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….

Thanks for looking.

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More Sawmill Adventures

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Sawmill Surprise

Life is what actually happens while you are planning something else.

I had intended to spend all day working on the commissioned five-string fiddle, today, and had taken the day off from work in order to do just that. Ann and I got up at 3:45 AM, she left for work about 5:45, probably, and I had intended to begin work immediately, but I really was not feeling well (possibly something I ate), and was very tired (short nights) so, about 6:45 AM I decided to go back to bed for a few hours. (Good choice!)

I locked the front door, and toddled off to sleep. At about 9:45 I woke up, and thought I could hear someone moving around in the house. I knew I had locked the door, so I thought this was most peculiar, but… my mother-in-law has a key, and sometimes comes during the day to drop off something for Ann or to complete some other errand. So I got up to see what was going on.

My son Brian also has a key, so I was not too surprised when I went to the front of the house, to find out  that Brian was out by the sawmill. It turned out he had been there since 7 AM, so it is nice that the saw engine is so quiet. I hadn’t heard it at all, though it was less than 100 feet from where I was sleeping.

Sawmill Practice

Four years ago, a neighbor had given Brian two small logs of black walnut. At the time he had no way to process them, so they had sat on the ground on a compost heap for all that time, fully exposed to the weather…hot, dry, cold, wet, freezing, and back again. But now that we have a sawmill, Brian had decided to get a little more practice with the saw, by slicing up those walnut logs. He did not anticipate that very much of the wood would be salvageable.

But, even with the crooked shapes (they were limbs that had fallen in a storm), and the cracked ends (the ends had never been sealed against checking) and the rot and ant-damage from neglect on the ground, Brian got between 25 and 30 guitar sets out of those two little logs.  They are exceptionally beautiful sets, too, as, when he started slicing, he found out that the walnut was highly figured, not just “plain” black walnut.

Black walnut Guitar backs and sides
Part of the pile of backs and sides cut from a single small log. all bookmatched sets, some good for two sets per pair.

Learning Curve

It took longer than it should have…. We are still learning to use the saw. It took us well over an hour to change the blade, because there were adjustments to be made that were not mentioned in the (extremely limited) manual. Maybe two hours of cutting time, an hour of “head-scratching” time learning the idiosyncracies of the tool, and an hour changing the blade. We stopped and ate, talked, took pictures, and had a good day together. Not what I had planned, but highly rewarding.

Black Walnut Ripple

Yeah, I know, it sounds like ice cream…but have look at this:

black walnut bookmatched guitar back
Bookmatched Black Walnut guitar back with water added to show the figure in the wood.

This pair of bookmatched back pieces will make two guitar backs. One exceptional, one just very nice. Some of the sets are not big enough for two guitars but will make one guitar and one or two ukulele sets.

But, Does it Pay?

Some time ago, someone questioned Brian’s wisdom in making all his own bindings, saying “But it is so cheap to buy them! Wouldn’t you be better off to spend your time doing something else?” At the time, the issue was the relative value of his making his own high-quality curly maple bindings for guitars, as opposed to buying them ready made. He figured out that, once the bandsaw and sanding jigs were in place that he could make 100 sticks of bindings in book-matched pairs in a very short time, sand all of them and have them set aside in matched sets of four (the number it takes for one guitar). He figured out that he spent less than three minutes per “stick” in that way, and, the people that sell them (thus saving you so much time) charge $5/stick. Four per guitar…$20 for the maple binding on a single guitar. But if he makes them himself, he spent 10-12 minutes. So, if he saved $20 in 12 minutes of work, then he was “saving” $100/hour. (That is pretty respectable, I’d say.)

And: fairly ordinary black walnut guitar sets (at a well-known supplier) sell for $150 (matched back and sides), so in the two or three hours he spent cutting up two small logs that were given to him, he produced enough guitar sets (extremely high-quality sets; not at all plain) to more than cover the purchase cost of the sawmill. (Yep. It pays.) There is hard work involved, but it is good work, and a good feeling of productivity, while salvaging wood that would otherwise have become firewood.

And… we still have not started milling up the ton (or more) of curly maple for which we had originally bought the sawmill. This was not how I expected to spend the day, but it was pretty encouraging to see Brian driving home with all those guitar sets.

When he makes a guitar of some of that wood, I will post a follow-up photo or two.

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Beginning Three New Five-string Fiddles

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Three 5 String Fiddles On the Way

Different Molds

I decided to make two new molds, so that I could have more than one handmade five-string fiddle in the works at any given time. The new molds are made from the same half-model template, so they are very similar in character, but I did notice that somehow my original mold had been a little narrower in the center bouts than I had intended (don’t know how it happened), so the new ones are wider there, which may make the sound even more deep and clear. The instruments from the first mold have all been very good, so I am hoping the ones off the new molds are even better.

Different Materials

The original Oliver 5-string mold has the ribs and linings in place, and the chosen material for ribs, back and neck is spalted maple. This is an unusual choice, from a classical perspective, but a five-string fiddle is an unusual instrument, and I think it will prove a good choice. I really like the looks, so far. The second and third Oliver Molds (essentially identical, otherwise) have higly figured Oregon Big-leaf maple and Oregon Myrtle, respectively, for the backs and ribs. The Myrtle is a two-piece back, and the neck on the Myrtle fiddle is Big leaf maple; otherwise all the fiddles have matching ribs, backs and necks. The other two are each a one-piece back, also.

I am planning to use Port Orford Cedar for the two-piece front plate on the Myrtlewood  fiddle. This will be the first time I have used anything other than spruce for a violin top, but I have been told it is exceptionally good for other types of instruments, and a friend gave it to me to try in a fiddle. I plan to use Sitka Spruce for the on-piece top of the curly big-leaf maple fiddle, as well as for the spalted maple fiddle. I am hoping to experiment with front plates made of Alaskan Yellow Cedar sometime soon, too.

Different fittings

Depending on the way they look when completed, I may vary my fittings a little, too…haven’t decided yet. I tend to like simple fittings, but I have used fancier fittings, once, and they did look nice– I am just not sure they belong on a bluegrass five string fiddle. Perhaps I can get a set of Oregon Mountain Mahogany pegs, or something. Mountain Mahogany is a very hard wood native to Oregon, but much lighter in color than Ebony, so it adds a different look.

Same Workmanship

I intend to use the same methods as always, including the double purfling that adorned the previous five-string fiddles. I will still use a scraper for the final contour and texture, though perhaps I will leave a little less “corduroy” texture on these than on some others. Some people like less.

Same Varnish

I will use the same Spirit varnish that have always used on all three fiddles, as well as the same graduation scheme and internal arrangements (bass-bar shape and size, etc.), so the sound should be the same.

Same Strings

I will use the Helicore five-string sets, as usual, though I have found some other combinations that work remarkably well.

Progress reports to come

As things progress, I will post photos, so you can see each of the three fiddles grow from a small stack of wood to a completed instrument.  Each will emerge as a brand-new, handmade bluegrass 5 string fiddle when complete.

Stay tuned… (no pun intended). 🙂

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