Monday, September 17, 2018

Mary Rose 2 and Saddlework

Having drilled the pegholes, cut the pegbox outline and cleaned it up, I lay out the pegbox walls.  I like to hollow out the pegbox first, because (1) that is the functioning portion of the whole thing, and (2) while it's still square, it's easier to hold in a vise.

Feeling something like a prospector finding gold, it's always a little fun to uncover the first peghole.

More digging, moving the neckblock around in different angles in the vise, doesn't take too long to hollow the volume that will hold the strings. 

On another front, I carved two saddles out of ebony blocks, for the Hardanger and the viola I am about building.  This is the last wood that will go on these two before they are cleaned up, edgework finished off, and then into the varnish process.  The saddle is a chunk of dense wood which keeps the tailgut of the tailpiece from sinking into and damaging the spruce top edge.  Usually hidden under a chinrest, most folks don't notice it very often.  An ebony block, someday to be a saddle on another instrument, lays in front of these two.  The rubber bands are holding the saddles in place while the glue sets.

Put the saddle on the stove, Ma, we're riding the range tonight.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Hardanger Strings

Hardanger strings arrived in the mail today. Doesn’t indicate much real progress on my part, besides taking the time to find and order them, but they tickle me nevertheless.

And the package art-work, Fanitullen, The Devil’s Tune.

At a wedding, a fight broke out, as they did in those days.  The fiddler, wanting to be somewhere else during a fight, as we still do today, went down to the cellar to get more beer, to help calm things down.  He found the Devil atop the beer barrel, playing this tune.  Listening to it, he learned the tune, and played it for folks afterwards. 

Or something like that.

Here’s a decent version of the tune by Bukkene Bruse -- Fanitullen.

An 1853 painting by Adolph Tidemand (source).

And the words, in Norwegian by Jørgen Moe (1813-1882) and English translation by Espen Andersen.

In the hardened days of yore
when with beer and brawn
the knives of Hallingdale
from their sheaths were often drawn
when women to the feast
funeral shirts would bring
with which they would swathe
their dead husbands in

there once took place a wedding
somewhere in Hemsedale
where song and dance did cease
and the men did ring the vale.
In the center of the floor
framed by shoulder-broad men
two stood with knives unsheated
and a leather belt round them

And like columns carved
unmoving, serene
another four stood
as guardians of the scene
They lift burning torches
toward the blackened beams
where curls of smoke collected
to a dark and brooding stream

In vain two women try
howling, to stem
the living wall of bodies
raised before them
Angrily they’re thrown back
and left to despair
while the fiddler quietly sidles
toward the cellar stair.

Down he goes to tap beer
as the winner of the fight
may have need to kiss
the bowl's rim tonight.
Within the belt they'll duel,
blood running like sap
the vein will need refilling
from the beer casket tap.

Standing in the cellar
he saw a bluish glow
someone sitting on the casket
tuning fiddle, holding bow.
This man held it backwards
tightly to his chest
and as soon as it was tuned
put his fiddle to the test.

There came a song of wonder;
It rang like angry words,
Like steel bite into wood
Like fists rammed into boards.
It jubilantly roamed
Around the darkened cellar hall
And came to a halt
At the sound of a fall

Quietly the fiddler listened
to the mighty flow
It was like the music’s eddies
went down his spine and brow.
He quickly asked the other
“Where did you learn that song?”
The answer: “Don't you mind that,
But remember it – for long!”

But as the man bent down
Reaching for the tap
He saw a horned hoof
against the casket rap
He forgot to tap the beer
And ran up to the hall
Just as the men were lifting
The body from the fall

Fanitullen it is called
This wild and haunting spell
And in Hallingdale they play it
And they play it well
And when its tune is singing
to beer and feast and brawn
again knives of Hallingdale
from their sheats are quickly drawn


Well, back to installing pegs on a different violin. 

Friday, August 24, 2018

Hardanger -- main parts together at last

Slow, but still plugging away.  Glued the back on my first Hardanger this morning, after fitting the neck yesterday, and after gluing the top to the ribs last week, which came after taking the ribs off the form, trimming the linings and blocks.

This afternoon, I will clean up the pegbox on my viola, including cutting the fluting around the outside.  Once that is done I can attach it to the assembled top and ribs.  Not the method I was taught, but one that I've used on my last couple of fiddles.  The old makers in Cremona used to nail on the neck before fitting the top and back to the ribs.  Current common method is to assemble the body, so that the top and back are glued to the ribs, then fit the neck.  Different ways, and one can defend any one of them. 

Repairs keep me in groceries and away from the new making.  Just the way it is in most violin shops.  An interesting fiddle came in last week for repair.  Fingerboard got knocked off.

Used to belong to Dwayne Youngblood, a well-known fiddler in our area.  Now belongs to someone else, who really enjoys playing it.  Got the fingerboard cleaned up and glued back into place.

A German del Gesu, with ornate bits.

And a label to boot.

Speaking of labels, I put one inside my Hardanger before I buttoned it up.  In my fiddle-making, I usually wait until after the instrument is varnished to put in the label, it being easy enough to fish one in through the f-hole.  But on the Hardanger, the soundholes have overlapping wings, so I wasn't sure how easy it was to get one in after closing the box.  Made a quick one up, the tried it inside in the usual spot, under the bass-side soundhole.  Can't see it from the bass side.  Can see it from the treble soundhole, looking across, but then it's upside down.  So I placed it upside-down on the bass side so that it would be right-side up when seen from the treble side. 

I haven't paid enough attention to what other Hardanger makers do to know what the common practice is for labels.  I don't think much about my own labels.  But of these two labels shown here, one of them is real.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Mary Rose 1

Having a little time this afternoon, which I could have spent doing yard work but didn't, I sketched up a new project.

In 1545, the Mary Rose, one of King Henry VIII's battleships, sunk.  Retrieval efforts were started quite early, but it wasn't raised until 1982.  Shown in a nice museum, which I'd like to see someday.  Here's a link to it -- Mary Rose Museum.

Among the many artifacts found, some sort of fiddle. 

I've been wanting to make a copy for quite some time now, and finally have a chance.  A high-school student, needing a project, wanting to explore violin-making, so we discussed a few options I had on various backburners.  He liked the Mary Rose fiddle idea.

I sent him off with the assignment to make a scale drawing of what we're going to make, based on photos available on the net of the actual artifact and other folks' reconstructions.  Having been a successful college instructor, I realize the importance of being at least 2 text-book pages ahead of the students.  So, today at the kitchen table, I sharpened up a pencil and went to work. 

On the original, the neck is missing, and the peghead is ambiguous.  So I have freedom to decide how to proceed there. My plan here is to make a 3-string, scaled to a 16" viola, using the lowest 3 strings.  A chording, rhythm instrument, to accompany singing or melody instruments.  Of our modern English words, rhythm has to be one that looks most like Old English, even though it's probably not.

So, basic sketch laid out.  I can think about it, and still change my mind.  It is in pencil. 

My New Minimalist Web Site

This is the third major redesign of my shop's web-page, and it is the first one that I have been mainly hands-off in the actual coding.  My son, Roger, took care of that part this time. 

You can see the new web-page here.

It should look something like this on a computer screen.

And something like this on a smart phone.

My previous web-site looked exactly the same on a smart phone as it did on a computer screen, only smaller. This one is scalable, so that it should fit, should adjust, to various screen sizes.

And that's just part of the reason I've decided to take a more hands-off approach to maintaining my web-site.  When I first learned computer coding, we were taught Fortran.  Our screens were dark green with bright green letters, and they were terminals, not individual computers.  Terminals hooked to a big computer in a different building, and as students we had the lowest priority, which meant it took a long time to type something in.  Then personal computers came out, such as my first, a Commodore 64, and I learned Basic.  Then Pascal as I got into grad school.  Then C.  A brief dabbling in Object-Oriented programming.  Then I graduated and got to working on fiddles.  I have no idea what's going on in programming today, and I don't care to learn.  I want to spend my time on fiddles.  And music.  And reading.  Cat videos.  Nearly anything else, except yard work.  

The other idea I had was to be minimal on my shop's web page.  It's something I've been thinking about for some time now.  In previous incarnations of my shop's web page, I had multiple pages, stacked with what I thought of as useful information.  The problem is, as time has gone on, fewer and fewer folks read much of it.  They wanted contact information, to contact me, and then ask me exactly what they wanted to know rather than searching in hope that it might be somewhere on my web-page.  And it probably wasn't, truthfully.

So the new web-page in really basically a high-tech business card.  Roger and I designed it as single page.  I do have links to this blog and to the shop's Facebook page.  That's where I'll add recent information, which will be highly relevant for a brief period of time, then can fade into the memory bank of some computer somewhere and folks won't have to wade through it to find out what my hours are.  (By appointment, as with most single-person violin shops.)

If you want to see Roger's web-site, it's at

As with all things like this, my new web-site is an experiment. Even if it works, something different will replace it before too many years have gone by. 

Yard work will remain.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Hardanger bass bar

Got a couple bows rehaired this morning, glued in a bass bar for a viola I'm making, and then took some time to shape the bass bar in my first Hardanger.  The instructions from "Vi Byggejer Hardingfele" by Sverre Sandvik, translation by Eldon Ellingson, are not very detailed.  Shorter and smaller than a regular violin.  Longer tall section between the f-holes.  There is a sketch of a bass-bar on the plans, but it is unclear whether that is the good one, or one that had to be reshaped later.

Other sources talk of the Hardanger bass-bar being like a Baroque bass-bar, which I haven't made, either.  So, taking minimal direction as a high-level of permission, I plunged in and came up with this.

And that will have to do for now.  I put a light layer of shellac around the glue-surface, so if I need to take the top back off, say, to reshape the bass-bar, it's a little easier.

Will glue it on the ribs tomorrow, probably.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Label, a possible source of information, part 2

Here's another label, that appears handwritten....

 ... but isn't.  It's a print.  Still nice looking, in any event.

It reads: François Guillmont, Aix la Chapelle.

What do we know about François Guillmont?  Certainly there were men by that name, but this violin was not made by such a person, nor was it made in France.  Françios Guillmont appears to be a 'trade name' (aka, made up) for the Ernst Reinhold Schmidt violin shop (aka, factory) in Germany.  Late 1800s, early 1900s. 

Not that this makes it a bad violin at all.  Fairly decent, upper middle-class, as was the one in my last post. 

Why would folks put in fake labels?  It evokes a story.  Exotic locations, craftsmen toiling away in some idyllic setting.  People like stories.  Probably folks making fiddles in France put in German names and locations as well. 

So labels are fun.  Don't take them too seriously.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Label, a possible source of information...

... and sometimes not.

I had hoped to have more to say about this label, and the fiddle it was attached to. 

I liked the neat handwriting.  It appears to me to read: Matthias Kofler, Salzburg 1910.

A little research on the internet, and I found, well, nothing of use.  Apparently there was a Kofler, or Kofler family, making violins in the mid- to late-1800s.  But I couldn't find any Kofler.  So I don't know.  It could be a completely fake label.

The violin itself appeared to be a decent, upper-middle-class violin.  I had it on the bench at the Wallowa Fiddle Tunes Camp last month.  Some glueing and a new bridge.  Grabbed a couple snapshots.

The body, with a couple clamps, next to my fancy gluepot.

The scroll was tidy, though with a couple pegbox breaks that had been previously repaired.

It had been a wallhanger for a few years, the cord around the scroll's neck was part of its hanging.  Now, with a new bridge, new tailpiece, and new strings, it's being played again.  From what I've heard from the owner, she's happy with it.

But I still don't know who Matthias Kofler was.

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.