Book Review: The Art of Violin Making

art of violinThe Art of Violin Making by Chris Johnson and Roy Courtnall, first published in 1999, is a step by step guide for making a violin based on traditional methods with an inside mold.  One of the most popular books on making, its also a great shop reference for the new maker, and my personal go-to book on violin making.

The book’s primary focus is the process of making a violin using traditional (non-power tool) methods.  It has brief overviews on historical and modern makers, tools and sharpening, material selection and glue use, and sound adjustment, but does not delve into detail in this matters.

With about 400 illustrations over 253 pages, including a few color examples of violins from historic makers, and many black and white pictures of the making process, it has plenty of graphic references for the reader.

The book is separated into these sections:

  • Part I The Violin Makers
  • Part II The Maker’s Workshop
  • Part II Violin Construction
  • Sound Adjustment
  • Appendices: Technical terms, Metric/imperial conversion, Suppliers, Collection

Part I The Violin Makers

A 16 page write and color pictures of violins from significant historical and modern makers.  The historical section includes chapters on the Amati Family, Antonio Stradivari, the Guarneri family, and Jacob Stainer.  In the contemporary section there are bios and opinions on violin making from Paul Bowers, Glen Collins, John Dilworth, Roger Hargrave, Patrick Jowett, and Patrick and Andrea Robin-Frandsen.

Part II The Maker’s Workshop

This part of the book focuses on the workshop, tools and materials.  As noted above the method of making in this book focuses on traditional hand-tool focused making of instruments.

This section first touches on the working environment, lighting and humidity control.  Then goes on to document the tools needed for making an instrument by hand (without power tools), breaking them into common woodworking tools and specialized violin making tools.  The specialized tools include a description of each.  A brief section on sharpening follow, as well as short sections on types and selection of materials (such as tonewood).  Lastly this section includes a brief section on hide glue and its use.

Part III Violin Construction

This section comprises the bulk of the book, about 170 pages.  It goes through a step by step process of making a violin utilizing an inside mold right from preparing the mold to varnishing the violin.  Of course there is no substitute for hands on instruction, but this guide is a great aid and reference.  Plenty of illustrations demonstrate the steps, jigs and tools and critical dimensions.

Sound Adjustment

This three page section was written by Gerald Botteley and discusses instrument setup, particularly the bridge and soundpost.

Appendices

This section contains a list of Technical terms, tables for Metric/imperial conversion, Addresses of materials, tools suppliers and journals, and finally a collections of instruments around the world.

Jigs: Edge Fluting

 

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This swivel cradle is ideal for edge fluting.  The cradle rotates in a vice.  It’s designed so that tightening the vice locks the rotation of the jig.

The jig is also useful for final shaping and finishing.  The jig is hollowed so that the inside of plates can be worked as well.

The four corner holders are lined with cork and are slotted so that they can fit a variety of plate sizes.

Its all about pitch (angle)

Hand planing is a fast and effective way to achieve a great finish on ribs.   Hand planes are also key for getting a good flat surface on plates, necks and the back of finger boards.  How well your plane works for you will depend on its setup, including the pitch angle.  Check out my new addition to the best practices page, Hand Plane Setup to learn about this topic.

Low-Angle Bevel-up block planes are great for a variety of tasks, but only with the correct blade bevel.  Knowing which blade bevel to use for which job will vastly improve your making experience.  Check out the page to learn more.

Angles

Traditional Bevel Down Terminology

Petition: British Airways & Musical Instruments

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At Amsterdam Schiphol Airport on 4 June 2016, Cecilia Bernardini, a violinist flying from Amsterdam to London for a concert at the prestigious Wigmore Hall, was forced by BA staff to carry her 18th century Italian violin on her lap with no case, while her case (not designed for rough travel) containing three valuable bows was checked into the hold.

A change.org petition has been started to have British Airways update it’s policy with clear language around the allowance of Musical Instruments (and their cases) as carry on.  Sign the petition.

 

Cutting the Purfling Channel

I’ve tried a new method for cutting purfling channels, this uses Roger Hargrave’s interpretation of the Stradivari method.  Among Strad’s artifacts, now in the Museo Del  Violino in Cremona, Italy, are two single bladed purfling cutters.  Roger believes that Strad used these to cut independently the outside and inside edge of the purfling groove.

I used this method on my most recent violin and found it worked well on the back, but was especially useful on the top, where year growth rings can cause a freely held knife blade to be pulled into the soft summer wood.

To do this I re-ground two of the blades from an Ibex-style purfling marker to be double edged (pointed) so they could cut in both directions.  A narrow taper ensures the blades won’t over-widen as they cut around the turns and corners.  I then mounted each blade in its own purfling marker.  I added a small brass ‘L’ to act as a depth stop which meant less checking of my depth of cutting.  The cutters worked well, but I did occasionally use my knife.

To setup the cutting position, test with a scrap of wood with the purfling you plan to use for the instrument under construction.  Also in the pictures above you’ll see a file which i converted to purfling picker.

Restoring a Glue Pot

20151026_171723Traditional hide glue was prepared in Glue Pots.  Hide glue is used in making violins for a variety of reasons, don’t take your violin to anyone who doesn’t use traditional glues they could seriously damage your instrument.  Read more about hide glue here.

Before the 20th century and the advent of PV glue, glue pots used to be as common as frying pans.  I found this typical old glue pot and decided to fix it up.  At one point it may have been enameled, this prevented rust from coloring the glue.  I won’t use the glue pot for my own work, but I like to have a 100+ year old glue pot on the shelf to put things in perspective.

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The pot is cast iron, I removed the rust by soaking in vinegar (this will etch the surface and would cause visible damage if the surface were polished, but this pot won’t notice).  I then ‘seasoned’ it with olive oil like you would a cast iron pan.  You can see the final result at the top of the post.  It turned out quite nice I think.

09a0282v1Lee Valley now sells a small stainless steel pot replica which would work well if you like the traditional look and feel.  It can be used with a small electric hot plate or coffee cup warmer which they also sell.

 

Rib Thicknessing: Scraping Planes

One option for taking down the thickness of ribs prior to bending is a scraping plane.  I was taught to use a low angle block plane to reduce rib thickness and added a few passes with a Lee Valley Scraping plane for final finishing of ribs.  The is a perfectly valid method and works provided that the plane is super sharp and the cutting depth is kept very small.  The downside is that it’s a slow process if your ribs are thick, due to the need to keep the cutting depth small.  Two ways to improve the amount of material taken with each pass include using a toothed blade or increasing the blade bevel angle.  Another option is a Scraping Plane with a toothed blade set at 70 to 90 degrees, or a York/Pitch plane with a blade set at about 50 degrees.

I have been researching traditional Japanese planesDai Noshi and became aware of  Sole Flattening planes (Dai Naoshi) which are traditionally used to adjust the soles of wooden Japanese planes.  For the interested, the soles of Japanese wooden planes are not flat, but are relieved in front of the blade and behind the blade leaving three or four contact points.  Also worth noting is the use of tapered laminated steel blades and specially shaped chip breakers in Japanese planes. Traditional Japanese joinery is amazing, check out this video.  For our purposes, the Dai Naoshi form is a useful model for a scraping planes for rib thicknessing and is a tool easily in reach of the construction skills of a violin maker.

While I was pondering a new plane to speed up my rib thicknessing, I saw Davide Sora’s video on rib thicknessing.  He uses a toothing plane with a toothed blade set at about 90 degrees.  Check out his use of the plane here.  Given his success I decided to build one of my own.

Here is my version.  Using separate sides makes it a quick build.  In my design the wedge goes behind the blade, while a wedge is not usually included in Japanese Dai Naoshi because it has a wedge shaped blade, it is necessary here as my blade is flat.  The dimensions of my plane were roughly based on the recommendations of this post.

Scraping Plane

I’ll keep you posted on how well it works.

Jigs: Purfling Miters

20160214_132358This jig is handy for cutting purfling miters.  The jig is made from a maple block in the shape of a c-bout inserted at an angle into a plywood piece used for clamping the jig to a work bench.  This idea came from Olivia Pelling who taught me violin making while I built my first violin.

I use this along with a small very sharp chisel to set the purfling miter.  After bending the purfling to shape on the bending iron, I mark the beginning and end of the mitre with a pencil and then cut on the curved surface of the jig so that the bend of the purfling is supported.  From there it’s trial and error to adjust the miter cut to remove any gap.

20160213_222613A loop comes in handy to check the result.

 

Stainer 1679: Molds and Ribs

ribsThe pattern is based on The Strad’s Stainer 1679 poster published in their April 1990 issue.

I use an inside mold with a large clearance for c-clamps which I use for clamping the counter-forms for attaching the ribs to the blocks.

In this build i’m making two violins more or less simultaneously.   The Ribs are well flamed with a wide grain (local British Columbia wood). The blocks are made from Newfoundland Black Spruce.

Note the grain orientation on the blocks.

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