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Scroll is based on the stern-piece of the Oseberg Viking Ship. Here's an earlier shot, during the varnishing.
As we say when we're being vocally emotional: I am not completely unhappy with it.
The body form is based on the Brothers Amati that I drew several years back, following Francois Denis' method, and the f-holes are del Gesu inspired.
My most recent, being a violin for about a week now, is based on a del Gesu, the 'Plowden'. The form comes from my tracing of a CT scan from the poster put out by Strad Magazine a few years back.
I'm not completely unhappy with this one, either. Both are still stretching and growing. Kinda fun to play them each day, note the changes.
I also just shipped off a fiddle, constucted here, that is a Christmas present, so I won't spill the beans yet.
And an eastern European white viola that I had been varnishing and set-up went out the door to a very happy customer. She actually got it before it was really ready, having had a bad accident with her then-current viola, and needed an instrument for a few holiday concerts. But she liked it enough as-was to buy it. Just did the final intial adjustments this week, after the concerts.
I've made a few violins, that work to some degree, so I know at least a couple ways to build one. But violin-making is like so many other intellectual activities: the more we learn, the more we realize how little we actually do know. We start to get a glimpse of possibly what might be out there to be discovered.
When I write 'we', I certainly mean 'I', but maybe also 'you'.
When I first read of Brian Derber's new book on violin-making, I said to myself that I did not need another expensive violin book, that what I needed to do was to just keep cutting wood. If I had extra money, buy more wood. Or maybe a new tool.
I made the mistake of looking on the web-page for the book. It has a couple sample pages. I made the further mistake of looking at those sample pages. From them, I learned a way of looking at the fluting in f-holes that I thought was just spectacular. It made sense.
Within a couple days, I contacted Brian Derber via e-mail to order the book.
It's good. I have not read all of it. It is huge. But I have read the sections pertinent to the viola and hardanger fiddle I had already started making. In the spirit of an adventure -- not to mention I paid for the book, so I'm going to use it! -- I altered the way I am doing the rough arching (photo above) to follow the process in the book. Not a conversion necessarily, but an experiment, a playing with a new-to-me method.
In any book, there is a chain of knowledge. In 'how-to' books it might go something like this: From what the author thought, to what the author wrote, to what was finally printed, to what the reader read, to what the reader understood, to what the reader could convert into a physical object. We do what we can and adjust from there.
So I have the new book. I am also continuing to cut wood. Learning. It's fun.
If you are interested in the book, you can find the link here -- The Manual of Violin Making, by Brian Derber.
If the link does not work, you can find Brian at the
- New World School of Violin Making
- 6970 Red Lake Dr.
- Presque Isle, WI 54557
There's nothing to beat the experience of attending a workshop, seeing the work being done in person, getting feedback, and so on. I've attended the Southern California Violin Makers Workshop several times, and can recommend it. I also attended the now-defunct violin-making workshop that was held at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California, lead by Boyd Poulsen. There are other good workshops out there. You can go to one.
Brian's book is really good supplement to that experience. Good text, plenty of photos. And if you can't attend a workshop, but are determined to build fiddles, it would be useful.
In other exciting news, my car's odometer rolled over 100,000 miles last night on the way back from Scottish Country Dance. It's been a good car, a 2010 Kia Soul that I bought new in 2009, and I hope to be driving it for several more years.
Combining the current craft-beer renaissance with good cars and good information on violin-making, I conclude that we live in the best of times.
Tool marks bear witness to the work that went in to making something by hand.
When making a forensic study of historic musical instruments it is possible to learn about the tools and methods of work used in construction by subtle hints left behind.
I have been fortunate to see several collections of early instruments over the years and a few times my enthusiasm led to being admitted to the “inner sanctum” of a museum collection. While working at Elderly Instruments I handled and studied some of the finest vintage fretted instruments made during the last 150 or so years.
The industrial revolution gave the world consistency of reproduction; multiple copies of the same object would look and work identically to any other that came off the assembly line. What was lost was the human touch, the soul that was given to each object by an artisan’s hands.
Many of the fine historic instruments I have studied showed telltale signs of being hand crafted. There were slight inconsistencies in shape and proportion and signs that a skilled hand had executed the work. These same instruments were not “clean” according to current manufacturing standards. By this I mean the finish did not turn wood into something looking like a laminated counter-top, sound holes and decorative features showed the skill of the maker and not the precision of a cookie cutter.
Tool marks are witnesses and signatures of the hands that made things. I am not referring to careless work or swirls left by machine sanding; I am referring to slight irregularities of cut and line, small marks left in wood by an edge tool showing where parts were hand shaped and fitted, etc.
In my own work as a dulcimer maker I prefer to leave subtle tool marks as they naturally arise.
As an example, the photograph above shows the braces and center reinforcement strip on the back of a dulcimer. I shaped the center strip with a chisel and scraper. Left behind are some slight irregularities in the bevels on the sides of the center strip. I could sand the center strip to perfection but I see no point to it. I am proud of what I accomplished using two simple hand tools and feel no need to hide that in my work by sanding it to oblivion.
Working this way causes me to increasingly develop my skill and confidence using tools. I enjoy that as well.
After an hour of slicing off maple, 10 minutes on the spruce is a real pleasure. Outline here is still quite rough, to allow for any weird chipping out at the edges. I know how I work. Maybe a little too fast at this point, but I compensate for that failing by leaving a good margin. It's easy enough to work down as the plates get thinner.
Here are the back and the top, with the edges cleaned up a little, still out from the final shape.
Many people secretly aspire to be "the artist", but they have been told their entire lives that only those "with the magic" can see the world as it is and portrait it as such. It is unfortunate that so many people believe what they are told and never try to "look" at the world and "see it". We are told that we "that special something", talent, to draw, sculpt or create any thing.
Let me tell you that you don't need "talent" or "magic" to create, you need to have the desire to draw well, to learn how to read music, to play the piano, or take an axe to a piece of wood to make an idea you in your head into something that is tangible and stands in front of you.
I want to recommend a book to buy for yourself, or anyone on your holiday list,
The Zen of Seeing, by Frederick Franck.
Never has it been more urgent to speak of seeing. Ever more gadgets, from cameras to computers, from art books to videotapes, conspire to take over our thinking, our feeling, our experiencing, our seeing. Onlookers we are, spectators...
Franck was a well known artist, who's works are in great art museums in the United States, Europe and Japan. He was also a medical doctor that worked closely with the great Dr. Albert Schweitzer.
The main premise of this book is to go outside and sit quietly, to look and to draw what you see and not to worry about the outcome. Leave behind your academic training and all the things you were ever told about how you can't draw, sit down in a meadow and draw blades of grass, or your hand, leaves on a tree, or the sash in the window of a Victorian house. Why not pull out that old Stanley plane, set it on your workbench and really look at it, then draw it? You might be surprised at the results. And think, drawing skills can carry over into woodworking, music, cooking and how to converse with folks, just to mention a few areas of life that we all need to work on.
The book was written in 1973, but everything Franck says is valid today, perhaps more so because we are so inundated by media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., that as a species we need to step back and reconnect to nature, to ourselves.
Buy the book and give it a try, because as it states on the back cover of the book,
Even if you have never thought of drawing, if you claim to be one of those people who cannot draw a straight line, this book will make you want to pick up a pencil and begin...to SEE.
Can you guess what book I will be re-reading the next couple of days?
I asked several classical guitarists what guitar-related items they would like to receive as gifts this season, and I got very good feed back that I will share with you this week and perhaps into next.
#1 Most Requested Item
A one year supply of guitar strings!
Guitarists who practice, play and perform on a regular can wear out a set of strings in just one week!
The oils from you hand actually clog the metal windings on the bass strings. Bass strings can be washed in an ammonia solution or hot soapy water and then line dried, but eventually the strings become thump sounding. The clear treble strings fair better, but still become worn out with playing.
I remember in college having to do the weekly or bi-weekly trips to the local music store, and then there were the phone calls home asking for money to buy strings.
A call from a local middle-school orchestra teacher. "One of my students broke the scroll off a viola, and I need it repaired. It's borrowed from another school!" So, here it is. Not just the scroll, but the entire pegbox. A really bad break. Financially not worth repairing. It is, at first glance, an older 15" student viola, which has put in plenty of years work. Just replace it.
"Can't do that. It's borrowed. I can't say her viola is broken."
It will cost _________.
Pause. "I don't have that much money in my budget."
So here it is. I'm trying to figure something to do, and I think I have. Not charging enough. Hoping the work also serves as pennance for some sin, past or future.
But the back --
It just amazed me. It has long been proven beyond any reasonable doubt that it is impossible to photograph varnish. Photos, even video, can not catch the reflections as you or the instrument move through the light. Even with a camera as nice as a cell-phone. But here are some photos.
A one-piece back, with great clarity and motion. It could be as simple as amber shellac and clear spirit varnish. The wood, underneath, is aging to something of a grey-green. It's a great combination.
So, even if I don't gain any pennance from it, at least this one may have a chance to make music again.
And I have a new conceptual model for varnish color.
Several years ago, I joined the top and back and inlaid a Manuel Ramirez style rosette in the top with the intention of making a small bodied classical guitar with a fairly short string length, something like a 625mm to a 635mm scale. The project got put aside, there were orders for standard, or full size classical guitars, that guitar would have to wait.
In October, I pulled out the wood so I could work on it over weekends. I planed the back, I thinned the sides and thinned entire top to 2mm. The edges got thinned to about 1.5mm. Sitka spruce is stiff stuff, I want this guitar to be responsive, and thinning the edges a little more helps be responsive.
Then came the neck. After selecting a nice piece of Spanish cedar for the neck, I had to make a decision as to the string length of the guitar. Since the top was all ready cut out for a body length of 470mm, as opposed to 480mm-495mm body length for a "standard" classical, I couldn't make it into a guitar with a 650mm. A 630mm string is a little short for most people, I chose to make with a 640mm string length. The guitar will have plenty of loudness with that length and will be just a little easier to play.
Today, I glued all the "fan" braces and the transverse braces to the top with hot hide glue. I really like hot hide glue! And I got one brace glued onto the back! I bent the sides last week, I will attach those after I attach the top to the neck.
The goal is to have this guitar ready for bindings by the end of the week!
A friend owns a dulcimer she loves and it developed multiple cracks in the back and soundboard. The cracks in the soundboard were typical cracks one sees in a quarter sawn spruce soundboard and were easy to fix.
The back was another story.
The back is made of poplar. Poplar is one of the traditional woods for dulcimers and works well but on this dulcimer the poplar is close to paper-thin and flat sawn.
Wood that is flat sawn is much less stable than wood that is quarter sawn. The wood was so thin that usual methods of crack repair were difficult if not impossible. The back of the dulcimer had no bracing and little structural integrity.
My first thought was to simply make a new back but my friend loves the sound of this dulcimer and replacing the back would most likely cause it to change.
Instead of replacing it I decided to fix the cracks as best I could and add a Galax back. The Galax back will provide structural integrity and should the repaired cracks in the original back open they will not cause a problem.
Another part of this adventure was fitting the Galax back to a dulcimer with sides that were not always square, perpendicular, and flat. I don’t know if the dulcimer was made this way or if these problems developed over time. Either way, fitting and trimming the support blocks along the edges of the back was not easy. I decided to choose functionality over beauty and just get the job done.
When fitting a new back or Galax back to an existing dulcimer one has to keep in mind that forcing the dulcimer to conform to a flat back might flatten intentional or unintentional differences in height along the sides and result in distorting the soundboard and fretboard. To avoid this I fit the Galax back to the dulcimer and let it follow any irregularities so the existing geometry of the dulcimer remains unchanged.
I generally only do repairs on my own work and refer requests for repairs on other maker’s dulcimers to the maker or repair shops I know and trust. This was for a dear friend so I was happy to do it.
From A Detailed Description of an Early 17th Century Italian Five-Course Guitar
Tom and Mary Anne Evans, Guitars - From Renaissance to Rock, 1977
In making the body and neck of a classical guitar, the most complicated joint used is a scarf joint. The scarf joint is used to connect the headstock to the neck shaft, some makers use a more complicated "V" joint to connect the headstock to the shaft. Miter and butt joints are used on the bindings, but this is purely for decoration, bindings are used to cover simple joints. The guitar sides usually fit into slots cut into the heel block, I like to cut a wider, angled slot and use wedges to hold the sides in the heel block.
Anyone who has made a classical guitar with the help of the book, Making Master Guitars, by Roy Courtnall, should recognize this wedged joint. In Making Master Guitars the joint is touted by the master guitar maker, Jose Romanillos, he used this joint and a variation of it until he retired from making guitars.
I began using this joint early on in my journey in guitar making, it made sense. It is a strong joint and unlike cutting a narrow slot, it allows me some wiggle room in fixing how the side fits against the heel and the wedge against the side.
On my calendar was recovery from back surgery this past week but there was a change of plans; a dental issue came up and surgery was postponed. Instead I am taking antibiotics and will have minor dental surgery in a week or so. The back surgery will probably be within a month or so after that.
Let it not be said that I don’t know how to have a good time!
I’m a firm believer that what is happening is happening and what is not happening is not happening so I am rolling with it.
In the meantime I am up to my usual tricks and getting some work done in the shop.
In the photograph above is a simple setup for cutting fret slots. The miter box is made from scraps of MDF and the depth stop on the saw is a strip of wood held in place with three colorful spring clamps. The wooden cam clamps hold the miter box to the work-board and holds the fretboard in place while sawing.
This low-tech setup works remarkably well.
I have templates for fret patterns I commonly use. The templates eliminate calculating and measuring out the fret positions.
This fingerboard is for a custom chromatic dulcimer with a scale length I have not used before; 743 centimeters! That is a very long string length but is what the person who will be playing this dulcimer prefers.
Since I didn’t have a template for this scale length I had to calculate the fret positions and lay them out on the fingerboard. Fortunately, there is software that does the math. In the 1970’s I had to spend a long time with a calculator to work out fret positions. The constant often used to calculate an equal tempered fretboard, 17.81715385, is still permanently installed in my memory.
I laid out the fret positions using a very accurate ruler, machinist’s square, sharp knife, and patience. I triple checked the measurements before sawing the slots.
Sawing the slots with the miter box was the fun part.
Aldren A. Watson, Hand Tools, Their Ways and Workings, 1982
The only plane I owned when I started working with wood was a Stanley No.5, Type 4 plane. It wasn't tuned properly, the tote was a replacement my grandfather had made from a walnut board that never did fit the plane quite right, and because it was a Type 4 the depth adjuster knob turned the opposite direction from the later Stanley. It had most of its japanning and the sides had a wonderful patina on them that I later discovered was really rust. The iron was not original to the plane, the original iron mostly likely got worn down to nothing or was stolen from the plane while it was at a job site. I have no idea when my grandfather acquired this plane, perhaps he got it through a trade or barter for some carpentry job he did in the early part of the 20th century. I know he didn't buy it brand new, if I remember correctly, Type 4 Stanley planes were manufactured between 1874-88, my grandfather was born in 1881!
It was my smoothing plane, jointer plane and when pressed into service it was a really big block plane. I remember at the time I read in some woodworking book that No.5's were called "jack" planes because, as the author stated, you could use them for just about anything - dimensioning stock, smoothing stock and jointing edges, it was a "the jack of all trades" kind of plane. It was all that I needed, I didn't have much money back then, new tools were a luxury, I got by with what I had.
As time went on and I gained more experience in wood working, I purchased several Stanley No.4 smoothing planes because books and magazines stated those were "the planes" a woodworker should own and use. I spent quite a bit of time and effort to "tune" those planes, again, according to the information found woodworking books and magazines. Which each new plane I flatten the sole, I sharpened the edge of the chip breaker so it mated perfectly with the back of the iron, the iron was regulation shaped and sharpened and you know what? I never could get those planes to work the way I wanted them to. The iron would chatter or dig in at the wrong place, there was always something about those planes that fought me at every turn.
Whenever frustration would set in with a No.4 plane I turned to my faithful No.5. If I kept the iron of the No.5 sharp the plane always worked when I needed it to. Maybe it worked well for me because of the longer length or that it was the first plane I learned to use. The only other size plane that works well for me as a smoothing plane is a No.3 plane, we all know a No.3 is a smoothing plane.
Today, I use the No.5 to thin down classical guitar tops, backs and sides, I need to be fairly precise when doing this activity. Tops and backs need to be within the 1.8mm-2.3mm range, sides a little less than 2mm, I find that the the added weigh of the plane helps it go through the wood better, thus easier for me to control; the extra length takes care of the high spots on the wood better than a regular smoothing plane and it is much lighter and more wildly than a No.7. I have never set up a No.5 plane to be a scrub plane, I have a No.40 Stanley scrub plane for that, one of the No.5's has an iron set up for smoothing, the other No.5 has a toothing plane which is used to help dimension guitar parts.
I sold the No.4 smoothing planes and an extra No.7 jointer plane last year in an effort to downsize my tool collection. I don't miss the No.4's and I tend not to recommend them to people just getting into woodworking, I suggest it may be better for them to start with a No.3 smoothing plane and I tell them that Alan Peters thought a No.7 was the best one to use.
Once you have decided what your focus is in woodworking, be it making Federal style furniture, Welsh stick chairs or classical guitars, you will discover what tools work best for you and when you do, stick with them!
Our local Scottish Country Dance club, the Thistle & Ghillies, had our annual St. Andrews Day dinner & ball last night. Good times. And while most of the dance was done to recorded music, my wife Monica, on piano, and I on one of my fiddles, did play for the waltz at the end of the evening. We're not a big enough group to have live music all the time.
We do, though, regularly play for the Boise Contra Dance Society dances, on the second Saturdays September through May. If you're in town, come on by and dance with us.
Here's another shot of last night's St. Andrews Day dance.
What has happened to get to this point? Form selected. Blocks squared and installed. Outline traced onto the blocks. C-bout curves cut into the corner blocks. Curves cut on the neck and end blocks. Ribs thinned to proper thickness and trimmed to starting height. Bending iron fired up and curly maple bent into shape. Glued and clamped into place.
Not shown -- the top and back plates are joined (individually, that is).
I find the other ribs much easier to deal with, so basically this fiddle is moving along into its second trimester. Once the ribs and linings are in place, the outline can be traced onto the plates, and serious carving begins.
This is my Hardanger, so it will have typical Hardanger f-holes -- a new adventure for me.
Note also in the photo, just right of center at the top, the plastic handle of a cheap chisel. Even so, probably older than many of you reading this. I bought it in the 1970s, just out of high school, working as a carpenter. It is not what one would call a good chisel. I had a good friend who would chastise me, if he could, for including such a piece of sh*t in my photo here, but he can't.
And I use this cheap thing all the time. Need to slice some old, gnarly glue out of a mortise? Here you go. Works as an old-glue scraper, too. Split some wood into blocks? Whack! Won't stay sharp for a long, long time, but takes a good edge quickly and is just dandy, in this instance, for working blocks down to the point where my good gouges and scrapers can take over.
What works, works.
An old task for me, but in a new context. For the Hardanger, I'll go as I generally do with violin ribs. For the viola, about 10% thicker. So 1 mm and 1.1 mm! Not much, but a difference.