This has been the most popular viola model recently; its rich and powerful sound belies its manageable size. The one I made at the end of 2017 generated two new orders, and this is the second, for a talented young player who has just started her studies at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Stuttgart. She has small hands and had searched for a long time to find a viola model which she could manage but which would be musically satisfying.
The model is based on the only smaller Gasparo da Salo viola I know of; mostly they are huge tenor violas. This one, the Kievman, is a much more manageable size, and I’ve reduced it slightly for the measurements I want. The original scroll is in proportion to the tenor violas, so I have substituted a scroll I based on a Gasparo violin, much smaller and neater, saving weight for the player.
I’ve started by making the rib assembly. The ribs themselves are strips of maple planed to just over 1mm thick, bent with heat and glued onto the blocks which are recessed into the mould.
In the meantime, I’ve made the scroll.
I’m now ready to start work on the back and front. Rachel picked a beautiful piece of figured maple for the back, and as she prefers fine-grained spruce for the fronts, I’ve picked a handsome piece that came from a woodyard in northern Italy. The pictures show the transformation of the back from a solid lump of wood to near-finished arching, and the front also close to finish.
The next stage is fitting the purfling, the decorative black and white lines round the edge of the viola. These are made from a sandwich of pear wood dyed black with a strip of poplar in the middle, fitted into a channel cut round the edge of the instrument. First I mark and cut the sides of the channel, then pick out the waste wood from the middle, and finally bend and cut the purfling to fit before gluing it into place.
When the glue has dried, I cut a channel with a gouge around the edge with the purfling near its lowest point, which is the beginning of the shape of the arching and also the formation of the edge shape. This done, I can finalise the arching, and the viola really starts to take shape.
After arching comes thicknessing; reducing the inside shape of the viola. This is one of the areas where the craft of violin making becomes a sort of black art. We have to make a balance between weight, stiffness and the sound the plates make when they are tapped, taking in to account the density of the wood and the shape of the arching. With experience you get a feel for when to take off more wood and when to stop.
That finished, I cut the f holes in the front, one of my favourite jobs. I start by cutting the circles with specialised circle cutters, then join them by sawing out the shape inside the line. Finally I finish cutting with a knife.
Now the viola body is ready to glue together. I’ve fitted the bass bar, taken the ribs off the mould and glued them to the back.
And now the body is finished, ready to fit the neck.
The viola is now finished ‘in the white’; neck fitted and shaped so that it will be super-comfortable for Rachel to play, the woodwork cleaned and finished so that the viola is ready for the varnish process.
The viola is now finished. The varnish is a warm golden-brown over a golden ground, with a slight patina of age and some wear introduced. I’ve set it up carefully and have heard it played for the first time by a player who has had one of my violas for about ten years. The sound is incredibly even over the whole viola, and is warm and rich in character. It’s also extremely responsive, focussed and powerful. You would in no way imagine that it’s a small viola.