the larger sizes, then perhaps they will recommend their students to me.

All I can do is try….

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Current “State of the Fiddles” report.

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Slow Progress, But Moving Along!


I spent most of Saturday working on carving the viola scroll. I am not as fast as a lot of luthiers seem to be. It takes me more than eight hours to carve a scroll, and I can’t go at it for eight hours straight, anymore, anyway. So, between the heat and my other responsibilities, this is pretty much all I got done. It is still not complete, of course, but it is looking closer to complete, and it feels encouraging, to look at it.

This is a Big Leaf Maple scroll and back, on top of a Sitka Spruce top plate. It is interesting to carve domestic maple in close proximity to European maple. They are not the same at all. The big leaf maple is much softer, and feels almost fuzzy, under the scraper. Much lighter-weight, too, and has a different ring, when I tap it. European seemsto be  superior for violins, though domestic maples seem to work fime for larger instruments (or possibly it is the lower tones involved.) This instrument will be a good “experiment” in that regard. If  this instrument is very good, then the lower tone is the issue– if it is questionable, I may repeat the experiment immediately with European Maple and see if that corrects it. If it does, then the size of the instrument may be what is the problem.

But I suspect it will be a very good viola. I have made other very small (14-7/8″ on the body) violas using the same woods, before, and they were very good. This will be the smallest I have made, using domestic woods.

Partially completed scroll for the 14
Partially completed scroll for the 14″ viola


Planing and flattening the plates

Actually, come to think of it, I did do a little more– I went and used my son’s tools and planed the two violin plates to appropriate thicknesses to start working them.  I was shooting for about 17mm thick, to begin with, so that my finished arching will be close to that thickness, after everything else has been carved away. Then I laid-out the shapes of the plates by tracing them from the completed garland, and cut them out at home. So, here is what the whole pile looks like today. Last week, some of the plates were still square and flat, and very thick…this week they are all the correct thicknesses, and one scroll is nearing completion.

The lines on the right-hand maple plate (the viola back) are sketching in where the carving will happen on the inside of the plate: I will carve the outside first, to get the exact arching I have planned, then carve the inside to a similar shape, to get the exact thisknesses I hope to achieve (called “graduations” because the thickness is different in different areas, and changes gradually from area to area.) Both the arching and the graduations are critical to the final resulting sound. In my opinion,  the arching is probably more important, but I can’t prove it.

do know that when I accidentally arched some of my early violins the way (I later was taught) a viola is supposed to be arched, those violins sounded like violas, in spite of everything else about them being “violin.” It was very perplexing to me, at the time, as my ear was not well-enough trained to hear the difference, and all I knew is that it was a violin! And these crazy players kept telling me it sounded like a viola! They were right! The arching was the issue that decided the character of the sound. Good learning experience.

Current State of the Fiddles
Current State of the Fiddles

The wood on the left is European maple and spruce I bought from International Violin Co., in Baltimore, MD. I have used their wood before, and it has worked well. Both have linings and blocks made of weeping willow.

As you can see, both instruments have one-piece backs, and two-piece, book-matched fronts (sometimes referred to as tops, or bellies). In both cases the ribs and necks/scrolls are of  wood matching the back plate.

I will keep you all posted.

Thanks for looking.

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