Blocks, Ribs, and Other Actual Violin Parts!

The blocks are the very first pieces to be made that will remain a part of the finished violin. They are pieces of willow (Amati and other makers would have used spruce) that are cut along the grain, planed square and glued to the mould in a particular orientation according to the grain direction. Bonus points for spotting the block that is wrongly oriented:


After the blocks are glued on, the template is used to lay out the shape of the corners:


We’ll follow this particular corner block thru the process. First to be carved away is the inside curve of the C-bout. The outside curve remains uncarved at this point, so a nice rib miter can be made later, and also to give support while clamping the C-bout rib.


Now the c-bout ribs can be bent to fit the mould (more about bending ribs soon…) and glued to the blocks. Glue is applied only to the surfaces where the rib meets the willow block. The ribs are clamped in place with counter-forms made to correspond to the curves of the ribs. Thanks to Minneapolis violinmaker Bill Scott for this clamping method using radiator hose clamps:


The hose-clamp application is a modern version of the classic method of lashing the counterforms to the blocks with string and dowels (which is somewhat more photogenic):

Next the outside curves of the corner blocks can be carved. The ends of the c-bout ribs are carved in a way that continues the line drawn on by the template. This will allow for that neat, tight rib miter:



Now the ribs of the upper and lower bouts can be bent. The next photo finally illustrates the rib-bending process a little better. Please forgive the chronology-challenged post. Like i said, i’m only human.
Anyway, the ribs are strips of maple (often from the same piece of wood as the back plate) that are thinned to a consistent 1mm.
The ribs are dampened with water and held against a hot iron. The heat from the iron drives the moisture thru the wood until it becomes flexible, essentially steam-bending the wood. If the wood is bent at just the right time in this heating, it is pliable enough to bend to shape without cracking, and will retain its shape once it cools.
The metal strap is used to further prevent the wood from cracking, especially in the tightest of the bends.


If everything goes well, the wood holds its shape remarkably well…


…so well that some alternative methods of construction forego the wooden mould altogether, bending the ribs freehand to a desired shape. This is also how guitar sides are often bent.


Once the bending is finalized, the rest of the ribs can be glued similarly to the c-bouts. Tailor-cut counter-forms are again used to clamp everything in place.


The ribs, being only 1mm thick, don’t provide much in the way of a gluing surface to attach the top and back plates, and so we bend and install 2mm-thick strips of willow, called “linings” along the inside of the entire outline.
The c-bout linings are inserted into mortises cut into the blocks to prevent them from pulling away from the ribs should the glue deteriorate. If this were to happen, it could cause a nasty buzzing while playing, which could only be remedied by taking the instrument back apart. This system also adds strength to allow for the flexing of the ribs while the mould is removed later on.


The linings are glued with homemade clamps made from clothespins and bike inner-tube:


Once the linings are trimmed down flush to the rib surface, and the miters of the rib corners are cut to their proper length (and angle), the rib structure is more or less complete.


All that remains is to ensure that the rib structure sits flat on a flat surface. A flat stone, machined metal or flat glass plate are used to check that the assembly doesn’t have any high points or dips. This ensures that the eventual glue seam between the ribs and plates will have as little undue stress as possible.

Templates, Moulds, and Other Useful Violin-Shaped Things…

Once the outline has been drawn, we can make a template. The template is made from thin aluminium, which is demensionally stable and rigid, but also very workable.


Since the drawing is symmetrical, in order to make the mould symmetrical as well, we can make a half-template. First, half of the drawing is cut away and glued to a piece of aluminium. Two holes are drilled along the violin’s center line so that the template can be flipped back and forth to correspond to each side of the instrument. The template is then used on a router with a duplicating bit to produce a wooden mould of the same dimensions.


After the shape is established, the cutouts to accept the corner blocks and end blocks are cut, as are several circular cutouts to facilitate clamping later on.

The mould is ready for the first pieces that actually stay with the violin: THE BLOCKS!


Next time, more words, more pictures…

P.P.P.P.P.P. (Vol. II)

To make a violin in the Cremonese fashion, we need a mould. The mould is the wooden form around which the ribs are bent to shape. This form will be made from a template that will also be used in certain stages of construction, especially early-on.

There are several methods of establishing the design of the template and mould, but in order to start with a symmetrical shape with the desired proportions, geometrical drawing is a great way to start.

The method i used for Stanley’s violin is one developed by Boston violinmaker Kevin Kelly. Kevin’s methods of design are simple, elegant and super-adaptable. The method of designing Amati-style instruments is based on the relationship between four circles that ultimately establish the curves of the outline. This method is demonstrated in several fantastic videos Kevin has posted on YouTube, and they include the method of drawing and also those drawings laid over pictures of classic instruments. I won’t go into any more detail myself, because i highly recommend watching the videos themselves.
The first video can be found here.
(P.S. – If you really want o be impressed by geometric drawing, check out Kevin’s scroll drawings, also overlaid on old Italian scrolls.)

Kevin uses a computer program for his drawings, but i used a ruler, compass and quite a few pieces of paper. The results were a mountain of eraser dust, and the following drawing:

Along with being a useful (even necessary) part of the manufacture of a violin, producing drawings like this can be immensely helpful exercise. Putting on paper a thought-out representation of the lines and proportions you intend to construct is a much more workable way to try out different possibilities. It’s also a chance to get your hands and eyes used to producing the shapes you’ll eventually carve out of the wood. I’m sure this concept doesn’t apply only violinmaking, either.

Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance Practice (Vol. I)

First of all, let me admit that it’s been an embarrassingly long time that i’ve been looking forward to using this title. That either makes me very thoughtful or very nerdy. No… definitely nerdy.

Anyway, it’s true. I hope…

Especially where the practical application of geometry is concerned, forethought and planning are sure to be rewarded in the end. In that spirit, I went about selecting a model for Stanley’s baroque fiddle, and then (with some help from some very smart folks) designing it.

Before beginning the making process, Stanley and I had a few discussions. We discussed the repertoire he planned to play on the violin and the implications of that decision. In certain aspects of the violin’s history, the relationship between performer, composer and maker takes the form of a sort of “arms race” between playing technique, compositional demands and physical limitations of the instrument.

For example, the length of the fingerboard of a violin directly relates to the melodic range a performer requires. A maker is only going to make a fingerboard as long as a player requires it to be, right? So that means the fingerboard will only be as long as to accommodate the highest note the composer has written. But what happens when the composer decides one day he needs to write one note higher? The player needs a longer fingerboard, which then requires the maker to lengthen playable range of the instrument, which then inspires the player to explore an even higher range, which causes the composer to…… got it?

This brings to light a question that looms over the entire enterprise of “baroque” violin making. Get ready, because it’s a big one… what is a baroque violin?

If we think of the violin as a part of this arms race of musical composition and performance, or very simply as a tool of the player and a medium of the composer, then what we have is a very utilitarian object rather than a romantic ideal. In that light, we’re forced to decide in definite terms what form the object will take.

In the case of a modern violin it’s relatively easy (disclaimer to come), and equally as utilitarian; what are the demands of “modern” performance? What must we as makers supply to the market of consumers? I don’t suggest this is a simple question to answer or an easy clientele to satisfy (aforementioned disclaimer), but it is to a certain degree a fairly straightforward question with readily available answers.

If, on the other hand, we ask a similar question in regard to historical performance, we’re forced to make a very definite, very specific decision about the exact point we pick along the timeline of the violin’s 400-year evolution. This evolution (as addressed in the first post) has selected for certain characteristics that have lent themselves to particular styles of performance and composition. “Baroque” makers then have to decide what point on this timeline to emulate, and to decide the implications this has on the physical properties of the violin we build.

It’s for these reasons I myself am inclined to take the best information I can find about historically-informed construction and musical demands, mix in the most sensible and useful construction techniques developed throughout the violin’s evolution, and attempt to produce an instrument that incorporates both. My goal is to make a violin that is informed by the baroque without automatically denying useful developments since. The instrument will be, after all, a tool of a very real player with demands and expectations of his own.

Conversations with Stanley lead us to select as the model maybe the most predictable, uncontroversial choice possible: The Amati Grand Pattern. The violin form upon which instruments of Guarneri, Ruggieri, Rogeri, Stradivari and boatloads of others have been modeled.

We also made decisions pertaining to other aspects of the violin, such as the neck, fingerboard and the final setup, each of which will be the subject of a future entry.

Next, however, comes the design of the instrument itself, and the fabrication of templates and moulds upon which it will be made. This is where help from some smart friends comes in handy…

Why Make A Baroque Fiddle??

For the last several years, it’s been in the back of my mind to make a baroque violin. But why?? The baroque world is one with specific demands in terms of both historical accuracy and playability, sometimes seemingly in conflict with one another. It may even seem a to have more constraints and less space for innovation and individuality than the making of modern instruments. But on the other hand, the process also offers freedoms not otherwise available. In selection of instrument model, arching shapes and materials, we have options that normally aren’t part of the making of a modern instrument.

For example, take the process of simply selecting a model of instrument to make. For the making of a modern violin, one generally models a new instrument after those historical examples that have proven themselves most suitable to the modern setup. This most often leads us to the instruments made in Italy during the mid-18th century, specifically those by Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri “Del Gesu.” By this time in the violin’s evolution, these makers had begun producing instruments with strong, low arches that have proven especially adaptable to modern setups, and along the way have both reacted to and helped shape the evolution of the modern violin sound.

Other instrument makers of the time were producing violins with fuller, higher arches that have not held up under the evolving styles of setup. Austrian luthier Jacob Stainer, for example, had in the late 17th century produced instruments that were the most sought after and desirable in the world, even until the time of Stradivari and Del Gesu. The higher-arched models of Stainer were eclipsed over time by the Italian makers, yet Stainers continue to be played in historical setups because of their success in producing a desirable “baroque” sound.

So in selecting a model, as makers of baroque instruments we already have open to us options that we normally wouldn’t. Along with this, take the wide range of innovations in lutherie, and the changes and alterations made to instruments throughout the last 300 years, and suddenly there’s a huge variety already available before we even begin building, just in the planning stages. It’s as if a chef were suddenly presented with a whole other character of flavor his customers were demanding, affording him the opportunity to explore new ingredients and processes not otherwise considered desirable.

I was given this type of opportunity recently when i was asked by violinist Stanley Chepaitis to make a baroque violin. We began talking about what he hoped to see in an instrument and what styles and periods of music he planned to perform on it, and from there the process began. This blog will be the documentation of that process, from conception through completion. In following entries i’ll discuss aspects of both decision-making and violin-making involved in the project, the reasons for those decisions and how the process may differ from modern making along the way.

The next post will focus on the process discussed above of selecting a model and establishing a pattern upon which to make the instrument. Until then, please get acquainted with Stanley Chepaitis in the links below…

…Stanley’s personal professional website.
…A preview of the music of Terminal Degree, a recent project of composed heavy metal featuring Stanley on violin and viola.


P.S. In the future there will be plenty of pictures. For the moment the audio of Terminal Degree will have to suffice.