I finished building my new workshop a few weeks ago – something I decided to start building to get me out of my super-cramped garage as soon as the Covid-19 lockdown was announced back in March.
I went for a simple wooden framed design on a concrete base with a flat roof to give me as much headroom as possible whilst staying within the 2.5m permitted development limits on height. Plenty of rockwool insulation in the walls and ceiling and a few inches of celotex on the floor should keep things toastie in winter as well as keeping the machine tool noise inside. I clad it in Siberian larch feather-board for a good and long lasting look.
I now finally have room to swing a cat while making musical instruments (or anything else) although there is still quite a lot of stuff still left in the garage! Here are some pictures of the finished workshop:
So I have just started with my new viola build based on a late Guadagnini from about 1830. This is a small instrument with a body length of only 390mm (15.4″) but it is remarkably resonant and a joy to play.
I started by measuring up the Guadagnini in great detail and then transferred those measurements to a set of drawings done using the solvespace parametric drawing package.
I procured some nice looking spruce and maple from Stefan Novak in Bristol.
Making the templates
Next I embarked on making the templates by transferring the drawings onto polystyrene sheet and then cutting out on the bandsaw.
And built the body form from 10mm plywood.
I used the neck template to roughly cut out the neck blank to give it a chance to move while I built the rest of the instrument.
I also did the rubbed joints on the back and belly after sawing the blanks on the bandsaw to give me bookmatched sets.
which I then planed flat.
and thicknessed on the drum sander about 1mm more than the desired arching.
I carefully made block blanks by splitting spruce for the end blocks and willow for the corner blocks, cut to the correct height and glued into the form.
Then I shaped them using gouges and finished with japanese files.
Then I carefully prepared the ribs using the drum sander and scrapers to get them to 1.1mm thickness, cut them a few mm oversize on the bandsaw and then bent them on the bending iron before gluing onto the blocks with pre-made cauls.
After roughly levelling the edges with a plane I made them absolutely flat and true by rubbing the rib assembly against a sheet of sandpaper on a flat surface. Then I cut the linings from some willow at 2.1mm thick and sightly oversize at 10mm deep and fitted them to the ribs.
Belly and back
First I marked the outline of the back and belly using the ribs and a washer to give the 2.8mm overhang. These were then cut out on the bandsaw before using a router with a homemade attachment to cut a shelf around the edges where the purfling would go. Then I used gouges, thumb planes and finally scrapers to set the arching shape against the already made templates.
The next task is to glue up the box temporarily and file the edge overhang. I decided to use pins this time to make the assembly and re-assembly easier so I selected some small panel pins about 1.4mm dia and after clamping top and back together on the mold when all trued up, I drilled small 1.4mm holes on the pillar drill about 6mm in from the edge. The plan is to then drill out the holes on the back and front to 2mm after final assembly and fill with small wooden plugs. With a bit of luck these will be hidden by the purfling on the back and covered by the neck joint and saddle on the front. I snipped the heads off the panel pins before pushing into the holes on the top and bottom blocks and then tacked it all together with weak animal glue – worked really well.
I cut a small offcut to 2.8mm thick and a bit shorter than the depth of the ribs and fixed to a file with some masking tape. This is a great way to get the edge overhang constant but I used a knife on the corners to get them looking even.
Next I marked the purfling channels. I used a new toy – a marking gauge by Veritas that uses a circular cutter – very effective at resisting grain following but can only use on the outside curves. I think I may make an adapter with some brass tube so that I can use on inside curves too.
Then I used a scalpel to deepen the marks and chipped out with a 1mm chisel.
Finally I bent and fitted some purfling I had left over from the last violin.
The next job is to cut the purfling back and then cut the channel with gouges and fair into the body with scrapers.
Next I separated the plates from the body ready for thicknessing the plates.
I started with the back, using the pillar drill to give me holes at roughly the right thickness and then used gouges and thumb planes to bring in the correct profile checking the mode shapes and frequencies regularly.
I am aiming at 125Hz for mode 2 (x mode) and 250Hx for mode 5 (ring mode). I left them a bit higher on the back at this stage until I have finished the front.
Then I repeated the process on the front finishing up with scrapers. Much easier on the top with the soft spruce.
The top plate is nice and light too at only 74 g so hopefully it will be responsive.
Next job is to cut the ff holes. I marked the ff-hole outline by pricking through a scale drawing with a pin and carefully drilled the holes undersize before opening out to designed dimensions with a reamer. Then I used a fine toothed coping saw to rough cut the outlines before opening out with a scalpel and cutting the nicks.
Then I marked the position of the bass bar and cut and drum-sanded the piece I had initially sawn from the top blank to make the bass bar 6mm wide. This was then chalk fitted to the top, glued in and roughly planed to profile before tuning.
I discovered that the x-mode had increased from 125 to 127 Hz but the ring mode had gone from 250 to 280 Hz so I was going to have to be careful to maintain the x-mode frequency.
After a lot of patient adjustment on both bass bar and top plate, I managed to get the the two modes back to the target 125 Hz and 250 Hz.
The bass bar ended up being quite low at about 10 mm in the middle and 4 mm at the ends.
Next I tuned the back to match which weighed in at 130 g. I am extremely pleased with how well I have got the two plates to match with the x-mode and ring modes also being perfect octaves apart.
Then I took the rib assembly and roughly carved the exposed blocks on the back to shape before gluing up using the locating pins in the end blocks.
Once the glue was dry I removed the mold ready to fit the linings for the top. AFter fitting the linings I carved down the blocks, generally cleaned up and fitted the label ready for gluing on the top.
I used the pins again to locate the top when gluing which I then removed and plugged the holes with small wooden dowels I made up from matching wood.
Finally I rounded the outside edges with files and then 600 grade emery paper.
The next job is to make the neck.
I started by truing up the neck blank that I had roughly cut out out at the start of the build as it had moved a bit (as expected).
After truing it up and then filing to match the template outline, I drilled the peg holes with a 6mm drill at a slight angle to help the string tension hold them in place. Then I marked the scroll outline before sawing the scroll a segment at a time.
After a lot of sawing, gouging, filing and sanding the scroll started looking about right.
I then used gouges and sandpaper to cut the flutings before cutting the pegbox by sawing down the sides and then chiselling out.
Finally I cut the neck root at a slight angle to give me 1mm higher overstand on the C string side before starting the tricky process of cutting and fitting the neck joint. Before I could do that I needed to cut the fingerboard to size and carefully shape the profile longitudinally to give the correct relief and transversely to get the correct action and make it easy to play. Then I tacked the fingerboard to the neck with a few spots of weak glue ready for cutting the neck joint.
Fingerboard ready for yacking onto neck
Fitting the neck joint took the best part of a day ensuring I maintained a whole set of key dimensions:
Nut to top plate distance
Fingerboard projected height at the bridge
Fingerboard central over top plate
while ensuring a perfectly fitted joint. I got there in the end and it held together perfectly dry.
Gluing up was easy and didn’t even need clamps.
Next I finished shaping the neck and then started the final cleanup before wetting , cutting back and putting into the UV cabinet to give it a bit of a suntan!
Here is the finished instrument in the white after taking the temporarily fixed fingerboard off. I will fit a keeper before it goes in the UV cabinet.
After 2 weeks in the UV cabinet I made up some Vernice bianca from water, egg albumin, rock, candy, honey and gum arabic. I applied 2 coats with a brush, rubbing down with 600 grade after each coat and then wiped on some shellac to give a moisture proof ground.
It is still very light and next step is to apply some artists oil paints mixed with a little linseed oil to get the colour as close to the wood as possible.
The artists colours make a huge difference. Next was the first colour coat of oil varnish from the range produced by Joha and really starts to bring the wood to life (I have used red brown here mixed with brown). Only another 5 coats to go!
It is all looking rather shiny now and still a bit red. I cut back with 600 grade and applied 2 more brown coats and then 2 coats of clear varnish (8 coats total).
I will let this harden for a week in the UV cabinet before final cutting back and polishing to a more satin finish. In the meantime I will fit the pegs and saddle.
After cutting back I was not happy with the colour so applied a few more coats of red-brown mixed with brown and then a clear coat. Should be much quicker to cut this back as it has already been flattened.
I cut back starting with 600 grade and working through to 3800 and then rubbed in linseed oil with a bit of rotten stone before polishing. Then I fitted the saddle, fingerboard and nut and then finished the neck with linseed oil mixed with some burnt umber artists paint. I rubbed this in with wire wool and then burnished to a shine..
Varnish is still a bit soft so might as well make use of this wonderful weather and put it out in the sun for a few days before fitting the bridge and stringing up.
Bridge fitting took a good half day and then strung it up for the first time.
ASL was spot on and sounds rich and responsive when I play it like a cello! I will give it a few days to settle down before making any adjustments and then delivering to the client next week who has decided to call her “Carice” after Elgar’s daughter. She weighs in at just 575g including the Kreddle chin rest which compares very well with the original Guadagnini at 565g.
Client is delighted but I need to reduce the fingerboard cant a little and fit a new bridge. Took the opportunity to get Helmholtz frequency A0 and 1st body mode frequency B0 matched at about 234Hz by increasing the scoop under f/b and undercutting the ff holes.
I am very excited to have received a commission to build a copy of a beautiful Guadagnini viola. I can’t wait to measure up this gorgeous historic instrument and expect to start working on it in the new year.
Having just retired I recently started my 3rd cello build. I think this is going to be a real pleasure as I no longer need to burn the candle at both ends to find time for the luthiery.
I started by building a new mold that I can leave in place whlle rough fitting the back and belly to enable the overhang on the edges to be set really accurately. It is designed so that it can be taken out easily after the linings have been fitted.
I cut blocks from willow for the corners and spruce for the ends and glued into the mold before shaping with chisels and files.
Then I scraped the ribs and sanded down to 1.4mm on the drum sander before cutting to size, bending and glueing to the blocks.
Then I could remove the outer parts of the mold to fit the linings which I mitred into the corner blocks.
I had some lovely pieces of book-matched spruce and maple from David Dyke which I cleaned up and carefully planed the edge square and true. This takes a lot of time (for me) to ensure an absolutely perfect fit ready for the rubbed joints. Once dry I then flattened the back surface with the jack plane.
Then I used the rib assembly to mark out the outline on each plate allowing 3mm of overhang (using a pencil and washer) before cutting out on the bandsaw. (Post build note – should be more like 4.5mm).
Then onto the lengthy process of carving the outside profile of the plates.
Once the plates outer profile had been carved to match the templates I assembled the plates onto the ribs (with the form still in place) and then used a file with a 3mm wood off-cut attached to file the overhangs to an exact 3mm all round and also set the final rib thicknesses (5.2mm on the back and 5.6mm on the belly).
Then I marked the purfling channels set in 5mm from the edge and cut out using a scalpel and a fine chisel.
Next I dismantled the back and front plates from the rib assembly ready to carve out the inside profiles.
To make this quicker I first drilled holes to a depth a few mm shy of the finished thicknesses.
Then a lot of elbow grease with first gouges and then thumb planes to get to the starting profile where I start exciting the plates with a loudspeaker coupled to a variable frequency oscillator.
It turned out that the spruce for top had a very low transversal thickness making it very difficult to maintain the x-mode frequency. I ended up having to fix a patch using some wood from a good stiff guitar top to bolster the transversal stiffness and even after that I had to accept an x-mode frequency more than an octave below the ring mode. This meant trying to keep the back’s ring mode about a semitone higher.
Final tuning was done after cutting the f-holes and fitting the bass bar to the top.
I ended up with the following mode frequencies and plate weights:
Mode 2 (x-mode)
Mode 5 (ring mode)
119Hz (A3 +36cents
127.5Hz (B3 +55cents)
Assembling the box
I started by roughly trimming the ends of the blocks before gluing the back on carefully. This was much easier with the rib form still in place.
Then I removed the collapsible rib form, finished shaping the blocks and drilled the pilot hole for the endpin.
Finally I glued on the top plate which fitted pretty well.
The neck & fingerboard
Firstly I planed and scraped the fingerboard blank to size and set the string relief to half the diameter of the strings.
For the neck, I started by squaring up the maple blank and carefully marking the outline in pencil. I had previously made a template from perspex to make this easier – particularly for the scroll where I marked through guide holes with a pin.
Then I used the bandsaw to cut out the outline shape and a handsaw to cut down the neck which I then trued up with rasps and files.
While the scroll was still a square block I drilled the pilot holes for the pegs and then cut the scroll-box cheeks with the bandsaw.
Then I sawed the scroll profile a segment at a time before using gouges and scrapers to reach the finished shape.
Assembling the box
Before shaping the heel I temporarily glued on the fingerboard and fitted the neck joint using chalk and going slowly so that I achieved:
A fingerboard projection at the bridge of 83mm
An up-stand of 23mm
A neck stop of 280mm
This is probably the trickiest bit and absolutely key to playability so worth spending the time to get it right.
Having fitted the neck joint I than shaped the heel and neck with rasps, files and sandpaper before gluing up the neck joint.
Then I trimmed up the heel, cleaned up any surplus glue and sanded down the whole instrument with 600 grade emery paper. Then I wetted the whole instrument to raise the grain and sanded again ready for finishing.
I started by darkening the instrument with a few days in the fume cupboard with a bowl of ammonia and then sealed with a few coats of shellac, rubbed down with 600 grade and then a final shellac coat.
Then I mixed some artist paints (2 parts burnt sienna, 1 part burnt umber and 1 part alizarin crimson) with a few drops of linseed oil and rubbed in evenly with a rag.
Following drying in the UV cabinet the colour was way too light so I repeated the exercise and then gave it its first coat of colour varnish. The back is looking particularly pleasing.
The colour is still a bit on the light side so I gave it another coat of artists colours with more burnt umber and less red and then another coat of varnish.
Then I left it in the UV cabinet for 2 weeks before cutting back, polishing and finishing with a wiped on coat of linseed oil.
Then I re-fitted the fingerboard and finished the neck with a couple of thin coats of linseed oil and burnt sienna artists colours burnished to a good shine.
Then I shaped and fitted the saddle, nut and bridge before stringing up with a set of larsens.
The finished instrument weighs in at 2940g, sounds wonderful
Now the instrument is basically finished it is time to set it up and hear how it sounds.
Fitting the Violin pegs
Having already shaved down the pegs to match the taper on my peg-hole reamer, I smoothed them with 600 grade emery paper and gave a light wipe-on coat of finishing oil and then burnished with wire wool.
The peg-holes were then reamed out carefully so the distance from the peg-box to thumb-piece was 16 mm. In order hold the pegs I built a simple jig to hold them while they were drilled with a 1.3 mm bit for the string holes and then lightly chamfered the edges of the holes.
The outside of the peg was marked where it protruded from the peg box and I carefully sawed off the excess using the same jig to hold the peg. Finally I rounded the end with files and 600 grade emery paper.
Fitting the Violin Nut
The Evah Pirazzi medium gauge violin strings I am fitting have diameters of 0.8, 0.66, 0.66, 0.21 mm
So to have string height above fingerboard of 0.5, 0.45, 0.4, 0.35 mm and slots 1/3 of diameter of string the nut height should be:
0.76, 0.67, 0.62, 0.42 mm
I marked the ebony nut against the end of the fingerboard and then filed down to give a 1 mm step and faired in nicely to the sides and entry to the peg-box. Once smoothed with 600 grade and wire wool the nut was lightly glued to the end of the fingerboard. I adjusted the step from 0.8 to 0.5 mm before marking the string positions using a sharp knife. I set the strings with 5.5 mm between centres and the E string 8 mm from the centre line. This gives slightly more room for the E string than the G . The knife marks were then widened first with a triangular file and then with nut files.
The last step was to file the top of the nut down so that the slots only held 1/3 string and then finished with emery paper and wire wool.
Fitting the Violin Bridge
Starting with an Aubert Miracourt blank I followed the fitting guidelines in this very good article on how to fit a bridge by Lars Kismer. I built a simple jig to hold the bridge perpendicular to the top.
Fingerboard projections were marked on the bridge and action marked at 2.5 mm on the E string up to 5 mm on the G string and joined with a curve of 41mm radius. I purchased a banjo head made of goat’s skin on e-bay which provides perfect parchment material for reinforcing the E-String notch.
Setting the After String Length (ASL)
The violin tailpiece gut was adjusted to make the ASL approx 1/6 of the string length and then fine-tuned so that the after string tuning on the G string was an octave and a fifth below the D string.
The finished violin (without chin-rest) weighs in at 420 g.
Fitting the Violin chin-rest
I settled on a Kreddle chinrest as the client specifically wanted something high. The Kreddle provides plenty of adjustment flexibility in this regard and came highly recommended. I also found it extremely easy to fit and adjust.
On first play of the finished violin, the G and D strings have a lovely rich sound and the E is strong and sweet but the A ran out of steam a bit at F. Opening up the heart on the bridge a little and tuning the B0 resonance to the A0 body resonance by putting a small piece of Plasticine under the end of the fingerboard made a big improvement.
Delivered to my client yesterday at Orchestra who was delighted with it – brilliant timing too as we had the fabulous violinist Sarah Sew working with us on the Elgar violin concerto and she was kind enough to give it a workout. Her verdict : ” it works – I mean it really works and powerful too”. Sarah also said it compared very favourably to many new build professional instruments (she tries out a lot of them) but found it a little on the “chunky” side compared to her wonderful Italian Gagliano – so not really a surprise as that is actually quite a small instrument. Clearly I will have to work on making my next violin a bit “finer”.
At last I have reached the fun bit where the beauty of the wood finally comes to light.
The first step was to clean up the instrument all over using a scraper a 600 grade emery paper to get rid of any remaining tool marks and surface blemishes.
Then the fingerboard was easily popped off and replaced with a guard piece held on with a weak glue solution to make access to the top while varnishing much easier.
Giving it a Sun Tan
Then into the UV cabinet for a few weeks to start the ageing process and give the wood a natural darkness and bring out the figure on the maple.
I put a bowl of water in the cabinet to stop things getting too dry.
While it was getting a tan a made a simple peg shaver to deal with tiny (compared with the cello) violin pegs.
I just squared up a piece of maple thick enough to tak a peg hole and wide enough to take the full peg length. I then drilled and reamed a peg hole to fit the peg blanks and then cut a quadrant out so i had a surface to mount the blade. Previous shapers I have built had the blade mounted near the top of the peg a bit like a pencil sharpener but I found these tended to grab the grain. So on this shaver I took a blad from a cheap chinese scraper and mounted it more like a scraper halfway down the side of the peg secured with a few 5mm set screws and then fitted a few fine adjusting screws through a side block.
Seems to work really well.
This is what it looks like after 1 week in the cabinet
After 2 weeks I made up some ground coat the same as for the cello and rubbed in with a rag, Once dry I sanded back with 600 grade emery paper to make it flat and gave it 2 coats of wiped on shellac sanding back between coats.
I had to repeat the process after flattening with 600 grad a few times before adding the colour glaze. I made this up from golden brown varnish, linseed oil and artist colours (burnt sienna and a little alizarin red). Rubbed a couple of thin coats of this in with a cloth and this what it looks like.
Next for a coat of golden brown varnish before I decide whether or not to do any more colour adjustments.
Still needs more colour so another colour glaze going on next.
The maple back is looking much better now with the flame really shining through. Once I have finished the varnish coats and cut it back the glossy shine should change to a much more pleasing satiny finish.
I think the front still needs a bit more richness before the next colour coat so colour glaze again.
So now for one more colour coat and a few clear coats.
Clear coats went on very easily making sure I sanded very lightly between coats to get rid of any surface dust and hairs.
The violin has a lovey glow and colour has been kept light as this client wanted.
Now into the light box for a couple of weeks to dry /harden the varnish properly before cutting back, polishing and then fitting the fingerboard and finishing the back of the neck.
After cutting back with progressively finer emery cloth down to 4000 grade I used rotten stone and linseed oil to finish.
Then I re-glued the neck after re-flattening the fingerboard and neck which had both moved very sightly.
My good friend, recording engineer and cellist George Shilling was recently involved with Tony Iommi’s latest creative work with the Birmingham Gospel Choir called “How good it is” where George and Anna provided the cello accompaniment.
Birmingham post article complete with video is here