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.

Thanks for looking.

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Final Assembly and Set-up

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Final Assembly and Set-up

Fingerboard and Nut

The varnish was about as good as it was going to get, for the moment, so I began asssembling the violin: I re-installed the fingerboard and added the nut, then allowed it to dry.

Fingerboard and nut installed
Fingerboard and nut installed.


Saddle and End-pin (and Soundpost)

I drilled and reamed a hole in the center of the tail block, and installed the end-pin, then cut the saddle and installed it. In this photo it had just been glued in place. Later I decided to remove the saddle and re-install it. I did a better job the second try. (It had been just a little crooked the first time.) I make a radius on each end of the “footprint” of my saddles, to minimize the chance of saddle cracks. The round-cornered mortise makes for much lower stress to the wood at that point.

Although it is not visible in this photo, I also had installed the soundpost.

Saddle and End-Pin
Saddle and End-Pin


Tuning Pegs

I shaped, fitted and installed the tuning pegs, and had intended to complete the violin that evening, but there were a lot of interruptions, so that was really all I accomplished that evening.

Tuning pegs installed.
Tuning pegs installed.


Bridge, Tailpiece, and Strings

Finally, I cut the bridge, and fitted it to the belly of the violin, then adjusted the tailgut for the position of the bridge. (I try to position the tailpice so that, from the tailpiece “fret” to the bridge is 1/6th the distance from the bridge to the nut.) I drilled the string holes in all four pegs, and began installing the strings. As it usually happens, my initial bridge cut was too high, so I removed it and cut it lower, then set the violin up to play it. I went ahead and installed the chinrest, while I was at it.

Completed violin.
Completed violin. Only varnish re-touch and sound adjustment remain.


Side view of completed violin.
Side view of completed violin.


Back view of completed violin.
Back view of completed violin.


Now the violin is hanging up in the dining room, where it will live while I am completing all the final touch-up for looks and sound.

Completed violin awaiting final touches.
Completed violin awaiting final touches.


Thanks for looking.

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Small Viola Set-up

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Setting Up the 14-inch Viola

What is “Set-up?”

Set-up can include a fairly wide range of things not related to the actual building of the instrument:

  • Dressing the fingerboard
  • Adjusting the string-height at the nut
  • Fitting the bridge
  • Fitting and adjusting the sound-post
  • Fitting (or lubricating) new tuning pegs
  • Installing strings, tailpiece and chinrest
  • Final adjustments for sound and playability
    • Height of strings above the end of the fingerboard
    • Balance of tone across the strings (adjusted at the soundpost)

Usually the instrument already has the fingerboard and saddle when “set-up” begins.

This Instrument

In this particular case, I had already installed, but not dressed the fingerboard, so I still had to:

  • Dress the fingerboard,
  • Install and finish the tuning pegs,
  • Drill the holes in the tuning pegs for the strings,
  • Fit and install the nut
  • Cut the slots in the nut, to receive the strings,
  • Drill and ream the hole for the end button, and fit the end button
  • Fit the soundpost, to a preliminary position,
  • Fit the bridge and adjust it for height,
  • Install the tailpiece, strings and chinrest.
  • Perform any “final touches”, to repair small varnish flaws, etc.

I have been swamped with other responsibilities, so, this time, I made no effort to record the process as it was being done. If anyone is interested, one can search the archived articles on this site, to see photo-essays of set-ups. Here is the completed instrument, from various views:

Completed saddle, end-button and tailpiece
Completed saddle, end-button and tailpiece: notice the curved ends on the saddle.
Completed 14-inch viola front side
Completed 14-inch viola front side: sitka spruce.
Side view of 14" Viola
Side view of 14″ Viola. Notice the deep ribs.
Completed 14-inch viola back.
Completed 14-inch viola back. That big-leaf maple is pretty stuff. This was from the log  donated by Terry Howell.
Completed neck;
Completed neck; If you check back a few posts, you can see how different the neck looks before and after polishing and sealing.
Completed treble-side scroll.
Completed treble-side scroll. This big-leaf maple, for the scroll and neck, was cut in my wife’s parents’ yard, some time ago.
Completed Bass-side scroll.
Completed Bass-side scroll.
Completed bridge, from the tailpiece side
Completed bridge, from the tailpiece side. Those are Helicore strings, and a Josef Teller bridge.
Bridge viewed from the fingerboard side.
Bridge viewed from the fingerboard side.
Bridge and sound-holes viewed from the front of the instrument.
Bridge and sound-holes viewed from the front of the instrument.

So! That is the 14-inch Viola! I will add a chinrest in the morning, but I wanted to get these pictures posted.

So far the sound is good. It is a little unfocused on the C string, but I usually expect some of that at first. I adjusted the soundpost to enhance the C-string, and tomorrow I hope it will have improved. I could tell it was opening up within 20 minutes of hard bowing, so I expect it will be a very good viola. These strings are Helicore: I would prefer orchestral strings, I think, but it is difficult to find a good C-string for a 14″ viola.

This will make a very good viola for some player with small hands.

Thanks for looking.

(Edit: Here is the finished instrument WITH the chinrest. And, as I hoped, it sounds even better this morning. 🙂 It has a good, open, rich C-string and good balance across all strings.)

Completed 14-inch viola with chinrest.
Completed 14-inch viola with chinrest.
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Final Assembly and Set-up Procedures

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Final Assembly and Set-up

Probably some people don’t consider all of this to be “set-up”, though I usually think of it that way. “Set-up” usually means taking a fully completed violin, made by someone else, and:

  • dressing the fingerboard if needed
  • adjusting the string height at the nut
  • Fitting the bridge to the corpus, and cutting the height to set the string height over the fingerboard
  • Treating the pegs, if needed (Some are very dry and need “peg dope” as a stiff lubricant)
  • fitting the soundpost, or adjusting it, if it is already there
  • adjusting the tailgut, to achieve the correct afterlength between bridge and tailpiece
  • installing strings
  • checking the string height over the end of the fingerboard, and adjusting as needed (by adjusting the bridge height)
  • balancing the tone by adjusting the soundpost position
  • (sometimes) installing a chin-rest (if it wasn’t in place already)
  • final check by playing

But, as a builder, once the varnishing is done, all the rest of it feels like “set-up” to me. So, I am usually thinking of:

  • fitting and installing the endpin
  • installing and trimming and polishing the saddle
  • installing and trimming and drilling the pegs
  • dressing the fingerboard to achieve the correct camber and contour
  • fitting, installing and dressing the nut, including string grooves

and then all the things listed above, for final set-up. So, to prevent confusion, I am going to call it “final assembly and set-up.”

Saddle and Endpin

I began by installing the saddle and endpin:

Saddle with endpin
Saddle with endpin (sometimes called end button.)


Tuning Pegs

Then I drilled the peg holes, and reamed them to the correct (1:30) taper, and shaped the pegs to fit the holes at the correct depth. I lubricated the pegs with “peg dope” and worked them into their respective holes, pushing and turning vigorously, to make them seat well. I don’t want them to do a lot of “self-adjusting” later on, so that they drift dramatically deeper in the first few months after assembly. I want it to happen now, before I trim the pegs to length, and (especially) before I drill the string-holes. Otherwise I can end up with the string-holes up against the far wall of teh pegbox, instead of roughly centered. I do drill the holes (shown later) slightly closer to the gripped-end of the pegs, knowing that there will be some drift, but the idea is to avoid the drift as much as possible.

Pegs before trimming the length or drilling
Pegs before trimming the length or drilling the string-holes. Notice that the one peg is a different color (sigh…).


Endangered Species of Hardwoods, and Alternative Wood Choices

It is sometimes frustrating to find that the ebony for the pegs is not always consistent in color: as Ebony becomes more scarce, the people making the fittings are less picky about the wood, and the sapwood for ebony is a tan-color. You can see a little stripe of it on the end of the “D” peg, where it will be cut off, but the whole “G” peg is the lighter wood. If it bothers me enough, I may either dye it or simply cut a new peg. Haven’t decided, yet. I will probably try dyeing it, first, to see how it looks, at least.

However, this raises another point: there are other woods that function well for fittings, so–why do we not use them? The main reason is customer demand. Everyone wants ebony, so, to satisfy the customers, we all buy ebony blanks from which to make the pegs. BUT! Some makers are branching out into other, more plentiful woods, such as Ipé. I have used Ipé a few times for fittings, but not for pegs. Though I do have a lathe, I have never tried making pegs myself: I always buy the blanks and turn then to the correct taper and diameter by hand, using a peg-shaver. Ipé blanks are not yet available. So…perhaps I need to try making some alternative-wood peg blanks myself. If some poor, underpaid child in Sri-lanka can do it, why not I? 🙂

The obvious alternative wood, for me, though, living here in Oregon, would be Oregon Mountain Mahogany. It is not terribly common, but is certainly not endangered, though it is usually not a very big tree. A friend gave me several small logs, cleared from some remote mountain property. I am drying it, gradually, and will attempt to use it sometime in the near future. It is a light-tan to medium brown color and is quite hard. I would certainly not be the first to try it, but the commercial pegmakers who turn them out on a lathe, one-by-one, want (rightly) a very high price for their work, so I have never bought any.

Meanwhile, as I mentioned earlier, Ipé is a readily available hardwood coming from Latin America, but so plentiful that they are selling it as decking material…to walk on! It is a pleasant, medium-dark brown, and quite hard. Oddly, though, the dust from sawing or sanding it is bright yellow.

Other options include Osage Orange (sometimes called hedge-apple, or Bois D’arc). It can be very hard, but it is a bright yellow-orange when freshly shaped, and, though it fades to a nice brown over a long time, I think I would have to accelerate that change in some way…I’m not impressed with the look, right now.

Another is Persimmon, which, ironically, though it is native to the United States, is in the same family as ebony. I have never used it for anything, nor have I even seen it, but I am told it can work well, and that it looks good too. I simply haven’t seen it.

So–I try to be responsible in my wood-choices, but the bottom line continues to be the bottom line. Eventually, the customers have to also agree, or I can’t sell my work. One time (once only) I made a fingerboard out of purple-heart: the prospective customer was not only not impressed, they were angry, as if I had tried to pull some sort of trick on them. Purple-heart is really bright purple when freshly shaped, but fades to a nice dark, red-brown with time and exposure to the air. But the couple who had been interested in a student instrument for their child were angry that I had made the fingerboard out of purple-heart, and I never saw them again. (Sigh…) My thought had been that a small child might really like that, but I certainly won’t try that again.

Re-installing the Fingerboard

I usually remove the fingerboard to make varnishing easier, as it gives me easy access to the front of the instrument. But that means I have to re-install it perfectly, and that is not as easy as one might expect. Remember, the board is rounded on top; the neck is rounded on the back, and both taper from one end to the other. The only flat surfaces are the surfaces between the two. So, with the slippery, hot, hide glue between them, there is a strong tendency for things to shift under pressure, and result in a bad fit.

What I now do (after years of struggling with the above scenario) is:

  1. Position the board on the neck, exactly the way I want it, dry, then
  2. Clamp it in place, using several clamps on the handle portion, and one larger one at the heel.
  3. Check angles and heights, etc. to be sure everything is really correct.
  4. Loosen and remove the large clamp at the heel, and
  5. Insert hot hide glue, using a thin palette-knife, spreading the glue carefully, to avoid any dry spots, then, immediately replace the clamp.
  6. Wipe off excess glue that squeezed out under clamping pressure, then,
  7. Remove the small clamps, check to be sure nothing moved, and, using the same palette-knife,
  8. Repeat the gluing process on the upper end.
  9. Replace the clamps, checking to be sure nothing has moved.
  10. Wipe off the squeezed-out excess glue, and allow it to dry, and finally, remove all the clamps.

Here is how it looks at this point, after scraping the sides of the fingerboard and neck:

Side view with fingerboard and tuning pegs
Side view with fingerboard and tuning pegs. The nut is not there yet, nor has the fingerboard been dressed. The neck wood is completely devoid of added color.


Front view with fingerboard and tuning pegs.
Front view with fingerboard and tuning pegs. The pegs have not been cut to length, nor have the string-holes been drilled.


Back view with pegs
Back view– same status. You can see the transverse flame in the neck, in this picture, but it is quite faint. It will show up better after I seal the neck.


Dressing the Fingerboard and Smoothing the Neck

I buy my fingerboards as blanks. Every surface is oversize and must be cut to correct dimensions, curves, etc.  So, though the fingerboard looks OK at this point, it will still have to be “dressed”. Dressing the fingerboard means planing, filing and scraping it to produce exactly the shape needed so that, when being played, there will be proper clearance for the vibrating strings and no buzzes anywhere on the board: no humps or hollows, and just the right curves. A slight camber (scoop) is desireable, so that a straight-edge laid longitudinally on the fingerboard will reveal about one string-diameter gap between the middle of the board and the straightedge. That gives the needed string-clearance for the vibrating strings when playing. The transverse profile I shoot for is a radius of 42mm at the “big end” and transitioning to a flatter curve at the nut. Finally, I polish the fingerboard surface, using progressively finer grits, finishing at 1500 grit. At that point it is mirror-shiny, and quite beautiful to look at. I realize it will not stay that way, as wear from the strings, grime from players hands and rosin accumulate, but it is nice to see it that way when it is new.

The sides of the fingerboard have to smoothly fair into the neck, so that one cannot feel the seam at all. This is accomplished by scraping, then filing and sanding with progressively finer grits. I wet down the handle portion of the neck with coffee, to raise the grain, and let it dry. Then I sand off all the raised grain so that it is silky smooth again. I repeat the wetting, drying, and sanding procedure until the grain will no longer raise and it stays smooth after wetting and drying.

On my first few instruments, I did not know this little “secret”, so my beautiful, silky-smooth necks ended up very rough, after just a few days of being played by a sweaty-handed player. They would bring them back, unhappy with the feel of the neck, and I was confused, because I was quite sure I had left them perfectly smooth. I eventually realized what was happening, and began making the “preemptive” move of raising the grain ahead of time, and smoothing it, over and over, until it becomes completely stable. Then I will seal the neck with a tiny amount of spirit varnish (a dime-sized spot on the end of my finger, with a rag), rubbed in hard, until it is dry and shiny. I used to use linseed oil, but it collected dirt, over time, and eventually looked dark and grimy. Using my current method, they stay beautiful and stay smooth. (Everyone else probably already knew that; I guess I am a little slow at learning some things. 🙂 Here are the results of the above paragraphs:

Dressed fingerboard
The camera’s depth-of-field limitations at close range made it difficult to get a very clear shot of this, but you can see how smooth it is. The sides still will receive some more work, to remove the “ripple” you can see, there.

Here is a clearer picture, but it doesn’t have the same perspective that sighting down a freshly-dressed fingerboard provides:

Dressed fingerboard,
Dressed fingerboard, straight-on view.

By the way, I went back and dyed that one light-colored peg:

Dyed G peg
The “G” peg, here, has been dyed, to get closer to the color of the other pegs. When I am done, they will all look the same. This was definitely an improvement, though. 🙂


Finished violin neck
This one was taken after everything else was complete (out of sequence.) But that is what the finished violin neck looks like.

Fitting the Nut

The nut is a tiny piece of Ebony, with the grain transverse to the fingerboard, over which the strings all bend, and on which they converge, as they approach their respective tuning pegs. The shape of the nut is fairly critical to playability, sound and string-life. The feel of the instrument is either good or bad, depending on the shape of the neck, fingerboard and nut, the nut being under the thumb and forefinger of the player more frequently than any other part except the handle portion. So, all of them have to be flawless. That small white rectangle (or trapezoid) in the photograph above, is the footprint of where the nut will be attached.

Here (below) is the nut, freshly glued in place– there will be a little more scraping and filing to do, to bring it to a perfect fit all around, but if you look closely, you can see that the portion standing proud above the surface of the fingerboard is less than a millimeter in height, so the string grooves will be very shallow. I do not want the strings “buried” in the nut, as I feel that it diminishes the tone, as well as having a negative effect on string life.

Fitted nut
Here is the fitted nut, freshly glued in place. There’s a little more shaping, before it is really done, escecially including the string grooves.


side view of the nut and scroll
Here is a side view of the nut, with the scroll and fingerboard. You can see the very slight lip of the nut, standing above the fingerboard.

In the photo immediately above, you can see that the handle portion of the neck is not longer a clean white: that is the third grain-raising with coffee, and it is staying pretty smooth this time. If it does not feel rough, after it dries, I will sand it one last time, and seal the neck after touching up the places where I had to scrape to level the fingerboard seam. Meanwhile, as it is drying, I will fit and set the soundpost.

Soundpost Setting

In several languages of which I am aware (French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian, I think, to begin with), this little thing that looks like a dowel-rod, is called the “soul” of the instrument. That is appropriate, because it has final control over the sound of the violin. If it is set incorrectly, or too tight, too loose, wrong position, wrong angle– whatever–the result will always be negative. That is not to deny that there are a few instruments with odd requirements, so that the soundpost “looks wrong”, but sounds great– and if you try to set it “right”, the sound will suffer. However, as a general rule, there are some standards regarding the placement of the soundpost. Most luthiers start with those values, then make tiny adjustments to coax the best sound from the instrument. Sometimes a difference of 0.2 mm can make a huge difference. Sometimes it seems to make no difference at all. Some instruments are simply more forgiving than others.

In general, the starting position of the soundpost is:

  • Centered, laterally, under the treble bridge foot, but
  • Located one post diameter (more or less) “south” of the back edge of the treble bridge foot. (I frequently end up placing it closer than that.)
  • Vertically adjusted between the back and front plates so that the top and bottom ends fit “airtight”, and under
  • Pressure just a little more than the amount it takes so that if you loosen the strings, the soundpost doesn’t fall over.

I frequently make my posts tighter than this, as I know that in the first six to twelve weeks, the shape of the top will change somewhat, rendering the post much looser than at the beginning. Many makers simply ask the customer to bring the instrument back in six months, for a “post adjustment”.  I just start off a little tight, and still stand ready to re-adjust or replace it if it ever needs it.

I insert the post through the treble f-hole, using a special (traditional) tool called a soundpost setter. I insert the soundpost setter into the post, and then slide the post, tool and all, into the corpus and locate the post as described above. (Sorry; no photos, here– it takes two hands to do the work, and I had no one to take pictures. Maybe some other time.)

Final Set-up

Final set-up included fitting a bridge, adjusting the tail-gut, installing strings and adding a chin-rest. I’ll spare you the details, as, again, it all took two hands, and I was working alone.

The violin is finished. The strings are an old, used set of Dominants I had in a drawer, specifically saved for initial set-up work, as it usually requires many iterations of tensioning and de-tensioning the strings, and that takes the “new” out of new strings very quickly.  But this time I hit the target right on the first try. The strings came out at exactly the right height, which doesn’t happen for me very often.

Anyway, here is the finished instrument:

Finished violin , side view.
Finished violin , side view. These colors are actually pretty close. Not sure why it works sometimes and not others. I will color the bridge a bit when I change the strings.


Front view finished violin.
Front view. I changed my mind about the tailpiece. That is a Wittner tailpiece with four built-in fine tuners. Not ebony, but man-made material, and very light.


Back view finished violin.
Back view. Notice the neck color– the flames show better, now, after sealing and polishing the handle portion.


Finished violin scroll
Scroll, showing the trimmed and domed peg-ends, and the finished and polished nut.

You can see that the varnish has been restored in the places where I had scraped it off during final neck-shaping. The handle has been stained with coffee, sanded and polished to 600-grit, sealed and polished with spirit varnish, and will stay smooth indefinitely. Looks nice, too. 🙂 Those pegs will continue to work in deeper, and will hopefully end up aproximately flush on the terminal side.

Playability and Tone

I try to make sure that the neck is the right shape and size and that all the dimensions are correct, to begin with, but then I bring the string height at the nut as low as I can, to make it an easy touch at the nut. I also adjust the string height at the end of the fingerboard, to an optimum height, for the same reason. Beyond that, the response and volume and ease of speaking are all largely a matter of arching and graduation, I think. Probably wood choice matters, too, but I consider that to be a given.

I do balance the tone of adjacent pairs of strings; that is, I play the “D” on the G-string, and match it to the open string “D” next to it. I adjust the soundpost until the timbre of the two are close enough that it is difficult to hear a crossover. I do the same between the “D” and “A”, and then between the “A” and “E”.  On this one, I was fortunate, in that it was right on the first try. I did not have to move the soundpost from my original setting. (Nice! That doesn’t always happen, either!)

This violin sounds very good, in spite of the old strings. It has lots of volume, and good projection. I will play it for a week or so, then change the strings for a set of Evah Pirazzi strings I bought for that purpose. I think this will be a very powerful instrument, but I need to find a local professional player to run it through its paces. I am really not qualified to put it to the test. 🙂 I play by ear, and not very well, at that. Maybe one of the many teachers in my area will do the honors.

So! There it is! I hope to find a player soon, and then I will give feedback here on the website, with their comments.

Thanks for looking.



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5 String Progress Report #17: Finally done!

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Five String Progress Report #17: Finally finished, Set-up and Playing!

Fair Warning:

I got cranking on the task again, and did not take photos until the job was done.

The photos are at the bottom of the post, so if you want to skip all the narrative, you can scroll to the bottom, and just look at the fiddle.

What I accomplished was to:

  • Dress and polish the fingerboard
  • Install, file to final shape (including string grooves) and polish the nut
  • Install the sound-post
  • Drill and finish the string-holes in the pegs
  • Fair in the ends of the nut with the sides of the upper end of the fingerboard
  • Polish the saddle and endpin
  • Polish the “handle” portion of the neck one last time, and
  • Touch up the varnish around the saddle and other “dings”
  • Rub about 2-3 drops of shellac into the neck: just enough to seal and polish it
  • Fit the bridge
  • Fit the tailpiece
  • Install the strings and chinrest
  • Play that thing!

Dressing the Fingerboard

When we last looked at the fiddle, the fingerboard had been permanently glued in place, but it had not been planed to the proper curvature, either logitudinally, or tranversely. I want the completed fingerboard to have just enough “scoop” longitudinally, that there is nearly a string’s width of clearance under the center of the largest string. This seems to help prevent buzzes, among other things, and helps with intonation, I think. The transverse curve is set at a 42 mm radius. I have a steel template I made of scraper stock that is flat on one side, and has the 42 mm curve on the other. I primarily use it to check the curve, but I can also use it to scrape, and sometimes I do so. All the board-dressing has to be done with the nut removed, obviously. It is smart to mask off the scroll with something, too– tape rags over it, maybe, to prevent hitting it with the plane.

I began with the small “hammer-handle” curved-sole plane, reducing the surface in the center of the board; then a very small, cheap stanley plane, razor-sharp and adjusted for a fine cut. I checked every few minutes to see how the curve was developing. When it began to look reasonable, I switched to a scraper, working diagonally across the board, to get rid of the plane marks. Then I switched to a coarse Swiss file, held flat on the board, and working up and down the board until all the “dull-spots” had begun to be shiny. I check the curve again when it is all smooth, then switch to abrasives, using a hard plastic block that looks like teflon, but is some sort of high-density plastic they use at work sometimes. This was a scrap, and it works well for a sanding block, though a hard wooden block would be fine. It is about 3″ long, 1-1/2″ wide, and 1″ thick.

I started with about 100 grit, then almost immediately switched to 400 grit, then to 600 and finally 1500 grit. With each change, I worked up and down the board until all the board had the same look. After the 1500-grit work the board was very shiny, and exactly the right curvature in both directions.

Installing the Nut

The nut ultimately has to support the upper ends of the strings, just a scootch above the surface of the fingerboard: about the thickness of a good business card is ideal. bear in mind that every “non-open” note is actually touching the fingerboard, so the closer you can get to the board without touching it, the better. This does require that the fingerboard be perfectly dressed, without even the slightest humps or hollows, otherwise it will buzz.

I had already shaped the nut so that it was about a millimeter taller than the end of the fingerboard, exactly the width between the end of the fingerboard and the beginning of the pegbox cavity, and curved to perfectly match the top of the fingerboard. Also, the top of the nut has to “roll off” into the pegbox smoothly, so that there is no sharp break in the curve as the strings go over the nut toward the pegs. We are trying to avoid any unnecessary stress risers in the strings.

I glued the nut in place using the amount of hot hide glue that covered the end of a toothpick. It doesn’t take much at all. Some people only glue the nut to the fingerboard end, not the neck. In some ways that makes sense to me, but I am still in the habit of gluing to both surfaces. Probably I ought to change that: just think about it–the pressure of the strings is holding the nut immovably in place– the only reason you need the glue at all is so that you don’t lose the nut when you are changing the  strings. (Ah, well…next time, maybe.)


While the glue on the nut was drying, I fit the soundpost. I want the completed soundpost to start out about one post width behind the treble foot on the bridge, and pretty much centered on that foot, laterally. In addition, I want it vertical: parallel with the vertical edges of the end and corner blocks. so I remove the end-pin, shove my bi-focals as close to the hole as possible, and, using a bright light source, I maneuver the soundpost into the position I want it. Too tight is better than too loose, as I can keep trimming until the fit is perfect. I can’t put wood back, though, so if I make it too short, the game is over and I have to begin again. (I have done that many times. This takes practice, believe it or not.) A perfectly fitted soundpost is airtight on both ends, just tight enough that it will not fall over when you change the strings, and in exactly the right spot. I will share how I adjust it, though there are undoubtedly as many opinions about that as there are luthiers, so I expect many will disagree. The adjustment has to come after the strings are tuned.

String-holes in the Pegs

By this time, the nut was dry enough I could handle it without fear of knocking it loose, so I could drill the string-holes in the tuning pegs. I used a 1/16″ bit, in an “egg-beater” style hand-cranked drill, to pierce the pegs.

Knowing that the pegs will work their way deeper, over time, as they are used, I have deliberately cut the pegs just a tad short, so that as they work deeper, they will not stick out the other side of the pegbox too far. With that in mind, I also place my string-holes slightly toward the fat end of the peg, inside the box, so that it will not eventually disappear into the other cheek of the pegbox.

I mark the locations with the tip of my small knife, and drill them out, avoiding going through into the pegbox back. What I did this time was to drill part way, and then remove the peg, and complete the hole with the peg held freehand. A lot of luthiers make a drilling jig, that emulates the pegbox, and holds the pegs firmly, and is much more accessible while offering no danger to the fiddle. (I keep telling myself I need to make one of those…one of these days I will get around to it.) After drilling the holes, I dress the ends of the holes with a round file, so they offer less stress to the strings where they pass through the holes.

String-grooves in the Nut

At this point I felt confident that the glue had set on the nut, so I carefully measured and scribed the string grooves in the nut. Then I filed each groove, using an appropriately sized file. As I said before, I use the little tip-cleaning files available in welding shops. You have to make sure you are actually getting the file-type cleaners…the new ones are just twisted wire.

I cut each groove down until it seems the right height above the surface of the board, but I know it will require some fine-tuning once the strings are actually installed. I extend each groove over the curve, and aiming the direction I want the strings to go. I slope the outside two strings inward a little to keep the strings from rubbing on the inside of the pegbox cheek.

Final Polishing

I also file and scrape both ends of the nut, to fair them into the sides of the upper end of the fingerboard, then polish the sides until the joint is very smooth. I polished the saddle and the end-pin, until the ebony glowed like jewelry. I realize it will get dull later, but for now it looks great.

I went ahead and polished the “handle” portion of the neck one last time, using 600-grit and then 1500-grit. Finally, I used a tiny artist’s paint brush to touch-up the varnish any where it had been scratched or in any way damaged during installation of the fitting, and, applying a dime-sized dot of shellac to a rag (about 2-3 drops), I rubbed it vigorously into the handle portion of the neck to seal it against sweaty hands and to polish it so it glows. (Nice-looking fiddle!)

Fitting the Bridge

I no longer use sandpaper in cutting a bridge. I have finally gotten good enough at spotting what needs to be trimmed that I can achieve full fit without resorting to abrasives or even chalk-fitting. This is a job for a sharp knife, and a “calibrated eyeball”.

I begin by setting the bridge blank (I used a Milo Stamm bridge blank this time) on the belly of the violin, centered between the inner nicks of the f-holes. I position the bridge with the branded side toward the tailpiece (away from the fingerboard).

I tip the bridge toward the tail-block just enough to make the “south side” of the bridge perpendicular to the belly (at that point). Then I usually slide  a sharp pencil along the base of the feet on the south side, to establish the curvature of the belly on the feet, so I know where to begin.  When I am done, I want the back side (tail-piece side–south side) of the bridge to be perpendicular to the belly, and the feet to have achieved an “air-tight” fit in their respective spots. When I have managed that starting point, I can begin carving away all “excess wood” on the upper part of the bridge.

I carve using a very sharp, fairly large knife, to get the feet fitted to the top. To complete the fit, I sometimes switch to a very sharp, slightly curved scraper. Once the feet fit perfectly, I hold the bridge firmly in place, with one hand, and slide a pencil along on the fingerboard with the other hand, with the pencil projecting out far enough to scribe the curve onto the bridge. That line will not be correct, but it gives me a place to start. I usually raise up the center of the curve about 3 mm; the bass side about 2.5 mm; and the treble side 1 mm. I fair in the curve across the top, so that it is similar to the fingerboard but more sharply curved.

I trim the top down to that new line, or just above it a millimeter or so, and establish the string positions, making small notches for each string, in exactly the right location, but knowing that the height will be wrong. I then set the height using the strings. I install the tailpiece and all the strings, spacing them out across the bridge, in their respective slots, and measure the height of each string. I want about 5 to 5.5 mm on the C string, about 5.5 to perhaps 6 at most, on the G string, the same on the D, , a litle lower on the A, and about 3 to 3.5 mm on the E string. I check, calculate about how much to take off on each string, if any, then usee a string jack to raise the strings so I can remove the bridge. The string jack will also maintain tension while I work on the bridge, so I can just slip it back in and check the height as I work.

When the string heights are right, I complete the trimming of the bridge, removing all excess wood. I open the “kidneys” and “heart” somewhat, lower the knees, thin the bridge from front to back, so that the upper edge is about 1 mm to 1.5 mm thick. I thin the feet so they are about 1 mm thick at the toes, and thin the ankles appropriately, as well. I don’t like the look of a fresh-cut bridge, so I rub that fresh-white bridge on the back of my head, where there is enough oily scalp under the hair, to take off the white, and leave a thin oily film that looks a little more subdued.

At that point I tune the violin, and check the height of the strings at the nut. I loosen one string at a time, and file the grooves until the strings come very close to the fingerboard, then re-tune.

Adjusting the Tailpiece

This time I got lucky, and arrived at the correct adjustment on the first attempt, but usually I have to take the strings back off, and adjust the tailpiece. What I am after is to get the ratio of the vibrating string length to the “afterlength” between the bridge and the tailpiece to exactly a 6:1 ratio. In this case, the vibrating string length was exactly 330 mm, and the afterlength (measured from the contact point the bridge to the contact point on the tailpiece) was exactly 55 mm. Couldn’t be better!

Installing the Chinrest

There are many types of chinrests, made of many different substances. I have made them from scratch, and have bought ebony, boxwood, Rosewood, and bakelite chinrests. People have different tastes and needs (Allergies are a problem for some people, using some substances…Cocobolo is a bad one for some people; Rosewood for others.) I used bakelite, this time, on the theory that it is light, and will not dampen the vibration of the instrument very much. Besides, I have never heard of anyone having an allergic reaction to bakelite. But fittings are pretty easy to make, and if someone wanted a curly maple chinrest, or whatever, I would certainly make it for them.

Play-in, and Soundpost adjustment

I can’t prove that “play-in” really happens. Most players feel that something changes in the instrument over the first month or so of playing…and that it happens faster if one plays aggressively, loudly, and frequently. So, initially, I play a lot of double-stops, re-tune frequently, and play a lot of scales and songs that are simple enough I can manage them. (I only play by ear, and nothing fancy; Hymns, waltzes, etc., and a few celtic pieces thrown in…)

I adjust the soundpost to try to get the best balance from string to string, and the best quality of sound I can coax out of the violin. I begin by tuning very carefully, then I play the G note on the C string, for instance, and alternate between the open G and the G note on the C-string, listening to the quality of sound, and the relative volume, brightness, etc.  If one is significantly weaker (say, the C-string is weaker  than the G), then I fudge the soundpost very slightly toward the weak-sounding string. Usually just a tiny move is sufficient. once I have adjusted so that the balance is fair across all five strings, if I want it brighter as a whole, I can move the soundpost slightly north, etc. I still want it close to vertical, and still have to have that “air-tight fit”.

Over the next week, I will play it a lot, and keep checking the sound, the balance, etc.


This seems to have about the strongest C-string of all the five-string fiddles I have made. I don’t know if it is due to the Koa wood, or the special arching I experimented with this time. I really hope it is the arching, as I probably can repeat that, but may never get to work with Koa again. The only way to find out is to make another fiddle of some other wood, and duplicate the arching.

The balance is good across all five strings,and quite strong…definitely on the bright side. I expect that the hard heavy Koa wood, in thin graduations, affected that aspect of the sound. The sound is clear, even in higher positions on the bass strings. My anticipation is that, as it plays-in, the sound will open up a good deal more, and mellow somewhat.

Gotta do another one….

Here are the photos:

Finished Front
Finished Front


Finished bass side
Finished bass side


Finished Treble side
Finished Treble side


Finished Back
Finished Back


Bass side scroll
Bass side scroll


Treble side scroll
Treble side scroll


Back of Scroll
Back of Scroll


Front of Scroll
Front of Scroll


Lower “fleur-de-lis”


Upper “Fleur-de-lis”



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5 String Report #16: Adding the Fittings

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Five String Report: Adding Fittings

End pin

I failed to take any photos of this, but– it is pretty simple: I centered a hole on the center joint between the lower ribs, and centered between the plates. I drilled it first to 1/8″, then to 7/32″, and finally reamed it with a 1:30 tapered reamer… the same one I use for tuning pegs. I shaved the endpin blank to the correct size and taper using my peg-shaper, while gripping the endpin with a special homemade gripper. I shaved the endpin until it would just barely fit into the hole, leaving a little clearance between the collar and the rib surface. (There is a photo of it later on…)



In the photo below you can see some of the tools I used to fit the ebony fittings to the violin. Looking at the fingerboard, you can see the three “dots” of glue that secured it to the neck while I was shaping both the neck and the fingerboard. When I re-install the fingerboard, there will be glue on the whole faying surface. The carved out portion will help to lighten the fingerboard, and apparently helps tone.

Fittings waiting to be shaped and installed
Fittings waiting to be shaped and installed.

The black mechanism is the peg shaver I use. The block next to it is the gripper I use for end-pins. The endpin blank is right next to the shaper. The small ebony block between the shaper and fingerboard is the nut blank. The larger ebony block midway along the fingerboard is the saddle blank. The fingerboard has the shape laid out that I intend to carve away, and the gouges and scrapers on the right are the tools with which I did it.

So, one of the first things I did was to make sure my tools were sharp, then I went all around the edges of that trough shape, carving away small chips of ebony to produce a shallow trench all around the edge. Then I carved as best I could with the gouges, until I decided it was time to get the planes into the fight. The little Ibex plane worked well, but the little wooden homemade plane actually worked better, because it has a deeper curve in the sole. It was made of a small section of a broken hammer handle, a piece of scraper blade, and a threaded steel plate to adjust tension and hold the blade in place.

Fingerboard ready for installation.
Fingerboard ready for installation. This part took me about an hour. Ebony is hard stuff.



Next I worked on the saddle: I cut my saddles with radiused front edges, so as to avoid saddle cracks, which are extrmely common in violin-family instruments…partly, I am convinced, because virtually everyone makes them with square corners, which adds a huge stress-riser to that location in the spruce. To me, that is asking for a crack. I try to avoid suich things.

Saddle footprint with curved front corners.
Saddle footprint with curved front corners.

Some luthiers try to avoid cracks by leaving a small gap on the ends…that makes good sense, too, but why not eliminate the “notch” altogether? Just my opinion…. Either way, you have to remove the wood of the violin front plate to receive the ebony saddle. I use a thin knife to slice through the spruce, and then a flat chisel to loosen the piece being removed. I set aside the piece in case it turns out I made an error of some kind, and need to put some back. It is a whole lot easier to match grain from the piece you just removed, rather than from some random piece of spruce.

Once the saddle fits the mortise perfectly, leaving a small gap on each end (about the thickness of a business card), I glue the saddle in place, and forget about it. Here is a photo of the finished saddle. I didn’t take photos while I was carving. I get pretty wrapped up in what I am doing and forget to take pictures.

Saddle and endpin
Saddle and endpin


saddle and endpin
Another view of the saddle and endpin. (Pretty ribs, huh?) Varnish touch-up still has to happen.



The next issue was the pegs. I wanted them done before I installed the fingerboard, simply because I wanted to be able to set the instrument aside so that the glue under the fingerboard could dry, and not feel that I was being prevented from working.

I had earlier drilled pilot holes in the pegbox, so that I would have guides to help keep the holes perpendicular to the centerline. So I reamed out those holes, all to approximately the same size, using the same reamer (1:30 taper) as I used for the endpin.

Then I sliced a shallow groove next to the collar, on each peg, all the way around, using a very fine razor-saw, to avoid breaking off the collar. (Doesn’t always work, but it seems to help.) I shaved the pegs until they fit the holes, at nearly the right depth, then “greased ’em up” with peg dope, and worked them in, so that the holes and pegs fit perfectly. Later I trimmed off the excess length of each peg on the far side of the pegbox, domed and polished the cut ends, so they would look nice, and put the pegs back in place.

Saddle and pegs installed.
Saddle and pegs installed.


Fingerboard Installation

Last, I installed the fingerboard…I had marked ahead of time the exact location where the nut and fingerboard were to meet; so now, all I have to do is put the fingerboard exactly where it was before (against that line) and glue it in place. I positioned it using a single spring clamp and aligned the upper end as closely as I could, then aligned the lower end as well, and added a large spring clamp in that location. Finally, I re-adjusted the upper and lower clamps until both ends were perfect.

Then I removed the lower clamp, and, using a thin palette knife, I ladled hot hide glue into the space between the neck and fingerboard, sliding the blade up the neck as far as it would comfortably go, and replaced that clamp so that it squeezed out hot hide glue all around. I cleaned up the excess quickly, and double checked to make sure that the position was again perfect.

Then I removed the upper clamp, and repeated the gluing routine, but this time, as I cleaned up, I kept adding more clamps, removing a previous one, and wiping carefully, until I had four clamps in place and no glue drops where they did not belong.

Fingerboard installed with hot hide glue and spring clamps.
Fingerboard installed with hot hide glue and spring clamps.

That was pretty much the end of the day. My hands were tired and hurting, and I had other things that needed to be done. Much later, I got back and removed the clamps:

Side view with fittings.
Side view with fittings.


Back view with fittings.
Back view with fittings.

The nut will have to wait until the fingerboard has been planed and scraped to exactly the right curvature, and polished smooth. We call that “dressing” the fingerboard.

After that it will be “set-up” time.

My next post will show the finished fiddle, strings and all.

Thanks for looking.

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Final assembly of a finished cello.

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Once the varnish is finished and dry, I complete the final assembly of the cello.

Adding the Saddle

I do something a little different with my saddles: it is not immediately obvious, but the left and right corners of the saddles frequently are a source of cracks in the front plate. Many luthiers combat this tendency by adding a small gap on each side of the saddle, to allow the plates to shrink a little without stressing those corners. I take it a step further, and actually eliminate the corners by putting a significant radius (maybe 10mm) on each corner, so that they are smoothly rounded. Sharp corners are a stress riser, and eventually a crack will form there. A rounded corner adds much less stress to the plate, and, as I also leave the small gap for shrinkage, I anticipate that there will never be a saddle crack in these instruments.

The saddle is cut all the way through the plate, so that it rests upon (and is glued to) the end block. It extends 30mm on each side of the center line and 12mm into the plate. The saddle provides a hard bearing surface for the tailgut to rest upon, so that it does not dig into the soft spruce of the front plate. It is about 12mm high (above the block) at its highest point, but the point is not centered; it is about at the forward third , so that the pressure of the tailgut is transferred directly down into the block, and does not cause the saddle to flip over in either direction.

Adding the Nut

There are two different styles of cello nut: one style allows the contour of the nut to match that of the fingerboard, around the corners, and drops down to about 5mm thick over the corners of the pegbox cheeks. The other follows the contour of the fingerboard, but then extends that contour in a smooth curve down to the corners of the pegbox cheeks, so that the nut follows a smooth arc all the way across. I have done the first way in the past. this time I chose the second. I think I like it.

The nut provides a hard bearing surface for the strings to rest upon, and provides a tiny clearance over the fingerboard, so that the end of the string length is a clean sharp edge, and makes a clear sound.

Installing the pegs.

Once the nut and saddle were glued in place, it was time to start the pegs. I had drilled the pilot holes before beginning the carving of the pegbox, so now all I had to do was to ream them to the correct size with a peg-hole reamer, then shave the pegs to match, using a peg shaver. It sounds easy, but it is fairly laborious and time consuming; Cello pegs are pretty big, and we are shaving off an awful lot of wood. Same for the holes…there is a lot of work in those four little holes. Once the pegs have been correctly fitted, they are treated with a peg-compound that provides a heavy, stiff lubrication…the peg is not supposed to either slip or stick…it should hold the tension of the strings without failing, but allow the player to adjust the pitch smoothly and easily. Once the pegs fit correctly, they have to be removed and trimmed to the appropriate length, the ends polished, and holes drilled for the strings.

Installing the end-pin

Finally, the end-pin hole had to be drilled and reamed, and the end-pin shaved to fit the hole. Pretty much the same procedure as the pegs, with the exception that it is fairly ticklish toward the end…one twist too far, and the end-pin will be loose (guess how I know). If that happens you can use a spiral bushing to shrink the hole back down a tiny bit, and save the day.

I began by using a 5/8″ spade bit to drill a hole all the way through the end block, precisely at the center of the end seam, and perpendicular to the surface, there. Then I used a large tapered reamer to enlarge it into a tapered hole ready to receive the end-pin assembly. The final hole was about 7/8″ diameter at the outer opening.

Other tasks

I did build some cello stands a few days ago, and a rack to hold violins and violas (I settled on a capacity of six instruments). I still have to stain and finish those items, so I can pad them all and have them ready for the upcoming show.

But the cello is essentially done. All that remains now is to cut the string slots in the nut, drill the pegs for strings, fit a bridge and soundpost, and set it up. (Simple, right?)  Anyway, here is how it looks today:

Cello front with nut, saddle, pegs and endpin.
Cello front with nut, saddle, pegs and end-pin.
Cello side with pegs and end pin.
Cello side with pegs and end pin.
Cello back with pegs and end-pin.
Cello back with pegs and end-pin.
Cello scroll with nut and pegs.
Cello scroll with nut and pegs.
Cello scroll back with pegs.
Cello scroll back with pegs.

I will still have to give a final polish to all the ebony parts and the varnish, of course, but the cello is very nearly complete. After everything else, I will stain and add a light finish to the handle portion of the neck, so that it does not look so white, and will not pick up dirt too badly.

Here is the completed cello:

Completed Cello, modeled after the 1712
Completed Cello, modeled after the 1712 “Davidov” Stradivarius

The cello plays very well, and I trust I will find a home for it. I am not surprised that it responds well– this is modelled after the 1712 “Davidov” cello, by Antonio Stradivari…and the original is in professional use by Yo Yo Ma, today. I feel good about that pedigree….

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