The Apprentice

Every good violin maker needs an apprentice, right? Mine is 12 years old, and I’m helping him make his first violin. For a kid with such abysmal handwriting, he’s not too bad in the shop.

We made a 1714 Strad rib garland that I brought with me to the 2013 Southern California Violin Makers Workshop at Pomona college in Claremont.

Our Workshop. It's small often gets chaotic!
Our own little workshop. It’s small and often gets chaotic!

The first order of business was to make a new rib mold, a task that was not too difficult for a kid. He used a band saw, a sanding disk, and a drill press. We carefully checked it against the drawings and then set it up with some blocks.

After the rib mold was staged for the build, it was time to bend some violin ribs.

Bending a Rib
Bending a Rib. Our new rib mold is visible in the background, clamped into the bench vise.

Bending the ribs proved a little tricky the first time, and we learned that you can’t let those ribs sit too long before installing them, or they get brittle and break. It took a couple of days to work through this exercise and get the ribs glued and clamped to the blocks.

One of the big jobs of the apprentice is to tend the glue pot. There’s nothing more annoying than to have your piece ready to go, only to find that the glue has thickened and skinned over!

Once the ribs were dry, we had to trim them and get the blocks evened out and adjusted to the right height. The ideal height of violin ribs is about 32mm. We did most of this work on a sanding surface, which was made with some sheets of sandpaper tacked on to a pane of glass via spray adhesive:

Sanding the Ribs
Sanding the Ribs

The apprentice got a little too vigorous at this task and ended up cracking a rib (A violin rib, that is!) by snagging it on an corner of the sandpaper. We fixed it with some little clamps and a dab of hide glue. Luckily, the rib lining will lay across the back of that area and reinforce it. That episode did end our violin building for the day, however.

I told my apprentice that we’d use willow linings for this violin, which should be easy for him to bend. Should be. Unfortunately, these linings were quite dry and brittle and not at all cooperative. We cracked a few of them before we were done, but as my mentor, Will Bartruff, once told me, “They’re just linings!” Once glued in, they’ll be good and strong. Plus, we’ll spiff them up a bit–there are points for neatness, even if it can’t be seen in the end!

One of the things my apprentice seemed adept at was wielding the knife. He was doing splendidly on the c-bout blocks, preparing them to receive the waist linings. I had just sharpened up a knife to help the cause, and as soon as I turned my back, “AHHHHHHH!” the kid runs off to get the First-Aid kit. At least it wasn’t the table saw, right? Anyway, he boasted of that wound for a little while, but really, I thought it was not too bad. Well, that incident also put an end to our work for that day. At least he got one thing right: He didn’t bleed on the project.

Preparing C-Bouts for Linings
Preparing C-Bouts for Linings. Band-aids were used on this day.

The final stage of this project was to actually trim and glue the linings, then clamp them. I thought this would be an easy task, but I neglected to supervise the trimming properly (or to lay out a good method to accomplish it), and my boy wrecked one of our linings in the saw. It was easy enough to bend a new one, though.

The other trouble wast that young fingers had a hard time squeezing those clothespin clamps that I had rigged up for lining work. I like to wind mini spring-type clothespins with rubber bands, and they can be pretty strong and hard to open. But, we managed it in the end:

Clamping linings
Clamping linings

After the linings, a quick rub on the sanding surface, and the rib garland is complete. As I mentioned earlier, I’m taking this one with me to the violin workshop and see what the guys there think about my little apprentice. I think he did a good job, and he learned a lot. It isn’t easy to make a violin, and even less easy to make a good one. But two pairs of hands are better than one!

A completed rib garland for one of Stradivari's models. I'm going to get some instruction on how to properly finish those corners, which we left long. It will improve the look of our purfling.
A completed rib garland for one of Stradivari’s models. I’m going to get some instruction on how to properly finish those corners, which we left long on purpose. It will improve the look of our purfling, which is a bit rough in the violins I’ve made to date. I also plan to bring back some good tips on cycloid arching, which is something I didn’t learn at the VGA when I was there two years ago, learning from Master Bartruff.  I’ll pass all whatever I learn down to the kid, and someday he’ll be great. 😉
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