Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Stephen Shepherd Obituary

Stephen in his Salt Lake shop, 1978.  Photo courtesy of George Stapleford.

Stephen's obituary can be found at this location --!/Obituary

The text of his obituary --

Stephen Arden Shepherd

Stephen Shepherd, was born April 20, 1948 in Salt Lake City, UT, to Arden Warren and Vida Johnson Shepherd. He passed away January 24, 2018, a kind release from the debilitating effects of a stroke. He leaves a sister Merrily Runyan, Clovis, CA, and nieces and nephews.

Stephen Shepherd was a unique individual. Whether known as Stephen Shepherd the author, lecturer, and expert in 19th-Century Woodworking, or as “Tater”, the Mountain Man and adventurer, he influenced many people and sometimes irritated others with his infallible knowledge. Arguing historic technology with Stephen was frustrating and pointless – his knowledge was vast. And he shared that knowledge with anyone genuinely interested.

He was always building, repairing, tinkering and inventing, very often simply to see if he could do it – if it could even be done. Many of his friends are proud owners of a “Tater-made” item, from furniture to walking-sticks to quill pens. He shared his knowledge by writing four authoritative books on woodworking, and re-published two more “rescued” books of great value to historians of 19th-Century crafts.

For the most part he lived a 19th-Century life. Almost all his furniture and re-created items were made and restored using only hand tools. He had no power tools in his shop. His careful craftsmanship, restoration and renown finishing techniques, including gorgeous “painting and graining”, gained him world-wide recognition. His clients over the years included many wealthy collectors and The LDS Church Historic Collections.

He dressed for most of his adult life in 19th-Century-style clothing, including when traveling to other states. In 1976, during the bicentennial re-tracing of the Domingues/Escalante journey to Utah, Stephen and companions met the party in the desert, dressed authentically as fur-traders. Their clothing and accoutrement authenticity far outshone that of the re-creators! For decades he attended Mountain Man rendezvous all over the west, and was always welcomed by everyone.

People loved Stephen Shepherd, and were proud to know him. Sometimes they were friends of Stephen, sometimes friends of Tater, some not even knowing they were one and the same! His cheerful demeanor, his willingness to laugh at society’s faults, and his dedication to his friends make the memory of Stephen “Tater” Shepherd precious to all of us who were close to him.

Per Stephen’s wishes, no services will be held, donations may be made to This Is the Place Heritage Park in his memory.


Stephen (left) and myself (right), Mill Creek Canyon, February 1975.  We camped this way.  We were much younger then.

George Stapleford (left) and Stephen (right) near Moab, Utah, March 1975.  Better camping conditions, still cold.

L to R, myself, Stephen, LaMar Higbee, Taos, New Mexico, May 1975.  Yet better camping conditions.

George, Stephen, and I, September 2016.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Not a Good Businessman

I really don't like the cheap Chinese fiddles being sold these days.  A heads-up: if you are thinking of buying a violin, bow, and case on-line for $100, just buy beer and pizza instead.  You'll be better off.

I have found one place, however, where inexpensive instruments, not bottom-of-the-bucket VSOs, are useful, and that is in the fractional violins that go out on rentals.  Even then, I don't just pull them out of the box and send them on their way.  Typically, new (real) violin strings, work over the pegs, adjust or replace the bridge.  Throw the bow away, substitute in a Glasser or something similar that has a chance of surviving.

And my rentals are rent-to-own, so I move the kids up through various sizes as they grow.  If the kids stick with it, the parents are well into paying for a decent full-size fiddle by the time the child has grown to that size, and has learned, through various mistakes, how to take care of a fiddle.

The other day, this poor 1/4-size violin came in, brand new, from a reputable supplier.  The fingerboard was a ski-jump.  I debated sending it back, but didn't want that hassle.  I debated asking the supplier for a new fingerboard.  That just seemed too demeaning to all of us.  So I decided to waste more time.

Here's the old fingerboard --

And here is the new one --

After all my reading and work with Hardanger fiddle design, I started to get a little interested in the inlay process, something I haven't done much of.  So I found a piece of bone, a cut-off from a guitar-nut blank, cut it quickly to a rough diamond shape, laid it out on the center of the fingerboard in a random spot, and started the inlay.

I didn't notice at the time, but I drifted a bit to one side during the inlay process, something to be on the look-out for if I do more of these things.

I also did a little bit of simple engraving, which is a bit crude, but I think it looks better than just the bone diamond.

Also cut a new bridge, installed new Prelude strings and a Wittner tailpiece.  For a cheap little fiddle, it ought to work well for someone.

On a sad note, my long-time friend, Stephen Shepherd, passed away yesterday.  He had suffered a stroke a few years back, and went from being a vital historic cabinetmaker and author to a semi-paralyzed invalid.  Early on, it looked like he might come out of it.  He didn't.  When I visited him in Salt Lake this past Thanksgiving, he was basically bedridden and bored, starving himself to death.

I will miss him.

Here we are, the Three Musketeers, at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, in 1974.  Stephen is center, I am to the left, and George Stapleford to the right.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Back together again.

From my post last December, Learning from the Humble:

Now back together, and back in the Middle School orchestra room:

I glued the pieces, those that made sense to look after, back together.  Bushed the C and A pegholes, installed internal crossgrain cleats in the pegbox across the C and A peghole locations.  Added a chunk of curly maple on the treble side, where it was missing and badly splintered.  I didn't spend too much time with color-matching, it was a functional school repair that I probably underbid -- but, as in my previous post, the back and ribs were nicely done.  Worth saving, I thought.

I did add some clear varnish to the bare wood on the body, lots of bare real-estate on that body.  But now that, too, is protected a bit from normal use. 

This viola should serve for several more years, barring too rough of use.  Or dropping.  Can't warranty against dropping.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Too Far

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

I was having so much fun looking through Brian Derber's new Violin Making book, trying familiar things in different ways, that I forgot I was making a Hardanger fiddle and not a regular violin.  I woke up one morning on the weekend, suddenly thinking about those different, overlapping Hardanger f-holes, how high they were, when, dang!  I have been arching the middle section as normal.  I quickly laid out the ff's and determined that I had, for me, gone too far.  Maybe someone who had made Hardangers before could see there was enough wood left, maybe not.  For me, I needed a fresh start. 

So, I joined another set of spruce halves on Monday.  On Tuesday, flattened the inner surface, then traced the outline, sawed it out, cleaned it up a bit and took down the edges, leaving the piece nice and fat in the center.

The new top is at top in this photo, the previous version below, with typical f-holes drawn in place.  I can salvage that top for a new fiddle.  The overhang is still a little wide, and if I'm careful with the corner blocks, using the same mould, I should be in good shape, even a little ahead on that one.

Wednesday, I pondered over the Hardanger holes, using a few resources I've gathered up.  Not much really on the placement of the holes themselves, so I did the best I could, closed my eyes, and plunged a few holes.

Today, Thursday, I started cutting wood around the arc of the stems.  Trying to follow Salve HÃ¥kedal's nicely illustrated tutorial.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Saturday in McCall

No fiddle work in this post, just a view into our neck of the woods.

We took advantage of free introductory classes in cross-country skiing offered at Ponderosa State Park near McCall, Idaho.  Splendid instruction, and, after years of snowshoeing, nice to be able to slide about.  We did ok on the classic cross-country class,  fell a few times during the skate-ski class, and got up just as often.

My wife doing the no-pole shuffle --

She got a very brief video of me not falling down.

Skis, boots, and poles provided by HomeTown Sports in McCall, all in great shape.  We'll be renting equipment from them in the future

A couple of the local boys, not needing skis --

We had a great lunch at Salmon River Brewery in McCall.

A light snow amount so far this year.  Usually Payette Lake is frozen over, and we're out walking on it in our snowshoes, other folks out there ice-fishing.  Not so this year.  Hoping for more snow and cold temperatures to come soon.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Out with the old

This is a violin top I made a couple years ago.  It was on a Guarneri del Gesu inspired violin I was making, and in the spirit of Paganini's del Gesu, "il Cannone", I left the plates thick.  An experiment.

As I was carving it, I uncovered a small branch in the lower bout, treble side.  Very frustrating to find it at that point in the process.   I did learn to look for the tell-tale sign, the cross-section of a branch on the outer edge.

Flustered but not defeated, I continued carving, being careful around the rapidly changing grain.  I managed to get under it, without much distortion to the arching.  The weird grain was still there, and I grew to like it somewhat.  It did bother me, wondering what sort of sonic impact it would have.

So then I went on.  Here it is at the point in time we'll call "X" with my Brothers Amati plate underneath.  I like to build two at a time.

So I finished both of them, strung them up.  The Brothers Amati I liked.  The del Gesu I hated.  Give it a couple weeks to stretch and compress.  Still hated it.  No volume, unpleasant tone.  Ok, it was an experiment, heavy plates.  And there was that weird branch grain.  Maybe it was to blame. So I pulled the top and thinned it down.  Put it back together.  Now it was louder, but still an unpleasant tone.  Matters were worse.

Took it to a show in Portland, Oregon.  Folks played it.  Other makers played it.  Most didn't mind it too much, but generally a polite bunch.  It didn't sell, but not many violins sell there in a good year.

Moved the soundpost around a bit.  Made a new soundpost.  Still hated it.

I pulled the top again.  Thinned the top more. Thinned the back.  Put it together and strung it up.  Now it was even louder, still hated the tone.  Nasal, maybe, though with a head cold or bad allergy.  Bad diction.  Like listening to someone with a loud, sloppy voice, telling boring, long-winded stories.

Was it the branch grain?  Nothing I did seemed to help.

Took it to Weiser.  Folks played it. Some were complimentary.  It didn't sell.  Not much did that year at Weiser, either.  Still, I hated it.

Brad Holst, a fellow violin repairer from Medford, Oregon, was there, had put a few of his violins on the table at my temporary shop at the Weiser Fiddle Contest.  He said: "What's the spacing between your upper eyes?"  42 mm, I answered.  "Hmm, " he said.  "I'd be curious to see what it measures to."

So I pulled out a tape measure, and it came out at 39 mm.

Back to "X" point in time.  I laid-out the terminal holes incorrectly on that plate.  Distracted by the branch, perhaps.  Well, shoot.  I kept the fiddle around for a couple months after that, then finally said "no" to myself.  I wouldn't sell something like that.  Pulled the top off, made a new one.

I still am not crazy about the tone with the new top, but I don't hate it now. I could even play it for a few weeks and maybe learn how to handle it.

I thought about keeping the old top, with its too-close eyes, in the shop as a reminder of my mistake.  Then, I realized, I make new mistakes every day, so don't need some reminder hanging on the wall. I'd rather have something nice to look at.

Last night's contra band rehearsal was at my place, a cold night, snow on the ground, so we had a nice fire in the fireplace, and cleared out some old debris, including not just that top, but a top from an old factory fiddle that had been badly cracked and put back together with Gorilla (TM) Glue.  That was not my repair.  I tried to clean it up and put it back together, but it was too far gone, and frankly not that good of a top to begin with.  So I made a new one for that old fiddle, strung it up, and it sold within a week.

Here's the old top, also on its way to the afterlife.

I was wishing for a viola top, to test whether they actually do burn longer.

Life goes on.  Things are created, exist for a while, then are gone, elements to be recycled into something else.  Here's a photo of some bread I pulled out of the oven while writing this blog post.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

DIY Marking Gauge

Not my idea, probably an old one at that, but simple and effective.  An adjustable marking gauge you can make in a few moments.  Good for putting that running dent in the wood, something to cut to.  The little screwhead lets allows you to get into the curves, which is nice at this point in the making.

Handy little adjustment tool, too.