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!
New York cellist and composer Alex Waterman stopped by yesterday to borrow a cello for some recording and composing engagements that he has over the next 2 weeks. It was most entertaining to watch him evaluate the 2 cellos on offer. He chose the one I prefer to play with its understated looks that betray the wonderful tonal and playing characteristics that lie beneath.
More about Alex can be found here:
In celebration of Canada's 150th birthday, I wanted to make a violin with Canadian maple instead of the traditional European maple that I regularly use. I had a hard time locating wood for the neck and scroll, but ended up with something that had been in storage for over 30 years. It was a slab that yielded 4 necks, and 2 backs. Here's the scroll in the style of Guarneri Del Gesu. I am extremely happy with the result. The rest of the violin is also very eye catching but it's a few days away from public display or playing.
I other news, I've modified my own design and have started working on the first violin from the new form. I can't explain why exactly, but I'm very excited to hear it sometime this fall.
This is the start of my 25th violin. It's a milestone of sorts.
Lately I've been starting violins by carving the scroll. Most people carve it last. I like the fresh, relaxed attitude that I bring to violin construction early in the process. I find I have to restrain myself when a violin is almost complete, so starting with the scroll allows me to give it my best effort. Carving the scroll is one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole process, so it's almost like eating dessert before the main course.
In other news, group fiddling courses for adults start early next month at Mount Royal Conservatory. Lynae Dufresne is the instructor and she is excellent. I recommend them.
The Legacy Childrens Foundation is fundraising to support their efforts to bring music instruction to disadvantaged youth in Alberta. Check them out online.
It's time to wind things down for the Festive Season. I'm not taking on any new work at the moment. I have some items to finish for a few clients and then I will look forward to making new instruments in the New Year. Thanks to all the wonderful people who have given their support over the past year. I have the greatest clients in the world and I wish them all the best!
First I digress. This is from yesterday's celebration in honour of my mother. It's a great feeling to play with 2 crack musicians with all of us using instruments I made. James Thurgood on the left, Tom Mirhady in the middle, and me.
The theme in my life lately has been wood. I received 2 shipments. The first one I sourced from Gordon Carson at Mountain Voice Soundwoods in Valemount BC. We had a great time reviewing the possibilities of a number of pieces and I came home with chunks that looked like firewood and others that were nicely cut but were orphan cello pieces or whatever. When I got home, I spent a couple of days milling the wood into billets that would be suitable for violin tops. Then I measured and weighed them in order to determine their density. This measure is one of the factors I take into consideration when selecting a top for an instrument. We guess the density at the mill and I get to find out how close we came once I get home.
I learned Simeon Chambers at Rocky Mountain Tonewoods is planning to wind down his operation by the end of the year and the wood is discounted. I've dealt with Simeon before and felt compelled to support him while I still can. It's tough to justify shopping in the US at the moment due to the exchange rate, so the discount on the product helped offset the currency difference. Shopping at Simeon's means that I'm choosing tops based on photos and density measurements.
Both suppliers are excellent to deal with and award winning instruments have been made with spruce sourced from both of them. I'm equally pleased with the wood I received lately from both suppliers. Because I was buying larger material from Gordon, I was able to mill it according to my tastes for grain spacing. Since Simeon made those decisions when he did the final milling on his wood, I had to accept the appearance of the wood I received. The appearance is fine but I wonder if I would have made the same decisions as Simeon if I were milling the wood.
The big difference between the two is that Gordon's wood is almost in my backyard (6 hrs. drive) and Simeon's is in another country where a 6 hour drive won't get me anywhere close. I like buying local where there are no border fees, postage is less than half the cost and the product arrives twice as fast. Returns are relatively straight forward. These are important factors for me and they have nothing to do with wood quality.
Gordon's wood costs a bit less, but he spends less time processing it and the density is estimated. While milling wood is noisy, risky, dusty and time consuming, there's enjoyment in trying to determine the optimum way to bring the best out of a chunk of wood. Your labour is the price you pay for saving on the cost of the wood itself.
I am sad that Rocky Mountain Tonewoods is closing after 13 years of supplying great materials, but I am also thankful that Mountain Voice Soundwoods continues to provide me with top quality local material.
While density and appearance are important qualities, there are others that I ponder over and will write about at some time. Things like being cut on the split, perfectly quartered, absence of hard grains, staining, absence of knots and resin pockets, moisture content, checking, fungus, insect damage and variation in grain spacing, stiffness, speed of sound travel, age of the tree and whether it was cut green or standing dead and whether it was cut according to the phases of the moon. There's so much to ponder.
I'm very fond of this instrument already. I've been playing it for about 3 days. The tone is very engaging. I'm also really happy about how the colour turned out. Considering I had 3 different colour schemes in mind while I was varnishing, it's amazing that it didn't turn out black. I feel very fortunate to have this instrument at my disposal and look forward to playing it with my friends over the next few weeks.
Next? My varnish jars are now empty, so I am starting to think about cooking some more in the backyard. Weather conditions could be favourable for that sort of thing this week.
I spent some time in the mountains last week. Given the nice weather, I was drawn to walking in the forests.
As a violin and cello maker I now look at trees and imagine their potential to produce good looking, great sounding instruments. As a varnish maker, I also look at trees as a source of resin, a principal component of varnish. Consequently, I found myself grabbing a baggie and some bear spray and heading into the woods in search of the essential pitch for making my prized varnish. I quickly discovered that most trees don't have a lot of pitch to spare, and if they do, they're not showing it. However the odd tree would have something to offer. After an hour of foraging, I amassed the 3 chunks on the left. This is a mixture of spruce, balsam fir and Douglas fir sap, aka pitch.
Then I headed down to the Great Rocky Mountain Trench where the forests are predominantly mature Ponderosa Pine. Most trees had nothing to offer, but one big old beautiful beast contained the motherlode. The chunk on the right was collected in about 5 minutes and I took about 15 % of what it had to offer. It was soft like lard and sticky like honey. The earlier samples I collected were mainly hard like rocks.
I look forward to firing up the varnish pot this fall, boiling off the turpenes, straining the liquid and letting it harden into the chunks known as colophony. Then on another day, I'll use it to make the varnish for next year.
Laszlo, the one in the middle, dropped in for a checkup. It was the first time my 3 cellos had been together so I jumped on this photo op. As well as comparing looks, we were able to compare tone.
The most striking thing we learned, is that Laszlo, the oldest, was superior. Apparently modern handmade cellos can gain a lot of tonal maturity with a couple of years of regular play.
The cello on the right (as yet unnamed) cannot be faulted for tone either. It's very impressive and very different from Laszlo, and it's begging for a couple of years of steady play from someone more skilled than myself.
The white cello on the left has a big tone and a dark powerful C string. Which allows me to say that it shows great promise. However, experience suggests that the process of varnishing, matching strings to the instrument, changing the soundpost and installing a custom bridge and fittings will change the the tone. Not to mention the tonal change that will likely result from many hours of playing. Having said that, I'm pretty excited about the prospects.
The Revenant is a film that has so far received 38 awards including the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture and 131 nominations including an Oscar nomination for Best Motion Picture of the Year. So what does this have to do with fiddles or Rob Haag?
I'm not exactly sure what it has to do with violins as I haven't seen the film yet. It has very little to do with me except for a few days many months ago. I received a phone call from a man who had been given my name as one who could repair violins. He was with the props department for the Revenant film crew and had 3 violins and bows that needed to be made to look authentic and one of them had to be made playable. We talked about the options and I did what needed to be done to fulfill the requirements. The props person came back, seemed pleased, paid me and I never gave it much thought after that.
Calgary has a lot of movie activity and some of it does well and some others not so much. So it was quite a pleasant surprise to find out something that involved me in a small way has been awarded top honours. I'm very happy for all the folks involved in the project. This achievement reflects well on the capability of our local film industry which is very exciting!