The Next Project

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A local shipwright, Boatguy, gave us some of his offcuts to use as kindling –

It’s hard to see from this bad shot, but the pieces are about 3mm thick and 3″ wide – perfect to plane down and use for fiddle ribs. There are a couple of pieces that might be large enough for a fiddle neck. The woods are various African hardwoods of which Boatguy has a 9000 pound stash.* There are even a couple of small chunks of fir or spruce that will serve for bass bars. With the molds supplied by Brandon, and some spruce scraps** the next fiddle is ready to get underway.

* I’m not even kidding – they weighed the trailer when hauling the wood to the shop. It’s a small fraction of the wood he’s hoarding saving for Special Projects. And Some People complain about the size of my wool stash…

** It’s near impossible to get a boat builder to part with any old, tight-grained spruce larger than a cubic inch in size, but I’m still hoping for enough to make a fiddle top…

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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 🙂