This is currently a very popular model; its size makes it super-manageable for players with a restricted stretch, and it has a lovely sweet, warm sound with a rich and solid C string.
It’s a commission from a player who has a back problem which makes it all-but impossible to play her larger viola. We spent some time together trying violas of mine of different sizes and discussing all her concerns. We are both hopeful that this one will be just right.
The viola is closely modelled on a Gasparo da Salo; Gasparo was one of the earliest violin makers, working in Brescia, northern Italy, in the late 16th century. He was particularly known for his violas, most of which are the large tenor size, but he also make a couple of smaller instruments. This is based on one of these, and I’ve reduced it slightly to get the size I wanted. I’ve started by making the rib assembly. The ribs are strips of maple planed to just over 1mm thick, bent with heat and fitted round a mould. While the glue joints of the ribs dry, I work on the head. For this viola I’ve not used the original head which is, typically for Gasparo, large and consequently heavy. Instead I’ve taken as my pattern a Gasparo violin head, only very slightly enlarged. It has all the quirky character I love in these Brescian scrolls, but is small, light and neat.
The next stage is to work on the plates. The one-piece back that we’ve chosen is an attractive, lightly figured piece of maple that I bought in France, and the front is a stunning piece of spruce from northern Italy. I’ve pre-hollowed the back before cutting out the outline, then roughing the arching and finalising the outline. Then I fit the purfling to the back and front.
That done, I’ve finished the shapes of the arching. This is an important stage for the viola; the arching, in conjunction with the thickness, is a critical determining factor for the sound of the finished instrument.
After arching comes thicknessing. I like to work fast and with intense concentration at this stage; each piece of wood demands different measurements depending on the qualities of the wood and the shape of the arching, and I find that a few undistracted hours are ideal for focussing on what’s needed to get the ideal balance of weight, stiffness and how it sounds when I tap the wood. Then I’m ready for one of the most enjoyable stages in the process, cutting the f-holes. I like to see a little asymmetry here, which I think gives life to the instrument. Then I fit the bass bar, a piece of spruce fitted carefully to the inside of the front, which helps support the tension of the strings and reinforces the bass register of the instrument.
And my Friday afternoon job, satisfyingly, is to glue the ribs to the back.
I’ve reached the final stages before the viola is finished ‘in the white’ ready for varnishing; fitting the neck, shaping it carefully so it feels good in the hand, and giving the viola a final clean and check.
The viola is now finished. I’ve used a golden-red pigmented oil varnish, then set up the viola carefully. I’m waiting to hear it played for the first time, but I can already tell that the sound is free and resonant.