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!

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Making Spool Clamps

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One essential set of tools for violin making is 20-30 spool clamps to attach the top and bottom plates to the rib assembly. Their shape and small size allow them to conform to the round edges of the fiddle without damaging the arching.

These simple tools are not cheap to buy, but they are so simple to make that a builder really has no excuse not to give it a try. There are quite a few tutorials on the web, and if you have a full shop you can get as elaborate as you like. I don’t have a full shop, nor do I have the desire to spend a couple of days cutting, drilling and fussing with various materials to end up with usable clamps. What’s a gal to do?

Another of my “hobbies” is spinning wool into yarn and I sometimes teach classes where I use a simple toy wheel spindle to demonstrate the basics, which necessitates keeping a small supply of toy wheels on hand. Eureka!

These wheels are 1 1/4″ in diameter and have rounded edges (which seems to me like a good idea as they would be less prone to cracking than the flat-sided dowels that many makers use) and can be ordered here in quantity. The 1/4″ x 4″ bolts and wing nuts came from my local hardware store and the sheet of cork is from another project.

The most tedious part was cutting out the little circles of cork and waiting while the glue (just plain white glue in this case) dried so I could drill the holes just a tad larger to allow the wheels to slide freely on the bolts.

String them onto the bolts in pairs, add a wingnut and you’re ready to go! Total cost of each clamp is less than $1.00 – no delays and no postage costs.

I tried some larger wood disks and found that the smaller clamps worked best for gluing the top to the ribs. With the larger disks, the clamps had to be farther apart, leaving gaps where the plate wasn’t totally connecting to the ribs.

These little clamps will prove useful for other projects too, I’m sure.

Graduating the Plates

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Time to get moving on this project already! A couple of pieces of 150 grit sandpaper taped to the work table* removed the rough spots on the back of the top –

Careful pressure to be sure the surface was sanded evenly and Bob’s yer uncle – a beautiful smooth surface for gluing to the blocks and ribs. There’s really no question of sanding further to thin the edges of the plate – the back is pretty thick around the edges and the fiddle will be prettier if the plates match, so thick edges it will have.

Next I spent some time with a sheet of carbon paper** and the thicknessing gauge to determine where the inside of the belly needs some work –

There are about a million different versions of graduation patterns to peruse on the web, and they all differ, which each maker having a valid argument for their particular pattern and thickness zones. You can lose yourself in scientific research, tap tuning, vibrating plates and findings from museum instruments. How does a new builder decide what authority to go with?

In the end I decided to use Ossman’s basic graduation pattern as a rough guide for thickness zones, but I’ll be striving for an even, symmetrical graduation, not as thin as many believe is optimal because the spruce top has a pretty widely spaced grain, which should enable good vibration even if it’s a bit thicker than “optimal.”

At this point, the inside is fairly smooth, with a few tool marks, but is in no way symmetrically carved. There’s a thin spot*** on the lower belly on one side that will have to be balanced with an equally thin spot on the other side. The difference between the sides is quite dramatic in places – nothing like symmetrically carved and it will be a grand experiment to see if I can do better. Stay tuned…

Helper dogs watch attentively –

* The table was formerly used for drafting, so I’m reasonably sure it’s flat. Sanding on the glass-topped kitchen table didn’t seem like a good idea…

** Who uses carbon paper these days? Pretty much no one, judging by how hard it was to find. I had to buy 100 sheets at Staples, which is a supply that should last me about 17 lifetimes at this rate of use.

*** 2.75mm thick – we’re talking about fractions of a millimeter and a human caliper that is quite fallible, even on her best day 😉

Scrapers

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Visit any violin making forum on the ‘net and you can find an endless debate on the subject of scrapers: what they should be made of, what shape is best, whether or not to bevel the cutting edge, and on and on. The beginner is overwhelmed by popular and expert opinion.

You can buy sets of “violin” scrapers ready made if you have more money than time. Or you can make your own out of various materials ranging from old saw blades to planer blades to broken sword blades if you want to be really “authentic” with your methods. Not having ready access to a grinder or other tools for shaping metal, I was in a quandary as to what method would work best for this cheap scotch frugal project.

After perusing many online forums and websites, I hit upon the perfect solution –

I wish I’d saved the link to the discussion about using shim stock for scrapers, but it’s lost. This stuff is ideal for many reasons: it’s thin enough to be cut with tin snips, it’s cheap, it’s easy to shape and sharpen, and it’s flexible enough to bend and shape to any curve while in use. I bought two sheets 6″ x 24″ here for less than the cost of one set of commercial scrapers and I don’t anticipate ever having to buy more in my lifetime 🙂

The next question is what shape works best for violin scrapers? The picture below shows Stradivari’s scrapers in a museum in Cremona as photographed by Kevin Lee

Discussion on various boards led to the conclusion that the longest scraper is about 5″ long and 1 1/2″ wide. A Google search for “Stradivari’s Scrapers” led me to a blog about tools and their uses and this picture –

Seemed simple enough in theory and it was quite simple in fact, too. So far I’ve only needed two – cut with tin snips into rough shape –

File the edges round and smooth, and they’re ready to go. I didn’t fall into the endless debate about whether or not to burnish the edges and/or whether or not to shape the cutting edge into a 15/30/45 degree angle. A flat edge seems to be working just fine for me without analyzing the process too closely.

What do you use for scrapers for fine work like fiddle tops?

ETA – Here’s a discussion over at The Violin Forum about scrapers and what some builders make them out of.

An Unexpected Gift

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Today Brandon came over to the house to “play boats” and he came bearing gifts –

Not one, but two violin molds and a copy of Bruce Ossman’s “Violin Making a Guide for the Amateur.” He found the molds at a yard sale (!!!) being sold by the son (?) of a local luthier. Why don’t I ever stumble upon such great sales?

Quick comparisons confirm that both molds are sized to build a 4/4 violin and neither of them matches the pattern from either Strobel’s or Ossman’s books. The mold on the left has fuller curves on the lower end, and the mold on the right is a bit straighter at the upper curves. There are no marks on the pieces to hint at what maker they imitate so the finished product will be a total surprise.

Both molds appear to have been used many times and have some rough edges that will have to be dealt with before they are put into service again, but I expect these molds to form Fiddle #2 and Fiddle #3.

It turns out that Brandon plays the cello and his wife, Virginia, has played violin since the age of 10. Being a woodworker, Brandon thought he might be interested in building a violin but has since changed his mind – lucky me!

Thanks, Brandon!

Rosin*

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Rosin. Such a simple little thing, pretty cakes in various shades, shiny when new, dull in texture as they are used. Rosin up your bow and let’s play!

The choices seem to be endless, with each brand and type having its devoted followers. I think rosin is a bit like fancy knitting tools – they don’t cost very much and each one seems fresh and new so we tend to indulge even when we don’t really need anything new.

So, here’s what I’ve learned about rosin, just scraping the tip of the iceberg:

Starting from the far left – anonymous rosin that was in the case with my cheap Chinese fiddle. Most everyone I’ve talked to says to just toss it as it’s total crap, but I found a use for it – a brand new bow that has never had rosin on the hair is very smooth and difficult to put rosin onto. These cheapo rosins are quite dusty and brittle, falling apart easily and consequently putting just enough rosin onto the bow hairs that running the bow over a better cake of rosin will work much more smoothly. Waste not, want not 🙂

Next is a dark rosin from Kaplan called Art Craft Dark No. 7 that I like very much. Some people recommend using a darker rosin when the humidity is high. Or is that when the humidity is low? Depends on who you ask, so I thought it worth a trial.

Next up is a green rosin called Jade made by L’Opera in France that is gorgeous to look at, but the jury is still out on how well it works with my fiddle.

Last in my personal rosin arsenal is a light rosin called Hidersine which is made in England. I use this rosin more than any of the others as it seems to work well here on the Oregon Coast where the humidity is quite high all year ’round. It gives me the most consistent sound with the fewest squeaks and squawks.

You wouldn’t think that such a simple thing would matter so much, but the rosin changes how the violin sounds to a great degree. Different strings like different rosins, too, so it’s an experiment to figure out what rosin works best for a particular fiddle.

So many things to learn, so little time…

Want to make your own?

* Bear in mind that yours truly is a beginner, experimenting to find the tools that work best for me. Your mileage may vary…

Notation Composer*

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My search for music that I can play as a beginner has led to some very interesting places. Once again The Fiddle Hangout proved a valuable resource.

After watching the Snowden’s Jig video over and over and over and trying to find the notes on the fiddle I was frustrated to say the least. It just goes by so fast! If only I could slow it down a bit. Or a lot 🙂

Enter the thread above which points out the advantages of a program called Notation Composer. Downloading the free trial convinced me that I really needed to pay for this wonderful bit of code.

I “wrote” Snowden’s Jig into the program, which took about 30 minutes as I didn’t bother to read the directions, and then hit “play.” The program allows you to play the song at any speed, even really-really-really slow so a total newbie can play along. It highlights each note as it plays so you know exactly where you are in the song. You can set repeats, loops, anything you can think of.

It gets even better, though. You can import any midi file into the program and it will convert it to sheet music that you can then save, print, etc. Very handy! If there is more than one instrument in the midi file, each part will be written out in a “conductor’s score” so you can see how each part relates to the others. Slick! Many, many, many, many sites on the ‘net have midi files for you to listen to or download of archived music that is in the public domain.

The program allows you to write your own music as well and play it back in single parts or with many instruments, or whatever.

The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

* No Affiliation, Yadda Yadda (NAYY) which means I was not paid for this review nor did I receive anything in compensation – I just really, really like the program and think it will be an invaluable tool as I progress with my fiddle studies.