Category Archives: Stringed Instrument Making

Completed Viola #2

This is a repeat of a first very successful commissioned instrument. It is small with a body length of only 390mm (15.4″) that is based on an 1830 Guadagnini and the record of that first build can be found here.

I visited Steffen Nowak again in Bristol to select the wood.  His selection was a little limited due to Covid but still had some lovely figured sets to choose from.  What I ended up with choosing was some well seasoned Bosnian maple from 2011 for the back sides and neck and some Alpine spruce from 1992 for the front.

I am keeping the design the same and the build process for #2 is recorded below:

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See here for documentation.

Here are some pictures of the finished instrument which weighs in at 522g (without chinrest):

Viola #2 front
Viola #2 back
Viola #2 side view

Making Cello No.4


I decided to have a go at another cello because I enjoy building them so much!  Of course I also wanted to improve on the cellos built so far by making a few judicious design changes and tweaking the build process based on experience with the earlier builds.

The key design changes were:

  • Sight changes to the archings (25mm belly and 23mm back)
  • Reduce f/b side thickness to 7.5mm from 8mm
  • Change break angles over the strings to improve playability (19.5 degrees ADG and 24 degrees DGC)
  • Changed f/b profile to match change in bridge profile
  • Increase over-stand by a few mm to 22mm
  • Attempt to increase Mode2 and Mode 5 plate frequencies to around 65Hz and 130Hz
  • Colouring the instrument a richer chestnut brown 

The resultant design drawings done using solvespace are below.

cello template da2 top

cello #4 back profile

cello #4 belly profile

fingerboard profile #4

cello #4 side view

cello #4 neck

I also decided to make use of my CNC router to build new 6mm MDF templates based on these drawings.

Build process

As usual, not everything went perfectly to plan but most of the desired changes seemed to work.  The one area I had real difficulty with this time was tuning the plates especially as i was trying to hit higher resonant frequencies this time around.  As I was trying to tune the top I was having real difficulty getting mode 2 and 5 and octave apart – the ring mode just didn’t want to drop.  Then I happened to wash the outside of the top to get rid of some surface bruising (from when the top was drilled out) and the following morning it suddenly started to behave properly!  My assumption is there must have been some latent stresses in the spruce and the wetting allowed them to settle out – a bit like annealing.  Anyway I ended up with Mode 2 and 5 exactly an octave apart and matching on back and top at 60Hz and 120Hz respectively.

The finished instrument is a beautiful chestnut colour and has wonderful a rich singing tone using a set of Larsen Magnacores.  I have christened her “Doris” and she weighs in at 3.01kg.

I am delighted with her – a definite keeper!

The finished instrument

The following gallery illustrates the build process.

New Workshop Completed

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:

And here is a gallery showing the construction process over the last 3 months:


Viola “Carice” finished

After 6 months of work my first viola is now finished and my client has decided to call her “Carice” after Elgar’s daughter.

It is copy of a 15.4″ Guadagnini and weighs in at just 512g (without the chinrest) 575g with a Kreddle chinrest compared with 565g for the original. 

Sounds rich and responsive (when I play it like a cello!).

See the build history here.

Finished viola body

Finished viola back

Finished viola front




Finished viola peg box

Finished viola side

Finished viola side

Viola build

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.

The resultant drawings are here as pdfs:

guad top mold

viola guad side profile

viola guad neck

viola guad ff holes

I procured some nice looking spruce and maple from Steffen Nowak in Bristol.

Split spruce and nicely figured maple for the viola

Making the templates

Next I embarked on making the templates by transferring the drawings onto polystyrene sheet and then cutting out on the bandsaw.

The arching and neck templates

And built the body form from 10mm plywood.

The polystyrene body template and form made from 10mm ply

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.

Neck blank roughly cut out

I also did the rubbed joints on the back and belly after sawing the blanks on the bandsaw to give me bookmatched sets.

Bookmatched sets after doing the rubbed joint

which I then planed flat.

Back planed flat

Belly planed flat

and thicknessed on the drum sander about 1mm more than the desired arching.

The ribs

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.

Blocks shaped ready for ribs

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.

Linings added

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.

Rough shaping of the arching on the back

Back arching (outside) complete

Front arching (outside) complete

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.

Box glued up temporarily ready for filing the edge overhang

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.

Edges filed to 2.8mm and corners rough shaped

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.

New marking gauge

With simple attachment for managing inside curves

Then I used a scalpel to deepen the marks and chipped out with a 1mm chisel.

Purfling grooves cut on the top

Purfling channels cut on the back

Finally I bent and fitted some purfling I had left over from the last violin.

Purfling glued in on the belly

Purfling glued in on back

The next job is to cut the purfling back and then cut the channel with gouges and fair into the body with scrapers.

Purfling channels cut and faired in on belly

Purfling channels cut and faired in on back

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.

Back marked for initial thicknessing

Back drilled for initial thicknessing

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.

Tuning x-mode on the back

Tuning ring mode on the back

Then I repeated the process on the front finishing up with scrapers. Much easier on the top with the soft spruce.

Top marked for initial thicknessing

X-mode on the front tuned to 125Hz

Ring mode on front tuned to 250Hz

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.

ff-holes roughly cut

ff-holes after carving out with a scalpel

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.

Gluing in the bass bar

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.

x-mode on the top @125Hz after tuning the bass bar

Ring mode on the top @250Hz after tuning bass bar

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.

X-mode on the back @125Hz

Ring mode on the back @250Hz

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.

Gluing on the back

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.

Cleaned up inside 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.

Assembling the box

Finally I rounded the outside edges with files and then 600 grade emery paper.

The next job is to make the neck.

Finished box ready for fitting the neck

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.

Shaped neck blank marked up before cutting scroll

Sawing the scroll

After a lot of sawing, gouging, filing and sanding the scroll started looking about right.

Scroll well on the way

I then used gouges and sandpaper to cut the flutings before cutting the pegbox by sawing down the sides and then chiselling out.

Pegbox chiselled out after carving the flutings

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

Tacking the fingerboard onto the 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 overstand
  • 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.

Dry fitting the neck joint

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!

Neck shaped – starting final cleanup

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.

Finished viola in the white

Finished viola in the white (fingerboard removed for varnishing)










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.

After 2 coats of vernice bianca and a shellac ground

Back after 2 coats of vernice bianca and a shellac 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.

After rubbing in some artists colours

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!

After 1st coat of coloured varnish

After 5th colour coat

After 5th colour coat

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). 

Viola front after final varnish coat

Viola back after final varnish coat

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.

After final final coat

After final final coat

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.

Getting a final tan in the garden before stringing up

Getting a final tan in the garden before stringing up

Bridge fitting took  a good half day and then strung it up for the first time.

Finished viola body

Finished viola back

Finished viola front

Finished viola peg box

Finished viola side

Finished viola side

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.

Full list of measured resonances:

Mode Comment Frequency
A0 Helmholtz or air mode 233Hz
B0 1st body mode 234Hz
B1+ Body resonance 499Hz
B1- Body resonance 360Hz
A1 1/2 wavelength body cavity 404Hz

Cello build #3

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.

The mold

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.

Inner part of new cello mold

New cello mold bolted up

The ribs

I cut blocks from willow for the corners and spruce for the ends and glued into the mold before shaping with chisels and files.

Blocks glued into mold

Blocks carved to shape

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.

Gluing in the c-bout ribs

Then I could remove the outer parts of the mold to fit the linings which I mitred into the corner blocks.

Top section of mold removed to allow fitting of linings

Linings fitted

The plates

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.

Book-matched back planed flat

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.

Rough shaping of the back with a chisel

Top after starting to rout shelf all round the edge

Back after starting to rout shelf all round the edge

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).

Plates temporarily assembled onto ribs and overhang set ready to do purfling

Then I marked the purfling channels set in 5mm from the edge and cut out using a scalpel and a fine chisel.

Purfling glued in on back plate

Purfling channel cut and faired in to back profile

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.

Back plate drilled to give rough 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.

Gluing on the bass bar

I ended up with the following mode frequencies and plate weights:

  Mode 1 Mode 2 (x-mode) Mode 5 (ring mode) Weight
Top 26.5Hz 52.6Hz 119Hz  (A3 +36cents 488g
Back 31.2Hz 63.2Hz 127.5Hz (B3 +55cents) 785g

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.

Gluing on the back

Then I removed the collapsible rib form, finished shaping the blocks and drilled the pilot hole for the endpin.

Corner and end blocks shaped and inside cleaned up ready to glue on top plate

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.

Squared up maple neck block marked up ready for cutting on bandsaw

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.

Cleaning up the rough outline of the neck

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.

Cutting the cheeks on the bandsaw

Then I sawed the scroll profile a segment at a time before using gouges and scrapers to reach the finished shape.

Sawing the scroll outline

Scroll nearly done


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.

Getting ready to glue on the neck

Neck glued on

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.

Cleaned up and ready to go in the fuming cabinet


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.

After sealing with 2 coats of shellac

After sealing with 2 coats of shellac

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.

After 1st application of artist colours

After 1st application of artist colours

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.

After 1st coat of colour varnish

After 1st coat of colour varnish









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.

After more artist colour and another coat of varnish

After some more artists colours and 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.

Gluing fingerboard back on cello #3

Then I shaped and fitted the saddle, nut and bridge before stringing up with a set of larsens.

Finished Instrument

The finished instrument weighs in at 2940g, sounds wonderful

With Larsens

With C/G Spirocores

and looks like this:

Cello #3 front view

Cello #3 back view


Cello #3 side view

Cello #3 ff holes

Cello #3 peg pox

Cello # 3 scroll

Violin week 8 – Setup

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. 

Simple jig to hold peg while drilling the string hole

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.

Simple jig to hold the bridge

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 41 mm 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.




Side view



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”.


Violin Making Tools & Jigs

This gallery shows some of the jigs I have made for building violins.

  • Violin peg shaver