I just finished a commissioned guitar build for a local furniture maker and wood dealer. He provided rough-shaped box elder burl for two solid guitar bodies. One suggests the elegant style of the old Les Paul, and the other suggests the rugged and functional Fender Stratocaster.
It isn’t common to use box elder in an instrument, and these guitars are quite heavy. But they look amazing and play just fine.
So, I’ve been building a guitar on commission, and I made a really dumb mistake. Can you spot it?
Yeah, I inlaid the double dots on the 9th fret instead of the twelfth. And then I didn’t catch the error until three days later!
It’s really unfortunate to scrap a whole neck just because of a few little dots, so how can this be fixed?
I cut the neck after I had already glued the fingerboard to the neck blank, so it turns out that I still had some scrap with a bit of rosewood fingerboard material laminated onto it. I thought it would be great if I could cut some little plugs from the scrap wood and use them to fill in the erroneous dots on the 9th fret. For the 12th fret, I planned to inlay a couple of smaller dots to the left and right of the center dot, which would be an easy fix.
But how do you cut really tiny wood plugs? It’s relatively easy to get plug cutters, but not cutters that are small enough for this application. So I devised a plan to make my own.
Here’s how I did it.
First, I found a set of brass tubing at the local hobby store:
Since my dots were 3/32″, I needed to use the middle-size tube. These brass tubes are really soft, though, so it was kind of tricky to cut little teeth onto the end of them. I ended up using my Dremel tool with a cutting disk to make the teeth, then I cut off a section of tube long enough to chuck into my drill press.
Because the tubing was so bendable, I decided to reinforce it by inserting a shorter length of the smaller tube inside. The reinforcing tube should be long enough to impart some rigidity but not so long as to interfere with the ability to cut a plug of the correct diameter.
Here’s what I ended up with:
Cutting the plugs is easy enough, but I had to proceed slowly and occasionally blow the sawdust off of the piece in order to let the cutting teeth do their work.
Here is a picture of the scrap of neck that I used for the plugs:
Once I got my plugs cut out, I carefully drilled out the old dots in the fingerboard and filled in the hole with the new plugs. Here is the completed repair:
To the casual observer holding the piece at arm’s length, the repair isn’t very noticeable unless I point it out.
I still wish I hand’t made that mistake, but I’m satisfied with the repair.
I guess everyone has their own philosophy about mistakes. There are undoubtedly those makers who would have thrown this piece out and started over, and perhaps there are customers who would not be satisfied with mistakes where the repair might be noticeable to them. Once you know it’s there, sometimes it can bother you.
In addition to obvious mistakes like the one I made above, there are other deficiencies in workmanship. For instance, some luthiers might not be that great at inlay work but really good at another aspect of the build. There are deficiencies that are characteristic of the maker, but don’t really affect the utility of the instrument. Where do we draw the line with regard to when a something needs to be refined, repaired, thrown out, or left alone?
Ironically, the most consistent, error-free work comes from assembly lines and is found in machine-made instruments. People are more likely to be used in a quality assurance role, to examine each piece for defects and to throw out the ones that got chipped, or cracked, or mangled in the machinery. Sometimes people are employed for specific tasks along the assembly line, doing repetitive work that can be easily mastered and reproduced. But the mechanized equipment itself has the advantage of a deterministic program that is never affected by too little sleep or by other human distractions and imperfections. Right out of the box, the computerized CNC router is as experienced as it will ever be! Well, until v.2 of the software, anyway.
And so, in a sense, the cheapest, mass-produced commodity work is also the “best” work. That is the irony, as I see it.
I view instrument makers on a continuum between art and engineering:
<—–More Organic More Mechanical—–>
Intuition VS Experience
Highly technical makers tend to be perfectionists, and they are more likely not to tolerate mistakes and to consider even small deficiencies in workmanship as unfortunate tragedies. They have a good grasp of the rules and methods and believe that the closer you follow them, the better the instrument will be. Music is, after all, a type of reified mathematics.
On the other hand, artisans see mistakes as a potential opportunity for art, and they are liable to take their work into extravagant flights of fancy outside of established norms. They sometimes see rules as superfluous or things that are meant to be broken. Music is, after all, an often spontaneous form of human creation and communication.
I clearly fall on the artistic side of things. Sure, I start out with my plans and checklists, and I totally understand that there are just some things that can’t be left to interpretation (some measurements are critical to get right, for instance). Typically, however, I end up ignoring my lists and rules and just winging it. I have this internal feeling that I know how this is supposed to turn out, and I follow where it takes me (usually through a mistake or two). I’ll start the day with an organized workbench and end it in chaos, wresting with an unruly instrument on the floor of my shop.
In the end, things usually work out just how I like them, if not exactly how I planned… It’s the variety of possibilities that keep me interested in this work, and I like to see the how things develop along the way.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
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:
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:
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:
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!
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:
Thankfully, my wife packed a bunch of band aids for me. Nobody else seems to need them, but that’s “just how I roll.”
Today I got to spend about 45 minutes with Michael Darnton. I had him teach me about his cycloid technique, and how to make and use the templates. Will taught me to “just wing it” when doing violin arching, which I like; but these cycloid arches are just so pretty that I felt I had to learn how to do them.
Michael believes that the perfect arching is responsible for a violin’s response. If the arching is good, then the response will be good. If it is poor, the response will be poor. He also believes that the graduations are not as important as the arching, or rather, that imprecise graduations are important! He does not go for exactness in that area. Modern makers use calipers to try and reproduce the exact graduations found in famous violins, believing that these varying thicknesses of the wood are responsible for the violin’s excellent sound. However, Michael pointed out that the old makers had no such tools as calipers and that it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that people started measuring and quantifying everything, including violins. And from that point on, Michael believes, the art of violin making has gone downhill. When violins became things that demanded analysis instead of Art, that’s when the art was lost.
We looked at some response charts of modern violins that frequently win the VSA competitions and compared these to the response graph of a Strad. These days, makers are so intent on measuring and tuning every little part of the violin, that they produce instruments that are very responsive in a few predictable frequencies. So there are frequencies that naturally respond to that tuning, and of course there are frequencies that fight against it. Those violins sound incredible in some rather limited contexts, but don’t listen for too long! They are awfully inflexible in what they can do. Michael seeks to build instruments that the musician must coax the sound from. You have to drive it and find the many sweet spots that produce excellent tone across the board. A violin is something that the player must discover and push to its limits, not a measured thing that is predictable and limiting.
That’s a pretty good philosophy, and I think similar to Bartruff’s; although their ideas diverge in some areas.
It’s been fun getting to know some of the people who are improving their violin making along with me. Here are some photographs that I took of various work benches of those who work near me:
Well, I could go on about the doctor who owns a Strad and a del Gesu, or the violinist from Reno whose arching is so beautiful that it makes me want to cry or something; or the man from Australia who flew up to California just to attend this workshop. There are even a few women makers who are doing simply stunning work. What a crowd.
Well, more to come. Here is what I accomplished today:
I survived my first day at the workshop, but I’m way out of my league! Everyone here seems really great at violin making, and I’m struggling just to keep my tools sharp…
There are all kinds of people here. There’s the 89-year old Italian who taught school for 50 years. There’s the microbiologist who told me how to make my own yeast (somehow the topic of authentic breads arose). Then there’s the Bass player from the NY Philharmonic who makes his own Basses. That’s audacious! Who makes a bass? I mean a big, upright, acoustic bass? And I met a man who owns a construction business and is just working on his first violin. He said that making a violin would be the ultimate achievement. That’s how I felt when I got started.
Our instructor is Michael Darnton. He spent a lot of time photographing old violins, as well as restoring and making. He’s had a lot of Masterpieces pass through his hands, and he knows his stuff. The first thing he taught me was to plane across the grain when flattening a violin back blank. In my workshop, I don’t plane them. I stick them on the 8″ sanding belt and zip them across that. Planing produces a much nicer, flatter result, and I think I’ll do it that way from now on. Plus, it’s great exercise.
I also discovered how beautifully my rubbed joint turned out, once I got those violin tops planed flat. I’d been putting my plates in bar clamps and compressing them. You can get a good joint that way, but check this out:
Another thing I started to learn was sharpening on the hand-operated sharpening wheel. My stuff is always dreadfully dull. I was attempting to sharpen a knife at the the grinding wheel, and Michael came up and asked, “What’s he doing?”
“I’m sharpening my knife,” I replied.
“You’re doing it wrong,” he told me.
Well, that was a little embarrassing. What sort of violin maker can’t sharpen his own tools? But we discovered my knives are bad. They are glued in to their handles, and a good knife can be pulled out of the handle for sharpening. So I spent some time busting down my knives and making a new handle from a bass bar (guess I won’t be doing bass bar work his week! 😉 )
Michael taught me how to do proper del Gesu corners, and I ended the day with a back rough-cut and the initial channel carved down to 5mm depth around the edge. Today I need to find out what to do about the slight warp that has developed in that plate. Hmmmm…