First Commision!

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A couple of months ago a member of the Fiddlerman Forum posted to ask if anyone had built a kit fiddle. I posted the video of Kelly playing my Six Foot Fiddle and answered a few questions about the build which prompted another member of the forum to request that I build him a kit fiddle. I tried to dissuade him, pointing out that a pretty decent fiddle can be bought for not a lot of money, but he insisted he loved the sound of the SSF and wanted one just like it, but in Red. Okie-dokie! We aim to please here at the Kit Fiddle Finishing Factory, South Beach Branch (trademark pending 😉

The kit has been ordered and received (same eBay seller) and here’s a sneak peak at what was in the box:

Ebony fingerboard! It will need black stain to even out the grain and considerable hollowing on the underside – it’s heavy! The neck and scroll are nicely carved with well-fitting pegs.

I plan to add a black outline to the edges of the scroll a la the Messiah.

The grain of the maple back is nothing special, but the channel and purfling groove are very nicely cut, with bee stings at the corners and a nice rounded edge.

If the SSF is a good example, the lighter spots will varnish up into glowing specks.

The end blocks are well cut and installed, but I’m not at all happy with the state of the corner blocks and linings – they are a mess! The back appears to have been glued with hide glue (or something similar that is water soluble) so it might not be out of line to make an outside mold and build a new garland. Flamed maple sides and linings can be had for very little cash (spruce blocks are ten a penny from the boat-building scrap pile at the moment 😉 and it would be so much better. There are disadvantages to using an outside mold, but likely this fiddle kit was built using one in the first place so it won’t change the overall look.

The grain on the spruce belly is quite interesting –

Nice, tight grain, with quite a few dark stripes. I like it! There are some cosmetic dings and some glue residue that will need to be removed.

The FFs are nicely cut and the channel and bee stings are similar as those on the back. The channel is not as neatly cut, with some rough wood around the edges of the groove that will get a post of their own.

Overall the quality is better than the SSF kit. The plates are thin and carved symmetrically, as far as can be told without putting a caliper on them. More details to come!

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The Kit Fiddle Back

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The fiddle kit arrived with the ribs constructed and glued to the back –

The dark pencil marks outline the (machine?) graduation limits. As you can see, the graduation does not line up with the bottom of the ribs and is asymmetrical, both top to bottom and left to right at the edges.

 

The wood grain of the corner blocks runs in several directions, which I hope won’t be an issue.

 

The linings were obviously installed after the corner blocks were trimmed, projecting over the blocks but meeting (with a slight gap) the top and bottom blocks. Strobel recommends installing the linings before the blocks are cut to shape. There are a few gaps between linings and ribs, but the whole structure is pretty rigid. I’ve read that loose linings can cause a buzzing, but will wait until it’s all assembled and strung up to worry about it.

The glue used to join back and ribs is NOT hide glue, as a simple water test determined. It’s hard, semi-clear and does not come off easily. Sigh. More sanding…

Top and bottom blocks are shaped and the end-pin hole has been drilled and reamed and the end-pin fitted.

The inside surface is smooth, with little sanding to do, but the asymmetry of the graduation will have to be addressed before the top is glued on. Thankfully the thickness is nice and even.

Why a little bit of knowledge leads to a slippery slope

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Today let’s look at the top plate of the fiddle kit a little more closely –

The outside shows the grain – 16 rings at the center and 8 at the outer edges with a joint in the center, showing that this top plate was book-matched. The joint is all but invisible and the look is very balanced and pleasing. The surface is smooth, but not completely finished with a small pencil mark to show the future location of the bridge.

Here’s the underside –

There are some tool marks as well as scratches in a circular pattern showing where it was perhaps power sanded? Around the right side extending out to the edges of the plate are some very rough patches that will have to be planed out to form a good glue bond. The thickness at the edges of the plate is pretty uniform and measures 4mm – 5mm. The location of the bass bar has been marked as well as the general outline where the top will join the ribs. Total weight of the top plate is 83 grams.

A closer look at the F-holes and purfling grooves shows that both are well formed and overall the look is symmetrical and pleasing. The pointed corners of the purfling grooves are finished nice and sharp.

All in all, not bad, eh? Here’s where a bit of research can make a person crazy:

A cursory glance through Henry Strobel’s Useful Measurements for Violin Makers reveals that all is not as “finished” as it could be on this fiddle top.

The top should be 2.5mm thick at the upper edge, 3.0mm at the F-holes, and 2.6mm elsewhere. Clearly there’s some wood to be taken off here!

The F-holes should be 41mm apart at the upper eye (they are,) 75mm apart where the bridge will be placed (they are 70mm apart) and have an overall length of 78mm (they are 70mm long.) So it appears that the F-holes are smaller and closer together than Strobel recommends, but he does say that “for lighter, more flexible wood it may be advisable to leave the plates and ribs 10% or so thicker than shown [in the table on page 41.]”

Since I can’t change the overall dimensions or they won’t match the bottom/rib assembly, I’ll stop the insane comparisons there. I have no way of calculating the plate graduation at this time, but it’s clear that I need to get my hands on a caliper and see just where the scraping/planing will do the most good as I take off some of the thickness. Tapping it does produce a pleasing sound, though.

Placing the top plate on a glass table shows that it has a very slight warp and won’t sit flat. A bit of pressure applied to the center of the plate easily pushes it down flat, but this is worrisome – don’t want the fiddle to tear itself apart! Robert’s considered opinion is that it will likely be just fine, but I’m inclined to rush headlong down the slippery slope into Full On Crazy and graduate the plate according to Strobel’s diagrams in an attempt to achieve something more than a VSO (Violin Shaped Object.)

I never could think small…

Unconventional Fiddles Part One – The Kit Fiddle

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Ask the “experts” on any online forum what they think about fiddle kits or fiddles that don’t look like the “traditional” violin and the replies are universally discouraging. The general consensus is that if you’re going to build a violin you should enroll in a luthier school, spend thousands of dollars on tools and materials and a couple of years learning the techniques. Quality can only come with time – don’t expect your first fiddle to sound good. Or even your fifth. Expect to fall deeply into the mysteries of varnish formulas, the intricacies of hide glue and boxwood versus ebony debates.

Now, I’m all for immersion in a new hobby to whatever level your abilities and funding will allow, and it seems extreme (and counter-productive when speaking of those arts that are fast disappearing) to tell people who are interested in pursuing an interest that they can not possibly be successful unless they give up the rest of their life to study one thing.

I’m a knitter and hand spinner and I encourage everyone who has even a slight interest to give it a go. I am a bit of a yarn snob myself, but if you want to knit with Red Heart, knock yourself out! If you want to knit with cashmere and can afford the luxury, by all means do it. I think it’s more important that the old skills are being practiced and passed on than that the results are up to my standards (whatever they may be at the moment.)

Which brings me to the subject of unconventional builds. Such a vast subject will require several posts, so please bear with me.

First let’s talk about kit fiddles and why they aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

 

There are, IMHO, many reasons to purchase a fiddle kit. The most complete kit type is a fiddle “in the white,” fully assembled and ready to varnish. International Violin Company has them in various price ranges from this cheap Chinese model all the way up to this model made in Europe. Ebay is another place to find assembled “white” violins. This is a good option if you want to put your own finish on an instrument but don’t want to (or can’t for whatever reason) build it yourself. I would think it’s a viable option for artists especially – the possibilities for decoration are endless!

The next option for fiddle kits are those that are partially assembled, which is the option I chose for my first fiddle. This type of kit has the plates and neck carved, peg holes drilled and pegs and endpiece fitted, fingerboard attached and back glued to the ribs, eliminating what are arguably the most difficult parts of the building process. These fiddle kits come in various states of completion with differing accessories, which is reflected in the price. Both the International Violin Company’s Chinese model and the Stew-Mac Fiddle Kit come with everything you need to finish the fiddle but the tools, which they are happy to sell to you as well. Cheaper (and less complete) versions can be found on the ‘net and on eBay. My view on this type of kit is to go as cheap as you can find because (unless they say otherwise) they are all mass made in China and will be of similar quality. You can pay extra for kits with fancier woods or accept that your kit will likely be rather plain. I opted for plain because I have a specific look in mind and fancy wood will detract from the picture in my mind.

Minimal tools will be required to finish off a partially assembled kit and I think it’s a good option if you really want to learn some of the mechanics of building without a huge investment in specialized tools. Most of these kits are a bit rough and if you let yourself fall too deeply into violin theory and tradition you might find yourself making substantial changes to “improve” your kit. Remember that these kits (by all accounts) are simply a gateway drug to true violin building 🙂

Picture from Grandpa’s Workshop

The next step in violin kits is to buy the tonewood and carve the parts yourself. The wood is generally offered by established instrument makers who know the qualities of each species and can assemble raw parts that will make a pretty fiddle that sounds good, too. Simeon Chambers is a well known tonewood supplier, as is Robert Gee. A quick Google search will turn up many, many wood suppliers, including AdirondackSpruce.com which has many grades of wood at pretty spendy prices. You can order the scroll already carved, or simply blocks of well seasoned wood to carve completely yourself.

The beauty of this type of kit is that the most important decision has been made for you – the selection of good wood. At that point you have the best raw ingredients to produce a quality instrument. An investment in tools will be necessary unless you already have a selection of chisels, clamps, scrapers, etc. You can go as expensive as you want with tools, I’ve found – there are endless options and prices on the ‘net. I have plans for my second violin to be carved from scratch and will post more on that when the time comes.

Why not try a kit? They are cheaper than many assembled fiddle outfits and they satisfy the desire of a certain type of human who likes to know how things work and to try their hand at anything that is of interest, even if it never becomes a lifetime career. I will never be a concert violinist, so I feel no need to have an expensive instrument. I do like to work with wood and build things myself and the satisfaction of playing a fiddle that I’ve built myself will more than compensate if it doesn’t end up sounding like a Strad 🙂

The Fiddle Kit has Arrived!

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Okay, it actually arrived last month, but I haven’t had the time or inclination to do much about it until now.

I knew it wouldn’t be as complete as the Stewart MacDonald fiddle kit, but it also cost less than 1/3 as much! Downloading the “instructions” from Stew-Mac gave me an idea of what to expect from this kit. I’ll get into the issues that many most all luthiers seem to have with partially assembled kits in another post. Sigh. It’s a slippery slope.

So, what was in the box?

Front and back plates (back plate mounted to ribs with reinforcing trim already done) carved neck with fingerboard, black pegs, soundpost, bass bar, purfling and endpin –

Judging by this Flickr photostream, which shows a Stew-Mac kit right out of the box, my kit is of much higher quality, although the Stew-Mac kit does come with more pieces (which many online sources say are not good parts.)

The scroll is nicely carved with not much finish sanding to do, but the fingerboard is coated with some black gook that will have to be scraped off. The purfling grooves are nicely inlaid with the corners complete which should save a lot of time and the purchase of a dog-leg chisel. The wood on both front and back is not fancy, but I didn’t want it to be, so that’s just fine. The endpiece is plastic which is disappointing, but I ordered a set boxwood fittings as I want this fiddle to be very pale when finished –

The fittings will need to be sanded to get rid of whatever finish is there, but I expected that to be the case.

From the same eBay seller that I bought the kit from I also purchased a soundpost setter (which came with a couple of nice soundpost blanks) a fancy bridge with ebony inlay at the E string, a chinrest tool, nylon gut replacements and a bag of hide glue. Might as well go all the way with the Crazy, eh?

I won’t likely get to this project before the first of the year and will document what happens with each part as I go, so stay tuned!