Gibson 1959 EB-2 Bass Restoration Project

So I came home from my day-job one day to find the ruined shambles of a bass guitar on my bench. Where did it come from? Did someone want me to dispose of it for them?

It turns out the instrument belongs to a regular client who wanted to know: could I make it like new again?

It seemed dubious, I admit. I didn’t know anything about it, and it had clearly been through a lot of trouble too:

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I quickly discovered the model of this bass. It’s a Gibson EB-2, and this one is supposed to have a sunburst painted on the front. There were a few of these made with natural finish, but this isn’t one of them. Someone has sanded it off.

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See? Here’s the back.

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Not only was the top finish sanded off, but it was covered with pour-on epoxy. The finish is plasticky, lumpy, and bubbly.

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The oroginal knobs had been replaced with some amplifier knobs, the switch was an aftermarket switch and busted off. The washers are glued into the epoxy finish.

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This bakelite cover plate is also glued to the top. It’s pretty chewed up and the screws are corroded in place as well. The pole pieces aren’t looking to great either.

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This head is pretty much destroyed. The veneer has splintered off and it’s been drenched in lumpy epoxy glue.

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These frets are pretty worn out. It seems the guitar was well used at some point.

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The epxy was not applied directly to the back, but it has dripped down the sides, covered the binding, and seeped onto the back, ruining what remained of the original finish.

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Here’s something interesting… This serial number, along with the physical characteristics of the instrument, places the guitar in 1959. It was probably made later in the year at the Kalamazoo factory.

I started doing some homework on this instrument, and things got interesting. There were only 209 of these 1959 basses made. VintageGuitar.com lists the ’58 version as one of the top 25 most valuable basses.

I wondered what it would take to fix this wreck up and started making plans.

Here’s what I did:

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I had to drill or break the screws on the pickup cover in order to get it off. I also had to pry it out of the glue.

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I scraped off all of the awful epoxy and sanded the entire body back to natural wood.

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Note that the frets have all been removed at this point.

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I carefully removed the remainder of the ruined veneer, leaving only some good stuff around the inlays.

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I added new veneer.

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Then I hand-painted it black.

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I plugged all of the holes left from who knows how many generations of tuning machines. Alas, the original banjo tuners had been lost. Note the SOLDER by the lower right hole. Interesting.

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Filling more holes with an old spar from a model ship. I plugged every hole I could find, and then I re-drilled them. I wanted the screws to fit like new.

I smoothed out the fretboard and installed all-new frets. I leveled the frets, re-crowned them, and polished them.

I added new pole pieces in the humbucker pickup.

I replaced the broken switch with a replica push-button switch, just like what the original would have had.

I re-painted the sunburst finish and made a new pick guard from scratch, since the original was long lost.

I replaced the knobs and the tuning heads.

Here is the result of my efforts:

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Front view of the finished guitar.

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The new headstock looks great. I opted for genuine Gibson LP tuners. They’re guitar tuners, and they fit the holes perfectly. Modern bass tuners are too big. These LP tuners look nice.

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Front view of the head stock. I used short scale flat-wounds, but that low string seems a wee bit short.

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Sunburst on the back of the guitar.

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Body detail.

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New knobs, button switch, and pick guard.

It’s all looking very good, and this will be a very valuable collectors item for my customer, but I’m not quite done yet. I had great hopes that the electronics would have been intact, other than the switch that I knew had been changed at some point. Alas, upon plugging it in, I had no baritone switch or tone knob functionality. Only volume worked. The pickup sounds good, but not all of the controls work, and that’s too bad.

I found schematics and diagrams and discovered that a component called the “choke” had been removed from the circuit. This is the piece that rolls of the bass frequencies and allows the baritone switch to function. I may end up having to wind my own choke if I can’t find one on the market.

Almost there…

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Celtic Wire Harp

Here is one of the more interesting instruments to emerge from my shop, and I didn’t even work on it. This Celtic wire-strung harp was made by my friend, Aaron Mildenstein, as a gift for his daughter. It took him about a week to build, from start to finish. The only contributions I made were a bit of gamboge, some shellac and dye, and some rather cramped space in which to build.

The varnish had to be quick and simple due to the time constraint, and I really like how it turned out. Have a look:

Here the harp sits on the workbench, awaiting strings.
Here the harp sits on the workbench, awaiting strings.
The finished harp.
The finished harp.

I’ve taken down some drawings, in case I want to make one of my own in the future.

Asymmetry

I recently finished my latest project, which was this short-scale bass guitar.

For this commission, I received a piece of box elder burl that had been roughly cut into the shape of a Hofner bass body. It has several large knots on the back of it, one of which is open and intersects the edge.

My sense is that this chunk of box elder had been cut a long time ago and shaped only very approximately, probably just to “give the idea” of what was wanted.  I did not have access to the original template, so I ordered Hofner plans from  JAGuitars in London, England. Upon receiving the plans, I found that my body blank was an inch shorter than the one in the plan.

I found that I could still use the scale length from the JAG plans if I compressed the layout a bit. That would spare me the hassle of recalculating frets.  So, the neck pickup is closer to the upper bouts, while the bridge gets pushed slightly closer to the tailpiece. This arrangement called for a long neck tenon, which intrudes quite a bit into the neck pickup cavity in order to provide as much gluing surface as possible.

The Hofner bass guitar is traditionally a hollow-body guitar, constructed after the manner of a violin. Sometimes it’s called a violin bass for that reason.

My version is a solid-body bass, and it’s not arched at all. I left all of the asymmetry in the body, not wanting to further reduce the size of it by trying to even everything out. All I did was to clean up the edges and put it through the thicknesser a couple of times.

Here are some pictures of the build:

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I’m installing black binding in this photo. Because this instrument has such a unique shape, I wanted to outline it with something bold.
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Installing binding around the knot. Since this is a burl, it came with a lot of holes in it. These holes I filled with epoxy before cleaning the edges and sanding everything flat.
Detail of that edge knot. It's my favorite feature on this instrument. Originally, I had hoped that maybe I could install the output jack in it, but it's on the wrong side for that.
Detail of that edge knot. It’s my favorite feature on this instrument. Originally, I had hoped that maybe I could install the output jack in it, but it’s on the wrong side for that.
Jack provided the quilted maple for the neck, from a log he cut in Washington state. I milled some neck pieces out of it.  I bought the walnut from a local lumber supplier.
My customer provided the quilted maple for the neck, from a log he cut in Washington state. I milled some neck pieces out of it. I bought the walnut from a local lumber supplier.
I used a piece of plain, hard maple for the fingerboard. I liked it because it was very bright and also quite plain. It offsets the fancy burl and the quilted maple of the neck. I didn't use a template for slotting the frets, I just made sure I measured really well and cut exactly on the marks.
I used a piece of plain, hard maple for the fingerboard. I liked it because it was very bright and also quite plain. It offsets the fancy burl and the quilted maple of the neck. I didn’t use a template for slotting the frets, I just made sure I measured really well and cut exactly on the marks.
I used about every clamp in the workshop to get the fingerboard attached.
I used about every clamp in the workshop to get the fingerboard attached.
Checking my neck tenon.
Checking my neck tenon.
To get the right neck angle, I just modify door frame shims. Each wedge is about one degree. I stacked three of them in order to get the three degree neck set that I wanted.
To get the right neck angle, I just modify door frame shims. Each wedge is about one degree. I stacked three of them in order to get the three degree neck set that I wanted.
For the pickups, I had to make my own routing template. I just traced a pickup onto a piece of wood, and then Icut it out.
For the pickups, I had to make my own routing template. I just traced a pickup onto a piece of wood, and then Icut it out.
Here I'm testing the layout to make sure everything will fit right.
Here I’m testing the layout to make sure everything will fit right.
Here the front has been routed
Here the front has been routed
Testing the fit and position of the tuning heads.
Testing the fit and position of the tuning heads.
Since this was a rough-cut burl, there were places around the edges that were not quite up to the level, even after thicknessing (I didn't want to take it too thin). So I filled in with epoxy here. That way, the binding stays consistent. It's not very noticeable, although I found that it fluoresces under UV light.
Since this was a rough-cut burl, there were places around the edges that were not quite up to the level, even after thicknessing (I didn’t want to take it too thin). So I filled in with epoxy here. That way, the binding stays consistent. It’s not very noticeable, although I found that it fluoresces under UV light.
My wife suggested that I use natural wood fret dots. I had some spare dowels from my old AVS project. I used those.
My wife suggested that I use natural wood fret dots. I had some spare dowels from my old AVS project. I used those.
Here I begin the process of hand-cutting the 12th-fret inlay. This was one of the funnest projects.
Here I begin the process of hand-cutting the 12th-fret inlay. This was one of the funnest projects.
The 12th-fret inlay has been hand-cut.
The 12th-fret inlay has been hand-cut.
49-cent apple juice! Also, I've mixed my own inlay material and drizzled it into the recesses I had cut into the fingerboard.
49-cent apple juice! Also, I’ve mixed my own inlay material and drizzled it into the recesses I had cut into the fingerboard.
I'm rounding fret ends on the bench grinder.
I’m rounding fret ends on the bench grinder.
Installing fretwire. Note the nicely rounded blind ends.
Installing fretwire. Note the nicely rounded blind ends.
The fingerboard, all fretted.
The fingerboard, all fretted.
Here I'm working out the electronics cover plate. I cut and laminated some scrap burl over black plastic sheet.
Here I’m working out the electronics cover plate. I cut and laminated some scrap burl over black plastic sheet.
Here is one of my pickup rings, hand made.
Here is one of my pickup rings, hand made.
This is the cover I made for the truss rod access.
This is the cover I made for the truss rod access.
I mixed powdered gamboge with alcohol and wiped it on for the intense yellow color. I found that my clear coat was not compatible with this base color, so I had to tone it down and spray it with acrylic sealer before the clear coat would take.
I mixed powdered gamboge with alcohol and wiped it on for the intense yellow color. I found that my clear coat was not compatible with this base color, so I had to tone it down and spray it with acrylic sealer before the clear coat would take.
This is my varnishing rig. The PVC pipe acts as a handle that I can clamp in the vice while I brush on the finish coats.
This is my varnishing rig. The PVC pipe acts as a handle that I can clamp in the vice while I brush on the finish coats.
I've put on my decal and painted on the polyester clear coat. It cures in the sun, in about three minutes. I learned the technique from Chris Monk of Highline Guitars. The polyester resin makes a great guitar finish, but I will need a lot more practice before I'm efficient with it.
I’ve put on my decal and painted on the polyester clear coat. It cures in the sun, in about three minutes. I learned the technique from Chris Monk of Highline Guitars. The polyester resin makes a great guitar finish, but I will need a lot more practice before I’m efficient with it.
Here is the nut I made out of a piece of black bison horn.
Here is the nut I made out of a piece of black bison horn.
My favorite picture: My guitars being played!
My favorite picture: My guitars being played! These guys have made, and recorded, some amazing music.

 

SCVMW 2015 – Wrap Up

Pomona College in Claremont, the location of the Violin Making Workshop.
Pomona College in Claremont, the location of the Violin Making Workshop.

I made it home after a great week of violin making. The workshop will continue for two more weeks, and some of the attendees will stay for the remaining sessions. Others will come and go.

This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the workshop, three of which I have spent in attendance. For the anniversary, a number of us who had attended in prior years submitted “personalized” wood curls and chips to be framed and presented to Jim Brown and to Michael Darnton.

Jim Brown (left) and Michael Darnton (right) complete 10 years hosting and instructing the SCVMW.
Jim Brown (left) and Michael Darnton (right) complete ten years hosting and instructing the SCVMW.

Also for the 10-year anniversary, Jim arranged for a special concert to be held on the Saturday following the first week. Unfortunately, I was travelling home and missed my opportunity to attend that event. But the concert made a little splash in Claremont and came out in the local newspaper:

Dr. Sloan, pictured with Jim Brown on the cover of the Claremont Courier, occupied a workbench that neighbored my own. I watched with interest as he set the neck of the violin he has been making.
Dr. Sloan, pictured with Jim Brown on the cover of the Claremont Courier, occupied a workbench that neighbored my own. I watched with interest as he set the neck of the violin he has been making.

The best aspect of the workshop, by far, is the diversity of the people that I get to meet, and the stories and experiences they bring with them.

For instance, I met a woman who grew up in Berlin–a fine violist–who had once been an airline pilot. She married a violinist who plays with the LA Philharmonic, and he came along to the workshop with her and filled the halls with his violin music (plus, I got to hear a story from him about working with Yo Yo Ma).

There was also the British engineer who had lived in Chiswick in London, and he found that he couldn’t just sit at a computer all day long. So he bought an “old” house in the midlands–in some little village the name of which I can’t remember–where he set up a violin shop of his own. I said to him, “when you say ‘old,’ you must mean something different than when I say ‘old.’ I live in an ‘old’ house, you see; and it was built in the ’50s.” And he told me about his house, built some time around 1700, and the roof leaks into his attic bedroom. He has a little bay window in the front, just big enough for a single violin to stand in; and people can pass on the High Street and look in and see him working. All of his advertising is word-of-mouth–there is no web site or social media or facebook answering the needs of his business. The butcher is his neighbor and wakes him each morning with the pounding of the cleaver. I picture Doc Martin or Peter Kingdom from the BBC shows I see on television, and I have nostalgia for something I’ve never even experienced. Well, now I know an English maker, and he clued me in to François Denis and the Traité de Lutherie, for which I am grateful.

There was another woman who owns a foundation to help give music to those whose means do not allow for it, and she does work with Luthiers Without Borders, teaching the people of Haiti how to set up and maintain their own instruments. She first spent, I think, a dozen years in Cremona teaching herself the art of making and learning from the violin makers there. She has faithfully reproduced no less than Stradivari’s own personal masterpiece, the Hellier. There she was in Claremont, occupying the bench directly behind mine.

Of course, we had Dr. Sloan and his famous instruments; we had a Puerto Rican software engineer, a school teacher, a biologist who owns a sheep farm, and various others besides. One need not be a violin maker to take one’s fill of the lore and wisdom offered up by a dozen or more personalities, all of them different. And so my time was well-spent.

In the end, I made new acquaintances, learned new skills, and worked on quite a variety of different little projects. I snapped this rather blurry photo, just before leaving, of all the stuff I did work on during the week:

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SCVMW 2015 – Friday

It’s my last full day at the workshop, and I worked until late tonight. I managed to get another bass bar clamped, this time on my del Gesu top. For some reason, this one gave me a lot of trouble and wouldn’t sit right with the glue on it even after it seemed like it fit. After about three tries, I finally got it installed.

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Before I could glue that bass bar in, I had to graduate the top to the right thickness. After roughing out most of the wood, I used a kind of hand-punch similar to what Stradivari had in his own workshop to establish the graduations. How it works is this: You first screw the punch down to the right depth, then you put the plate under it and press the punch in various places around the violin plate, poking little holes into it. The plate is then planed down until the holes all disappear.

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Punching the top plate is easier than the back plate, for two reasons. First, the top is spruce and it punches easily. Second, unlike the back plate, the top is typically a uniform thickness all around, within a small margin to account for random human variation. Some makers take these random thicknesses very seriously and imagine that they are deliberate, trying to reproduce the exact thicknesses to within fractions of a millimeter in the belief that it is critical to a good-sounding instrument.

I follow Michael Darnton’s thinking and agree that the old masters probably did not intentionally do this. They simply didn’t have the precision measuring tools that we have today. In looking at the dimensions of various old violins, where the graduations have been exactly measured, we find a high degree of randomness. There are some general things, such as keeping the plate thicker in the area of the sound post, or the back plate that is generally thicker in the center than at the edges; but within the general guidelines, it is likely that the minute fluctuations we see in plate graduations can be chalked up to sheer chance.

In fact, Michael is convinced that the industrial revolution and the invention of the caliper are directly responsible for a general decline in the art of the violin– by producing copyists that unsuccessfully attempt to reproduce old masterpieces in every possible regard.

I neglected to photograph my progress on the back plate. I’m happy to report that I got it arched and am now refining the scoop and am about ready for the tedious hours of scraping ahead of me. I did, however, get this picture of the tool I spent most of my time with today:

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Thumb planes are especially useful for carving arches and graduations.

Sometime tomorrow I’ll post a wrap-up and include more pictures of the work I accomplished this week. I didn’t finish a complete build, of course (not even in the white); but I should be able to finish these instruments pretty easily once I am back home in my own workshop– so long as I can keep up my momentum on them! I’m also working on a commissioned project at the moment, so I’ll post more about that as I get the time.

SCVMW 2015 – Thursday

Blister day today. If I carved plates every day, maybe I’d get callouses there, but it’s the same story every time. Most of the makers wear gloves when they carve plates, but I just put on band aids once the blisters get too sore. Band aids are the poor-man’s gloves.

Plate carving begins with the outside scoop:

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Then I make lots of wood shavings doing the long arch, down to the template:

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Next comes the five template stations for the curtate cycloids. I designed and made my own templates for this build. I’ve managed to carve about four of them here, and then they’ll need to be blended. After this, lots and lots of scraping and refining. But you can see that the plate is beginning to look like a proper violin back:

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I also carved the bass bar today. My original system pretty much entailed looking up the measurement for the bass bar, then imitating the curves I saw in other bass bars. Michael had me subdivide the bar into nine stations, then he gave me measurements at each station that include plate thickness. My plate is kind of thick, which makes for a shorter bass bar. Here is all laid out:

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And this is the result. I might still clean it up a bit, but you get the idea:

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Those two projects took all day. Carving is especially time consuming.

There were some other events worth mentioning. We had a group of homeschool kids come in on a field trip. My workstation was especially interesting, as I had all of the principal pieces of the violin represented: Ribs, neck and scroll, top and back. One of the homeschool moms asked if I drew the line around the edge of the plate I was carving and how I managed to carve over it without erasing it. So I got to explain that the lines aren’t drawn or painted but rather strips of wood that are bent and inlaid into the edge of the plate itself.

There is also another conference taking place here in Claremont, and many of the attendees of that event have wandered in, quite interested in what we are up to.

For our lecture today, Michael showed us a video on YouTube of Chinese workers churning out factory violins at lightning speed. It was a very ambivalent experience. On one hand, there were a lot of great things going on; ideas that we could benefit from. On the other hand, it was also discouraging to see. In the first place no violin maker will ever achieve the combined skills of a dozen assembly line workers who specialize in a single motion. One person installs purflings all day long, another bass bars, another graduations. Since they do no other job, their skill in that single aspect is insane. They work on dozens of instruments every week.

Michael pointed out that they had become machines, churning out tools. There was no joy in it, no preciousness nor thought nor care. Chip… glue… rub… done. Toss on the pile for the next guy.

I got thinking that I’ve made some pretty amateur violins, and they took me a long time. But an amateur instrument like mine can still be a surprising thing. Who knows what it might do, or what a musician could do with it. Those factory things, though… there are no surprises there. There is no chance that perhaps a great one is lurking among them. They are all the same, all official, all standard. How does a musician mold such a thing to his or her unique expressive needs? There are no stories and no muses that might come dancing off of those assembly lines, but in Claremont we are makers of talismans to inspire music.

Still, Michael encouraged us to push ourselves and, most especially, to finish what we begin, mistakes and all. You never know when a mistake might be a happy one.

SCVMW 2015 – Wednesday

It was a busy morning with a couple of lectures/demonstrations. The first came in response to my question about placing the corner purfling channel. Michael showed me how Stradivari pointed his purfling toward the lower quarter of the corner, and not in the middle as I had planned to do:

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You can see in the above photo how my original line was nicely centered, but Michael’s more forceful gouge mark demonstrates where the line of the purfling should really run. This gives more room for the “bee-sting.”

I used this long knife to score the purfling channel, then I removed material with the purfling pick.

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Since my knife blade is so symmetrical, I lost track of which side was the sharp one and earned my first cut at the workshop.

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Here is a picture of my purfling channel, all cleaned up:

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Some makers wait until after the plate is completely carved and sometimes even until after is has been installed on the ribs before doing this work. Waiting until the end seems a more natural approach, since purfling is, after all, finish work. But I do the purfling immediately after establishing the edge thickness.

After the channel is cut, I bend the purfling and set them in place to test for fit:

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Once I’m happy with the purfling in general, I spend time mitering the corners and lapping the pieces at the upper and lower bouts. The lap joint is nice, because that way you don’t have to measure the upper and lower purflings exactly.

At last, the purfling is installed. Note how the purfling overlaps at the top and bottom of the plate. I’ll just trim that flush tomorrow and you won’t be able to tell there is a joint there at all:

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Here is a close up of my corner work. It’s not up to Stradivari standards yet, but it is quite serviceable and will clean up nicely once I get the scoop in and scrape it all down (and add any necessary fillers):

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As you can see, my “bee-stings” are not too bad at all.

Next, I’ll carve the scoop and then work with the templates to get the plate down to the right dimensions and proper arching. At that point, it will look fairly finished, except for the hours and hours of scraping required to get all the little bumps out.

Also today, Michael and I discussed bass bar measurements and how to finish that particular piece in a deliberate and systematic way. In the past, I have simply imitated what I have seen other bass bars to be like, not understanding the system employed to reach a consistent and rational result. Michael was quite happy with the fit I got for my bass bar–since that is a difficult project to accomplish correctly–but I needed additional instruction on the shaping of the bar after it has been successfully glued to the top. I had hoped to get around to actually doing that work today but did not have the time.

There was also a good demonstration of re-setting a neck. Michael’s system for finding the exact center line, taking into consideration the idiosyncrasies of the f-holes and so forth, was quite involved and lasted over an hour. I have not taken such care in the past and will have to pay closer attention to this aspect for future builds. In practice, the system was much simpler than the explanation. 😉

In general, it was quite a productive day, and I have met a lot of extremely talented luthiers outside of my interactions with Michael Darnton. The Claremont workshop attracts the finest talent from across the world, and it’s a lot humbling to rub shoulders with them; to see and handle real instruments made by Stradivari himself, or by Guarneri del Gesu (the Jackson Strad and the Sloan del Gesu have been at the workshop every year since I began attending). I have a feeling that relatively few violin makers get such opportunities during the span of their careers.