Saturday, February 6, 2016

Violin Body

I've put in a lot of late nights recently because I want very much to work on my own instrument, but there just isn't time available to do it.  So I make time between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.  This means some nights I only get about three or four hours of sleep, but I can do that for a while without a problem.  Eventually I kind of crash and go to bed really early one night which seems to catch me up, but for the most part the late night schedule works out.  I can focus without interruption.  (Or distraction.  When my kids are up I want to be with them, so it's better if I wait until they are all in bed.)

In any case, here is the progress I've made on the violin body I'm working on:

When last I posted about this instrument I'd finished carving the scroll, and had gotten as far as the purfling on the body.

Next up was to rough graduate the top plate, then do the f-holes.
F-holes are the sound holes cut into the top plate on either side of the bridge.  They need to be large enough to help sound escape from the inside of the instrument's body, but not so large that they compromise the structural integrity of the top.  The stems of the f-holes need to be wide enough to easily get a soundpost through.  (As a repair person I know this is essential, since I am someone who has to repeatedly do soundpost work on instruments once they are out in the world.  When I have to work with a violin where the f-holes are too narrow it makes my job more difficult than it should be, so I'm mindful not to inflict the same problem on others in future.)

Carving f-holes is tricky.  They are one of those elements of violin making where there is nowhere to hide.  You can tell a lot about a luthier's skill level by how he or she carves their f-holes.  F-holes by different makers have different characteristics, and this was my first time carving in the Amati style, so that was fun. 

You begin by laying the F-holes out in pencil on the front of top using a template.  The f-holes are positioned based on the eventual placement of the bridge, and the predetermined distance between the upper eyes.
Once the f-holes are properly laid out, you drill a few holes in them, and use those holes as entry points for the fret saw.

After the rough work has been accomplished with the saw, you do the rest of the carving with an F-hole knife, which is very long and sharp.  The challenge of carving spruce is that the summer grain is soft, and the winter grain is hard, so keeping all the cuts even and avoiding chatter takes practice.

We strive for symmetry with the F-holes, but recently I've adopted an attitude about them based on a piece of advice I read online about shaping your eyebrows:  Remember they are sisters, not twins.  I think as long as they look like they balance each other appropriately I'm not going to keep chasing every cut to try to make them exact mirror images.  I've altered F-holes in the past that I liked just because I felt I had to match something that got away from me on the other one.  Unless there is a glaring imbalance to address I don't plan on doing that anymore.
After carving the f-holes (leaving the wings attached) I graduated the top, which means thinning the plate from the inside to particular thicknesses.  (Leaving the wings of the F-holes attached at this stage helps to protect them from getting snagged by the finger planes.)
Plate graduation is an interesting process.  I have patterns that I follow, and I take frequent measurements with my calipers, but a lot of it comes down to how the specific piece of wood feels.  It needs to flex in your hands properly and the different thicknesses need to flow into each other well.  The thickest area is at the center, and on this top plate it ended up at 3.1mm.  The thinnest areas (2.5cm in from the edges) were 2.4mm.

The plate is also tuned to specific pitches, which are referred to as "tap tones."  You hold the plate a particular way and tap the wood in spots to make it resonate.  You can adjust the pitch you hear by removing more wood.  I did not get the tap tones I was originally aiming for because the electronic tuner I was using to hum the pitches into had a low battery, and I didn't realize it wasn't giving me an accurate reading until the tap tones had gotten lower than I intended.  It should be fine, though.  The plate feels good and rings well, and my teacher back in school was always adamant that you "don't hang on tap tones."  It will be interesting to note any acoustical differences between this instrument and my previous ones.

After the graduation is complete you cut the wings on the F-holes free.  (This usually drops the tap tones but then they go up the same amount again once the bass bar is in.)
The bass bar!  The bass bar is a structural support that runs under the lower pitched strings on a violin (viola, or cello) and helps move more of the plate to produce the larger sound waves in that range.  It's made of spruce, and is angled slightly askew to the grain which helps avoid cracking.  The bass bar is laid out based on the eventual position of the bridge (and is symmetrical to where the soundpost will be on the treble side).

You chalk fit the bar, which means you put down a layer of chalk along where it sits, place the bar there, and see where the chalk has touched it so you know where the high spots are that need to be cut.  Temporary cleats help you put the bar in exactly the same spot.  Getting a perfect fit on the bar doesn't actually take that long.  The part that always slows me up is adding "spring" to it, which means removing an extra amount of material evenly from each end so that the whole length of it rolls.  I made a "bass bar ring" to help keep the plate from flexing while pressing the bar into the chalk.
Once the fit of the bar is correct you have to glue it immediately.  I have a wood protector on the top side of the plate, and the bar is held in place with a pair of long C-clamps on the ends, and four clothespin clamps.
Usually you let it sit overnight to dry.  If the fit isn't exact you end up with bulges and ridges on the outside of the plate, so it pays to take the time to fit the bar well.  After it's dry you shape it until it flexes properly and the tap tones are where you expect them.
Graduation on the back plate is a little more straightforward since you don't have to deal with the F-holes or the bass bar, but it makes a mess because the tiny shavings from the toothed blades in the finger planes get everywhere.  The maple for this instrument has really beautiful flame, and it looks amazing when light shines through it.  (You can actually see how the wood gets thicker at the center.)  The middle of this plate ended up at 4.7mm, and the thin spot around the edges was 2.4mm. 

Once the back plate is finished it gets permanently glued to the ribs.
After that dries, you can finally remove the form.

At this point it always feels like things are rolling, and then I remember that I have to glue in the upper side linings, shape the blocks and the linings, and clean up all the excess glue.
lots of tiny clamps for gluing in linings.
But eventually all of that is done and I can glue on the top!
It's always exciting to unclamp a violin body when it's finally glued together.  It's surprisingly light.
And this is one of the biggest fake out moments where it feels like you are mostly done and then there is a lot to do.  Besides cleaning off glue and rounding all the edges and making and installing the saddle, the purfling channel needs to be touched up.  I hate working on the purfling channel.  I kind of punted on it a few steps back, not spending as much time on it as I should have because I knew I would have to do it again anyway, but now of course I have to really do it.
The purfling channel is the scoop in the plate right along the edge where the purfling runs, and includes the little ridge that is the high point before the edges round over.  It's frustrating because it's supposed to be smooth and even, but you have to deal with the grain changing direction as you work your way around the plate, and the purfling itself scrapes differently from the wood around it.  Plus you have to do everything twice, once on the spruce then again on the maple.

And it feels thankless because it takes forever and nobody (but other makers) notice it.  Well, it's not true people don't notice it, but they don't know they notice it.  It defines the finished outline of the instrument, but not in a manner the average person could point to.  The same way someone in well-tailored clothes looks polished and put together, but if you had to say why you would be distracted by style or material or color, and less likely to give credit to good hems and seams.  The purfling channel is essential for a clean and finished appearance, but it takes forever, and when you're done it just gets taken for granted.

So that's where I am.  And I'm cheating a little with this photo because the saddle (the ebony piece at the bottom of the plate) isn't finished or glued in yet, and the corners still need to be rounded.  But I'm almost ready to set the neck!  Once that's done I will do final touch ups (including more work on the purfling channel) and I can start thinking about varnish.  Can't wait!  I've really enjoyed working on this model and look forward to doing it again.  (Probably for Quinn, since I'm doing a Strad model for Aden, and plan on a Guarneri for Mona.)  Violin making is the best.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Surprise Mold-A-Rama!

When my mom was visiting recently we took her on her first visit to the Milwaukee County Zoo, and what did we stumble across?  A new Mold-A-Rama!  One we've never seen before anywhere:  A cow!
How cool is that?  We knew they had a hippo now (a rare figure--we only have one other that we found in Florida on our big Mold-A-Rama road trip) because Aden picked one up for the family collection when she was at the zoo on a field trip last month.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Health Update

Simply because I find it easier to post here for anyone who is interested than to repeat myself for people who ask.  Anyone understandably not interested, maybe go read this old post about building our garage.  Or, if you want something more deathy there's this.  (Or something random, or something violin-y.)

I'm doing well!  The new doctor put me on steroids back at the beginning of December, and that's doing the trick.  Apparently steroids either work for people with Granulomatous Mastitis immediately or they don't help much at all.  I am in the lucky category of people for whom they seem work.

Saturday, January 16, 2016


This has been the week of sorting photos.  I went through the giant stack of pictures we developed before the holidays and got everything labeled and dated.  It's a habit held over from the days before digital pictures when I would get the mystery envelope of prints from the developer and sit down with my calendar and try to remember when everything happened.  I'm glad I did, because the first four years of Aden's life are a blur to me now without those photos, and the dates and reminders of where we were mean something to me.  It's still nice to have information written out on the back of a photo, though, even if there are now high tech ways to figure some of that out.

We got our first digital camera when Mona was about eighteen months old.  The best part about it to me has always been the ability to see right away if you got the shot you wanted, and to decide if it's even a picture you want to develop, or make multiples of.  Not to mention the seemingly endless number of photos you can take to try and get the right shot.  It's hard to explain the old limitations to my kids.

When I think back to using rolls of film, the main thing I remember is having to keep track of the countdown on the roll and having to be selective about what I could even take photos of.  And seeing what pictures I actually got was always a surprise, but not one I would want to revisit.  The quality of the photos, however, I still think was better with real film.  There's a crispness to digital photos that can be great, but also somehow hard and flat.  I'm sure that's not true of professional grade cameras, but there was a softness to the pictures of my old-fashioned point-and-shoot that's different from what I get with my digital version.  Not enough to matter, but it's something I notice when I look back at Aden's baby pictures from before our jump to digital.

Another hold over from my regular film developing days is the boxes.  Not every picture I got developed was something I wanted to put in an album, but I didn't necessarily want to throw them away, either, so I'd put the spares in a photo box.  Even though I can now select what photos to develop, I don't always know until I really hold them in my hand what I think.  I also like to have choices when I'm sorting and put things in an album that tell the right story.  Sometimes that means some really nice pictures end up in the boxes, but that's okay.  They are there if I ever want them.

I was good for several years about getting photos into albums.  I have categories of albums, such as friends and family and the cottage.  I tend to put big trips together into their own albums, so if I want to remember my visit to India, or Alaska, or my car trip out West with my best friend, I can find them.  I sort pictures by what I think I might want to look for--such as photos from college, or Ian as a child.

For my children I have them sorted by kid and by age, and Quinn pointed out to me recently that he only goes up to age four, and Aden stopped aging apparently at nine.  This bothered his own need for organization (not that that need extends to his bedroom floor, but that's a different post), and I decided if I didn't get them up to date soon it was going to be too hard to ever want to deal with, so Quinn helped me buckle down and get everything sorted.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Mini Costume Box

The gift I was most excited to give this year was to Mona.  It's a box of little figures made from the scraps of her old Halloween costumes.
It wasn't exactly a surprise since I did the same for Aden when she turned 12, but Mona was delighted by her box.  Aden's box still makes her weepy.  Mona is not as sentimental, but always appreciative, so it was a different sort of reaction this time around.  It was still worth the effort to hand stitch all those little costume figures, and I like the idea of my kids having mini versions of their Halloween costume memories to hold onto (rather than feel they must forever keep the actual costumes).

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Of Joy and Grief and Art

This holiday season has been wonderful.  I got everything finished on time (including a gift for Mona that I will share pictures of soon), our health is all relatively good, I got to perform some music with friends on Christmas Eve which is always nice, and despite the unseasonable nature of the balmy weather at least it's made all the driving easy.

Even work went unusually well.  I get people every year who want to buy a violin for someone to put under the tree as a surprise, and every year I talk people out of it saying that the player really needs to be able to choose a violin for him or herself.  (There are exceptions, but most of the time I can convince people that a smaller gift or card announcing that the player can go violin shopping is a better idea.)

A man came in last year whose young son was just starting violin and I pointed him in the direction of renting from the school to begin with to make sure his child actually liked playing and they weren't potentially stuck with a violin they didn't need (and I suspect couldn't easily afford).  This year he returned saying his son was working hard and loved playing and now they were ready to buy.  I suggested he bring the boy in on Christmas Eve where I let him try several student outfits.  It was lovely to watch him try different instruments and then light up when he came across the one that was a match.  The mom was beaming as her son didn't want to stop playing Christmas tunes on his new violin.  I assured them based on his age and situation that they wouldn't have to worry about an upgrade for several years, but explained what sort of maintenance they could expect when owning a violin, and told them to please pop in for checkups anytime.  I thanked the dad for his patience in trusting my advice, because I really do think it worked out for the best all around.  He agreed, and it was really satisfying.  It was not a big sale, but it was easily my favorite one this season.

We enjoyed a quiet Christmas morning at home.  I love watching my kids open gifts.  They never ask for anything, but they always like everything.  The big present this year was a new laptop for Aden, which is really a necessity for school and we found something good on sale that should last her for the next few years.  Before I left for my Christmas Eve gig I watched Aden struggling with her old laptop in the living room.  It has random issues and overheats and the kids have developed quirky habits for using it so that it doesn't lose all their homework at an inconvenient moment.  Aden smiled at me and said something along the lines of, "I think if I just remember to put it on its side when I get to this point it should be fine!"  She was completely willing work with the wonky laptop without complaint.  Made my night knowing that a new computer was waiting for her under the tree, and that she would truly appreciate it.

We made it to Detroit in time for Christmas dinner with my mom.  My kids are excellent travelers and were perfectly happy spending most of Christmas in the car.  My mom made us a beautiful meal and I loved having us gathered happily around the dining room table of my childhood.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Box of Violin Making

My latest project!  Behold my new toy!
closed cello box with neck for handle

box open for display
I have a lot of broken things at the violin store that I save for projects.  I've made a bow-quet, a cello lamp, a crayon box, a toy box, various sparkle instruments, ....  I have lots of other ideas that will be fun and interesting if I ever find the time to tackle them, but ever since I opened my store I have wanted to make a display inside a cello about how violins are made.