But how does it sound?

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The most important question when evaluating any fiddle is, “what does it sound like?” A pretty fiddle won’t necessarily sound as good as it looks, and many “ugly” fiddles sound incredible.

I had intended to have the fiddle finished in time for the fiddle workshop at the Toledo Wooden Boat Show, feeling that the symmetry of returning a year after I’d first touched a fiddle with a fiddle that I’d built myself would be very poetic. And then I heard a rumor that Kelly Thibodeaux wouldn’t be able to give the workshop this year and I was bummed.

It just so happens that this weekend the Lincoln County Fair is going on and I glanced over the schedule online on Tuesday morning to see if anything interesting was happening. Lo and behold, Kelly is holding a workshop. In just four days. The fiddle was not quite ready, hadn’t been strung up, the nut still needed to be shaped, etc. but I was determined to take it to the workshop. The finish is not yet what I want it to be, and there are a million tiny things that will have to be dealt with later, but it’s done enough to play.

I’m still at the stage where I can play a few simple tunes, so a sound sample from me wouldn’t show off what this fiddle can do. I was hoping that Kelly would play the fiddle for me and tell me what he thinks. He kindly obliged –

Kelly was kind enough to play a few songs for me to record for instructional purposes, too. Thank you, Kelly!

If you recall, my objective was something more than a Violin Shaped Object (VSO) with this build, and I think I reached that goal. Already this blonde fiddle has a deeper voice than the Cheap Chinese Fiddle. The action is lower and the bridge flatter, more “fiddler” style.” It’s easy to play and stays in tune. So far I am very happy with this project.

The Six Foot Fiddle

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I’m calling this first fiddle the Six Foot Fiddle because it is best viewed from that distance –

It won’t pass an up-close inspection (there are no bee stings at my purfling corners, the channel could be more graceful and the varnish is still not what I want it to be) but it looks pretty darned good for a first effort!

A purchased boxwood tailpiece with fine tuners and a Berber chinrest complete the outfit. For now the strings are Dominants, but I may change to Helicore Mediums to match the Cheap Chinese Fiddle.

The Fingerboard and Nut

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Back when I stripped the goopy finish off the fingerboard, I took off the nut provided with the kit and found it to be a pale wood with a layer goopy black crap on top. While it fit the fingerboard, it was too thin and the wood didn’t look good either. Luckily, I had never planned to use it and had bought a bone nut blank to match the saddle –

As the picture shows, the bone blank will need quite a bit of work to get it to the proper size and shape, and that can only be done with the fingerboard and nut attached to the neck –

Okay, so my clamping set-up isn’t exactly pretty, but it works and it was cheap 🙂 I’m sure there’s a special clamp you can buy for $68 that would make this particular procedure easy, but here at Chez Cheap we won’t be spending that kind of money for such a specialized tool.

Rubber bands and a few carefully placed scraps of dowel hold the nut in place while the hide glue dries.

The Soundpost

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The most fiddly and frustrating part of this fiddle build has finally been accomplished – the Sound Post is in!

I won’t say how many tries it took, but I will advise that when you attempt it, tie a string to the post first – it is frustrating, irritating and downright maddening to try, drop it, and then have to fish the thing back out.

As you can see, my post still has a string tied to it – it’s not in the perfect spot, and it’s not quite the right shape on the ends so it will have to come out again, but today it’s standing!

She’s Shiny now!

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Here she is with two coats of varnish. Quite a shine, eh? Still needs sanding and more varnish, but so far it’s looking pretty good!

I hope some of the extreme shine wears off quickly or it will be blinding in the sunlight.

The Ground, Part Two

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The second part of the Ground process is to further seal the wood and prepare the fiddle for varnish. Strobel talks at length of adjusting the color with a very light water stain, which is only necessary if the wood of the top and bottom plates differ significantly in color. The colors of my fiddle match pretty well and the sugar seal has mellowed the color to a light golden shade – perfect!

 Jessepe Goldistani’s “ground system” is comprised of four layers – Sugar Seal, Shellac, Colored Varnish and Clear Varnish. I consulted Michael Darnton’s detailed article on Varnishing that he has generously made available on the ‘net before his book is published for hints about applying shellac. It boils down to this:

Dilute the shellac with denatured alcohol at a 1:4 ratio
Brush it on in a very thin coat
Wipe off excess with a paper towel
Let dry several hours and do it again.
And again and again and again until the shellac begins to build up on the surface. The build-up will be uneven, so brush more coats onto the places where there is less shellac until the whole surface is evenly coated.
Brush on a couple more coats over the whole thing after you think it has been evenly coated, just to be sure.

Sounds easy enough, right? Actually, it was pretty easy and the results are quite pleasing. Note the high-tech tools above. I’m cheap Scotch frugal that way – a small jelly jar with a tight-fitting lid to mix and a plastic syringe to measure accurately. The brushes are cheap and proved to be just a bit too cheap – the hairs kept coming off onto the work so I found a better brush.

I also discovered that it’s very difficult to take a picture with no shine after the shellac coating. The fiddle is a little shiny, but not as much as the pictures would have you think.

The grain is nicely defined and the color is just what I was hoping for.

Front and back are a nice match for color, too.

I’m still not sure I like the way the grain reverses direction on the front halves, but there’s nothing to be done about it and anyway the fingerboard and tailpiece will hide the darker spots 😉

Now on to the varnish!

The Ground

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The Ground is a formulation that goes on the bare wood to seal it and keep subsequent layers of finish from soaking into the wood, which could dampen the sound. There is constant and considerable debate about the “proper” and “traditional” materials to use for the ground coat, the theory being that the ground and varnish could be the “secret” to why old instruments sound so much better than newer instruments. I am reluctant to delve into the mysteries of various varnish formulas and processes – it seems like a great place to get lost and procrastinate away years of one’s life while the fiddles remain “in the white.” 

At the risk of raising the ire of truly fabulous makers, I’ll share my personal beliefs* about violin finishing –

I don’t believe that a varnish finish needs to be sprayed on (or applied with other exotic techniques that may only be attempted after years of study at an accredited school for luthiers) to look good – I see wonderful varnish work at home and know the process that put it there, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy 😉

I don’t believe in “gassing” an instrument with toxic chemicals as some makers do – I don’t believe that The Masters would have entertained such ideas.

I don’t believe that a finish formula has to be complicated, made of exotic ingredients, or necessarily toxic.

I do believe that The Masters used something common and simple – the micro-analysis that some people are engaging in to try to discover the “secret” is a waste of time.** Strad is probably laughing his ass off in some other dimension.

Moving on. This is going to get long, but there will be pictures, so hang in there.

Back in March there was a discussion on the Maestronet Forum about an unconventional idea for a ground coat for violin making – sugar water. The idea was brought up by Jessupe Goldistani, a builder of unconventional fiddles (and other Top Secret projects) in California, whose work I first admired on The Fiddle Hangout. Take special notice of the “Cat Fiddle” – I love it!

I won’t re-hash the Maestronet discussion except to say that Jesse “discovered” using sugar as part of a Ground Formula while developing a non-toxic floor finishing system. Do go read the thread – all 19 pages of it – and see for yourself what kind of controversy can arise from one simple “hey, I tried this, it’s non-toxic, has held up well over several years, looks great, and it works from every angle I can see” from an established maker and you’ll understand my reluctance about making any sort of claim on this here little blog. A Google search will not yield much on sealing wood with sugar, either.***

Being an intrepid adventurer, and liking the non-toxic aspect of the sugar system, I decided to give it a go. Not having any suitable test wood lying around, the kit fiddle became my experimental canvas. At first, the results were not what I would call outstanding – here is the back after a couple coats of very thin sugar water (1/2 cup tap water (no need to get all fancy with distilled) and 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar) –

Splotchy and streaky. I did not panic. After re-reading the MN thread, more sugar was added to the water (I did not “cook” the mixture at any point, but did heat it up in the microwave to get it warm) and more coats brushed on with ample time to dry between coats and a very light sanding with 600 grit paper. It got better –

The wood became more finished looking with each coat, but still nice and blonde. The grain did not rise to any appreciable extent. The front looked rather strange, with a darkening on each side showing very clearly how the two halves have opposing grain direction, and frankly, it’s worrisome –

The grain is nicely defined and some shine is starting to build, but the front still looks weird. I was beginning to think that I’d made a mistake in trying something unconventional, but the back sure looks great –

The scroll has a lovely color, too –

I did not do any in-depth shaping/sanding of the scroll, electing to leave it rough as some of The Masters did – not that it would ever be mistaken for anything more than it is 🙂

Step One of the Ground is complete and Step Two is well under way – more in the next post.

* I am not, nor do I in any way claim to be an “expert” on anything. I am strictly a regular, run-of-the mill beginning fiddle player who has an interest in building a fiddle for my own use. I have no intention of trying to make a living as a luthier, nor do I plan to sell an instrument (although I will entertain all reasonable offers 🙂 I make no claims about the efficacy of any of the techniques, materials or procedures that are discussed on this blog. Build at your own risk! Be bold – try it for yourself!

** All opinions expressed are my own and are not meant to insult anyone. Remember – neophyte here! Your methods work for you, my methods work (or not) for me. Let’s not waste time arguing.

*** Stephen  Shepherd, another member of MN, writes at Full Chisel Blog about using sugar water to make the grain pattern pop and calls it a common historical method – he has even written a book – “Shellac, Linseed Oil & Paint” about historic wood finishes and their applications.

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