Second Coat of Varnish

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Varnishing is proceeding on schedule with the second coat on and dry. The proof –

Nice shape, eh? I am really happy with the back, even though it has no flames. The grain is really popping!

The front –

Because it’s now so shiny, it’s hard to get good pictures of the whole fiddle. The scroll –

The finish isn’t really as textured as this picture seems to suggest, but it’s not smooth like a sprayed finish either. A few more coats will even out the color (fingers crossed) and it will all come together and as the varnish shrinks over the years, it should look better and better.

I arsed up the third coat of varnish on the belly and had to rub it off. I knew going in that it wasn’t a good day to varnish – I just wasn’t feeling it – but pushed on anyway and paid for it with an added delay. Nothing is un-fixable, but it is frustrating. Sometimes the hardest part of making/-building anything (for me) is knowing when to walk away.

First Coat of Varnish

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Weather and work schedule have finally favorably aligned and the Red Fiddle is getting some color. The varnish is color 1010R from International Violin. The bottles when full look brown, which seems logical, to protect the color, right? Nope. Turns out the bottles are clear and the varnish is the color of cough syrup –

There was a major OMG moment as the brush moved over the ribs and left behind a horrible, sick, bright and awful pink. My heart just sank, I can tell you. Never has a color been so very, very wrong for violin varnish. Holding my breath and telling myself that the folks at International Violin know what they are doing and that if I just stay the course all will be well, I hung her up on the sunny porch and walked away. It was just all wrong and I was not hopeful.

After a couple of hours alone on the porch, something miraculous had happened. Behold the first coat of varnish on the back –

Not pink! Not bad, but not really red, either. The color isn’t quite right on my monitor, a bit more orange than IRL, but it’s very nice. The front –

The spruce top is not taking the color as evenly as the back, but it’s an interesting look. No idea what’s going on, but it’s only the first coat. Still, look at the texture! I am really happy overall with how things are progressing and anticipate it getting even better.

Outlining the Scroll

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Here is the scroll of the Red Fiddle, the edges outlined with black paint –

The paint was applied with a very small brush and I found that using it sideways along the chamfer of the scroll was the easiest method for getting a clean line.

The inspiration is the scroll of Stradivari’s masterpiece, the Messiah.

Now to get some red varnish on this fiddle!

Shellac at Last!

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The color is developing nicely on the Red Fiddle, a soft, honey blond with accents on the darker grain lines. The picture shows the results of three coats of shellac applied over the sugar seal.

The belly texture is everything that I hoped it would be, grain lines slightly raised in what is called a”corduroy” finish, very unlike the sprayed factory finish seen on the usual mass-produced fiddles you can find everywhere for $100 or less. I couldn’t be happier!

This project has been having problems with contamination on the finish – hair, dust, grit, small bugs – everything you don’t want to see on the finished fiddle, and progress has been slow, which is irritating in itself. The weather has not been helpful, either, with plenty of rain and temperatures hovering just under 50*F – not ideal for curing varnish. The color will be applied soon, weather be damned! I hope I don’t live to regret those words…

The Ground – Second Coat


The first ground coat did not dry properly, and I blame the honey in the ground mixture. Should have re-read the “directions” all the way through and I would have re-discovered that the sugars used must be hard at room temperature – liquid honey will never dry. Live and learn. A gentle rub with a damp, lint-free towel removed the sticky and we were good to go.

A new batch of sugar seal was mixed up and brought to a rolling boil – 1/2 cup tap water, 1/3 cup brown sugar, two tea bags and a tsp of powdered red tea, just to see what would happen. The mixture was strained through a cloth and applied (after a cooling period) with a foam brush.

The results? Pretty good, IMHO –

The second ground coat dried very fast, within half an hour or so, much as I remembered the Six Foot Fiddle ground coats.

Both of the photos above are a bit darker than Real Life, but the shade is pretty close. Here’s a close-up of the ribs that is much closer to reality –

My camera doesn’t quite capture the shine and contrast of the grain. Overall I am very happy with the finish so far. On to the shellac!

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.

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.

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