You might enjoy this mini documentary which fills in some background on my life as a luthier. Thanks to journalist Taylor Morton for helping me tell the story.
Pictured above is a quarter sawn willow board which will one day be destined to form the back of a cello. I encountered a cello with a willow back this fall and the unique sound intrigued me. I started thinking about willow backs and in the course of things I discovered that my usual supplier had a wonderful selection of willow wood. I was hooked. This slab showed up around the end of December. I won't be using this piece immediately as it was expensive and I need to practice with more modest willow first.
It's been an unusual winter. I haven't made a violin since the summer. Instead I:
I attended many musical events this winter and most included musicians who regularly play on my instruments. I enjoy the unique pleasure of hearing performances where I know some of the players and also their instruments. It's very special!
I've been playing the new cello since the new year as I wait for the sunny weather to arrive so I can varnish it. It's the kind of cello that keeps begging you to play more. However, there's a new design of cello that I'm excited about. It's a blend of inspiration coming from Guadagnini and Guiseppi Guarneri filius Andreae. One might wonder why I'm not planning to duplicate my most recent cello since it's incredibly comfortable to play and the tone seems to be outstanding. I'm not sure I have a good answer at the moment but it's probably several months before I get serious so I have some time to think about it. The Guadagnini inspired cello has an outline that I find contradictory and I never tire of looking at it. It appears slightly portly, yet the overall dimensions are somewhat slender.
While I was waiting for the varnish season to arrive, I took the image of a Brothers Amati viola and reduced it to 15 1/2". The last coat of varnish went on it two or three days ago, so now it's curing for a week in preparation for the final setup and adjustment. I had it strung up "in the white" for a while and the feedback from a full time violist was very encouraging.
In the meantime, I've been comissioned to make a 5-string violin. In this case, I've enlarged the outline of the Del Gesu Alard violin by about 10 mm. I was fortunate to have a Silokowski 5-string violin to measure before I started the project. This violin is scheduled for completion early in the summer.
Next on the list is a straight forward violin project. I've selected the wood from my inventory and now I'm thinking about it a bit. I will probably use a pattern of my own design as the violins made from that pattern seem to be very successful. It's always nice to have an instrument to craft while waiting for varnish to dry.
Here's the neck block on the cello I'm making. Willow from N. British Columbia. Notice the lovely flame in the wood. I'd like to think flamed willow is a rarity. It shows up in some of the linings on this cello as well. Most people will only see the outside of the cello body and this block will simply make up some if its inner beauty. I often impress my initial onto the neck blocks of my instruments. Those who take out the endpin to look inside will find it, but otherwise only the label which was hand printed on a vintage letterpress will indicate that the instrument was crafted by me.
I've been thinking of building a different cello for several months. It takes a lot of thinking because cellos come in many different shapes and sizes and I don't want to tamper with the tonal success I've enjoyed with the current model.
The drive to do something different came from my desire to keep cello building fresh and my instructor's suggestion to make something comfortable. Like a lot of people, my instructor is smaller than average and standard sized cellos can be uncomfortable for non standard sized people. I find my cellos to be comfortable while playing them, but when I stand up after an hour of play, my legs feel pretty stiff. I suspect this situation will intensify with age.
My experience from making different sized violins is that great sounding instruments can come in different shapes and sizes, and since great sounding vintage cellos have mostly been reduced from their original size, perhaps a smaller cello can be comfortable, easy to play and sound great. BTW, I've come to realize that string choice is not only time consuming, but very effective in bringing out the best in a cello. So, maybe the right strings will compensate for size.
I've gathered input from a variety of players, analyzed measurements from a dozen cellos and played a few cellos of different shapes and sizes. I've ended up taking inspiration from the "Simpson" Guagagnini . Compared to my current model, it's a little shorter, narrower in the upper and lower bouts, and a little bit wider in the C bout. I hope to keep the string length at what's considered to be normal for a full size violin.
Already I'm eager to hear how it sounds, but I'll likely have to wait until about a year from now as I hope to have it ready for the start of the outdoor varnish season next May.
I review a lot of violin related material. It's easy to find many a writer or video host waxing eloquently about the romance and almost magical genius behind the stringed instruments of the "old masters". It's impressive to think that some of these instruments sell for over $10 million. My goodness, at that price they must indeed be special and one could easily surmise that instruments by contemporary makers must pale by comparison.
I recently came across a short article where the author talks about how instruments by the old masters were modified. The former trend of reducing the size of great old Italian cellos and violas causes one to cringe at the thought of how that process must have interfered with all the care and rigourous attention to the lost art and principles that went into making those instruments. It makes one wonder how an instrument can be modified to such a degree and come out the other end still sounding better than anything a contemporary maker could produce today.
It's been one of those days. After working for months on a new violin I finally managed to string it up this morning. It was a struggle to rein in my excitement and carefully and methodically finish the fingerboard, install the nut, carefully and precisely fit a soundpost and fit a bridge. I got lucky and found a bridge from an earlier violin, so I just had to fit the feet. The E string is a bit high, but things are going to change on this violin, so it's fine to start with.
Now that the violin is playable, I'm starting to relax. It's a nice feeling! It's the same feeling you get after Christmas morning.
In terms of dimensions, the violin is on the more petite or delicate side, but just a little. I chose to model this violin after the Del Gesu Plowden. I haven't made one like it for a while and I wanted to see how well I could bring out the tone in a smaller body. Usually violins don't sound their best when you first string them up. However, this one has been improving as the day moves on, and I can tell there's lots of potential to bring out wonderful things in this instrument. For now, it just needs some time to settle and adjust to the tensions from the strings. Then I will figure out my next adjustment. In the meantime, I have a lovely violin to play over the festive season and I am very grateful that I have the ability to create items from wood that produce such lovely sounds.
Speaking of gratitude, I appreciate all the support from family, friends and clients which allows me to continue to work my wonderful craft. You know who you are.
The Strad Magazine sent out their Friday email with things they want to share. Here's one of them regarding new instruments compared to old ones.
This is the back on Duston's violin. It's his first instrument and he's putting it together whenever his schedule allows. This particular piece of wood was something I never thought I would use since the marketability of something so unusual is questionable. I simply did not want to take the risk. There was a time when I would never purchase a violin with a knot in it. However, for Duston it is perfect! He's never going to sell it and it's very unique and stunning. We're about 2 months away from hearing its voice and we're getting impatient.
The competition is underway today in Quebec and it's particularly exciting for me as James Ross will be competing on his Robert Haag violin. I'm sure everyone wishes him all the best! I look forward to posting a video at some point.
I read somewhere in the last year that Del Gesu was born on this day, albeit a few hundred years ago. I rarely remember birthdays, but I remember this one because it's the same date as my birthday, and I've never forgotten mine. The festivities today include helping a friend attach the neck to the body of the violin he's working on. As well, I plan to start another violin today. The model I will use for inspiration is, of course, a Del Gesu!