Final Day, SCVMW

I started my last day at the Southern California Violin Makers Workshop by assisting in the creation of some arching templates for the Titian Strad, which is one of the instruments
that is being “copied” (from a Strad poster) in the workshop. I went again to the library with one of the violin makers so that we could print those templates, and then we stopped by a little drug store to pick up a few items to help in our template making: A stick of school glue and a couple of folders made of stiff paper. We were improvising.

Once back to the workshop, we set about gluing our printed templates onto the folders, and then we cut them out. They’re a bit rough, but they will do until I can make some better ones.

With templates in hand, I started working down the long arch of my del Gesu top. Michael works in stages–rather than trying to get it all down to the correct arch height in the first pass, he’ll shape the whole plate, then bring it down in successive passes.

As I was getting to my second template station or so, Michael came over and pulled me aside for another half hour one-on-one lesson. This time we talked about purfling (especially corners), the scoop, and the ff-holes. I got some great information that will help improve my work considerably.

I continued my arching work after lunch hour. We took group photos around 3 pm, and some of the violin makers started packing up and heading out. I planned to work as late as possible, but I decided to get some dinner first. In the meantime, some of the others had brought in fine cheese, bread, crackers, and wine. Jim Brown, who owns a violin shop in Claremont and sponsors the workshop, made his own shrimp cocktail sauce. I understand he was nearly a contestant on the TV show, Top Chef. I arrived from dinner while this event was still in progress. I had to try some of Jim’s sauce, and it was terrific.

Having partaken of good food and ample drink, my colleagues began to relax, and soon there were groups gathering for warm conversation. An impromptu string ensemble organized spontaneously in the hallway. The atmosphere changed from one of industry and learning to one of satisfied enjoyment of fine company, fine music, and work well-done. The entertainment and talk lasted well into the night, but I worked quietly at my bench.

I did get to meet George Rubino, the master bow maker. He came over and talked bows for quite a while. I’ll have to think about doing a bow in the future.

2013-06-14 22-20-44
Here is the progress I made this week on my top plate. I’m in process of final arching.


Michael Darnton teaches how to trim a bridge.
Michael Darnton teaches how to trim a bridge.


An old Italian getting back to his roots.
An old Italian getting back to his roots.


Outside the workshop
Outside the workshop


One of the violins being made. I love the inlaid fingerboard. That's a snakewood fingerboard.
One of the violins being made. I love the inlaid fingerboard. That’s snakewood!


This baroque violin is another example of fine workmanship at the workshop.
This baroque violin is another example of fine workmanship at the workshop.


Day Four, SCVMW

Today began with purfling. I cleaned up the edge of my top plate and ran a purfling rout 4mm in from there. The corners are always tricky, especially in spruce, and they require deft knife work. It’s also important to get the tip equidistant from the three sides of the corner, and you need the right curve, and so on and so forth… My miters turned out OK, and I’m happy with the points of this purfling. Keep in mind that del Gesu didn’t do the fancy, long points that Stradivari and Amati used.

2013-06-13 11-08-15
I used this modified compass that Michael Darnton made to scribe the corner purfling before cutting the corner routs. Violin makers have to make a lot of their own tools, and sometimes they can get pretty creative!
Here is a finished corner rout that I cut with my knife and purfling pick.
Here is a finished corner rout that I cut with my knife and purfling pick.
Here is some detail on a couple of the corners. I'm pretty happy with the result, though there's always room for improvement!
Here is some detail on a couple of the corners with the purfling inlaid. I’m pretty happy with the result, though there’s always room for improvement!
2013-06-13 18-10-10
A close-up of one of my corners.

Bartruff taught me to do purfling very late in the process. The reason for this is that sometimes you have to adjust the edge a little bit, and if so, then the purfling won’t look right if it had been installed early. However, just about everybody at the workshop does purfling very early, before any final arching, because adjustments to the purfling channel can alter the arch shape… and Michael Darnton believes the arch to be one of the most critical aspects of the violin.

Purfling took me all of the morning and into the afternoon. The only other thing I did was to hand out a few band-aids (thanks, Jodi!).

In the afternoon, I spent some time teaching a neighboring violin maker how to use the computer to design arching templates. I suspect he found it a little bewildering; technology isn’t usually a forte among this demographic, although there are a few who are quite adept at computers as well as violins.

After the computer exercises, I decided to take a little break and visit the bow making workshop to see what they were up to in those quarters. I remember Will Bartruff telling me that he had once done a couple of bows, and he said it was hard work. Violin makers don’t often make bows. A bow maker is called an archetier, and he or she is at least a part-time jeweler when making a bow (as one of the participants pointed out to me). The frog of a violin really is jewelry, and it is quite an involved process to make one.

2013-06-13 15-33-52
Here are the tools of a bow maker. Much of what you see here is being used to make an ebony frog. Those little pieces are more complicated than you might think!

You know those little rings and such that you see on a bow? Many of those things have to be forged or shaped from raw silver or abalone by the bow maker as part of the process of making a bow. It’s not like they come in different sizes at the hobby store, and you pick the one you want to put on. I was quite impressed with the amount of workmanship that goes into a hand-made bow. I understand why they can get so expensive.

I made the acquaintance of a few of the archetiers. One of them is learning to play cello and is making his own bow. He gave me some good advice about learning an instrument: More than simply getting a good instructor, he said, it’s important to find a local group or orchestra that will let you play along.

He related the story of when his little community orchestra was invited to play at a book signing for a title on the subject of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. One of the champions from that winning team (now an old man) was in attendance and seated in the front row, so this new acquaintance of mine knew he had to play as best he could in spite of being a beginner at the instrument. After the event, they all received some genuine compliments from that gentleman and his wife. That sort of experience makes more of a difference than simply sitting at home to practice alone. And that is some wisdom from a bow-maker.

The bow making workshop
The bow making workshop

I had a very curious experience this evening.  I have been working from a pattern for a 1742 Guarneri del Gesu violin. Those of you who follow violins at all know that del Gesu is often regarded in esteem as highly as Stradivari himself. Indeed, there have been times when the del Gesu violins have commanded the highest prices of any violins on the planet.

Now, one of the gentlemen who works right next to my bench is a certain Dr. Sloan. This evening he approached me to see how my work was coming along and to look at my corner purflings. He looked at my pattern and noticed that it was a 1742 del Gesu. I told him a little bit about it, and he said, “Well, I shall get it out and play it for you.”

How about that? There it was, my del Gesu in all of its original glory! It was the ex-Segelman del Gesu, now the Sloan del Gesu (for some thirty years, I am told).

The Sloan del Gesu, being held by one of the violin makers at the work shop.
The Sloan del Gesu, being held by one of the violin makers at the workshop.

As it turns out, I only had the pattern for the ribs and plate outline. I planned on using the ex-Henry Wall ff-holes and scroll patterns that Will Bartruff drew up for me. Now I have pictures of the ff-holes and the scroll on the actual instrument. What a day.

Oh, but it doesn’t end there. It turns out that Dr. Sloan owns more than just the del Gesu. Yes, there is a genuine Strad in his collection as well:

That's ME holding the Jackson Stradivarius.
That’s ME holding the Jackson Stradivarius.

I had the opportunity to listen to both of these legendary instruments, and even to play on them if I wished (with a $30,000 Tourte bow, no less). Alas, I do not play the violin (yet), and so the best I could do was to look and to listen. At least I had the wits to snap a few photos.

So now I’ve perused a couple of Strads and a del Gesu on this little trip of mine. It’s a little bit surreal and unexpected.

Anyway, I finished the day working out the top long arch, which is trickier than the back arch; and also starting on the back purfling rout of my newly-appreciated del Gesu. Here is how I ended my day today:

This is my top plate, all purfled up and ready to arch.
This is my top plate, all purfled up and ready for final arching.


This is where I ended with my back plate. I still need to cut the corner routs and put the purfling in.
This is where I ended with my back plate. I still need to cut the corner routs and put the purfling in. I love the maple I got for this violin; it’s almost quilted!

Day Three, SCVMW

Day three was the busiest day yet. I started out by rough arching the top plate of my del Gesu. Then I calculated the long arch for the back plate. This arch is defined by a segment of a circle for Cremonese instruments, and I determine this segment by first measuring the “chord” of the circle and finding the elevation of the arch that I want. I can plug those figures into a formula and get the radius of the circle I need to draw.

I drew the circle to scale in Inkscape (it’s a BIG circle!) and intersected it with the chord, which is a line that represents the length of the long arch from one low point in the purfling channel to the other.

Then I set about defining stations along the length of the long arch where I wanted to calculate curtate cycloids. I put a total of five on my line, one at each maximum or minimum width of the plate. Given the width of the plate and the known height of the long arch at each station (which can be discovered in Inkscape), I was able to calculate the cycloid  arches that will be used on this particular instrument.

At this point, there was a bit of a disturbance in the workshop as a gentleman showed up with his genuine Stradivari violin. It was the Halir Strad, made in 1694. That instrument is almost 320 years old! Here is a picture I took of it:

The Halir Strad
The Halir Strad

I was able to handle this instrument (I could only touch it on the neck and chin rest) and examine the workmanship. It has such a long history that it is a little difficult to see the original skill. For example, the corners are nearly rubbed off and some of the edges too. The scroll has been similarly smoothed by time and much use. The instrument has seen many repairs over the years, but in general is in good shape. I did see some of Stradivari’s amazing corner purflings, and I noted that his back joint wasn’t quite perfect. That made me feel better about some of my own joints.

The instrument sounded just fine when I heard it played. The owner complained a little about a squeeling E string, which didn’t manifest itself today. He mentioned having to trade in his Montagnana violin as a down payment on the Strad, which I imagine is worth in the neighborhood of 1-2 million US dollars. I asked Michael Darnton at the time what he thought the violin was worth, but he dismissed the question, perhaps as a matter of tact. 😉

I had three impressions about my experience of handling and listening to the Halir Strad:

1) It is difficult to discern the art of the violin based on worn originals. It’s lucky that there are still some fairly pristine specimens in existence that show just how Strad did his corners, for example. So we try to use those specimens as ideal forms in order to recreate the old, worn out fiddles as if new again. I realized that I shouldn’t be attempting to reproduce the exact outline of the patterns I have, because chances are they represent a good deal of wear and not the instrument as it was originally made.

2) Players really do have to fight with these temperamental old instruments, although they certainly sound fine on their good days, like today. I’m reminded of Michael’s claim that good violins aren’t the ones that automatically sound great in the hands of the 15-year old High School kid. They’re the ones that professionals have learned to coax and persuade until they give up their gold.

3) A Strad has the power to cause quite a stir in a room full of violin makers. We nearly missed lunch hour.

After lunch, I hoofed it over to the Claremont public library. It’s a couple of blocks away from the workshop. I had to get myself a visitors library card:

My Claremont Public Library computer-use card.
My Claremont Public Library computer-use card.

I wanted to print my long arch and the cycloids that I made earlier in the day, so that I could have templates to start my arching.

After the library, I asked Michael to help me refine my del Gesu corners. We looked at the circles on the plan that I used, ignoring the worn looking, rounded corner shapes and imagining what they probably looked like when the violin was new. I spent some time carving those down and getting them just right.

Then it was time for some more sharpening. I spent some time at the grinding wheel, turning my knife blade into metal dust. I must have inhaled half of my d@#4 knife blade today!

My nemesis, the grinding wheel.
My nemesis, the grinding wheel.

Anyway, my knives are sharp if not exactly neat. I made another handle for one of them.

After getting my corners cleaned up, I worked on edge thickness and more rough arching. I think I’m about ready to rout the purfling channel on the top plate, then I’ll need to calculate the top arch and some new cycloids. The top arch is much flatter than the back arch.

Here are some pictures of my day-three hands:

2013-06-12 17-20-44 2013-06-12 17-20-52

Thankfully, my wife packed a bunch of band aids for me. Nobody else seems to need them, but that’s “just how I roll.”

Here is what I got done today:

2013-06-12 20-05-08
Those del Gesu corners are looking really good!