This model is an old friend. The original belongs to David Strange, who has had a distinguished career as principal cellist at the Royal Opera House and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras, and latterly as Head of Strings at the Royal Academy of Music. I met him early in my career and he kindly let me take measurements and drawings from his cello. He bought the first copy I made of it, way back in 1982 I think it was, which his son Alasdair now plays.
It’s a lovely model which has accompanied me through my career. It’s a little broader than the often-copied standard Stradivari model, giving extra richness and depth to the sound, but not as huge and unwieldy as the Montangnanas.
This one is a commission from a student who met several of my cellos during his time at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, and he’s about to embark on a postgraduate course at the Bergen Conservatoire in Norway.
As ever, I’ve started by making the ribs, thin strips of maple bent and glued round the mould. Gluing the ribs is definitely a two-person job when making a cello, so I’ve trained up my husband as workshop assistant for this job.
Next I’ve been working on the scroll. The G B Ruggieri cello doesn’t have its original head; it was probably damaged at some point in the past and rather than repair it, a new head was fitted, probably at some point in the late 18th century. I’ve made a number of different styles of head for the cello in the past. But a few years ago I was lucky to acquire a plaster cast of a Ruggieri cello head, so now I use that to go with the body, and enjoy being able to compare my work with the real thing, even when I decide to take a different path in my version.
I’m pleased with how my scroll has turned out – having the “real” one to hand has helped me to get a good sense of line and flow, and nice sharp tools have lent a crispness to the work.
This week I’ve started work on the back and front. I’m always excited to get to this stage with a cello; it takes a while to be ready for this, the heart of what makes the cello what it is and how it sounds. The wood that I picked out with Finlay is some pretty maple with a regular even figure and extremely good grain structure. The wood is light but strong, the ideal. To go with that, a nice broad-grained spruce for the front.
I start by taking some of the wood from what will be the inside of the back and front. It seems a bit counterintuitive to start to hollow before you arch, but I find it’s easy to whack out quite a lot of the wood at this stage when it’s still a block of wood, and then there is the benefit that once I’m working on the outside, the wood is already much lighter and this brings a great psychological benefit that it already begins to feel vibrant rather than just a heavy lump of wood. And none of us are as young as we were, to enjoy heaving around more weight than we need to…
After the thicknessing I cut out the back and front roughly and start work on the arching, which will be finalised after the purfling is fitted. Then I finish the shape of the outline, keeping an even margin from the ribs.
The next stage is to fit the purfling, the sandwich of black and white lines that runs round the edge of the back and front of the cello. First I cut the sides of the channel, then remove the waste wood from the middle, before gluing in the purfling. Once it was glued in to place, I finalised the arching of the back and front, removing wood with small brass thumb planes before scraping to a smooth finish.
And with the arching done, really one of my favourite parts of making a cello, I’ve positioned the f-hole templates to see how they will look.
Next up is to finish the thicknessing. It’s different for each instrument, depending on the shape of the arching and the stiffness and density of each individual piece of wood. I work carefully, checking the thickness and removing wood gradually until I’m happy with how it feels when I flex it, how it sounds when I tap it, and what it weighs. With this high-quality wood, light but strong, it’s been fairly easy to reach a good result.
That done, I’ve cut the f-holes. This is an area where I think a slight lack of symmetry gives the instrument more life and character.
I’m now at my favourite stage of making the cello, when everything comes together. I’ve fitted the bass bar inside the front; this helps reinforce the lower register of the cello and helps support the weight of the bridge. Then everything is ready to assemble the cello. I take the ribs off the mould, finish the internal surfaces of the blocks and linings, and glue the ribs to the back.
then I ‘close the box”, gluing the front to the ribs. After that I fit the neck, a job requiring a lot of quiet patience, checking that it’s in line with the bridge position and at the correct angle. It’s a great feeling to lock the workshop on Friday afternoon with the neck glued into the body.
At last the cello is finished ‘in the white’; I’ve shaped the neck and cleaned and checked the whole instrument. It’s now ready for varnishing.
I’ve varnished the cello now; it’s a warm deep honey colour. Now it’s set up, the sound is very focussed, powerful and projecting, with a warm undertone that will come through more with playing.
Finlay asked for posture pegs on the C and G strings; these have detachable keys for the heads, leaving the side of the scroll uncluttered for the player.