All posts by pmccombs

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. 😉

Our Recent Graduate

I just wanted to recognize and boast a little bit about Aly, our very own resident guitar expert. Aly recently turned 18 and just graduated from the Caleb Chapman Music program.

Our Recent Graduate
Our Recent Graduate

During her years with the program, she participated in Jazz combo groups and small classes under the direction of Curtis Woodbury and Dr. Ray Smith. Aly also successfully auditioned on a number of occasions for Caleb’s top-performing bands and has served as guitarist in the Latin Jazz group, La Onda Caribena for two years, as well as in the top-tier improv Jazz Combo, The Crescent Octet.

During her time with the bands, she was able to perform in some of the world’s greatest venues. She has performed at the Telluride Jazz festival and has toured in Los Angeles. She has performed at the local Peaks Jazz festival for three years running, and was recognized in the 2013 festival as an outstanding soloist with her High School band. Most recently, she was invited along with La Onda Caribena, Voodoo Orchestra, and the Crescent Super Band to perform in New York City at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola/Jazz at Lincoln Center and at Carnegie Hall as part of the 2013 season. Her performance with La Onda Caribena was met with glowing reviews, including this excerpt from New York City Concert Review, Inc.:

La Onda Caribeña followed [The Voodoo Orchestra] with the flavors of Salsa and Latin-tinged jazz.  Opening with Hector Lavoe’s and Willie Colon’s  Llego La Banda, this ensemble showed that they were the “real deal” as well. Passion, brilliance, supercharged rhythmic vitality, and beguiling vocalists make La Onda Caribeña un grupo ganador. Victor Lopez’s Salsa Caribeña, written especially for La Onda Caribeña is sure to be a signature piece for them. They closed their set and the first half with a scintillating performance of Tito Puente’s Para Los Rumberos.

…If you ever have the opportunity to hear The Voodoo Orchestra, La Onda Caribeña, the Crescent Super Band, or any group lead by Caleb Chapman, do not hesitate to do so. Do not walk, but run to the box office and get your tickets before they sell out. It is truly the experience of a lifetime.

Aly often shared the stage with many of the modern Jazz greats, including Wayne Bergeron (who headlined her band at Carnegie), David Sanborn, Abraham Laboriel, Poncho Sanchez, and Jeff Coffin among many others.

When she was fifteen, Aly built her first guitar. She has since built two others and is now working on a fourth guitar of our own design. Soon after entering the world of guitar lutherie, Aly began performing on her own creations regularly at her shows and rehearsals.  I understand that d’Addario’s Rick Drumm, who is a frequent guest artist at the Peaks Jazz festivals, now knows Aly by name.

Finally, during her stint with the CCM program, Aly picked up her very first Downbeat Magazine Award along with her band, La Onda Caribena, for the best youth Latin Jazz group in the United States! At the recent Awards Gala, it was announced that an entirely new performance tier is being created in which the CCM program will now participate. Apparently, the program is too difficult to compete with for the other private arts institutions that once dominated these awards.

Well, that’s enough bragging for now. Aly has had a good run over the past several years, and now it is time for her to rise up and get to work. She’s just getting started and has a long road ahead, plus a lot of room for improvement to make yet, so everyone give our new graduate some encouragement. She needs to get some new instruments up in our guitar gallery, and I want to hear her play them too!

Just For Fun

So, I got a $23 microphone to record sound clips of the instruments we make. Just as a fun exercise, Aly recorded a few tracks of herself playing guitar and singing. Here is her cover of Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” inspired by Eva Cassidy:

Aly has a bit of a cold in this recording, but it turned out pretty well, especially for a cheap mic. Turns out it’s a pretty good vocal mic, but not so great for instruments. 😉 I had to learn a little production, plus how to obtain a mechanical license in order to share a cover song publicly. It was a fun little project.

Anyway, the gauntlet is down. I challenge Aly to write her own album next. She’ll have to make a better guitar than the cheap one she used to record this. C’mon, do it for the Company!

“The State of Ebony”

Years ago, when I was young and single, I used to suffer from a condition of having certain quantities of money burning holes in my pockets. On one such occasion, I came up against a difficult choice: I could buy a somewhat entry-level Taylor guitar, or I could put a down-payment on a nice car. I was taking guitar lessons at the time, and my guitar teacher owned a nice acoustic-electric cutaway model from the Taylor guitar company. It sounded great.

I ended up getting the car, a decision I would come to regret not long afterward. Had I bought the Taylor instead, I might have developed some reasonable guitar playing skills by now. Who knows?

Anyway, over on one of the violin forums I frequent, I came across a link to the following YouTube video featuring Bob Taylor, the president of Taylor Guitars:

I have to say that Bob Taylor seems like a first-rate decent fellow.

I presently have two guitar fingerboards on the bench right now, both of B-grade ebony. I really do prefer the colored stuff to the boring, plain black, just from an aesthetic point of view. Of course, I use lots of ebony on violins too, and these blanks tend to be of the more uniform stuff.

But this brings up a good point. There are a lot of instrument makers out there. It may not seem like it, and as a percentage of population, it’s probably not significant at all. Hardly any of your neighbors personally know a violin maker, probably. Nevertheless, there are a lot of people in the world and even a fraction of them makes for quite a number of folks looking to get their share of scarce resources. Besides abundant hobbyists, individual luthiers, and pro shops like Taylor, we have mass-production factories that turn out cheap instruments by the truckload. While some of these use cheaper, more abundant materials, many do not. You can buy a pretty good factory-made violin outfit, case and bow included, built with figured maple, ebony fittings, and a good spruce top, for well under 400 US dollars.

One of the first issues I was made acquainted with upon taking up the work of lutherie, was the plight of pernambuco. It was something I hadn’t thought of, but it got me thinking about what sort of local sources I might turn to instead of buying imported woods from a dealer. There are many fallen Engelmann spruce logs in the mountains close to my house, and they are perfectly suitable for musical instruments. There is no ebony around here, of course; but there are perhaps other species that produce a dense wood that would be quite a worthy replacement. Maple is fairly plentiful and perhaps local tree removal services are disposing of it when it could instead be cured and made into fiddles. Sycamore, or buttonwood, is also plentiful and might make good solid-body electric guitars.

Anyway, it’s something to think about; certainly it’s one of the challenges of  working in a market that is over-saturated with an endless variety of musical instruments for the choosing.

The Button Graft

It seems that I am to be known for my button grafts, a feature on a violin that if done correctly is very difficult to detect. This is because, truth be told, it probably shouldn’t even be there in the first place, for it likely indicates that an error has been made.

Occasionally I get carried away while drawing the outline of the back plate and forget to pencil in the button, that little half-circle that rises from the edge of the upper bout and is designed to support the heel of the neck. If I don’t catch my mistake soon enough, I end up cutting out the back plate without adding this important shape into it.

A button graft is done when one needs to repair this mistake and hide it at the same time. Sometimes the graft is also needed when the wood is not big enough to accommodate the entire back of the instrument with the button included, and in this case the graft is a planned part of the build.

Here you can see I am working on rough-arching a back that I still haven’t noticed is missing the button. Can you spot the problem?

I’ve commenced rough-arching on this back plate, blissfully unaware that I’ve already made a mistake…

Once the mistake is realized, after the appropriate face-palms and so forth have been administered, the problem can be fairly easily remedied in a way that is not very visible if done well.

The first thing to do is to fetch the original piece of maple from which the back was cut (hopefully you haven’t thrown it out!).  From this piece, I cut a blank that will become the button. I mill it down to about 5-6 mm thickness and 24mm wide.

One thing to keep in mind is that the button is in the center of the back plate, where often two pieces of maple are joined. The button should also have the joint seam in it, and should match the wood of the back as closely as possible. I try to cut the button blank from the exact spot of scrap where it would have been drawn had I not forgotten to do it in the first place.

A blank cut from the original maple stock. It’s only as wide as the button needs to be and about 5mm thick.

Once I’ve got my button blank, it’s time to start cutting a mortise for it on the back plate of the violin. I’ve sometimes heard this repair called a “Dutchman Inlay,” although it doesn’t resemble the bow-tie shape one often associated with that particular sort of repair.

In any case, the graft is commenced by cutting two small vertical lines precisely 12mm each side of the center line, down to the line of the purfling, thus:

Two very small cuts. Here you can see I’ve already put in the purfling channel, let us say for illustrative purposes. 😉 The purfling channel need not be cut at this point, but you need to know where it is going to be; typically about 4mm in from the edge.

Next, the material between the two cuts is removed like this:

Remove the edge of the plate between the cuts, down to the purfling line.

Now the plate is turned over, and I draw in the inlay mortise that I want to cut. This is cut into the part of the back where the neck block will cover, and also being on the inside of the violin, will never be seen.

Draw in where you want to make the mortise on the inside of the plate.

I use a sharp chisel to clean out the mortise. I cut it to no particular depth; not too shallow, not too deep. Go by what you think is best.

A chisel is used to clean out the mortise.

The completed mortise should look something like this:

A view of the completed mortise.

Here is another view of the mortise, showing its depth:

Another view of the completed mortise

At this point, I test-fit my blank into the mortise and do any cleanup work on it. Then I draw onto the button blank a line for the tenon.

Marking the edge of the tenon.

Put the blank in a vise, and use a knife and chisel to cut the tenon down to the line. It needs to be just right to fit in the mortise and have enough depth to level with the top plate once installed.

Carving the tenon in the button blank.

Here is the completed tenon on my button blank:

The completed tenon

I glue the blank and clamp it tightly to the back:

The tenon is glued and clamped. I did this inside where it’s nice and warm, since my workshop is so cold in the winter that gluing is impractical.

When finished, all that will be visible are the two initial cuts, and if you are good enough, the joint will be so tight, even those will be hard to see. The longer joint is hidden in the purfling channel, so it is well hidden.

Here you can see that I just need to blend the button a little bit, to match the top of the plate, and it will be as if nothing happened.

This is a handy fix to have in one’s repertoire in case of accidents, or for those times when you want to use a piece of wood that that isn’t quite roomy enough to fit the button.

The completed button graft.

Rose Inlay

Here is a vagary I devised: What if I inlaid the back of a violin? It’s been done before, to good effect. Maggini got a little carried away with purflings, for example. Others have used pearl inlay and so forth. I wanted ebony.

I brought the idea to Dave, who is an illustrator. We worked out some designs on the computer and Dave came up with a fine vector graphic of a rose, based on some photography he did of the local flora.

How does one execute a nice inlay? Well, I don’t know. But here is how I did it–

First, I obtained some materials. I bought 1/8″ thick ebony blanks from Matt Furjanic at Inlay Banding. It’s good stuff and not that expensive.

Here is a picture of the rose, which I printed on a laser printer; and the ebony strips, and a pencil thrown in to add a little extra class:

Materials for the rose inlay: Ebony blanks, and a design printed on regular paper.

Since I wanted to cut this inlay in one piece, I needed to glue up the blanks into a slab that would accommodate the entire design. I think a lot of inlay artists do this work piecemeal, mostly because they are working with small bits of shell. I couldn’t come up with a great way to divide this design up, and it was easiest for me to think of it as one piece.

Here I cut the ebony into smaller strips prior to gluing them up:

Cutting Ebony Blanks
I’m cutting lengths of ebony that will be joined into a chunk big enough to accommodate the entire rose design.

Next, I jointed, glued and clamped the pieces together:

Before joining the wood, it has to fit perfectly. That means the edges must be planed perfectly flat.
I checked the pieces against the design and glued them together with wood glue.
I clamped the pieces together in this bar clamp which I use for joining violin tops and backs. I ended up stacking four of these strips.

After I made a suitable piece of ebony for cutting my design, I needed to attach my template to it:

Here I’ve glued the pattern onto my ebony. I’ll cut all of the white bits out to get my rose pattern reproduced in the wood which will be inlaid into the violin back.

The inlay is ready to be cut. I always look for little shortcuts when I get to a tedious part like this, so I thought I might be able to use my Dremel with the routing base to cut it out. I failed at that attempt:

I devised a way to cut out the inlay with my routing setup. It worked once on a small piece of shell my daughter once inlaid on a guitar. It didn’t work for me and I ended up ruining a router bit.

I was forced to do it the right way:

Cutting the Inlay by Hand
I drilled holes in the corners of the design and used this fine jewelers saw to cut the inlay. I broke maybe 10 blades throughout this exercise. I kept dropping the inlay piece during my work, smashing it to bits on the floor. I had to re-glue it each time. Why didn’t I start out with smaller pieces in the first place?

Time to transfer the pattern onto the back of the violin for the inlay rout:

I’m using a fine-point mechanical pencil to trace the inlay onto the back of the violin.

Here is the result:

I’ve drawn and colored in the inlay rout with a pencil. I’ll rout the dark areas out of the back and fit the ebony into the cavity. I’ll need to break my flat ebony piece into several smaller bits in order to manage that arching.

At last, I can use my routing jig for its intended purpose. This is the fun bit:

I use a high-speed Dremel tool and a small router base to accomplish this work.

Here is the finished inlay rout:

The completed inlay rout. It’s not bad, but I’ll eventually be able to make these very accurately if I continue to do this sort of work.

I used hide glue to install the ebony in the routed inlay cavity. I had to break my piece into several smaller ones to fit the contour of the back, again reminding me that inlay ought to be done in small pieces for a reason.

After the inlay is glued, I needed to trim and level it:

The inlay rout was shallower than the ebony was thick. I need to plane off the part of the inlay that sticks up above the surface of the violin.

Finally, I put some wood filler into the gaps, let it dry, and scraped the whole thing smooth:

Before it can be varnished, the inlay needs to be very smooth and level with the rest of the wood surface. I use a thick scraper to do this fine work.

Here is what it looked like after I finished it, but before I did the varnish:

The inlay is done and the violin is ready for varnish.

And the final result:

The Completed Rose Inlay
Here is the completed fiddle!