Saturday, April 13, 2019

A Day in Oxford

We recently returned from a trip to England and Scotland.  First on my list of attractions to see when we planned the trip was a visit to the stringed-instrument collection at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

And here I am, standing next to what is likely the most expensive violin in the world.

This is the famous Antonio Stradivari "Messiah" violin.

As you might be able to tell from the first photo, with the bright outside atrium light coming in through one portal, together with the glass cases and busy backgrounds, photography in the place is tough.  Of course, there are plenty of decent photos of the Messiah to be found on-line, as well as controversy.  It has a nearly complete layer of colored varnish, sharp edges, squared corners, all the things that other Strads don't -- because the others have been worn by centuries of use.  Everyone I know who actually knows about Strads and other high-end violins think that this is the real thing.  But folks love conspiracies, and if you do, too, don't bother commenting here.  Not interested.

I was able to get a reasonable photo of the back, though, as before, better ones can be found on-line.

And here is the Messiah to the left, another Strad and a Viullame in a second case, and a case of guitars, including a Strad guitar at the far right.  Note the glare on the glass fronts.

Here's the back of that guitar's headstock.

You might be able to click on it and see the identifying marks.

In addition to the Messiah, I knew the Museum had the oldest known violin, and was hoping it would be on display.  It was.

In addition to this, a few others from the Amati family.

And another N. Amati I just thought was elegant, showing what can be done without relying on the figure in the wood for the wow-factor.

In addition to the Cremonese instruments, a display of Brescian fiddles of various sorts.

A quick walk from the Ashmolean, is the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, where they have trombones, 


a bow-maker's shop from the Hill Brothers shop,

and a plaster cast of Josef Haydn's skull.

By the look on his face in the painting, Haydn is not too sure about this display.

We walked around Oxford a little,

We're not eating at 5 Guys in Oxford.

This is better.

Nice day.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Robert Ballot, early 20th-century Boise violin maker

Yesterday, a customer brought in a violin he bought not too long ago.  Appears to be a typical late 19th-century early 20th-century Maggini-labeled factory fiddle.  The immediate repair was to replace the endpin, which had rotted to the breaking point.  Ended up putting in some new pegs and glueing a couple of open seams.

So the fiddle, double-purfled front and back.  Almost an extra turn in the scroll.  The label reads

Giovan paulo Maggini / brefcia 1654(?)  

No country of origin on the label.  All fairly typical for this sort of instrument.

But there is a second label, a repair label.

The repair label reads --

                            BY -----                      Robert Ballot

                                      Boise, Idaho,  March 1913

The fiddle must have been fairly new at the time, so who knows what repairs were needed.

At the top of the label, in later ballpoint pen, is

                         Repr. Jack Blakely 1949

                         Bok (?) 2223             Casper Wyo.

The instrument now, in 2019, shows several repairs to the top.  I did not take the fiddle down enough to look for any other labels under the top, and the owner returned today, paid, which I truly appreciate, and took possession of it, which I also appreciate.

Given that the label was fairly far south of the f-hole, and I was shooting with my iPhone, I could not get the entire label in one shot.  Here are a few images that you can use to piece it together in your head.

Neither name was familiar to me, so I did a bit of poking around.

From the Amati site,

Robert Ballot
(c. 1864 - 1864)

From the Evening Capital News of March 13, 1916, in the classified ads, listed between Taxidermists & Wigs and Toupees, is Violin Maker -- 

ROBERT BALLOT, Expert Violin Maker and Repairer, At Sampson Music Co., 913 Main St.

For Jack Blakely, I found this reference, from a ca. 2014 "Fiddlers of the NW" Seattle concert promotion --

Ramon Selby grew up in Casper, Wyoming and played fiddle in his family band for square dances and other shows. He has a host of fascinating tunes from his familys repertoire, some very complicated waltzes for example, tunes he learned from his teacher, fiddler Jack Blakely, and many more tunes he learned from the legendary Hugh Farr, fiddler for the Sons of the Pioneers, who was a family friend and frequent visitor to the Selby household. Ramon was a 2012 inductee into the Northwest Western Swing Music Society Hall of Fame. Ramon will play with long-time accompanist Alan Troupe on guitar.

So at least Blakely was a known fiddler.

Certainly more out there, but I need to get back to the bench now.  Anyone out there with more info, I'd be happy to add good stuff into the comments. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Ribs & Linings

Winter decided to come to Idaho in February.  Snow in the mountains, which is needed for water in the summer, and useful for skiing in the meanwhile, which we've been out a couple of times.

At the bench --

Fit and glued the upper and lower ribs to my second violin form.  Did the same to the first violin form yesterday, as well as installing the linings on the other (top) side of the viola.  Here, upper right, the linings that will go against the back.

I have all the plates joined, so once these rib assemblies are finished and cleaned up, I can start tracing plates and get onto the arching process.

Even so, hoping to get out into the mountains again.  Spring can come fast in these parts.

These two photos from this past Sunday, Bear Basin, near McCall, Idaho.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Varnish variation

I posted my latest varnish routine a few days ago.  Some had questions as to why I did it that way, and not some other way.  Well, multiple reasons, I suppose.  I wanted something I could control.  I wanted something where each step didn't actually take very long.  I wanted something that had easy-to-find products, that are relatively inexpensive.  Also, I don't want to be a varnish-maker.

Most of the color I get in the shellac steps.  I can vary the color through various agents, such as the cochineal 'tea' and the TransTint.  The above photo shows some of the color variation possible.  I shot this in less-than-flattering light, I think, but neutral.  A white blank, and sunlight filtered up and reflecting off a white ceiling.  We finally had some direct sun again today.

This is a couple white violins that I varnished, showing about the range of the colors I have in the shop now.  A redder violin, one I made from scratch, sold not too long ago.  It would have been nice to have that here for these shots, but nicer to have the sale.

Here is a mixture, one of my from-scratch fiddles, the Hardanger on the left, and the rest being whites, 2 violas and a violin.

Another shot of some whites, different reflective angles for the backs.

Here is the back of one of my scratch fiddles, in glancing light.  I find it hard to photograph varnish and bring out the details I like to see.  What I'm trying to show here is the texture, which comes mostly from the clear oil varnish final coating, maybe 2.  It has that leather-like look to it.  Being this is one of my handmade fiddles, it wasn't buffed down to car-door smoothness.  In fact, I actually did a fairly bad job of smoothing this one out, unintentionally.  I can even see some toothed-plane marks in the back.  Not sure how I missed that, but I did.  Fortunately, I do like the sound of this fiddle, and have been playing it for a year or so now.  We are compatible.  Not too interested in selling it, and have grown to like the tool-marks that I keep finding.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Whidbey Island Scottish Fiddle (and Cello!) Workshop

Just back from a too-quick trip up to the Puget Sound region for the Whidbey Island Scottish Fiddle (and Cello!) Workshop.  The teachers were Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas.  It was held at Camp Casey, and the photo above is looking north from the grounds, with a typical blue Puget Sound January sky.

It was a fast camp, fast learning, or, for me, fast partial learning.  We started Friday night with a class, then all day Saturday, learning tunes, arranging them for a concert at Coupeville High School.  I like to think I'm a reasonable ear-learner, but by the concert time on Sunday, the 5 tunes were a jumble in my head.  I could play bits and pieces.  Fortunately, I recorded them and will have plenty to work on for the next couple months, at least.

Top-notch instruction.  A huge class, 115 or so instruments, mostly fiddles, in a single classroom.  I didn't get many photos.  Here's one, with Natalie talking about back-up techniques, and Alasdair sitting.  He stood most of the time, and when he was teaching, I was not taking photos, full concentration on trying to keep up.

Here's a shot during a break, where the two of them are going through the next tune to come up.

Tunes we learned: Leslie's March, Humours of Whiskey, Had 'er Gown, Cali's Wedding, Flatbush Waltz, and Ca Ye By Atholl.  A big variety of tune styles, and a fair number of tunes to get under your fingers in less than 48 hours.

But we pulled-off the concert Sunday afternoon.  My family (5 of them there) in the audience said it sounded great.  100 or so of us on stage for the grand finale.  Alasdair and Natalie played the first section of the concert, after a warm-up by the local band of young men, 'the Reds', who also did a great job.  Here's one photo I managed to snap of the two masters at work.

We stayed in the camp quarters, and were lucky enough to get a second floor room on the far-end, so we had the ocean waves to listen to at night.  Good digs.

On the way up, we stopped in Seattle to look about.  My main interest was the new Nordic Museum, which I hadn't been to yet, and especially since they had a special traveling exhibit on the Vikings.

Direct from Sweden.  One artifact that really caught my eye was this bit from a boat burial.  Here are some of the clinker side planks, and laying there, a bunch of arrows in a quiver.

Upstairs, in the regular exhibit,  I was surprised to see a scale model of the Oseberg ship.

And a good 3-D look at one of my current scroll models.