Friday, July 20, 2018

Your Crack is Showing

Had a fellow in the shop yesterday, and we got talking about antiquing.  Many musicians want old instruments, and if they can't find an old instrument they get along with, they want a new one that looks old.  Something about 'the stories it could tell' or that.  And I suffer from it as well.  I like looking at old, well-used instruments.

I, however, have enough trouble getting a clean, new finish on my fiddles, let alone messing it up convincingly, so I gave up on antiquing some time back.  But the conversation yesterday got me thinking.  I'm in the process of varnishing two relatively modest Chinese whites -- instruments made elsewhere that I take apart, clean up a bit, then varnish and set-up.  It tickled me this morning to think about 'gunking' one up a little bit, to see how it would compare to the 'un-gunked' one when they were both done. 

To gunk up a  fiddle, I mix some Ivory Black oil paint with a little mineral spirits, smear it all over the fiddle, then wipe it off.  Some of the black remains in the seams, nicks and what-not on the fiddle.  All that taking it back off takes time, because I really hate seeing a glob of paint somewhere that I've missed.  A glob of paint randomly located on the fiddle doesn't look particularly old, just careless.  And all this antiquing does nothing whatsoever for the sound of the instrument.  One hopes it improves the look of the fiddle in someone's eyes.  In addition to liking the sound and playability, we want to like the way it looks.

In the process of gunking-up my fiddle, I had the even worse idea of adding a fake crack.  Haven't done this before, though I have seen it done on other fiddles.  Soundpost crack?  No, too much right now.  So I made a fake crack at the A-peg hole on the treble side.  A common crack, and when real, somewhat bothersome to repair.  It can devalue an instrument, even convince someone not to buy the fiddle.  So why do it?  Well, to see if I could.

I think it turned out ok.

It actually bothers me, as a repair person, to look at it, even though I know it is fake. I'll take that as a good sign.  It also cautions me to examine such cracks a little closer in the future. 

As a reference, if you are a violin-repairer reading this in the distant future, and the label is intact, this is VN140.

Friday, July 6, 2018

A Bow for Playing the Saw

Tom (not his real name) emailed me yesterday, wondering if I could take a look at a couple bows he had, see if they were worth 'fixing up and restringing'.  I had worked on his violin a few years back.  He said he also played the saw, and was teaching some kids how to do that, needed a bow for them to use.  And if his old ones were no good, maybe I had some suggestions.

Sure, happy to look at them, I told him.  If they're not in decent shape, you can get a fiberglass stick bow with horsehair for the same price as a rehair.  They're durable, a little on the heavy side, may be just the thing for kids and saws.

Tom lives in Oregon, across the Snake River, a drive on the freeway, then city streets, finally the more rural roads where I live.  He asked if I’d be around the next day.  I was planning to be, I said.

He called the next day: you there? 


Take me about an hour. 


He arrived, brought in two sticks.  One had been broken at the tip, glued back in place, no spline.  The other was maybe 1950s-era stick, dyed red, with a frog that was losing its black dye, revealing the white wood it was actually made of.  No grip on either, though I’m not sure that a grip is important in saw-playing.  I’m not sure it isn’t crucial, either.  I don’t know.

So, he bought a fiberglass stick. 

Do you have rosin? 

Yes, but it’s old, maybe 70 years old, and all cracked. Can I melt it and reform it?

Yes, but a new cake of rosin is 4 bucks.

I’ll take that.

We walked outside.  Hot day, not as hot as yesterday.  He had a newer pickup, bigger than an extended-cab, with a set of smaller doors behind the full-sized front doors.  Matching canopy on the back.

He told me a friend of his had just died.  Knew each other since they were kids.  Didn’t live near each other any more, but would meet every so often, and take up to talking like they had been together the day before.

Well, better get back, he said.

Yup, me, too.  If you pull forward, you can go on out the dirt road around the field, come out at the bottom with your nose pointing out.  Easier than backing out of this crooked driveway.

Thanks, I’ll do that.

Tom turned 90 this year.  Born in 1928. 

I like thinking about that.  90 years old.  Questioning through email, driving solo, looking for a bow to teach some kids how to play the saw.

Puts a smile on the inside of my face.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Couple of Roughnecks

Back in the shop after a week at Weiser, Idaho, the National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest.  Breathing just a bit before heading off for a week at fiddle camp in Wallowa, Oregon, a really beautiful spot, a low-key workshop with lots of great folk in attendance.

Meanwhile, working on necks.  Getting down to nearly finished dimensions.  First step is to cut away some of the extra wood on the side, chip it out, then plane away the sides of the neck root.

You can see the saw-marks perpendicular to the ebony fingerboard.  Good to stop just a ways back, to avoid chip-out.  I also like to put a little water on the neck-root when I'm planing -- the close, far left bit of maple here -- also to avoid chip-out in this figured maple.  It likes to break out in inconvenient spots.

Next is to start working down the thickness of the neck itself, the portion the musician touches when playing. 

I use a combination of saw-cuts and rough-rasp work.  In the background is a "Dragon" rasp from Stewart-MacDonald.  It is aggressive, which is good at this point in the process.

To work out the neck root and chin area, the curved portions at either end of the neck, I like to use a small Mora Kniv.

Good to keep the pencil handy and restore the center line every so often.  Rotate the neck as you're working it down to keep it smooth and round.  Flat spots are noticeable to the musician, and not in a good way.

I try to get the neck fairly close, but when I come back the next day, I always see more I need to tend to.  Or maybe even taking photos for a blog post.  Either way, more to come off, not much, just pickier work, and smaller chunks.

Did the same for the Hardanger neck.

And one does not live by necks alone, so other things to be made today.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Hardanger Fingerboard

Shorter, flatter, and with a tunnel underneath.

Using a long pipe-cleaner to remove any possible squeeze-out of hide glue in the understring channel.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

"Having lost all sense of direction, we were able to double our speed."

My first totally handmade viola, I've been wanting to make one for some time.  Never could settle on an outline.  Made a form for a Stradivari viola in 2005.  Even got ribs on it.  Then unhappy with the corners.  It languished. 

I like the Brescian violas.  Primitive in a classy way, often with a deep, dark sound.  So, made another form based on a Strad magazine poster.  Got ribs on it, birds-eye maple, which rippled and warped so badly I took them off and threw them in the fireplace.

This year, decided to just follow the pattern in Strobel's book "Viola Making."  It's smaller than I wanted, but there were details to follow.  And I've learned it's better to just make the darn thing, see how it turns out, make the next one better, based on what one learns from the previous.  Besides, the resulting first instrument isn't as bad, or as good, as one feared or hoped.  That's life.  Who the heck do you think you are, anyway?  Some sort of genius?  Well, you're not.  Get back to work.

Strobel's pattern had fine f-holes.  But I didn't want them.  I wanted some del Gesu type f-holes.  Guarneri del Gesu didn't make violas.  I do have a workable pattern for a violin f-hole, so scaled it up to viola size.  Dreams of using the computer to do this quickly didn't pan out, so I sat down with paper, pencil, eraser, straight edges, French curve, protractor.  Eraser, did I mention eraser?  My eraser got a good workout, but I finally came up with something that I thought looked reasonable to me, and the correct size.  I think.  Onward!

So, to lay it out on the viola top, and then start plunging holes in.
With the pilot holes in place, cut the terminal holes, then start sawing out.  I stayed well within the lines, as I have mistakenly pushed this top too far along before cutting the f-holes.  It's near final graduations and quite thin for this sort of work. 

With the stems sawed, time to resort to the knife.  This is it for the day.  Nearly there.  Will look at it again tomorrow with fresh eyes.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Carving and Playing

 After working for what seemed like days to get the maple back plate hollowed out and graduated, starting on the spruce is always surprising.  Very easy to cut by comparison.  Within about 15 minutes, down to the point where the big thumb plane can be used, very gratifying to run out long shavings.  Makes life good.

And speaking of good, we've had the chance to play at some spectacular spots in this past week.  Tim's place (Purple Sage Farms) for rehearsal on Thursday night. New lambs and a surprise new calf.  Sunset still visible at rehearsal time due to the changing day length and the recent switch to (or is it from?) Day Light Saving Time. 
We attended an English Country Dance ball in La Grande on Saturday, and a musicians' workshop Sunday morning, as students.  The workshop was held at one of the local member's home, and has a million-dollar view.
One does not live by music, dance, and views alone.  We also ate lunch, twice, at a new Brew Pub in La Grande.  Side A.  Good spot.  Tasty flatbread pizza, and a good array of beer choices.  Their Swedish Compass Winter Warmer, with a touch of anise, was certainly worth a repeat.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

End of Skiing, for us, this season

Always nice to get out into the mountains.  We work with harvested wood, at the bench, inside, so really worth seeing the trees outside, in the wild.
We've been going to Ponderosa State Park, near McCall, Idaho, for many years now, both in the snow and not.  Beautiful wildflowers to be seen in the Spring.  But we really like it in the snow.

This little aspen grove is one of my favorite places.
We've been cross-country skiing here a few times this season.  Late start to the snow this year, and it looks like it's fading fast.  Snowed the night before, but the trees were shedding it in big plops during the late morning and early afternoon.
Freezing at night, above freezing during the day.
The lake is still frozen over, but barely.  Not too many folks willing to risk being out there now.  It's off in the distance, middle right, in this photo.
We skied up the penninsula a ways, climbing at the end, and stopped for a lunch on the skis.  Hot tea, rye bread, and brunost.
Given our schedule for the next few weeks, we won't get out again until next Winter.  Sad and something to look forward to at the same time.