Fun with wood shavings

Thousands and thousands of little wood shavings. Every now and then I have to stop to look at the shavings. This stuff makes great wood tinder. It also makes for cool pictures.

There is a magical thing that happens when an artist takes away something from raw material to create something new. Violin making is no different. There must be a tens thousand little cuts that go into a making violin. Continuously, the work bench needs to be swept off and the floor swept up.

If you watch YouTube videos of violin makers you will see a trait common between most of them. Breathing. Not just breathing but consciously breathing. I sometimes wonder if they even realize they are consciously breathing as a part of the work. What do I mean? Well, when cutting away material with a gouge wood will often stay on the gouge or in the way of the next cut. I don’t have time to take my hand off he gouge and wipe away the wood chips. Instead, I exhale a puff of air to blow away the chip(s), take a relaxed breath and make another cut.

It took me a while to catch on to what was going on. I saw other violin makers doing it and then realized I was doing it. Now, the act of breathing has become part of the routine when paring away wood. The rhythm is peaceful and focusing. Now, when I find myself engaged with a task and I start to feel a little strained or anxious about a task; I stand up straight, do a quick cleansing exhale (puff), re-engage the proper posture and cut away.

Fun note on wood shavings

When working on the top or back, I can easily generate enough shavings to fill a five gallon bucket. The contents are then deposited into my fire pit for later enjoyment. I think it would be cool to reuse them with epoxy and do some custom lathe work. Hit me up, I’ll ship wood shavings, too.

Why is choosing a violin varnish so hard to get right?

The question “what varnish should I use” and “what is the best to finish a stringed instrument” is impossible to answer correctly. Every maker and amateur researcher seems to have an opinion on oil varnish versus spirit varnish and what the ingredients to use. Of all the things people agree and disagree upon when it comes to violin making, violin varnish is one where they deem you a fool or a maven and there isn’t much room in between.

Keep in mind as I discuss this topic, there are people out there who think the sound of Cremona violins sound so good because of the varnish used. I don’t believe an instrument sounds great because of varnish. The construction, wood and varnish together make a violin. This idea though is pervasive and I use the knowledge to weed out the bad info from the worst. What’s left is a hodge podge of ideas, formulas, over the counter options and hair pulling commentary.

Many instrument makers are trying to find the answer to a question that has no answer. What was the old recipe in use in Cremona between 1600 and 1750. There is no one complete and authoritative written answer. Some recipes have been recorded before and around the those times but I can’t find anywhere where any consensus of violin making experts think those recipes were used. Many think the varnish guild did their thing and kept luthiers and woods craftsmen beholden to them. Many believe the old makers used magic resins. Many believe some crazy stuff. There is a information and records from the 15, 16 and 17 centuries, however finding any real discernible and undeniable truth seems elusive. No one source is “the truth” and all the sources together make the top clear as mud.

I’ve given up finding the best varnish but I come back to the subject each time I prepare to varnish a violin. I haven’t read or seen anything lately to persuade me from my current formula. What is my formula? Spirit varnish. It was used in old instruments, made with 100% natural ingredients and I don’t have to cook oil or buy it from someone. The formula I use is based on two violin makers whose work I respect. One of the violin makers uses spirit varnish exclusively and the other only uses it on lower end violins. What’s interesting the one using spirit varnish sells their violins above 5 digits and the other uses oil on their master violins which goes for 5 digits and above, too.

I choose to follow makers I trust and in the end, if you buy one of my violins you will get a spirit varnished violin. I’m not changing my formula for some time. I can make violins any variation of red, brown and yellow. Besides, would you rather have someone make their violin varnish by selecting the best quality resins, mastics and shellac; or, someone who buys it over the counter or via the internet? I’ve made my choice.

While varnish is convoluted and complex topic, what till I write about the “ground” that goes under the varnish. You guessed it; there more items and combinations you can put on wood and few agree on anything. Maybe this disagreeing is the magic of making. Only the maker gets to decide what works for them.

For you, if you are a maker, how did you settle on a violin varnish? Do you vary it?

The picture in this post was two books I reviewed last night that inspired this post. I did get some new ideas to try, but I’m a long way off before I change a good thing..

Preparing violin ribs

I finished preparing violin ribs by shaving maple wood down to 1.2 mm thick. Learning to thinning wood to a veneer thickness with hand tools was tough. I am finally feeling like I got the hang of it; I can still tell I have more room from growth. Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about the tediousness of this task and get on to playing music.

Preparing violin ribs is one of those tasks in violin making where you could make them with a drum sander or some other feeding type machine; the issue will always be with the way the wood looks when it comes out of these machines. Often, the tool marks left on the ribs creates more issues than helps. I think one could easily spend more time fixing tool marks than just doing the work by hand. I know it’s debatable, it’s just my observations.

When making ribs, my low angle block plane is my best friend. I put on an audio book, get setup and then start planning away. The wood I use is typically thicker than what you would by from a regular tonewood dealer. I use to not like starting with thicker wood. I have since changed my attitude when I realized I had more choices with larger rib stock.

I get a couple of additional choices available to me when my wood is less refined. I like that I can adjust the grain direction because my rib stock is wider; so I can change the angle/slope of my ribs. Also, I can work the outside facing portion first to get the crisp smooth edges and still have plenty of thickness in case I mess up. Which I sometimes have a little too much tear out.

My takeaway

Choosing thicker wood does have some challenges. Primarily, the surfaces of my rough stock do not show the flame as much as I like. So, when starting a violin and choosing the rib stock, I have to spend more time looking at the texture of the wood and the grain features. The extra steps definitely keeps me closer to the wood because I have to make decisions. After I choose the rib stock, it’s on to bending ribs.

Noble Strings is now on Etsy

It’s official. I now have an online shop at Etsy. As of now, you can contact me directly and procure locally with a private playing session or buy direct online. The description, costs are the same. I have free shipping on direct sales and on Etsy.

If you want to try a violin before buying via shipping and decide not to buy it, you are responsible for return shipping and its costs. For more information contact me.

Pointy Objects – Fingers Beware

Finished sharpening my chisels and gouges. Prepping for some purfling channel work.

One of the most used tool(s) on a violin makers workbench are chisels and gouges. Gouges more than chisels for me. And they all need to be razor sharp. Sharp like, whoops there goes the end of a finger. Hopefully not, but they need to be that sharp. A dull tool is more dangerous, how? I elaborate below.

Sharpening tools is a straight forward process that involves a blade, stones and lubricant. However, straight doesn’t mean easy. In my wood working practice it took me a long time to get sharpening right. The right angle, the grits, how many passes across the stones, testing and stropping all go into a sharp clean blade. I didn’t have a mentor showing me the proper what to sharpen tools. So, lots of YouTube videos later and I found a system that works for me.

Why is a sharp blade safer than a dull one? I say it’s a couple of things. Number one, you don’t have to use as much pressure to get a good result. Second, you have more control. Whenever you have to start hammering, jamming or being rough with a chisel, beware fingers. The more aggressive you have to be with a chisel, the less safe it becomes.

So, go out there and sharpen your chisels well. Be safe and keep your fingers and flesh behind the blade at all times. 🙂

Skeleton Mold

The skeleton mold is a steady and true mold for me. I got the inspiration from Andrew Carruthers. After reading and researching his methods and my propensity to do things my way, I used this mold for several models. I love it. So much easier to clean up the inside of the ribs before popping off the mold.

I started with a traditional mold in my violin making journey. Then one day, I saw in TheStrad an article and a related pdf detailing how Andrew uses a skeleton mold. I was immediately drawn to the unusual approach. It seemed so elegant and simple; yet versatile and evolved.

So, I built my first mold using old hardwood flooring from a friend. I said to him, “I’m going to use your old floor to make the foundation of my next violin.” I made my subsequent traditional violins using skeleton molds and haven’t gone back. I can’t see a reason to go back. It forces me to be more diligent when bending ribs; my linings are cleaner and have less tool marks; and popping off the mold is easier.

Now, making violins with a skeleton mold is not going to put me on a “naughty” list. Plenty of things will but this doesn’t seem to be one of them. From what I have read in forums, not many people are using or even trying this method. I’m sure factors like “I do it this way” and “why change a good thing” influence people’s choice to stay with their system. I get it, it’s just not how I like to do things.

I prefer to do things the first time by prescribed traditional means. Then I reflect on why do I have to do it this way and then make changes that fit me. The violin mold was no different. There are inner molds, outer molds and no molds (glue ribs to the back). I only asked questions about the violin mold based on those three types of construction. I didn’t even know there was a forth. I know a skeleton mold is not for everyone but for me it fits into my regime and makers’ philosophy.

Varnishing – A hanging trio in the white

A few violins in the white are ready for varnishing. Things are getting serious. I love the look of future instruments just waiting to be played.

Right now the scariest time for me in the violin making process is varnishing. It’s a mix of alchemy and experience. The first is elusive and there are more options for formulas and off the shelf solutions with no clear guidance. The second can only be obtained by someone with a particular alchemy or oneself practicing the application of the varnish.

I have tried varnishing two to three violins at once and doing each one as they are finished. I still can’t tell which I like better. The nice thing about doing one at a time is I only make small batches at time. So, little varnish is wasted and I can review my process each time I make it. Doing more than one at a time let’s me settle into the varnishing routine so I feel more in tune with the process.

I still haven’t decided which I prefer. I’ve done both and neither feel that amazing. Varnishing is tough either way. It’s the last thing one does before setup and it’s a major component in selecting a violin. I have to be aware that people “listen with their eyes” even though the violin may sound great. The violin community is driven by the old and is weary of the new. I still find it hard to believe that something new made to look old drives the market. It is what it is.

I have to be frank with violinists who are interested in my violins and violas. I don’t make instruments to look old, I make them to get old with you. So, rather than abuse and distress a new violin, I’d rather you let your kids have a stab at it and let it age naturally.