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Most woodworking vices are designed to hold pieces of wood with sides that are parallel. This is a problem for instrument makers because much of the wood they work with is curved or tapered.

So guitar makers frequently use a carvers’ vice, which has adjustable jaws, to get around the difficulty.  Dan Erlewine uses one in his excellent series of videos, Trade Secrets.  And here’s one in my own workshop.
 

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But they’re big, heavy, ugly things (mine is a particularly repellent shade of green) and whenever possible I prefer the simpler solution of a moving accessory vice jaw. This is no more than a block of wood with one gently curved side that allows it to rotate to accommodate the work piece. The flat side is lined with cork and there’s a thin sheet of plywood is glued to the top to maintain it in position while the vice is tightened.

 

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I’ve written about these before (see here) so I’ll only say that they’re easy to make and that they’re very effective in gripping gently tapering (10° or less) objects.

 

The device below  is a little more complicated in having 2 jaws connected at the bottom with a flexible hinge made of leather. It was originally intended to hold the head of a violin or cello  bow while the mortise for the hair was being cut – an invention of Andrew Bellis, who is a bow-maker in Bournemouth.

The 2 jaws are slightly thicker at one end (hence the arrow on the top) which gives it a head start when it comes to accommodating a tapered shape. The flexibility of the hinge allows it to adapt to objects with complex curves. It’s easy to make, too.

 

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Here’s a similar idea but in a more elaborate form. I took the jaws off a small Record vice and substituted cork-lined wood. On one side there’s a permanent version of the moving jaw described earlier. A thin metal bar located by a 3mm rod keeps it in position. I’m hoping the photographs will make things clear.

 

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A couple of photographs of it in action. In the first it’s holding the neck of the soprano ukulele that I mentioned in a previous post. The second shows it gripping the head of a violin bow while it is being re-haired.

 

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I’m pleased with how these vice jaws turned out. And it’s certainly convenient having them immediately available to hold an awkwardly shaped work piece. However, I have to say that they’re significantly more effort to make than the simple devices described earlier. Unless you’re dealing with tapers and curves a lot, it may not be worth the time and trouble.

There’s an apocryphal story about someone sorting through the possessions of an elderly relative who had died. Among a houseful of stuff, he comes across a shoe-box labelled ‘Bits of string too short to keep’.

I sympathise with the elderly relative – at least as far as bits of wood are concerned. It’s hard to throw away even small scraps of timber, especially when they contain an attractive figure. One solution is to heat the workshop with a wood burning stove. Then the problem goes away each winter. Another possibility is to use them up making something tiny. A few years ago I wrote about making musical boxes. This week, wondering what to do with the walnut left over from the 5-string guitar that I wrote about in a previous post, I thought I’d make a soprano ukulele.

Apart from the walnut, I was able to use up other off-cuts that I hadn’t been able to bring myself to throw away: spruce for the soundboard, laburnum for the headstock veneer and the fingerboard, and a piece of plum for the bridge.

The plans for the ukulele came from Christophe Grellier, a French luthier, who generously makes them freely available on his website.

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It was said, by none other than Keith Richards himself, that his discovery of open G guitar tuning was a revelation. (See here for more.) He certainly had a lot of successes with it including Honky Tonk Woman, Brown Sugar, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, to name but a few.

Richards usually took the bottom E string off a six string guitar and then tuned the remaining strings to GDGBD. But a guitar player from New Zealand, Tim Cundy, who also plays with open G tuning, thought that he’d like to have an instrument especially designed for this tuning and asked me to make him one.

Here it is: about the size of a Martin OO, with a cutaway and 12 frets to the body. It’s made in English walnut with a Sitka spruce soundboard. The rosette is spalted beech and the headstock veneer is spalted applewood. It’s bound with pearwood and the purflings are ebony.

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Stanley made two side rebate planes, numbered 98 and 99, which were mirror images of each other, designed to cut either the left or right vertical sides of a channel or dado. I found one in a secondhand tool a long time ago, and then spent years looking for its opposite number.

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While searching, I came across other designs of side rebate planes some of which ingeniously incorporated the ability to cut on left and right sides in a single tool. They’re attractive little devices and I struggled to resist buying them.

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However, side rebate planes have two defects. The first is that the blades are hard to sharpen. It’s crucially important to maintain the exact angle of the cutting edge relative to the long axis of the blade because there’s no capacity for adjustment in the plane itself. Get it wrong and the blade cuts only the top or bottom.

The second defect is rather more serious: even sharpened and set up properly, they’re useless. I mean that literally: it’s not that these planes don’t work but that problems they could solve or jobs they could make easier never seem to crop up.

At least that’s what I thought until a couple of weeks ago when I found that a truss rod that I was installing into a guitar neck was a whisker too fat to enter the groove that I had routed. I could have got the router out again, but a side rebate plane provided a quicker and easier solution. A few passes and the truss rod was a nice snug fit.

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Of course, I’ve been writing about my own experience. Other woodworkers may find side rebate planes so handy that they like keep a pair on the back of the bench. If so, I hope they’ll comment and describe the tasks they use them for.

Pattern makers often used long gouges and chisels with a crank between the blade and the handle. This allowed them to operate the tool deep into a workpiece without the handle catching on the edge. In his Dictionary of Tools, R. A. Salaman calls them trowel-shanked, but one often hears them referred to as cranked or crank-handled too.

 

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I’ve got a couple of long in-cannel gouges which I suspect were originally straight and later modified to achieve the same end. Perhaps R. Myers (the name stamped on the handle of the gouge) needed a tool with a cranked shank in a hurry, didn’t have time to obtain one, and so decided to make the best of what he had. The steel at the bent part of the shank is dark and discoloured, which supports the idea because it would surely have been necessary to heat the shank to bend it successfully.

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Mr Myer’s talent for improvisation and economy prompted me to try something similar with a small chisel blade. I’d often thought that a small crank-handled chisel would be the perfect tool for cleaning up squeezed out glue when putting braces and harmonic bars on guitar soundboards but the only ones that I had come across were too big for what I had in mind, and too expensive as well.

I removed the handle from the chisel, wrapped the blade in a wet rag to prevent the important part of the tool losing its temper and then, after heating the shank to red heat with a propane torch, bent it up about 15°.

When it had cooled, I put the handle back on and was delighted to find that it worked just about as well as I hoped it would. The flat underside of the blade acts as a jig and prevents it digging in, and the raised handle allows it to be used in places where accessibility is restricted.

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I’ve been a fan of Roland Chadwick’s music since hearing a performance of his trio for classical guitar, Letter from LA, a few years ago. So I was delighted when he contacted me about a guitar that needed some attention.

It was a fine instrument too – a cedar top classical guitar made by an Australian guitar maker, Simon Marty, in 1988. Quite apart from being 25 years old, it had worked hard for its living and the thin cedar top had developed some nasty cracks in the widest part of the lower bout. Some of the internal braces had come unglued too, and the guitar was more or less unplayable. To make matters worse, someone had tried to repair the cracks with superglue.

This is what it looked like after I had scraped away most of the superglue.

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With a hand through the soundhole, I could feel that the cracked part of the soundboard had become detached from a long transverse bar running across the instrument under the bridge. This explained the multiple little dowels, which were a previous attempt to fix the problem. The only thing to do was cut out the damaged wood and replace it.

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I also needed to replace some missing braces and re-glue several that were beginning to come unstuck. The difficulty here was that the braces, constructed out of balsa wood and carbon fibre, were very thin and it was almost impossible to position conventional clamps accurately enough to hold them in place without distortion. In the end, I solved the problem by making a few spring-loaded miniature go-bars. Wedged between the back of the guitar and the top of the brace, they kept everything in place while the glue cured.

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After re-polishing, it was ready to perform again. All well worth the trouble because, despite its age, it’s an excellent guitar which produces a big warm sound.

 

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Here’s photograph of a viola that I’ve recently completed. It’s based on the famous ‘Conte Vitale’ by Andrea Guarneri.

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My friend Andrew Bellis, who is both a bow maker and viola player, tried it out recently.

 

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Here he plays the two bourées from Bach’s third cello suite.

 

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I often keep a photographic record of instruments while I’m building them. However, the making of this viola was rather special because it was documented in a series of drawings and paintings by the Winchester artist Gill Robinson. I’ve shown a few of her drawings below. If you’d like to see the whole series, there’s a video here.

 

10 Refining the edges

 

20 Hanging up to dry

 

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A rather good joke by artist Colin Baxter. Made out of an old beech wood block plane, drift wood and some scraps of veneer, it’s in an exhibition at Bell Fine Art, Winchester, who kindly let me take a photograph.

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A few years ago, I wrote about pochettes after learning about them from my friend Michael Lavelle, who had just made one. It was a copy of the famous Clapisson pochette made by Antonio Stradivari in 1717, with an intriguing variant – it had an owl’s face instead of a scroll. That instrument was bought by a musician from Belgium, which encouraged Mike to make another, as shown below.

 

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Mike’s second pochette is now looking for a good home. If you are interested, send me an email (info@finelystrung.com) and I’ll put you in touch with him. The price, which includes a bow and a case, is £850.

Fitting a door into a carcass that isn’t perfectly square is a common task for cabinet makers, but it’s rare that the problem is as severe as this or on such a large scale. So I take my hat off to the Venetian joiners who installed these doors in a palazzo near the Church of Sant’ Alvise in the Cannaregio sestiere of Venice.

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It’s always nice to hear from people for whom you’ve made instruments, and I was delighted when Dave Crispin got in touch recently. I made him a classical guitar five years ago, (see here for photographs) and he sent me a recording in which he uses it to play Paul McCartney’s Blackbird.

Bruce Hoadley, in his excellent book Understanding Wood, writes that, when people who are thinking about taking up woodcarving ask him which tools to buy first, he tells them to get a set of good sharpening stones. It may not be what they expected to hear, but it’s sound advice. Most woodworking tools are worthless unless they’re properly sharp.

The trouble is that, once you’ve tumbled to this basic fact, sharpening can develop into something of an obsession. Over the years I built up a collection of stones, all acquired in the hope of obtaining a better edge. Many were natural stones, often bought for almost nothing at flea markets or second hand tool shops, but hard to identify. Although some of them were capable of producing a fine edge, most proved tediously slow to cut. As many other woodworkers have done, I discovered that synthetic waterstones and monocrystalline diamond whetstones did the job better and faster.

I didn’t know what to do with my unused oilstones until I heard about Sean Hellman, a professional woodworker based in Devon, UK who’ll make you just about anything in wood from a coracle to a garden bench. Sean has a longstanding interest in these natural stones, and I was pleased to let him have the three photographed below for his growing collection.

This one is probably a Charnley Forrest stone:

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And this may be a Dalmore blue:

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The label identifies this one as a Yellow Lake:

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In exchange for the stones, Sean generously gave me one of the fan birds that he carves. It’s hard to believe, but these birds are made from a single piece of green wood.

 
 

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This is how he does it:

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Lars Hedelius-Strikkertsen is a Danish guitarist, who plays a 19th century guitar and specialises in the music of that time. Here he is playing a piece by Fernando Sor.

 

 

If you go to his website, you’ll see that he sometimes takes the trouble to dress the part when he gives concerts. Not surprisingly, in view of this attention to authentic period detail, he didn’t like the idea of using an anachronistic metal contraption as a capo d’astro and asked me to make him a cejilla.

 

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I’ve written about these devices before so I won’t repeat myself. But the commission reminded me of what delightful instruments these early romantic guitars are. Anyone interested in finding out more about them might like to take a a look at this excellent online gallery.

A few years ago, I made one of these guitars, which is now owned by the artist, Gill Robinson. The instrument that I copied was made by Louis Panormo around 1840, and it’s now in the Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments.

 

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There’s a photograph of my guitar above, and a video of Rob MacKillop playing the original instrument below.

 

Talking of Stradivari cellos (see previous post), I heard Julian Lloyd Webber play the Barjansky cello in a concert at the Theatre Royal, Winchester a couple of years ago. It was an unusual programme because apart from the music, which was wonderful, it included a question and answer session.

I asked Lloyd Webber why he didn’t sell his Strad and play one by a modern British maker. That would have two beneficial consequences, I suggested. First, it would help talented young cellists to understand that they could make good music even if they didn’t have a famous Cremonese instrument to play. Second, it would be a huge encouragement to modern violin and cello makers.

He responded to this potentially annoying question in a gracious way. He conceded that I had a point, but explained that he had been playing this particular cello for many years and that it had become so much a part of him as a musician that he couldn’t imagine being without it.

It was easy to see the force of that argument, but I didn’t want to let him off so lightly. So I followed up by asking whether, if he were to play the Barjansky and a modern cello behind a curtain, listeners would be able to tell the difference. While Lloyd Webber thought about this, the audience answered for him. ‘Oh yes,’ several people called out before he had a chance to speak.

I found this response both annoying and depressing. Annoying because it’s impossible to believe that any of the audience who seemed so certain about the superiority of the Strad had ever tested their belief in the sort of experiment that I outlined. And depressing because it reminded me of the difficulty that modern makers have in obtaining recognition of the quality of their instruments.

To challenge people’s assumptions about what makes a stringed instrument sound good, I made this trapezoidal fiddle. As you can see from the photographs, it bears little resemblance to the great instruments made in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, it’s a copy of an experimental violin invented by the french physicist Félix Savart around 1820. Heron Allen mentions it in Violin-Making: as it was and is. Rather more usefully, there’s a fairly recent book about its construction by Ronald Roberts (Making a simple Violin and Viola ISBN 0 7153 6964 4) which contains plans and a full set of measurements.

 

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Several violin players have been amused and interested enough to try it out and have been surprised by how well it sounds. I’ve been meaning to make a decent recording of it being played so that others can judge, but never quite got around to it. However, the other day I took it to my friend Tim Richards, who is a bowmaker in Market Lavington. Tim says that he hardly plays these days, but I persuaded him to try it out in his workshop. As he did so, I switched on my Edirol recorder and captured a few snippets. Beyond normalising the levels, I’ve hardly done any editing and you’ll have to put up with some background noise and a bit of conversation.

 

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Now I’m not claiming for a moment that the sound made by this Savart violin is the equal of a fine traditional instrument, although I’ve heard many ‘proper’ violins that sound far worse. Nor am I saying that violin makers are wasting their time by paying so much attention to plate thicknessing, plate tuning and arching, although the fact that a flat-topped box-fiddle produces such a violin-like sound does make one wonder whether these things are as important as generally thought. What I am suggesting is that, before offering the opinion that old is better than new or that violins made by Stradivari or Guarneri sound better than those made today, it might be a good idea to ask ourselves if there’s any evidence to justify this view or whether we’re simply repeating a hoary old myth.

Of course reliable evidence is hard to come by. This page on Wikipedia mentions some of the attempts to evaluate the sound quality of different violins, although many are flawed in their experimental design. If you’d like to try for yourself, click here to compare a brief passage from the Tchaikovsky violin concerto played on Stradivari violin with the same passage played on a modern instrument. But don’t congratulate yourself too heartily if you get it right; tossing a coin would give the correct result 50% of the time.

In a recent and much better experiment, experienced players were asked to compare several different violins, including 2 made by Stradivari, 1 by Guarneri del Gesu and 3 by modern makers. The players wore welder’s goggles and tested the instruments in a darkened room so that they couldn’t be influenced by the visual appearance of the violins that they were playing. There’s a detailed account of the methods and results in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, available here. If you don’t have the stamina to wade through a scientific paper, here’s how the investigators summarised their findings:

We asked 21 experienced violinists to compare violins by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu with high-quality new instruments. The resulting preferences were based on the violinists’ individual experiences of playing the instruments under double-blind conditions in a room with relatively dry acoustics. We found that (i) the most-preferred violin was new; (ii) the least-preferred was by Stradivari; (iii) there was scant correlation between an instrument’s age and monetary value and its perceived quality; and (iv) most players seemed unable to tell whether their most-preferred instrument was new or old.

They go on to say, “These results present a striking challenge to conventional wisdom”. I couldn’t agree more.

 

Click on thumbnails below for larger images.

Several years ago, while  trying to photograph a baroque cello that I had just completed, I hit on a way of accenting the curves of the scroll and pegbox by using a dark background and a couple of angled light sources.  I was rather pleased  with this discovery and took a series of photographs, a couple of which you can see below.

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But I was even more pleased when the cellist Steven Isserlis and the art director of Hyperion Records wanted to use one of these photographs for the cover of his recent recording of the Beethoven cello sonatas. The CD isn’t due for release until January 2014, but you can hear excepts here. I’d like to be able to add that Isserlis is playing the cello on the cover, but in fact he’s playing the Marquis de Corberon Stradivarius of 1726, on loan from the Royal Academy of Music.

 
 

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