The Ground – First Coat


As with the Six Foot Fiddle, the Red Fiddle will have a sugar seal as the ground coat. Why? Well, it’s non-toxic, easy to apply and makes the wood grain “pop” in a most satisfactory way. Learning from the mistakes of last time, the ground formula for this fiddle is 1/2 cup tap water, 1/3 cup light brown sugar, 2 tsp honey and two black tea bags, simmered on the stove for an hour or so.Here she is in the white (note how dark the ground mixture is – you almost can’t even see it on the dark rug) –

And here she is in process –

What a difference, eh? The black tea was added in the hope that it would darken the surface overall with a slight reddish tint. Pretty close! The sugar seal is brushed on while still warm with a foam brush. The mixture is quite thin and goes on very evenly with little effort. Here you can see how dark the mixture is –

Held up to the light it has a reddish tint, whereas the ground for the SFF was much more brown. Final results after one coat –

The picture makes the belly look streaky, but it’s really quite even with the dark grain lines popping –

I’ve elected to varnish with the fingerboard on (as some people believe the Masters did) simply because the fingerboard is very nicely fitted and is glued on very well – why make more work if you don’t have to, right? It’s easy enough to get a small brush under the FB, so it should work out just fine.

In the White

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The Red Fiddle is almost ready for varnish. Here she is all “dressed up,” sans chin rest. The button needs to be shaped and final sanding and scraping attended to, but in the main, she is done. The bridge is still too high and thick, and the nut needs some adjustment, but these are minor details to be finished at the very end of construction.

Being the curious sort, I was eager to hear what she sounds like at this early stage and I was not disappointed. The sound is very BIG, as are the vibrations from the box. The longer she is played, the more she vibrates, especially on the lower strings, which I hope means that the soundpost is in the perfect spot.

The strings are Thomastik Prazision which have a solid steel core, and I quite like them on this fiddle. The pegs have no peg compound or drops, so they are slipping out of tune as I play and I wasn’t able to compensate fast enough, but it is what it is – a Good Enough sample for the purposes of this here blog.

I plan to make recordings at each stage of the finishing – in the white, after the ground coats are on, and after final varnishing just to see how the sound develops. You read about a fiddle in the white being very “open” and “brash” but it really doesn’t mean anything until you hear it for yourself, IMHO.

Soundpost Gauge

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At this late date, the memory of putting the soundpost into the Six Foot Fiddle is a bit vague – I don’t remember it being painful, but it must have been (or I just got very lucky the first time) if setting the soundpost into the Red Fiddle is any indication!How the soundpost went into the SFF without a soundpost gauge is anyone’s guess, but I knew it would not work for the RF after about three hours spent putting it in and discovering the soundpost was too long, removing it, taking some length off, trying again, ad nauseam.

A gauge really is a necessary tool. Oh, sure, you can buy one anywhere on the ‘net, but then you have to wait for it to be shipped and waiting is not easy when all you really want to do is play the darned thing! What’s a builder to do? Make it from materials on hand, of course!

First, gather materials –

A picture for reference (here we see Strobel’s Violin Making) a metal coat hanger salvaged from the dark depths of a closet, heat shrink tubing (a drinking straw would work,) pliers, wire cutters and a flat file.

Using Common Sense and a bit of trial and error, the coat hanger is cut and bent. The ends of wire that will touch the inside of the fiddle are filed smooth and level. The heat shrink tubing is applied (not too tight!) and Bob’s yer uncle!

The finished tool ain’t elegant, but it is functional –

A coat of spray paint some day will make it look sharp and new, but for now it has been used and put away so that the important matters of fiddle building can take over once again – the playing!

Pegs Fitted on the Red Fiddle

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The Red Fiddle has fitted pegs!

Tools needed – peg shaver, metric ruler, pencil, rat tail file and tiny drill bit (I found my tiny drill for about $3.00 at the cash register display of a discount store somewhere years ago.)

I used a Good Enough home-made peg shaver to make the pegs a bit smaller – you don’t want to ream the holes larger if you don’t have to – time will take care of small holes for you wink

The pegs are rough fitted at this point and will be re-fitted after the final varnish coats are dry.

The holes are drilled fairly close to the inside knob edge of the pegbox and the pegs are a bit long at this stage – the pegs should extend 16mm from the pegbox to the bottom of the turning knob – any longer and they might not fit in the fiddle case. The plain ends will be cut off even with the pegbox and gently rounded and polished to make them pretty.

After the holes are drilled, the rat tail file is used to make a little depression over the hole on both sides to make threading the string easier and to relieve any pressure on the string at the peg where it bends.

The saddle has been glued in and all that remains is to put in the sound post, shape the nut and string her up for a little test run. I’ve had some actual paying work this week, but it’s finished now and I may have her strung up tomorrow. Video to follow…

The Red Fiddle Has a Neck!

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I’ve been dithering about this most crucial step because the button was cut quite off center –

I measured, made a template, sketched out where the mortise should be, measured again, made a new template, etc. etc. until I had to step away and give it a break. Today I finally just took a chisel to the darned thing to end the anxiety.

Cutting through the ribs on the cross grain is a bit tricky – the side cuts are made with a small saw, very carefully inside the template lines so the mortise can be made wider if needed. Cutting through the vertical-grained neck block with a sharp chisel is easier –

And that’s where I stopped taking pictures. The mortise is slowly cut deeper and the neck fit into the slot until the parts fit together perfectly with the proper projection of the fingerboard. Here it is clamped up –

Just waiting for the glue to set up and then final shaping of the neck heel and button can begin. Is it perfect? No, but it looks pretty darned good, even if I say it myself.

Closing the Box

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Finally got the box (half) closed. As with the Six Foot Fiddle, half of the box is being closed at a time to facilitate lining up the ribs, which aren’t perfectly vertical in relation to the back* and clamping/gluing half at a time is an easy way to push and prod things into shape without having to worry about getting all the way around before the glue starts to set. Also, I don’t have that many spool clamps.

First fairly weak hide glue** is brushed sparingly on both surfaces and allowed to dry. If you’re impatient to move to the next step, at least wait until the glue is no longer tacky before dry fitting.

Squeezy clamps on the two end blocks are easy to apply first to hold everything in place for adjustments. 1/4″ thick cork pieces under the jaws protect the plates. One more was needed to hold down that darned weird corner. A dry fitting is helpful – then you know where the ribs need to be pushed into place to make nice, even margins.

When everything is lined up to your satisfaction, loosen the clamps, two or three at a time (don’t let them fall off!) and dribble a bit of hot water into the gap, pushing the ribs into place if needed, and then tighten them down again. With this method there is minimal glue squeeze-out to clean up later and the only thing that might dribble down into the inside is a bit of water that will soon evaporate. Let the glue dry overnight and do the other half the next day.

I’ll repeat myself and quote Henry Strobel, “if in spite of every effort the margins don’t align absolutely, remain philosophical. Remember we are aiming for excellence, not absolutes.” The Red Fiddle is closer to “perfect” (whatever that truly is) than the SFF, at least visually. It remains to be seen how well she plays.

* Really, how could they be? This kit has been assembled and shipped to a distributor (maybe many different people) and then shipped to me with no form to support the ribs and no special care taken with wrapping (bubble wrap and plain paper were all the padding in the box) traveling through who knows how many time and climate zones. It’s a miracle it arrived in one piece if you think about it.

** Use nothing but REAL hide glue – the top may need to come off sometime in the future (maybe you will take it off yourself, who knows?) and it will be impossible if you use any other glue. These kits are assembled with something permanent so the bottom will never come off, which is a no-no in violin building.

Trimming the Linings

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The rib linings were quite thick and square, not tapered as the best instruments will be. The upper linings were easy to trim with a knife, the lower with some fairly rough sandpaper –

Nice and neat and much more consistent. The linings taper from full width where the top will be glued on to nothing at all where they blend with the ribs.

The bottom linings don’t have quite as nice a taper, but still miles better than before. The label is glued in, so now I’m committed to getting this fiddle closed up in 2011.

The Artful Dodge

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Let’s take a detailed look at the corners of the Red Fiddle kit. The SFF kit had really good, snugly fitting corners. The Red Fiddle corners are not so neatly done, which has given me some anxiety. Upper bass corner:

Not bad, but not very well fitted to the ribs. Outside mold maybe? Lower bass corner –

Lots of glue residue, even worse fit, but everything is tight, no loose wood bits.

Upper treble, the most troubling corner –

There’s quite a gap where the block should meet the ribs. The linings end behind the block, accounting for the poor fit of the block. This is what the outside of this corner looks like –

That gap extends into the inside, behind the block, showing that the fit is not good at all. More on this corner in a bit. Lower treble corner –

Better fit than the upper corner. Note the rough cut linings, top and bottom. They are quite thick and not tapered much.

I had thought to purchase some maple rib stock and construct an outside mold and rebuild the garland, but the bottom would not come off – it would appear that what I thought was hide glue is really something else that isn’t water soluble and so an Artful Dodge is in order.

After much internet research, the consensus is:

  • some really great historical fiddles don’t even have corner blocks
  • carving out existing sloppy blocks is a messy, bad idea
  • cutting the back off the garland would likely lead to more problems than it would solve
  • so long as nothing is loose, leaving things as they are is not a bad idea
  • there are easy ways to close gaps that will hold for a long time without compromising the sound. Enter a modern* glue –

I neglected to bookmark the site where this advice was found, but a reputable builder/restorer uses this technique to repair and reinforce fiddles that have no (or inadequate) corner blocks where a more detailed restoration would be cost prohibitive. The painter’s tape on the outside will keep the glue from dribbling all over. Glue is slowly squeezed into the gap behind the block on the inside and then the fiddle is left standing up until the glue is dry. This glue dries the same color as the wood, but I’ll be highlighting the rib joins with black paint, so this repair won’t show. The gap is closed, but the pictures are crap, so you’ll just have to believe…

* This particular brand and type of glue was recommended for this particular repair because it dries and stays somewhat soft, providing a bit of “cushion” to delicate corners. Hide glue, OTOH, dries bone dry and harder than the wood it holds together, which is why it’s superior to modern glues for instruments that vibrate – the hardness of the dried glue lets the instrument vibrate in harmony, while modern glues dry soft, allowing for vibrations that can be inconsistent and inharmonious.

Adding Some Color

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Before gluing the top on, the FF holes need some color. Now, the traditional way is to paint on the ground, the varnish, etc. after the fiddle is assembled and then add color to highlight whatever you want to highlight. The main problem I see with the traditional method is that it’s really easy to dribble paint/varnish down into the body of the fiddle (you’ve seen pictures, right?) through the FFs, and that is just ugly, IMHO. Painting from the underside of the top seemed like a really simple way to make a neat and accurate job of it –

A small, stiff brush did the job nicely. This is an acrylic craft paint that past use tells me won’t soak into the wood so any “overspray” can be easily and completely sanded off with no trouble. It is thick enough to stand up and not run all over the work. The color is mostly black with enough burnt umber mixed in to keep it from looking like a cheap VSO (I hope.)

The gray/brown color was so nice on the FFs that I painted the inside of the pegbox as well. The paint is still wet in the pictures, so it looks lumpy but isn’t. It’s really hard to get varnish down into the pegbox, and it really doesn’t need it, but a little color makes the pegbox recede and the scroll stand out more.

I like it! The scroll outline and corner details will be left until after the varnish is on. Corner and lining details coming up!

Finished Bass Bar

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All cleaned up, trimmed and shaped. Before on the left, After on the right. Here’s the upper end of the bass bar –

Nice fit, even if I say so myself. Here’s the lower end –

The extra glue has been sanded off and the top is ready to glue on.

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