Monday, January 26, 2015


I am making a point to get work done in my home shop every day, and three violins are now rolling!  It's exciting, and I'm so much happier when I get to build.  I feel productive and inspired.  (And also tired since I'm up working until midnight in order to make it happen, but that's just the way that goes.  The time has to come from somewhere.)

The main thing I'm focusing on is an Amati model I'm doing on commission.  It's a new model for me, and it's fun working with new lines and shapes and thinking ahead about what the player might like.

Aden and her maple
Aden and I also started working on her violin together.  She's making a Strad model, and I told her she can do as much or as little of the work as she likes.  I'm fine with just making the whole thing, but I'm glad she wants her own hands in it.  She picked out all her wood and I'm walking her through the process step by baby step.  Currently she's still planing her blocks, which makes your hands sore if you're not used to it, so there are many breaks.

I decided it would be helpful to Aden if I had an instrument going alongside hers that I could use for demonstration, so I'm also making a Lee model that I intend to use as my next competition instrument when the VSA meets in fall of 2016.

Aden's and the competition violin are moving along at a slow pace, but that's fine.  My real energy is going into the Amati model and that's coming together very well.  Want to see?

The first real step is the "rib assembly."

The ribs are the sides of the instrument and you build them around a form.  Back in the summer I made my new template and form, split my blocks out of willow, and got them glued.
This month I finally got around to shaping the blocks.
You use the template to trace on the final shapes of the blocks
You start with the C-bouts (the pair of curves on a violin that go inward and look like its waist) using a block gouge.  This is one of the more specialized tools in violin making, and not a tool makers are likely to share.  I may lend someone I like a plane or chisels, but not my block gouge.  It's an incanal gouge, which means the bevel is on the inside of the curve, which makes it much trickier to sharpen.

Cutting is done against an arching table, which is essentially a giant bench hook.  I check that the blocks are flat and square using a square and a flat marble slab.

The ribs (sides) are made from strips of maple planed and scraped down to a thickness of 1.1mm, then cut and planed down to different lengths and widths based on where they will go.  Linings are a structural element inside a violin that provide greater gluing surface for the plates (top and back), and those are prepped to a thickness of 1.8mm, 7mm wide, and assorted lengths.  (Linings are generally made from spruce or willow--something light.)
Form, rib stock, prepped linings
Final rib thicknessing is done with a cabinet scraper
Rib stock, prepped and ready to bend
Once the rib stock is ready it's time for bending!   The bending iron must be securely clamped to the bench because you pull pretty hard against it with the flexible bending strap while shaping the wood.  The wood is dipped briefly in water to create steam against the iron.
Once the C-bouts are the proper shape you test clamp using special blocks, and when the fit is right you mark it all and prepare to glue.
Violins are held together with hide glue, which has to be cooked to 140 degrees.  I have a special glue pot for it at home, but I don't think it actually works as well as the makeshift glue pot I made for myself at work.  This glue pot will not overheat my glue, but supposedly you are expected to cook the glue directly in the metal pot, which doesn't quite work because there is no cover, so the glue always dries out on top.  I end up putting water in the pot and using that to heat up my glue in a baby food jar, but it's hard to get it hot enough this way.  (Maybe this pot works better in a school situation where you are making a ton of glue, but I never use more than a tablespoon of dried glue at a time, so I wonder if that's the issue.)

Once the C-bout ribs are glued and dry you shape the remaining sides of the blocks and bend ribs for the upper and lower bouts and glue those in place.
For the most part all the rib work went just fine, but I did have to prep some extra stock to replace some broken ribs.  I chose maple that looked like a good match for the back I'm using, and that back has interesting flame.  Unfortunately, interesting flame tends to break and tear in interesting ways. 
Ouch!  Broken rib.
Once all the ribs are dry and the clamps are off you plane the ribs and check them for flatness against the marble.  The back is simply planed flat, and the top side is planed flat and to a taper (about 30.5mm at the upper end to 31.75mm at the lower).
After the ribs are planed you bend all the linings.  Since I'm using a solid form I only install linings on the back for now and set the ones for the top aside for when after the form is removed.  (I forgot this once.  It's a horrifying mistake you only make once.)

When the linings are ready and fitted they are glued in using a gabillion clamps.  I love these little clamps.  They are small C-clamps with a knob instead of a swing arm so you can line them up very close together.  The ones I used back in school were metal and heavy.  These clamps are a sturdy plastic and much lighter.  I found them at a local hobby store and asked where I could buy them in bulk since I wanted enough to do several instruments at once, and it turned out I had to get them directly from the company in New Zealand with a minimum order of 1000!  I found another builder who was willing to split the order with me, so I have 500 (and I love them all).

Once the linings are dry they are planed down level with the ribs and shaped.

The final step on the rib assembly is to cut the finished lengths on the corners, which takes much longer than you imagine.

The funny thing about the rib assembly in general is I always have amnesia about how long it takes.  Somehow in my mind after the ribs are glued I feel as if I'm pretty much done, and then I remember, "Oh yeah...planing, adjustments, taper, lining notches, linings bent, fitted, glued, planed, shaped, and then @!#%$^ corners."  (Corners are not anyone's favorite part.)

But the rib assembly is done!  A little ahead of schedule, in fact.  I've already gotten started on the plates and scroll.  (That's where the fun is!  More pictures as those get further along.)
It's such a good feeling to be doing the work I want to be doing.  I learned years ago after having Aden and waiting for things to get easier that in some ways it never really does.  Parenting gets busy in different ways, but extra time never magically appears the way you hope it will once you reach this or that milestone.  There will never be time for the things you want unless you consciously choose to make it.  I remember looking longingly at my tools one day when Aden was little and needy and realizing that I would never use them again if I had to wait for "free" time.  I had to make a choice to let the dishes sit or to skip my shower or sacrifice sleep.   That's a lesson I have to keep relearning.  Sometimes the basic chores are more important, and sometimes they aren't.  Right now I am making time to build, and damn that makes me happy.


  1. Love seeing the ribs come together. And I like Aden's choice in Maple. Very exciting!

    1. She actually picked your second choice, so that worked out great. Can't wait to show you what the back you picked out looks like now that it's planed down. It reminds me of clouds at sunrise.


    Looks like you're right about here. M

    1. The video stops right at that point I was describing where it feels like you are done! And then you aren't.

      What a beautiful collapsible form he's using. I really should take the time to craft some more equipment like that, but I get impatient and would rather work on the actual violins.

  3. Thanks so much writing posts like this. I really like to understand how you do what you do and your words and pictures make it so accessible. You are amazing.

    1. I'm glad you don't find it boring! I always wonder how much anyone really wants to see bits of wood taking shape (besides me). I really like what I do, and all I really want is the chance to get better at it.

  4. I loved this post. What amazing work you do! I love how you have involved your daughter. The last paragraph rings astonishingly true. It's all about balance and making time for you, so that your tank is filled up and you can be best present for the kids when it's their time. thanks for sharing your work and your life.

    1. I think it's important to be somebody outside of being a mom. I love being a mom, but I want my kids to be able to describe me outside of that context. I always liked that I could say, "My mom is an artist." (The "best mom in the world" part is still implied!)

  5. Well that looks pretty cool! Thanks for the peek into your day! How fun to get to build one with your daughter!

    1. I'm looking forward to building an instrument with each of my kids. I always intended to make sure they had something I built for their own to play and pass down, but it's even better if they want to help so they can be a part of it, too.