This viola is a commission from a player who already has one of my violas but would like a larger size. He’s a student at the Royal Academy of Music and has a busy time with competitions and concerts.
I’ve made this model several times; it has been really popular with orchestral musicians and at present members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Bergen Philharmonic all use this one, as well as a few freelance players. It’s based on a large tenor viola by the 16th century Brescian maker Gasparo da Salo. The original viola is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
I’ve rescaled the viola to a slightly smaller and more comfortable size then the original, and I pay a lot of attention to keeping the weight reasonable, and although it’s the largest size viola I make, it’s still very manageable.
I’ve started by making the rib assembly. As the back of the viola will be poplar, I’ve used matching poplar for the ribs.
Poplar is slightly lighter than the more commonly used maple, but very strong for its weight. So it enables me to keep the viola light, but it also contributes a clever mixture of warmth and projection to the sound of the viola.
At the same time as I work on the ribs, I’ve made the scroll. I love the Gaspar scrolls; they are carved with huge fluency and panache, not too much trouble taken to detail. My work is a little tidier but I try to keep some of the spirit of the original.
It’s now time to start work on the back and front. The poplar for the back is striking, with some bold figure in the lower bouts. I’ve matched this with an equally stunning front. This is some lovely spruce I bought in France a few years ago which has what is known as ‘hazel figure’, markings that look a little like forks of lightning across the wood. I make a start on the arching shapes from the raw wood and then finalise the outline. Then I fit the purfling, the inlay of wood around the edge of the viola.
The purfling done, I finalise the arching shapes and then turn the wood over to establish the final thickness of the back and front. This is different for every instrument, depending on the arching shape and the strength and weight of the wood.
I’ve cut the f-holes, one of the aspects of this model that give it much of its character; they are large and bold. After that I fitted the bass bar and got everything ready to finish the body of the viola; first taking the ribs off the mould and finishing the internal surfaces, then gluing the back to the ribs and finally the front.
I’ve now fitted the neck and finished the viola ‘in the white’. This time I’m trialling some new products. We wanted to make this viola completely free of tropical woods and endangered species, so that it will be easy for its owner to travel. I’d read about a new alternative to ebony for fingerboards, nuts, saddles and tailpieces: spruce which has been highly compressed. So I’ve used it for the fingerboard, nut and saddle. It’s similar to work to ebony, probably even harder and denser, and takes a lovely finish. An advantage for travel is that no customs official could ever confuse it for ebony, though a downside might be that it could stand out slightly in an orchestra. We’ll see.
The viola is now finished. It has a deep reddy-orange varnish that goes well with the compressed spruce fittings; this viola is completely free of tropical, endangered woods as the fingerboard and tailpiece are compressed spruce and it has geared pegs which are metal and plastic. First impressions are that the sound has enormous depth, power and resonance.