November 2014

The Making of a Violin: The Making of A Luthier: Centre Joints

November 29, 2014 05:47

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In the movie "A Heart in Winter", there is a scene in which the character, Camile (Emmanuelle Beart) brings in her violin, to be repaired by luthier Stephane (Daniel Auteuil). At the same time, while Stephane is holding a conversation with Camile, he is applying glue and clamping a centre joint. He makes it look as though the act of centring a joint is the easiest thing a luthier could possibly do and certainly does not require his full attention. (other than that scene it is a good movie) Nothing could be further from the truth!

Centre Joints

Even if everything goes well it will take all of your attention and even then it is a job which will take a full day. You will also likely need the assistance of couple of other people, with defined jobs, to complete the procedure. I know of one person who took 5 days and another who took 4 days in order to complete this 'easy procedure'. I'm into my third day.

But, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, or rather I can see no light from between the two halves of the top plate.

The centre joint will and does have to be as perfect as possible with not even a hair width difference between the two boards which make up either the top or back plates. Those two boards will need to be squared then squared perfectly to each other. The least disruption is enough to throw two or three days of work out the window. Simply leaving a door open for 10 minutes may be enough to make the boards out of square.

As I've said, I'm close but not close enough to say I've got a good joint that when carved will be an average 2.8 mm thick, be able to with stand up to the combined force of 4 in-tuned strings, and still be flexible enough to vibrate sweetly when the violinist plays a concerto.

Ribs and Linings

I've finished installing the ribs. Because my wood is so old and well flamed, I soaked the wood for one hour before bending them into shape. Usually, 10 minutes of soaking is enough time to allow the luthier to bend almost any shape into the wood.

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The glueing of the top and bottom bouts went a lot smoother compared to one of the C bouts. See previous post photograph.

The bottom bout will be made in two pieces. To get as good a joint as possible, I trued up one rib, to act as a 'master' so that I will be able to match the other rib to a standard. When ready to glue into place, I sellotape the two ribs so that they start looking similar to those drawings of seagulls we all drew if they were far away.

When glued, the sellotape is rubbed flat and the ribs are clamped unto the end block. I will wait to clamp the corner bouts because if I did it now, I may force a tiny-but both annoying and noticeable gap between the two ribs.

The liners are usually made from willow or spruce and I'll be using spruce which will have straight grain, be about 1.5 mm thick (at the top), 2.5 mm wide, and when finished will resemble a knife blade tapering down to 0.1 mm thick. What you end up with is a light weight support for the top and back plates and liners which will not adversely affect the quality or volume of the music being played on the violin. As you can see from the photograph, I'm using very expensive and high tech clamps to hold the liners in place while they are being glued.

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When dried into place I'll need to sand and level off that side again.

Now, I'll be establishing the final shape and size of the four corners of the violin. They need to look like 8 ski slopes with the c bout ribs blending seamlessly into the upper and and lower bout ribs.

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For the next two weeks I'll be working on the centre joints for both the top and back plates and begin the shaping the general shape of the two plates. I'll also be taking a day off, with everyone else, to take in Europe's largest antique fair, and maybe pick up a good deal on a couple of tools.

Reader's Questions

1. Why does the scroll look like it does?

Artists, architects, and well most people in the 1500 and 1600s looked to nature for their inspiration and guidance with respect to proportions. They also needed a design which was beautiful to look at, compact (so that its various parts would not break or throw the balance off-both visually and weight to length ratio- for the player) and the design could not interfere with tuning or playing the violin.

2. What thickness is the scrapers you had to make to work on the scroll? And how did you know what shape to make the scrapers?

I first started with the working on the design. I experimented with cardboard templates until I worked out what I needed. Then I made pexiglass templates and drew those unto an old 1-2 mm thick larger scraper which I was no longer using. Using tin snips and an electric grinder I worked on getting the shapes that would work in the tight curves of the scroll.

1 reply

The Making of a Violin: The Making of A Luthier

November 15, 2014 04:35

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The Scroll and Ribs continued ....

In the making of the scroll, I am discovering that to be a luthier, I will be using many disciplines such as: chemist, woodworker using hand tools, and an artist, in order to complete what many people call - the closest musical instrument to the human voice.

I now have only a rough outline of the scroll. But, armed with my measurements for the scroll length, eye to eye distance, and layer by layer angles and depth measurements I am wanting to start cutting and shaping wood. However, John has other ideas. John wants me to study scrolls, from Amati, Stradivari, Stainer, and others. I need to learn to take those measurements and make them flow seamlessly together.

After studying scrolls shapes, from the Old Italians, I began to sketch my scroll based on the measurements I took from the original violin. At first simple lines, then finer details, all with the finest examples in front of me. John and I talked over drawing negative space, comparing eye shapes from many makers and always referring back to the original violin which I am basing this violin upon. A couple of days later, we agree on a good design that is both pleasing to the eye and in keeping with original design.

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As the scroll took shape I soon discovered that my design will mean that I will need to now make specific scapers to obtain work in the tighter quarters around the scroll's eyes.

As you carve the the scroll you first start with saws and large chisels. And you work closer to your measurements the tools become smaller and finer. I'm working slowly on the scroll making sure I'm only removing the 'grizzle'.

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As you can see in the next photograph, the C bouts are glued into place. The C bouts are the most difficult, of the ribs to form and glue into place. And, some say the most important. Corners are tight, two curves that needto be blended together and all four corners need to be the same size.

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Because my wood is highly flamed and is +120 years old, I have soaked the ribs for about a hour. While I'm waiting I'll continue working on the scroll. I hate sitting on my hands and watching a kettle boil.

I'm heating the bending iron to 175 degrees and I'll be using hide glue at about 160 degrees. When actually bending the ribs the back of the ribs needs a tin strap with handles not only to prevent my hands from burning but also to help prevent the wood from ripping apart as I bend the ribs into shape.

An absolute perfect contact, with the corner blocks is a must. Before glueing into place I'll practice to be sure all goes well. Which of course is nice when it happens but rarely does.

Have a look at the photograph below and I'm sure you can see which side gave us the most trouble.

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After the glue is dry, 24 hours, I cut back the ribs to length (be sure all corneas are exactly the same length, are 90 degrees, and they are the shape of ski slopes. Easy, eh!

I've now glued the upper bout ribs,into the place, making sure there are no gaps along the edges where the upper and C bouts meet.

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The next two weeks finds me at work on the lower ribs, rib liners, scroll, and the center joint for the spruce top. Since the weather is turning I'll put some hot chocolate over the fire for you when you next drop by for a visit.

Reader's Question

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I've been asked, from a previous post, about a few of the tools I've been using for the shaping of the scroll. Here is a picture of the picture of a few of those tools, along with a bandsaw, and those scrapers I made by hand in order to shape the scroll - so far. Keep the questions and comments coming. I enjoy the feed back.

2 replies

The Making of A Violin: The Making of A Luthier – The Scroll

November 1, 2014 04:20

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Chapel Violins is both a workshop and a school. It’s been a great place to relearn many skills ( like sharpening) and a great environment where there is free exchange of ideas and techniques. We and in the shop for 4 days a week I’ve been giving myself homework on at least one of my days off.
I’m at the stage of deciding direction of grain, appearance, and how the various colours match up to each other, and of course how all of this will affect the colours of sound. Let’s have a closer look at the wood.


I wanted wood that was air dried and cut on the quarter, sawn or hand split, the ends sealed with wax, and finally as old as I could find.
Wood cut since about 1890 will usually have been kiln dried and slab cut. This means that the wood is more susceptible to twisting and splitting. Something, of course you do not want to happen to your violin. Kiln dried wood will also lose some of the natural colours of the wood.
Wood cut on the quarter means you cut the wood following the natural grain of the wood. Less chance of the wood twisting or splitting especially if you also seal the ends with wax and allow the wood to slowly release the trapped internal moisture. Of course, wood will always be absorbing and releasing moisture so even after you buy your violin you must be careful to regulate its environment for the health of your violin.
I’ll be using well-figured maple for the neck, ribs, and back which has been cut on the quarter, cut from the same tree, its ends sealed with wax, and its estimated age is more than 120 years old. Very special and rare wood.
For the top, I’ll be using Spruce, cut on the quarter, its ends sealed with wax, and with an estimated age of at least 110 years old.

Finishing the Mould

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Nicola Amati often used willow for his corner and end blocks. Nice straight grain and few knots. John had a nice piece of willow sot this is what I’ll be using. First I’ll have to cut it to close to the dimensions I want, and then square it up. If you look closely at the photograph you’ll see how I’ve orientated the grain so that the corners will have the maximum strength possible.
Once glued into place, I’ve traced the inner template onto the blocks on both sides of the blocks. I’ll need to wait till tomorrow before I can begin cutting the inside curves of the C bouts. When carving out this shape I’ll need to imagine the curve extends further than the actual line. This little tip will mean that the C bouts will appear to continue beyond the violin once it is finished. Nice affect.

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I had wanted to have one rib for the lower bout just as Nicola used but considering I’m using 120 year old wood from the same tree as the back and neck-you can’t have everything but I got close.
The finished thichness needs to be 1.1 mm thick so I’ve set the bandsaw to 2 mm. I’ll be using a low angled block plane to bring the ribs down to 1.2/3 mm and then use a scaper to trim any small tear outs and leave a nice even surface. When using the block plane, on well figured wood, I need to remember to angle my cuts because this will mean less chance of tear out and then making a new rib. I’ll be putting the ribs aside since the glue pot and heating iron will be in use for awhile.

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Before I draw on my templates to the neck I need to look at the ends (or end grain) of the neck to look for the direction or orientation of tiny white flakes called medial rays. These are cells (or rays) which radiate from the centre of the tree and provides part of the strength of the wood.
I want to be sure that where the neck will be attached to the body of the violin that these medial rays are as straight as possible and running from the back of the violin to the top.
Now I’ll true up the top edge and then the side to the top of the neck block. I don’t have to warry about the bottom as this will be cut off.
Once the three sides have their templates trace on the general shape will be cut out.

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Next week I’ll continue working on the scroll and glue on the ribs. Any luck, I’ll be able to start work on the back and top.

Buyers Tip of the Week
Have a look at the side of your bridge. Are you able to see the medial rays. Ideally, those rays are straight or at the very least curving towards the back for the greatest possible strength and help with the lifespan of your bridge.

3 replies

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