Finishing the Finish

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Finishing the Finish

Color Coats

When I last posted, I had only the yellow, base coats of varnish in place, so the violin looked like this:

Yellow Varnish
Yellow varnish


I added a rapid series of color coats; very thin, deeply-tinted varnish, and then it looked like this:

Color coat front
Color coat, front; emulating the wear patterns on the original 1715 “Titian” Stradivarius violin.


Color Coat, Back.
Color coat, back. Sorry for the poor quality photo…I used the zoom on my phone. Bad choice.


After that coat was good and dry, I continued to build the color in the areas that needed more, and trying to leave it appropriately light in the areas where the Old Master instrument had the most severe wear. I also noticed that there was a “bump”–a ridge in the spruce, near the purfling, which I had not been able to see in the clean, fresh wood, but which, under a reflective layer, became quite apparent. (Sigh...) So, I used a sharp scraper to bring the ridge down flat, and then began rebuilding the varnish layers to match the rest of the area.

Corrective “surgery”…removed a ridge in the spruce that I had missed earlier. Rebuilding the varnish, now.


The back was looking pretty nice, though:

Back nearly complete.
Back nearly complete.


And, today, I installed the soundpost, and then applied two coats of clear varnish. Afterward, I installed the end-pin, the tuning pegs, and the fingerboard. Here it is with the clamps still in place.

End-pin, fingerboard and pegs installed
End-pin, fingerboard and pegs installed; pegs still need to be trimmed to length.


Endpin couldn’t be seem in the previous photo…here it is.


Violin front, prior to set-up
Violin front, prior to set-up.


Violin back, prior to set-up.
Violin back, prior to set-up.


So: That’s as far as I got, today. Next time; the saddle, the nut and final set-up. This violin is nearly completed!


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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.


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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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Great-Great Grandpa Gray’s Fiddle

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Great-Great Grandpa’s Fiddle

Heritage and History

When my maternal Grandfather (Dr. L. E. Green, of Mississippi) was nearing death, he gave me his Grandfather’s (hence, my great-great-grandfather’s) fiddle. It was, coincidentally, the violin on which my mother had also learned to play. She had later been given a much better violin when she graduated from college, but this is the one her great-grandpa Gray played, and the one she learned on. I had been told about it, but had not seen it until it arrived at my house.

I knew nothing about violins, at the time, so I strung it up, and wondered why it sounded bad. I noticed there was a little piece of “dowel” rolling around in the case, and asked around…it turned out, of course, that the soundpost had been removed, and that was it. I took a stiff piece of fencing wire and sharpened it, bent it into an appropriate curve, and taught myself to set a soundpost. It still didn’t sound great, but it was great-great-Grandpa’s fiddle: thus, precious in its own right.

Grandpa Green had sent me the original bow (repaired by some well-meaning amateur– (bullet-casing reinforcement around the shank where the button screws in, because of a crack, etc.), but it had no hair, and was unusable at the moment, so he had bought an (extremely) cheap bow, and sent it along, as well. The case was just a typical, worn-out molded wood and fabric hard-case.

All we knew about the history of the fiddle was that great-great Grandpa Gray had bought it second-hand, in New Orleans, in 1900. I did enough snooping around to figure out that it had probably cost $2-3 or thereabouts, 5-10 years earlier, brand-new, being imported from Germany among hundreds of thousands of others, in the late 1800’s.  The only things that made is “special” were the fact that it had been Grandpa Gray’s fiddle, and the fact that the back had an unusual inlay pattern involving a very fine “weave” of purfling with chips of abalone shell adorning the spaces between them. The gaps around the chips of shell were filled with a mastic evidently composed of hide-glue and ebony dust, or the like…possibly just charcoal dust and glue. It was somewhat crudely made, of mediocre to poor wood with a prominent knot in the soundboard (!) and a typical cheap 19th century German trade-fiddle finish. (see Photos)

Fiddle Front
Fiddle Front
Fiddle Back
Fiddle Back
Scroll, showing repaired A-peg crack, and spiral-bushed peg-holes.
Scroll, showing repaired A-peg crack, and spiral-bushed peg-holes.

Waking Up to Sing Again

I played that fiddle off and on (mostly off) for a while, and the sound didn’t improve a lot, but it was acceptable, because…it was Grandpa’s fiddle. During that time, all three of my chidren were learning to play, as well.

About a year and a half later, I heard my daughter playing a tune in the kitchen. The music was the same as she always played on her own violin, but it sounded different–considerably better, actually. So I walked in  to see what violin she was using. It was Grandpa’s fiddle!

I couldn’t understand why it suddenly sounded so good, so I took it from her and I tried it myself, thinking that it must simply be that she was a better player than I; but it sounded good for me, too. Evidently, part of the problem had been that the poor thing had sat neglected for 50 years, and had never been played at all during those years, so it took over a year of being under full string pressure, and sporadically played, for it to “wake up” and “remember that it was a violin.” It was quite an eye-opener. I had heard about the need for violins to be “played in”; probably had I played it more aggressively and much more frequently, the change would have come sooner. Good lesson there, somewhere.

A Little More History:

Years later, after I had begun building violins and other instruments, I took Grandpa Gray’s fiddle to Paul Schuback, a local expert (“local”, only in the sense that he lives and works near me– he is internationally reknowned as a violin expert), to see if he had any insight into the background of the instrument.

When I opened the case, Paul’s eyes lit up. He exclaimed, “I know exactly where that came from…I’ve been there, many times.” He went on to explain that the cow-herders near Mittenwald, Germany, had nothing much to do in winter (as the cattle were safe in their lowland pens and barns for the season) so they made violins as a “cottage industry”. He had been there, personally, in the 1960’s or 70s, when the modern heirs of the practice brought in a gunny-sack (literally) full of unvarnished violins they had built during the winter months and sold them to the lutherie school at Mittenwald. The students there would complete the instruments, varnish them, set them up, and ship them to the USA for sale. The cow-herd made a little money, the school made a little money,  the importers and dealers in the US made a little money, and the buyer got a cheap fiddle. Everyone benefited.

I have seen many of these instruments, as they seem to be about as common as houseflies, but this is the only one I have personally seen that had this specific inlay pattern on the back. (I’ve seen similar ones on the internet.)

I have no doubt that, if I opened the corpus, I would find that the front plate was extremely rough on the inside (“rough”, as in, “looks like chainsaw sculpture”) and that the bass bar is carved as part of the plate, rather than glued in separately. (As I say, I have met with this sort many times, over the last decade.) But I have no call to remove the top plate; only to repair the cracked pegbox…which I did do, eventually, and spiral bushed the peg-holes, so that I could intall new, better-quality tuning pegs.  Other than that, I intend no changes.  It is what it is… Great-great Grandpa’s Fiddle…and I’m the “Keeper of the Fiddle” for this generation.

In Imitation of the Original

When I began building instruments, my first was a small viola, for my son, Brian. I knew that he especially liked Grandpa Gray’s fiddle, and I thought that the inlay was what he particularly liked. So I carefully copied the inlay pattern, and even took it a step further, cutting the abalone shell to fit the spaces, and filing them flush, rather than just jamming chips into glue, and filling the gaps with mastic. Added an abalone cap to the button, too. Lot’s of peculiarities, due to ignorance and inexperience. But it played well, and sounded pretty good…and it is a pretty thing, even with all the amateurish “oddness-es”.

First instrument, a small viola, with abalone inlay and purfling weave.
First instrument, a small viola, with abalone inlay and purfling weave.
Brian's Viola Back Detail
Brian’s Viola Back Detail

After I was nearly done, Brian was lovingly handling Grandpa Gray’s old fiddle, turning it in his hands and admiring its simple, rustic beauty. He said, “You know what I really like about this violin?” I said, “What?” and confidently waited to hear that it was the inlay….

He turned the violin face up, and tapped with his finger: “This knot, in the front…”

Knot in the front of Grandpa's Fiddle
Knot in the front of Grandpa’s Fiddle

(Sigh…) 🙂

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