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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:

http://seanhellman.com/woodwork/fan_birds.php

 
 

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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The British Violin Making Association held its annual Maker’s day on 3rd March in the Old Sessions House in Clerkenwell, London.

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It was noisy, crowded and hugely enjoyable. I only managed to take a few photographs, but I hope they’ll give a flavour of the day.

 

Andreas Pahler (in the maroon apron), who founded Alpentonholz, brought some fine tonewood to sell.

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More than 40 makers of violins, violas, cellos, viols and bows were showing their work.

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Christopher Jones, who plays in the Gildas Quartet, tries out a violin – one of mine, as it happens.

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Stephen Thompson displayed four beautiful violin and cello bows.

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Emma Alter, violist and bowmaker, plays a pochette made by Mike Lavelle, with one of her own baroque bows.

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Click on a thumbnail for larger views.

A couple of years ago, Mark Bennett, who is a furniture maker in Malton, Yorkshire, with a genius for discovering beautiful and unusual wood, gave me this remarkable piece of willow. I knew that willow sometimes exhibits an attractive figure because I’d seen it in the backs of baroque cellos, which are sometimes made in that wood, but I’d never encountered anything quite as striking as this.

 

 

I wondered for a long time about how best to use it, toying with the idea that it might work as a guitar headstock. But willow is light and soft and I doubted that it would be strong enough. In the end, it seemed safer, if less imaginative, to use it to make a box.

 

 

It’s a simple rectangular design (10½ x 5¼ x 3½ inches) with a single tray in sycamore. The lid is a piece of wildly figured ash, hinged on brass pintles. It’s finished in clear French polish.

 

 
 

Larger photographs available by clicking on the thumbnails.

On a grey day earlier this week, I took some photographs of a recently completed steel string guitar just before handing it over to its new owner.

It’s based on a Martin OO model using plans drawn by the French guitar maker, Christophe Grellier.

 

 

I’d made a cutaway version of this guitar a couple of years ago (photographs here) but, this time, I modified the design to have the neck meet the body at the 12th rather than the 14th fret. This means moving the bridge about 30mm down the soundboard and narrowing the angle between the two arms of the X brace slightly.

 

 

The back and ribs of the guitar are made of English walnut and it has a Sitka spruce soundboard. The bindings, bridge and heel-cap are Rio rosewood and the rosette is spalted beech.

 

 

Click on any of the thumbnails below for a larger image.

Players of stringed instruments, particularly fretted stringed instruments, have been using capos to raise pitch and change key for a very long time. Some early English guittars, like one below, made in London in 1760¹, actually had holes drilled through the fingerboard and neck to allow a capo to be held in place with a screw and wing-nut.

 

 

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with another type of capo with a long history – the cejilla. Nowadays, they’re mainly used by flamenco guitarists, but a friend, who plays a copy of a nineteenth century guitar, thought that it would be nicer to have a capo that was plausibly of the same period as her instrument instead of a modern metal anachronism.

My first attempt to make one worked well enough as far as stopping the strings was concerned. But it looked clumsy because the peg head was too large. Worse, at least from the player’s point of view, the sharp corners were uncomfortable for the left hand.

 

 

So for the second one, I substituted a smaller peg from a half-size violin and softened the edges of the cejilla with a tapering chamfer. It looks better, I think, and I hope it will be more comfortable to use.

 

 

Cejillas aren’t difficult to make as long as you have a peg shaver and a matching tapered reamer available, and a bit of practice in persuading tuning pegs to turn smoothly in a tapered hole. This is everyday stuff for violin makers but guitar makers who fit worm and wheel tuning machines may not have the necessary kit. Mind you, since a pencil and an elastic band will do much the same thing, they may think cejillas are too much fuss anyway.

 

 

Anybody interested in the history of capos and the diverse and ingenious mechanisms that have been invented to provide what’s really just a moveable nut will enjoy the online Capo museum which has a wonderful collection (237 different designs).

 

As usual, click on the thumbnails for a more detailed view.

 

Footnotes

1. The early English guittar is in the collection of historic musical instruments at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

A couple of years ago, Wouter Hilhorst, an architect and luthier from Rotterdam, showed me some violin-making planes that he had carved from oak and boxwood. There are a few photographs of them here. Some of these planes were in the Japanese tradition, others miniature versions of western planes, but all had been made from a single block of wood.

I had made several small planes for instrument-making too, but I’d always used the Krenov sandwich technique, which I’ve written about at length before. (See here and here. A few days ago, I tried Wouter’s method using a small block of lignum vitae, which I reckoned would have the right properties of hardness and self-lubrication.

This is what I managed to come up with. The coin, £1 sterling, 22.5mm (≈7/8 inches) in diameter, is there to give an idea of scale; the long shavings prove that plane actually works.

The blade is a Japanese blade from Dictum, a generous gift from Wouter, and the wedge was fashioned out of a scrap of Rio rosewood.

This photograph of it with a No 4 smoother gives a sense of its diminutive size.

 
 

Click on a thumbnail to see larger images

The crypt is the oldest part of Winchester cathedral, dating from the 11th century. In a pleasing contrast, it contains something entirely modern – a mysterious life-size statue of a man standing upright, looking down at a pool of water held in his cupped hands and contemplating the reflections he sees there. The sculptor, Antony Gormley, created it from a plaster cast of his own body. After the cast had hardened, it was strengthened with glass fibre and covered in sheet lead. He talks about the technique here.

I’m grateful to Winchester-based photographer Joe Low (www.joelow.com), for letting me use the image below. He took this spectacular photograph of the statue in the winter when the crypt was flooded.

 

 

My friend Gill Robinson, a professional artist (and enthusiastic amateur guitarist) who also lives and works in Winchester, incorporated a witty allusion to Gormley’s statue when she designed a guitar label for me at the end of last year.

 

 

And for clients who might prefer something more traditional, she produced a scraperboard drawing of the west front of the cathedral.

 

 

Here’s one of Gill’s luminous landscapes – a watercolour of Welsh mountains. More of her work, including portraits of guitarists Mark Eden and Christopher Stell can be seen here.

 

Although many people prefer guitars made of dark coloured wood, lighter colours can make good looking instruments too. The back and ribs of this one are in satinwood (Chloroxylon swietenia), a dense hardwood from Sri Lanka rarely available nowadays but which in Georgian times was widely used as a veneer in furniture making. It’s hard, brittle and difficult to work with hand tools but it bends fairly easily and, because it doesn’t contain large pores, finishes well with French polish. As its name suggests, satinwood is strongly reflective and when polished takes on a shimmering, almost iridescent, quality (sometimes called chatoyance) that’s impossible to capture in a photograph.

The rosette and bridge decoration are burr ash and the bindings are Rio rosewood. The soundboard is European spruce.

As usual, click on the thumbnails for a larger view.

My son, who is an engineer working on the design of big diesel engines, tells me that it’s all too easy, especially with CAD software, to draw what seems a brilliant plan – only to meet derision when someone realises that it can’t be manufactured. You can imagine the sort of thing he means: a nut where there isn’t enough space to get a spanner in to tighten it; or the need for a long bolt in a place with insufficient clearance to get it into the hole.

As someone who works with wood, I enjoy teasing him with the complete opposite: something that self-evidently has been manufactured but that looks impossible. One example is the captive screw here. But that’s a bit of a cheat because it depends on exploiting the remarkable elastic properties of some woods when treated with heat and moisture. Better are the apparently impossible double and triple dovetails that I wrote about a year or so ago.

Here’s something in the same vein that can be sculpted out of wood with nothing more than a sharp chisel. Or, should you have one handy, a 5-axis CNC milling machine will do the job almost as well – see here.

For larger images, click on the thumbnails.

I had intended my previous post to be the last on the V joint. But, as I’ve just completed a guitar using the one that I made for the photographs, the series can end in a rather more satisfactory way by showing how it turned out on an actual instrument.

 

 
Here’s a close-up to show any sceptics that the small extra piece of wood glued on to the male part of the V really is invisible in the finished joint – scroll down to the last couple of photographs in this post if you can’t remember what I’m talking about.

 

Before gluing up the joint, it’s worth taking some trouble to make sure that the two parts fit perfectly. I put the neck in a vise and hold the headstock in place while checking for gaps with a 0.05mm feeler gauge. A bright light behind the joint also helps to reveal places where the fit is defective.

Here I’ve discovered that the sides of the V are a bit loose…

…while the shoulders are tight.

A couple of fine shavings taken off the shoulders of the headstock using a shooting board…

…improves the fit. As a final check, I rub chalk over the male part of the V joint, locate the female part in position and press the joint together hard.

Where the fit is perfect, chalk will be transferred evenly. High spots, on the other hand, show up as a blotch of chalk surrounded by unchalked wood. Here it looks as if there’s a high point on one side near the mouth of the V.

A small file takes off the bump…

…and a second chalk fitting shows that the joint fits pretty well all over, except for a small low spot on one side at the apex of the V. I decide that I can live with that.

The next step is to dust off the chalk, size all mating surfaces of the joint with hot dilute hide glue and leave them to dry.

This is the clamping arrangement that I use. It’s important that the compression force runs through the centre line of the headstock and bears directly on the shoulders of the joint. Chiselling off the front of the V where it projects through the headstock allows the bar of the clamp to sit close to the surface of the headstock.

Once I’m happy that I can get the clamp into exactly the right position, I un-clamp, brush medium strength hide glue onto all joint surfaces, re-clamp it and leave it undisturbed for a couple of hours.

Here it is after taking the clamp off. The shadow below the right hand shoulder of the joint indicates that the headstock is slightly twisted relative to the neck. I suspected that this would happen while I was making the final adjustments but decided that the inaccuracy would be small enough to plane it out after the joint was glued up.

And I’m pleased to say that it was.

The back of the joint looks a bit weird until the extra block is shaved off.

But these two necks show that it comes out all right in the end. Even with a magnifying glass it’s scarcely possible to see that extra wood has been added and after the final shaping it will be quite invisible.

That’s the last of the series of posts on making a V joint. Thanks to anyone who has followed the story this far. Before finishing, I ought to add that there are many variations in the way this joint can be cut. Some makers, for example, prefer to use a template for marking out rather than a ruler and dividers. Please add a comment if you know how to do it quicker or better.

Click on the thumbnails below for larger pictures.

Moving on from my previous post about marking out a V joint, it’s time to cut and trim it to shape.

First, I saw out the V in the headstock, keeping close to the lines but being careful not to saw past them. I try to be brave in sawing up to the line at the narrow end of the V because that’s the hardest part to clean up later.

Next, I stop to put a fresh edge on the chisel that I’m going to use. When it will slice through tissue paper, I reckon that it’s sharp enough.

I clean up the V, paring from both sides towards the middle. Final cuts are carried out with the chisel resting in the knife line that marked out the joint. A small square is useful to check that the sides of the V are flat. The most difficult part of the joint is the apex of the V but a slicing cut with the corner of the chisel will remove the last bit of waste.

Here’s the female part of the V joint in the headstock finished. It shouldn’t be necessary to touch it again.

Now I cut the male part of the joint on the neck, starting with the angled shoulders. I chisel out a ramp for the saw in the usual way…

… and then saw down to the V, keeping clear of the lines.

I mark the starting point of the cuts for the sides of the V on the endgrain…

… place the neck in a vise, tilting it so that the cut will be vertical, and …

saw off the sides of the V with a tenon saw.

I mark and keep the pieces that I’ve just sawn off. They’ll be useful later.

Now I clean up the V and its shoulders with a chisel, paring in from both sides as I did for the headstock.

Here it is almost finished.

The neck and headstock are now tested for fit. Below is the view from the fingerboard side of the neck.

And here’s the view from the back of the neck.

As you can see, there’s a problem at the apex of the V, where a shadow shows that the neck isn’t quite deep enough to fill up the whole of the female part of the joint in the headstock. (My stock of mahogany for necks is planed up at a thickness of 25mm which means that I always run into this difficulty.)

The solution is to add a little extra depth at the apex of the V. This is where the offcuts that I saved come in handy. I prepare a small piece from one of these…

and glue it on, taking care that the direction of the grain in the extra piece is orientated in the same way as the grain of the neck.

When the glue is fully hard…

… it’s sawn roughly to shape…

… and trimmed with a chisel. This addition will be invisible in the completed joint.

The last step is to make sure that everything fits to perfection before glueing up. I’ll discuss how to do that in the next post.

Click on any of the thumbnails below for larger pictures.

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