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:
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. 🙂
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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I used scrapers, very gently, in tight corners, and very worn 400-grit abrasive paper, more aggressively, on the easily accessible areas, to remove all the loose, or overly thick areas of the gypsum pore-filler from yesterday. It took longer than I expected, but this was the result:
You can see that the grain is somewhat obscured, and the color is quite light. I am wondering whether I did not succeed in rubbing the gypsum into the wood, as thoroughly as usual. Usually, the color has been nearly chalk-white. I can see the gypsum in the wood, though, so I am going to press on with the sealer coat.
This time, the sealer consisted of ordinary rosin in a solution of “pure spirits of gum turpentine”. I probably should have made it a little thinner. It was about like light syrup; so, afterward, I dipped the brush in plain turpentine, and went back over the instrument to help the stuff penetrate a little better. The turpentine will all evaporate over the next few days (I hope), leaving only the rosin, solidifying in the pores of the wood. It is always impressive to see just how completely the gypsum disappears, under the sealer.
Until that sealer dries completely, I will have to find other things to do. But it is hanging in a warm room, so it should dry rapidly.
After that, It will be varnish coat after varnish coat, until it it is all done. Then the final set-up can occur.
Thanks for looking.
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I had a number of other projects going, so I neglected to maintain the website presence…the only post lately has been of another violin resurrection. But…I hope to change that.
The last post was of the neck-set on the 3/4 violin. It looked like this– but the back plate was not made, yet. Most makers complete the entire corpus, then set the neck. I complete the rib garland and the front plate, then set the neck while the inside mold is still in place. This allows me to get the neck-set perfect, and to level the back of the garland, including the back of the neck-heel, before making the plate. When I install the plate, it fits perfectly, only requiring the final trimming of the heel and button together, to establish the optimum height in the center of the curve of the heel.
Completing the Back Plate
So, the next thing was to trace the back plate, and complete it:
I begin by measuring the thicknesses all over the plate, so as not to run into any surprises and make the plate too thin. Then I use gouges and planes to bring all the thickness close to what I want. But, to make sure I don’t go too far, I measure and carve out small spots all over, to the exact thickness I want in each little “polka-dot”. That makes a “graduation map” that allows me to follow my plan to completion, by removing all the excess wood between the dots, thus “connecting the dots.”
There are other ways to do this. One involves a special tool, commonly called a “Strad-Spike”, because one was found among the tools of Antonio Stradivari. I have seen them and and have actually used them, but have never gotten around to building one. So…
By the way, I think it is interesting to hold the plates up to a lamp and see how much light comes through:
Closing the Corpus
Finally, to install the label and close the corpus. (I always forget to take a picture of the label…sorry.) Most makers put their label in after everything is fully completed. I used to do that, but I found it so frustrating to get a glue-coated label through the f-hole, line it up correctly and get it smoothed out on the back plate…all working through the f-hole…that I decided my labels will go in when I close the corpus; always. That means the label predates the completion by a few weeks at most, as a rule. I think one time there was a long wait, but that was the lone exception.
I removed the fingerboard so as to be able to easily access the entire exterior, for final scraping and finishing.
After that, I had a lot of “scraping and looking” to do. (Scrape and look, using a low-angle, dim light, then scrape and look some more.) When everything was as smooth as I could make it, and exactly the shape I wanted, I stained the entire violin with coffee, to get rid of the stark-white bare, new-wood look. It takes at least three coats, usually, to get the color dark enough that it will not shine through the varnish. The collateral effect is that the grain raises because of the water. So, I sand it lightly, to smooth the grain “just enough.” I want the grain to be visible in the final state, but not too visible.
Then, I rubbed in a coat of the mineral ground. I brush it on liberally, rub it in hard, with my fingers, then wipe it off as hard as I can, using a rag. When it dries, the instrument will be whiter than ever– chalk-white, all over. The first time I did this I was pretty alarmed at the look, but I had just watched Roger Hargrave do the same thing, and knew that the white mineral would completely disappear with the first coat of sealer or varnish. And it did!
Here is the violin with the sealer applied:
After that it was a case of applying several coats of golden varnish, then a few coats of red-brown varnish, and a final two coats of the golden stuff.
Standard set-up, and the violin will be done! That includes the saddle and endpin, as well as re-installing the fingerboard, fitting and installing pegs, a bridge, the nut, the soundpost, tailpiece, and strings. A chinrest completes the instrument.
The varying thicknesses of the top plate can then be traced onto the saddle itself, and final shaping can begin.
Finally the little violin is complete!
Thanks for looking. Please keep in mind that the Marylhurst Musical Instrument Show will be April 29th and 3oth. If you can make it, I hope to see you there. This little violin will be there for you to test drive, along with others.
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Repair Procedure: “Young Lady from Alabama” Violin 1/2017
This Violin came to me because a young lady in Alabama had read my article on violin repair, and decided she wanted me to fix her fiddle.
She sent me a few photographs to see whether I thought it was repairable and worth repairing. I said yes, on both counts, and she shipped me the violin. She knew that it was not an expensive, high-quality violin, but it was special to her, and she felt that the investment would return a better violin for her to play than the cheap one she was currently playing, and give her more pleasure as well, because of the sentimental attachment.
Here is the original photo I saw:
She sent me the fiddle, carefully packed, and it arrived unharmed. Fortunately, I got home immediately after the FedEx people dropped the package on my porch, as it was raining hard, but the package was nearly completely dry.
But, this is what I found inside:
Starting Condition (as seen from outside):
The neck is separated from the button. (above)
The neck block is broken. (below)
The treble side upper bout rib is damaged at neck joint (and is “re-touched” with red ink).
There is missing wood at the heel of the neck.
There is at least one repaired crack in the top plate.
Remove all the fittings and strings; store them in the case pocket.
Remove the neck.
Make a cork-lined clamping caul, to hold the ribs in proper alignment.
Remove the top plate and inspect all interior conditions.
Crack repair was “OK”, but minimal: add 2 cleats, clean up the three old cleats.
There is missing wood from previous top removal. Repair it, before closing.
The bass-side upper bout rib is cracked. Repair it before closing.
The saddle fell off—re-install after closing.
Remove the old neck-block.
Repair the damaged ribs, and replace the missing wood at the neck-heel.
Install the new block, using hot hide glue and clamping caul.
Level the front of the garland.
Re-install the repaired front plate, including original saddle.
Re-set the repaired neck.
Minimally “dress” the Fingerboard.
Retouch the varnish all over, as needed. (It should look nearly new…the violin was quite glossy before.)
Set-up the violin, using old pegs and chinrest, but replacing all else.
New tailpiece with four tuners (with her approval)
New Dominant strings
New cork on Chinrest clamping surfaces
Add a few business cards
Add an invoice.
Play and adjust for best sound.
Pack and ship to Owner
Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? And, really, that is about how it worked out:
There was also missing wood at the neck-heel: At some point in the history of this fiddle, it had been snapped loose from the neck block, and a piece of wood about the size and shape of a fingernail had chipped out of the gluing surface of the neck. (photo up above) This is a critical joint, so the wood had to be replaced.
I soaked a thin piece of aged maple in hot water until it was flexible, during which time I scraped smooth the scooped out place in the heel. Then I slathered in the hot hide glue, and clamped the now-flexible maple into the “scoop”, using a cork for a clamping block. When the glue was completely dry, I planed the wood flat to match the original shape of the neck heel.
Meanwhile, the inside of the top plate needed attention: there was a (poorly) repaired crack to attend to, several bits of missing wood, etc.
I replaced any missing wood using spruce, cut to fit, and hot hide glue. While I had the top off, I cleaned up the old crack, and added two more diamond-shaped cleats. The importance of this shape is that it minimizes stress on the grain of the undamaged wood. That square, block (center cleat) above could cause a new crack to form along its edge. I eventually carved the old cleats to a thin taper, to minimize the danger.
Finally, the top can be re-installed on the garland. First I leveled the garland, so that any inconsistencies caused by my replacing that neck-block will be eliminated, and the top will fit cleanly. Then I dry-clamped the top in place, and, loosening a few clamps at a time, I inserted hot hide glue all around the edges, especially at all six blocks. As I completed the glue insertion in each area, I replaced the clamps and gently re-tightened them, then cleaned off any glue squeeze-out.
The result? The body is reassembled and the next step is re-setting the neck.
Once the neck is fitting exactly, I double check all dimensions and angles and finally slather hot hide-glue in the joint and ram the neck-heel home, checking rapidly to make sure everything is still correct. Then I clamp it so that it stays secure until that glue is fully set and dry.
So, I have to file and smooth the neck-heel joint, then re-touch the varnish so that the old and new are a close match, at the heel and both ribs. Then re-touch all the varnish, not attempting to make it new, but to cover any bare or damaged wood with varnish that matches the original varnish.
The rib-patch is not invisible, but it is no longer objectionable, so I am satisfied.
And finally, everything is done! The set-up is complete, all the old dings and scuffs have been retouched, and the old fiddle looks and sounds great.
Time for this one to go home.
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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
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:
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.
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:
Position the board on the neck, exactly the way I want it, dry, then
Clamp it in place, using several clamps on the handle portion, and one larger one at the heel.
Check angles and heights, etc. to be sure everything is really correct.
Loosen and remove the large clamp at the heel, and
Insert hot hide glue, using a thin palette-knife, spreading the glue carefully, to avoid any dry spots, then, immediately replace the clamp.
Wipe off excess glue that squeezed out under clamping pressure, then,
Remove the small clamps, check to be sure nothing moved, and, using the same palette-knife,
Repeat the gluing process on the upper end.
Replace the clamps, checking to be sure nothing has moved.
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:
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:
Here is a clearer picture, but it doesn’t have the same perspective that sighting down a freshly-dressed fingerboard provides:
By the way, I went back and dyed that one light-colored peg:
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.
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.
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 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:
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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Five String Progress Report #17: Finally finished, Set-up and Playing!
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.
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:
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