This viola is a commission from a player in Suffolk, who has seen and liked a viola of this model that belongs to a colleague.
The model is actually based on a Paolo Maggini violin. Maggini worked in Brescia, northern Italy at the end of the 16th and early 17th century, and is known particularly for fine sounding violas. The violin belongs to Ian Belton of the Brodsky Quartet who kindly let me measure and photograph it. The violin is, as are a number of Maggini violins, oversized by modern standards, so I thought this lovely instrument would work better enlarged as the inspiration for a viola than shrunk as a modern violin. I’ve make this model quite a number of times now; it is very manageable in size but has a warm and rich real viola sound.
I’ve started by making the rib assembly; bending thin strips of maple to shape and gluing to the blocks fitted into the mould. Then I’ve made the scroll. The Maggini violin I use as a model has a head that I don’t think is orginal, so instead I’ve used the head of another Maggini viola. The heads on the early Brescian violas are often large, so I’ve scaled this down to slightly more than violin size to make it light and easy for the player.
This week I’ve started work on the back and front. The back is made from a nice piece of figured maple which I bought in France a few years ago, which Rosemary picked out from my stocks. To go with it, I’ve chosen some fairly broad-grained spruce from the same woodyard. Firstly I’ve finalised the outlines from the rib assembly and then roughed out the arching shapes. After that I fitted the two rows of purfing; the double purfling is characteristic of Maggini instruments. The purfling itself is made of a sandwich of black-dyed pear and willow, inlaid into a channel cut into the plates.
With the two rows of purfling now fitted, I’ve finalised the arching. The shape of the arching is also characteristic of Maggini – quite high, strong and full – which should help to give the viola a powerful, rich and resonant sound.
After arching comes thicknessing; finalising the internal shapes of the back and front. This is different for each instrument I make; although there are average measurements for the thickness and weight, I adapt these each time dependent on the density and stiffness of the wood, the model and the arching shape. I spend a long time tapping and flexing the wood as well as weighing and measuring until I’m happy with the end result.
Before I’m ready to assemble the body, I cut the f-holes in the front and fit the bass bar. The fs are one of my favourite jobs; I love the way they give life and energy to the front of the viola. I purposely don’t make them symmetrical; you never see real symmetry on classical instruments, and the irregularity gives them more visual life.
The bass bar is a strip of spruce fitted carefully to the inside of the front, which reinforces the bass register of the viola, and helps to support the weight of the bridge.
Then I’m ready to take the ribs off the mould, finalise the internal surfaces and glue the ribs to the back. Once the inside is cleaned up and the label fitted, I’m ready to ‘close the box’.
The body of the viola is finished, and I’ve finalised the edgework prior to fitting the neck. With the neck in the instrument, I spend some time making a neat and comfortable shape which will work well for the player.
And now the viola is finished ‘in the white’, ready for varnishing.
The varnish is a complex procedure; first some coats of a primer that gives the wood a warm golden tone, then sealer and clear varnish to protect the wood. Finally some coats of coloured oil varnish to give the viola its characteristic rich appearance.
I’ve now finished the varnishing and set up the viola. For the varnish, I first stained the wood a warm golden colour to take away the cold ivory of the bare wood. After several protective sealing coats, I finished with two coats of oil varnish, with added red and brown pigments. I set up the viola carefully, using for the first time pegs made from plum wood – a sustainable alternative to the tropical woods usually used, and one I’v been keen to try.