Friday, December 22, 2017

Cleaning Up the Borders

Not to the final borders yet, but looking more like fiddles.  A little spit on the end-grain of the spruce sure can make cutting easier.  Plus, cutting spruce just smells like Christmas.  Not sure what the maple smell reminds me of, but I like cutting the edges on the maple.  Smooth and buttery.

Trying to snow outside my door now.  Will warm up some nice drink and relax for the evening.  Enjoy your holidays.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Sunrise on a clear day, low horizon

Rough arching a viola back.  Just liked the image.  Maybe at the point I wanted to stop working on this project for a few minutes.  Maple is a hard wood.  I can touch up the gouge, maybe do a little more tomorrow.  Other projects need attention.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Two New Fiddles

Every once in a while, I actually finish an instrument, or two. 
This has been a real-live 5-string fiddle for about two weeks now.  Played the contra dance in Boise with it the Saturday before last.  Also played it last Saturday, sitting in with the Serenata Orchestra in Boise, for their sing-along/play-along Handel's 'Messiah'. 

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.

 Also del Gesu inspired f-holes, which I like so am using them wherever I want to.

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.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Manual of Violin Making

  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
  Current price, including shipping in the US, is $375.  This edition is limited to 500 copies. 
  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.

Thursday, December 14, 2017


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.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Learning from the Humble

 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.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

St. Andrews Dinner & Dance

We make fiddles so we can make music.  And often we make music so folks can dance.

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.

Friday, November 17, 2017

First ribs in place...

... little to show for what is actually a fair amount of progress.

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.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Ribs and teeth

Thinning ribs with a toothed plane, to avoid tear-out in the highly flamed maple.  This side will go inward on the finished instrument.

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.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Quitting time

I spend most of my time in the house, where my shop is, hunched over the bench, worried about bumps or awkward curves in my carving, thinking this new batch of varnish really isn't the right color.  Sometimes I'm practicing tunes, wondering if I'll ever learn how to play the fiddle.

It's nice to quit for the day, step outside, and see something that just is what it is.  Knocks me down a gear or two, and that's a good thing.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Light, and sympathetic strings (in the future)

Glancing light is a great tool for violin making.  With it, you can see how many (many, many) bumps one has on a surface, and it can even direct you towards how to remove them.  As I stepped outside the other evening, near sunset, I noticed these autumn leaves on our carport floor.  Note the shadows cast by these not-quite-flat leaves.

I decided to try my hand at making a Hardanger fiddle.  With some online research over the years, a plan from the Guild of American Luthiers, and a photocopy of the English translation of Sverre Sandvik's "Vi byggjer hardingfele", I decided to plunge in.  Since I expect I'll have enough problems with the basic mechanics, I decided to simplify some of the decorative details, such as the scroll. Instead of the traditional dragon, I wanted something like a canoe prow.  To get things uniform, I followed the Lancet arc, here described in "By Hand & Eye" by Geo. R. Walker and Jim Toplin.

It's a decent book, with practical methods for creating shapes in spaces.  My one quibble with the book is that the authors imply, maybe even state, they are not measuring when using a divider or a compass.  While it's true they are not reading a number off a ruler or tape measure, and then not using written math to divide or multiply, a divider is a elegant and exacting way to lay out work.  It is measuring, with extreme accuracy and precision -- assuming your divider or compass stays tight.

Their book is worth having.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Catching a Few October Rays

Buffed up and, for now, done with woodwork, my two newest are hanging in the sun. An old method of enhancing the grain, it is slow, yet does a good job, retaining what we like to see in fiddle wood.  A heavy stain would lock the flames in place.  This way, if all goes well, the flame will dance as one moves it in the light.

Of course, after one day, I'm already seeing a few scraper marks in the backs that I wish I had seen before.  Will see how they behave in the next day or two.  May just leave well-enough alone, as they say.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Some Idaho Fiddling History: Ike Crosby

Jan has been playing fiddle with our band, the Acrasians, for a bit over a year now.  Her family has been in Idaho for a few generations, and it seems she knows someone every where we go.  She got to know an older fiddler in the area here who was playing back in the early 20th century.

Letter to Jan from Ike.  All capital letters, single spaced. Paragraph breaks are mine, placed following Ike’s periods.  Probably also written in 1990.

Feb, Thursday the Eight, 2/58 PM

HI Jan & Family, Recd. your great letter today and was very
glad to get it and am hoping that some week end or for that
matter come any time I’m here in place most of the time, having
no legs am somewhat handicapped, so not too hard to locate.

Now about my first fiddle, I made it out of a cigar box believe
it or not, we had a German neighbor next door who was an excellent
violinist, played classical music as well as any, he gave me
a few lessons, mostly just how to hold the fiddle, no, he called
it a violin, he was a violinist, I’m only a fiddler, I had two
brothers that was fiddlers both older and gone from home when
I started, my dad also played when he was a kid, and his dad
my granddad was I guess better than the rest of us.

I guess it must have been around 1910 or 1911  I was doing the
janitor work at the two room school house in a little town
called Leland, in Nez Pearce County Idaho, I got four dollars a
month, those days Montgomery Ward sent out their catalogs they
had fiddles advertised in them, I had saved my money until I
had seven dollars and enough more to pay the shipping charges
so I ordered one, Mother told me I should have told them and
they would have put more with it and got a better one, any way
as soon as I learned to tune it I could play after a fashion.

In the summer on a big wheat ranch I did chores and there was a
young girl that could second on Pi-ano and we had some wond-
erful times, and at the dances after I was a little bigger I
would play for the dances when the regular musicians went to
the midnight suppers, yes those days we dance all night some
times until daylight.

I worked on ranches a lot when I was a kid and we lived in a little
town and Dad always had some horses around, and after I grew up
I broke horses for a horse outfit that were sold to the army.

You ask where I went to learn my first tunes, I knew a lot of tunes
we learned to sing in school, those tunes and anything I could
whistle I could play on the fiddle, and at a dance I might learn
one or two new tunes, and I went to a lot of dances.

Ame here most of the time except when I go for a foot or leg
measurement, will be gone Monday P.M.

As ever,  Ike.

Envelope is postmarked 23 Jan 1990, Boise, ID. 

Return address is R.F. Crosby, 1615 ‘ Th St., Nampa, ID 83651

Addressed to Jan Beckwith, XXX W. Linden, Caldwell, ID 83605

And a second note, on green paper --


Friend Jan, I am now in the Valley Plaza Retirement Center
1615 8th St. Nampa, and I have my violin with me, why dont you an
and the kids run over and try my fiddle, no it’s a violin.

Came from Spain, I’ve had it 73 years, come try it.  I cant hear
but had another man tune it and I played some, bring your
husband if he would like to come

Best regards, as ever Ike Crosby.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Buttoned Up

 My two most recent, all together.  Plenty of detail work left before moving onto the varnishing, but I can now heft them to my shoulder and they feel like fiddles.  That's fun.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Viking ship...

... with a crew of horned-helmet warriors.

Please, no Spam.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A Freed Rib, or Six

 The plates, top and back, are done to the point that they can be glued onto the ribs.  So this means the ribs have to come off the forms.  I have linings both top and bottom, the first step for removal is to trim these from square to tapered.  All sorts of ways to do that.  What you basically want is a big surface at the outside, to create a bigger gluing surface, tapered down to thin on the inside, to reduce weight and stiffness.

I take a compass and set the pencil at about half the width of the lining, in the vertical sense, and trace out a line on the linings all the way around, top and bottom.  Then a sharp knife, cut a bevel from the line to the inside edge, tapering down to meet the rib.  I usually make a few nicks on the form and on the ribs, but nothing so much to worry about.  And it doesn’t need to be perfect right here, because I’ll clean it up later after the ribs are off the form.

Once the linings are trimmed, I use a small hammer and knock the blocks loose from the form.  Then a flat chisel, I strike diagonal cuts to take out the ‘inside’ corners that will disappear anyway. 

When those fragments are out, it’s a matter of carefully loosening the ribs -- may have a few accidental glue spots that you don’t want to rush loose -- and then bending the ribs outward a bit, tipping the form as you go.  I start at the C-bouts and work towards the larger, lower bouts.  Once the endblock is free, you’re pretty much done with the removal.

Then, trim up the blocks and clean up the linings a bit. 

Next, glue on a plate or two.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Square Neck, Round Neck

Shaping the neck is one of the toughest jobs for me.  It's the one place the musician actually touches the instrument, and that is with the hand, probably the most sensitive spot for touch on the human body.  Any bump or dip or other weirdness in the neck is easily found and soon becomes annoying.

For the violin maker, the neck is further complicated by the usual material, highly figured maple.  It likes to flake out, chip out, at the worst possible place.  As is common, I use a saw to make a series of cuts arong the neck, using the Japanese saw in the background, center right.  After that, I then chip it out with a chisel and mallet.  I use a cheap, but easy to sharpen chisel and a wooden mallet, shown here on the left of the photo here.

My experience has taught me two things about myself.  First, in any series of cuts, I'll make one too deep, cutting into material that I actually didn't intend to cut into and then wishing I could then go back in time and yell "Stop" at myself.

The other is that no matter how careful I am with the chisel, I am going to get too close to the final surface and chip out a bit of flamed maple.  There's really no good way to glue one of these little pieces back in, if you can find it among the debris on the bench or floor.

So, now I don't cut as deep with the saw.  I don't take such big swipes with the chisel.  And I'm left with a surface that is a bit farther away from the finished edge.  That's where the big rasp comes in.  This one has coarse teeth and is heavy and long enough to hold with both hands, one on either end.  I can push and take off a decent amount of material without too much fear of chip-out, and it's wide enough that I am getting the beginnings of the smooth surface a musician will not even notice.

Plenty of rasps fill this need.  This particular one I got from Stewart-MacDonald, which they call "Dragon Hand-cut Rasp, Large, Coarse."  You could do worse. 

By the way, I paid full retail for this rasp, and am not being repaid by Stewart-MacDonald or anyone else.  A good tool is worth its price.

Monday, September 25, 2017

A couple necks

Spent part of today rough-fitting a couple fingerboards to a couple necks.  The 5-string is being made with a wider fingerboard, to account for that extra string.  I'm trying just a little wider this time, maybe too wide.  Won't know until I start playing it, a couple months from now, probably.