Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Things That Are Better in the Dark (Babble)

I’m working on two new violins right now.  One is an instrument I’m building to enter in a Violin Society of America competition next fall, and the other I’m making on commission for an out of state client.  It’s convenient to build two instruments in tandem because if you’re going to go to the trouble of setting up specialized tools and materials for a particular step you may as well do it twice while the blade is sharp or the clamping setup is in place or the hide glue is fresh.

The only downside to doing two instruments at once is that the unpleasant steps are then doubled.  I just suffered through one of my least favorite parts of violin building which is “edge thicknessing.”  (My spell check doesn’t like it, but that’s what we call it.)  It’s the tedious step of gouging, then finger planing, then filing the edges of the rough top and back plates down to 4.0mm thick for the spruce, and 3.8mm thick for the maple.  It takes FOREVER and is one of the few steps I’ve entertained the idea of figuring out how to do with a machine rather than by hand because I find it a bit maddening.  And it’s sort of awful to get through all of those edges on one violin only to do it on another right away.

But whatever.  That’s the end of my luthier whining for today.  Because the step right after edge thicknessing?  One of the best parts ever!  Arching.  Arching is carving that smoothed, curved shape onto the top and back of the violin.  Many people I talk to who know nothing about woodworking or instrument making assume that rounded shape on those large surfaces of a violin are actually bent into place, but it’s really achieved by taking all that wood down in steps, starting with a large gouge, then moving to very small planes (called ‘finger planes’, the smallest of which that I use has a blade only 8mm wide) and eventually to scrapers. 

I love arching.  It’s sculptural, yet vital to the final sound of the instrument.  And it’s a skill that there is no good way to learn without someone to show you, so I feel the value of my training in that step over any other.  You have to learn how check the surface of the plates by touch, and combine what your fingers tell you with what your eyes are seeing.  The visual part is all a matter of how to control light.  Which really means controlling dark.

Arching requires using shadows to see all the curves properly.  To see what I need to see I have to sit in a very dark room with just one desk lamp set at a raking angle to my work.  Tipping the plate around various ways in the light causes shadows to dip and slide across the wood, revealing bumps or low spots or asymmetry.

The vast majority of the violin making I do, I do at home.  But sometimes if there is a step that’s portable enough to bring with me to the violin store and I suspect it’s going to be a slow day there, I bring my work along.  The only problem with the store, though, is it’s bright.  Because we are a business and we need to look open if we are, in fact, open.  So I can do very rough shaping there, but not much.  I removed a lot of excess wood from my back plates at work yesterday, but did all my finishing steps at home, at night, in the dark.
Some things are just better in the dark.

For instance, this Halloween weekend my kids got to trick-or-treat twice.  The first time on Saturday night in Bay View, which is our little area on the South side of Milwaukee, which does nighttime trick-or-treat.  The second time was Sunday afternoon (which is when the rest of the city of Milwaukee does trick-or-treat) up in a friend’s more affluent neighborhood on the North side of town.  My friend’s neighborhood is beautiful and friendly, and this was the second year in a row she invited us up to join them and of course my kids were thrilled.

Now, our own neighborhood may not be in the wealthy part of the city, but it knows how to do Halloween.  We get about 400 trick-or-treaters at our house every year, and go through several massive bags of candy before we finally have to shut our lights off.  Newcomers to the neighborhood used to only buying a bag or two of little candy bars to hand out wherever they used to live are always stunned by the activity and end up making quick runs down the street to Target to restock.  (Our Target is very busy during trick-or-treat.)  My own kids usually do about two or three blocks and then choose to head home.  Mona in particular would rather hand out candy than collect it, so they enjoy the candy but aren’t obsessed by it.  They primarily like being in costume and seeing what other kids are wearing, and the daytime trick-or-treat is better for that.

So when I asked my kids which trick-or-treat they preferred I wasn’t sure what they’d say.  Turns out they unanimously preferred the one in our own neighborhood.  The reason?  The dark.  Trick-or-treat is simply better in the dark.

Movies are better in the dark.  Part of the reason our Friday Night Movie Night tradition kind of falls by the wayside in the summer isn’t just the schedule, it’s that there is too much light.  The kids want to play outside until dark, and in June it’s so late by the time the sun goes down that there is no way to stay up for a movie at that point.  Trying to gather for a movie when it’s still light out just feels odd.  My favorite moment of movie night is when we are all snuggled up, popcorn ready, and Mona runs to switch off the light.

And finally, Halloween also happens to be the anniversary of when my husband and I met.  My first conversation with Ian was in the dark at a party.  The lack of light probably made it easier for us to talk.  We were figuratively in the dark, too, knowing nothing about each other that night and just starting to get acquainted.

(And not that I discovered this on that particular Halloween, but kissing?  Definitely better in the dark.)

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