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A call from a local middle-school orchestra teacher. "One of my students broke the scroll off a viola, and I need it repaired. It's borrowed from another school!" So, here it is. Not just the scroll, but the entire pegbox. A really bad break. Financially not worth repairing. It is, at first glance, an older 15" student viola, which has put in plenty of years work. Just replace it.
"Can't do that. It's borrowed. I can't say her viola is broken."
It will cost _________.
Pause. "I don't have that much money in my budget."
So here it is. I'm trying to figure something to do, and I think I have. Not charging enough. Hoping the work also serves as pennance for some sin, past or future.
But the back --
It just amazed me. It has long been proven beyond any reasonable doubt that it is impossible to photograph varnish. Photos, even video, can not catch the reflections as you or the instrument move through the light. Even with a camera as nice as a cell-phone. But here are some photos.
A one-piece back, with great clarity and motion. It could be as simple as amber shellac and clear spirit varnish. The wood, underneath, is aging to something of a grey-green. It's a great combination.
So, even if I don't gain any pennance from it, at least this one may have a chance to make music again.
And I have a new conceptual model for varnish color.
Several years ago, I joined the top and back and inlaid a Manuel Ramirez style rosette in the top with the intention of making a small bodied classical guitar with a fairly short string length, something like a 625mm to a 635mm scale. The project got put aside, there were orders for standard, or full size classical guitars, that guitar would have to wait.
In October, I pulled out the wood so I could work on it over weekends. I planed the back, I thinned the sides and thinned entire top to 2mm. The edges got thinned to about 1.5mm. Sitka spruce is stiff stuff, I want this guitar to be responsive, and thinning the edges a little more helps be responsive.
Then came the neck. After selecting a nice piece of Spanish cedar for the neck, I had to make a decision as to the string length of the guitar. Since the top was all ready cut out for a body length of 470mm, as opposed to 480mm-495mm body length for a "standard" classical, I couldn't make it into a guitar with a 650mm. A 630mm string is a little short for most people, I chose to make with a 640mm string length. The guitar will have plenty of loudness with that length and will be just a little easier to play.
Today, I glued all the "fan" braces and the transverse braces to the top with hot hide glue. I really like hot hide glue! And I got one brace glued onto the back! I bent the sides last week, I will attach those after I attach the top to the neck.
The goal is to have this guitar ready for bindings by the end of the week!
From A Detailed Description of an Early 17th Century Italian Five-Course Guitar
Tom and Mary Anne Evans, Guitars - From Renaissance to Rock, 1977
In making the body and neck of a classical guitar, the most complicated joint used is a scarf joint. The scarf joint is used to connect the headstock to the neck shaft, some makers use a more complicated "V" joint to connect the headstock to the shaft. Miter and butt joints are used on the bindings, but this is purely for decoration, bindings are used to cover simple joints. The guitar sides usually fit into slots cut into the heel block, I like to cut a wider, angled slot and use wedges to hold the sides in the heel block.
Anyone who has made a classical guitar with the help of the book, Making Master Guitars, by Roy Courtnall, should recognize this wedged joint. In Making Master Guitars the joint is touted by the master guitar maker, Jose Romanillos, he used this joint and a variation of it until he retired from making guitars.
I began using this joint early on in my journey in guitar making, it made sense. It is a strong joint and unlike cutting a narrow slot, it allows me some wiggle room in fixing how the side fits against the heel and the wedge against the side.
Aldren A. Watson, Hand Tools, Their Ways and Workings, 1982
The only plane I owned when I started working with wood was a Stanley No.5, Type 4 plane. It wasn't tuned properly, the tote was a replacement my grandfather had made from a walnut board that never did fit the plane quite right, and because it was a Type 4 the depth adjuster knob turned the opposite direction from the later Stanley. It had most of its japanning and the sides had a wonderful patina on them that I later discovered was really rust. The iron was not original to the plane, the original iron mostly likely got worn down to nothing or was stolen from the plane while it was at a job site. I have no idea when my grandfather acquired this plane, perhaps he got it through a trade or barter for some carpentry job he did in the early part of the 20th century. I know he didn't buy it brand new, if I remember correctly, Type 4 Stanley planes were manufactured between 1874-88, my grandfather was born in 1881!
It was my smoothing plane, jointer plane and when pressed into service it was a really big block plane. I remember at the time I read in some woodworking book that No.5's were called "jack" planes because, as the author stated, you could use them for just about anything - dimensioning stock, smoothing stock and jointing edges, it was a "the jack of all trades" kind of plane. It was all that I needed, I didn't have much money back then, new tools were a luxury, I got by with what I had.
As time went on and I gained more experience in wood working, I purchased several Stanley No.4 smoothing planes because books and magazines stated those were "the planes" a woodworker should own and use. I spent quite a bit of time and effort to "tune" those planes, again, according to the information found woodworking books and magazines. Which each new plane I flatten the sole, I sharpened the edge of the chip breaker so it mated perfectly with the back of the iron, the iron was regulation shaped and sharpened and you know what? I never could get those planes to work the way I wanted them to. The iron would chatter or dig in at the wrong place, there was always something about those planes that fought me at every turn.
Whenever frustration would set in with a No.4 plane I turned to my faithful No.5. If I kept the iron of the No.5 sharp the plane always worked when I needed it to. Maybe it worked well for me because of the longer length or that it was the first plane I learned to use. The only other size plane that works well for me as a smoothing plane is a No.3 plane, we all know a No.3 is a smoothing plane.
Today, I use the No.5 to thin down classical guitar tops, backs and sides, I need to be fairly precise when doing this activity. Tops and backs need to be within the 1.8mm-2.3mm range, sides a little less than 2mm, I find that the the added weigh of the plane helps it go through the wood better, thus easier for me to control; the extra length takes care of the high spots on the wood better than a regular smoothing plane and it is much lighter and more wildly than a No.7. I have never set up a No.5 plane to be a scrub plane, I have a No.40 Stanley scrub plane for that, one of the No.5's has an iron set up for smoothing, the other No.5 has a toothing plane which is used to help dimension guitar parts.
I sold the No.4 smoothing planes and an extra No.7 jointer plane last year in an effort to downsize my tool collection. I don't miss the No.4's and I tend not to recommend them to people just getting into woodworking, I suggest it may be better for them to start with a No.3 smoothing plane and I tell them that Alan Peters thought a No.7 was the best one to use.
Once you have decided what your focus is in woodworking, be it making Federal style furniture, Welsh stick chairs or classical guitars, you will discover what tools work best for you and when you do, stick with them!
Our local Scottish Country Dance club, the Thistle & Ghillies, had our annual St. Andrews Day dinner & ball last night. Good times. And while most of the dance was done to recorded music, my wife Monica, on piano, and I on one of my fiddles, did play for the waltz at the end of the evening. We're not a big enough group to have live music all the time.
We do, though, regularly play for the Boise Contra Dance Society dances, on the second Saturdays September through May. If you're in town, come on by and dance with us.
Here's another shot of last night's St. Andrews Day dance.
What has happened to get to this point? Form selected. Blocks squared and installed. Outline traced onto the blocks. C-bout curves cut into the corner blocks. Curves cut on the neck and end blocks. Ribs thinned to proper thickness and trimmed to starting height. Bending iron fired up and curly maple bent into shape. Glued and clamped into place.
Not shown -- the top and back plates are joined (individually, that is).
I find the other ribs much easier to deal with, so basically this fiddle is moving along into its second trimester. Once the ribs and linings are in place, the outline can be traced onto the plates, and serious carving begins.
This is my Hardanger, so it will have typical Hardanger f-holes -- a new adventure for me.
Note also in the photo, just right of center at the top, the plastic handle of a cheap chisel. Even so, probably older than many of you reading this. I bought it in the 1970s, just out of high school, working as a carpenter. It is not what one would call a good chisel. I had a good friend who would chastise me, if he could, for including such a piece of sh*t in my photo here, but he can't.
And I use this cheap thing all the time. Need to slice some old, gnarly glue out of a mortise? Here you go. Works as an old-glue scraper, too. Split some wood into blocks? Whack! Won't stay sharp for a long, long time, but takes a good edge quickly and is just dandy, in this instance, for working blocks down to the point where my good gouges and scrapers can take over.
What works, works.
An old task for me, but in a new context. For the Hardanger, I'll go as I generally do with violin ribs. For the viola, about 10% thicker. So 1 mm and 1.1 mm! Not much, but a difference.
I spend most of my time in the house, where my shop is, hunched over the bench, worried about bumps or awkward curves in my carving, thinking this new batch of varnish really isn't the right color. Sometimes I'm practicing tunes, wondering if I'll ever learn how to play the fiddle.
It's nice to quit for the day, step outside, and see something that just is what it is. Knocks me down a gear or two, and that's a good thing.
Jose Oribe, The Fine Guitar, 1985
I want everyone to know that I am not receiving any money from any of the glue manufacturers that I will talk about in this post. These are the glues I use when I make a classical guitar or on other shop projects.
Here are my go-to glues.
Titebond and Titebond II are PVA glues that I use for glueing the scarf joint on a guitar neck and the heel block to the neck shaft. Titebond sets quickly, has gap filling properties and when I do my part on making a good joint, the glue line is almost invisible. Fish and hide glues tend to absorb the water present in shellac and can become dark making the glue line more pronounced.
I also use Titebond to glue the joints for the tops and backs for the same reason. I don't want the glue line to stand out.
LMI yellow glue is pretty amazing in how quickly it sets, you can mill parts glued with this within 90 minutes after clamping. It dries very hard, almost as hard as hide glue, a big consideration for string instrument makers. It is believed that hard glue joints make the transmission of energy easier and quicker, this helps that instrument sound better.
The only drawback about the LMI glue is if the glue is too cold, it becomes chalky. I have found that if I use this glue when it is below 80 degrees Fahrenheit and 50% humidity, it will leave a white residue in wood pores. That makes for more work especially when using this glue on walnut or East Indian rosewood, I spend more time washing out the glue than working on the guitar.
That said, it is great glue.
I can't say enough good things about fish glue. I usually purchase fish glue from Lee Valley which is a high quality glue that I like very much, however, the smallest bottle is 16oz. in size and it takes me almost two years to use an entire bottle. I bought this small bottle from LMI and wow! this stuff will glue your fingers together!
I use this high tack glue to glue on binding strips and sometimes, if I am not in a hurry, I use it to glue the braces onto guitar backs.
This is the stuff!
Granular hide glue is simply amazing! It has a much and sometimes more shear strength that "modern" glues and dries glass hard, again, that is better fro energy transference.
I use hide glue where it really matters in guitar making - glueing the braces onto the top and back, the linings to the sides and glueing the back onto the guitar.
Every wood worker should try hide glue at least once on a project. Just make sure you have a heat gun handy to warm up all the parts that will be glue together.
Adhesives are what you make of them, each has their advantages and disadvantages, you need to experiment to find what works best for you and your projects.
Now, turn off your computer and get out into the shop!
Glancing light is a great tool for violin making. With it, you can see how many (many, many) bumps one has on a surface, and it can even direct you towards how to remove them. As I stepped outside the other evening, near sunset, I noticed these autumn leaves on our carport floor. Note the shadows cast by these not-quite-flat leaves.
I decided to try my hand at making a Hardanger fiddle. With some online research over the years, a plan from the Guild of American Luthiers, and a photocopy of the English translation of Sverre Sandvik's "Vi byggjer hardingfele", I decided to plunge in. Since I expect I'll have enough problems with the basic mechanics, I decided to simplify some of the decorative details, such as the scroll. Instead of the traditional dragon, I wanted something like a canoe prow. To get things uniform, I followed the Lancet arc, here described in "By Hand & Eye" by Geo. R. Walker and Jim Toplin.
It's a decent book, with practical methods for creating shapes in spaces. My one quibble with the book is that the authors imply, maybe even state, they are not measuring when using a divider or a compass. While it's true they are not reading a number off a ruler or tape measure, and then not using written math to divide or multiply, a divider is a elegant and exacting way to lay out work. It is measuring, with extreme accuracy and precision -- assuming your divider or compass stays tight.
Their book is worth having.
Of course, after one day, I'm already seeing a few scraper marks in the backs that I wish I had seen before. Will see how they behave in the next day or two. May just leave well-enough alone, as they say.
Letter to Jan from Ike. All capital letters, single spaced. Paragraph breaks are mine, placed following Ike’s periods. Probably also written in 1990.
Feb, Thursday the Eight, 2/58 PM
HI Jan & Family, Recd. your great letter today and was very
glad to get it and am hoping that some week end or for that
matter come any time I’m here in place most of the time, having
no legs am somewhat handicapped, so not too hard to locate.
Now about my first fiddle, I made it out of a cigar box believe
it or not, we had a German neighbor next door who was an excellent
violinist, played classical music as well as any, he gave me
a few lessons, mostly just how to hold the fiddle, no, he called
it a violin, he was a violinist, I’m only a fiddler, I had two
brothers that was fiddlers both older and gone from home when
I started, my dad also played when he was a kid, and his dad
my granddad was I guess better than the rest of us.
I guess it must have been around 1910 or 1911 I was doing the
janitor work at the two room school house in a little town
called Leland, in Nez Pearce County Idaho, I got four dollars a
month, those days Montgomery Ward sent out their catalogs they
had fiddles advertised in them, I had saved my money until I
had seven dollars and enough more to pay the shipping charges
so I ordered one, Mother told me I should have told them and
they would have put more with it and got a better one, any way
as soon as I learned to tune it I could play after a fashion.
In the summer on a big wheat ranch I did chores and there was a
young girl that could second on Pi-ano and we had some wond-
erful times, and at the dances after I was a little bigger I
would play for the dances when the regular musicians went to
the midnight suppers, yes those days we dance all night some
times until daylight.
I worked on ranches a lot when I was a kid and we lived in a little
town and Dad always had some horses around, and after I grew up
I broke horses for a horse outfit that were sold to the army.
You ask where I went to learn my first tunes, I knew a lot of tunes
we learned to sing in school, those tunes and anything I could
whistle I could play on the fiddle, and at a dance I might learn
one or two new tunes, and I went to a lot of dances.
Ame here most of the time except when I go for a foot or leg
measurement, will be gone Monday P.M.
As ever, Ike.
Envelope is postmarked 23 Jan 1990, Boise, ID.
Return address is R.F. Crosby, 1615 ‘ Th St., Nampa, ID 83651
Addressed to Jan Beckwith, XXX W. Linden, Caldwell, ID 83605
And a second note, on green paper --
Friend Jan, I am now in the Valley Plaza Retirement Center
1615 8th St. Nampa, and I have my violin with me, why dont you an
and the kids run over and try my fiddle, no it’s a violin.
Came from Spain, I’ve had it 73 years, come try it. I cant hear
but had another man tune it and I played some, bring your
husband if he would like to come
Best regards, as ever Ike Crosby.
“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”
People who have followed my blog over the years might be aware that in 2012 my lower back decided to suddenly and loudly let me know it was not happy. This experience led to various adventures involving insurance companies, doctors, physical therapists, surgeons, my amazing wife Cynthia, and wonderful friends.
For five years I have been able to work between one-third and half the time in the shop I had previously. This meant I have made far fewer dulcimers and each dulcimer required more gaps in time between start and finish. I have found this frustrating but I also believe everything that happens is a gift, though some gifts I would not have asked for and if possible I would return or exchange them.
One of the gifts of the last 5 years has been the chance to reevaluate what is important to me and how I want to live my life.
Organization is not something that comes naturally to me. A visit to my shop will make this obvious, yet in that small space where I work everything I need is close at hand and I feel comfortable, the kind of comfortable one feels when wearing a favorite old shirt.
Before having to limit my time in the shop I was considering ways of organizing the shop and streamlining my workflow to increase productivity. This felt counterintuitive to my personality but getting out of one’s comfort zone is often a good idea. On the other hand, sometimes one’s comfort zone is just right the way it is.
I am not a production oriented luthier. Before having to slow down I had found a comfortable rhythm of work and enjoyed it. Each time I tried to do more work than felt comfortable either the work suffered for it or I suffered for it. That is not how I choose to live.
Rather than getting more work done circumstances have dictated I get less done. A positive aspect of this has been a chance to “enjoy the scenery” more while working. I have also had time to refine my dulcimer designs, improve some of my hand-tool skills, and study various lutherie traditions. As a result Spanish guitar construction techniques have greatly influenced my methods of work these past few years. Ironically, I have also found ways to streamline workflow and increase productivity!
But really, the inspiration for this blog post is yet another upcoming adventure. In the middle of November I will be having back surgery number 3, a bi-level lumbar fusion that should help ease the most annoying aspects of what I have dealt with.
I will not be able to work in the shop for several months following surgery and when I make my reentry I will be starting out slowly and gently. I’m sure the downtime during recovery will be yet another gift I would not have asked for!
I was hesitant to go public with news of the upcoming surgery at this time but found I have already had to talk about it more than planned. I have had to turn down gigs and tell people inquiring about ordering dulcimers that it will be some time before I will be able to make them.
Once completely recovered I will most likely return to work full-time or something closer to full-time again. That alone will bring a great increase in productivity. I am very much looking forward to that! I love my job.
I also hope to travel again and go to festivals, see friends in distant places, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.
My two most recent, all together. Plenty of detail work left before moving onto the varnishing, but I can now heft them to my shoulder and they feel like fiddles. That's fun.
The plates, top and back, are done to the point that they can be glued onto the ribs. So this means the ribs have to come off the forms. I have linings both top and bottom, the first step for removal is to trim these from square to tapered. All sorts of ways to do that. What you basically want is a big surface at the outside, to create a bigger gluing surface, tapered down to thin on the inside, to reduce weight and stiffness.
I take a compass and set the pencil at about half the width of the lining, in the vertical sense, and trace out a line on the linings all the way around, top and bottom. Then a sharp knife, cut a bevel from the line to the inside edge, tapering down to meet the rib. I usually make a few nicks on the form and on the ribs, but nothing so much to worry about. And it doesn’t need to be perfect right here, because I’ll clean it up later after the ribs are off the form.
Once the linings are trimmed, I use a small hammer and knock the blocks loose from the form. Then a flat chisel, I strike diagonal cuts to take out the ‘inside’ corners that will disappear anyway.
When those fragments are out, it’s a matter of carefully loosening the ribs -- may have a few accidental glue spots that you don’t want to rush loose -- and then bending the ribs outward a bit, tipping the form as you go. I start at the C-bouts and work towards the larger, lower bouts. Once the endblock is free, you’re pretty much done with the removal.
Then, trim up the blocks and clean up the linings a bit.
Next, glue on a plate or two.