This is one of my favourite viola models; I’ve made it many times and a number of my earlier versions are now playing full-time in orchestras including the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and City of London Sinfonia. It’s based on a tenor viola that is in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, which I scaled down to a more manageable size. Its maker, Gasparo da Salo, was one of the principal makers of the early school at Brescia in Northern Italy, and was known principally for his fabulous-sounding violas. He worked in the late 16th century and this viola dates from c. 1580. It combines ease of playing with a rich and satisfying viola sound.
It’s been good to start a new instrument in the first week back in January. As ever, I begin by making the rib assembly. I use strips of maple planed to just over 1mm for the ribs, bent round a mould.
While I wait for the glue joints of the various stages of the rib structure to dry, I’ve been working on the scroll. I especially like the Gasparo scrolls – the volutes are undercut like a scroll of parchment, and they are rich in quirky character.
I’ve started work on the back and front. The back is from a beautifully-figured piece of maple that I bought in France some years ago, and the front is from high-quality spruce from the Fiamme valley in northern Italy, where Stradivari apparently sourced his spruce. I’ve roughed the shape of the arching and finalised the purfling.
The next stage is to fit the purfling, the black-white-black inlay around the edge of the viola. First I cut a channel, then glue the purfling (in this case made from dyed pearwood as the black and spindlewood as the white). Once the glue is dried, I gouge the fluting channel around the edge of the back and front, from which the arching flows and which also forms the beginning of the edgework.
I’m now ready to finalise the arching. I like the shape to be reasonably high and for the arching to be full down to the edgework, which I think helps to give a warm and rich viola character of sound. The beautiful wood is now revealed in all its loveliness, especially the figure of the back.
After the arching, I’ve turned over the back and front to finish the thickness. I work carefully, removing wood, checking the weight and stiffness and listening to the sound when I tap the wood. The final shavings are taken off with a scraper, gossamer-thin. And then I cut the f-holes.
The last thing to do before I’m ready to glue the instrument together is to fit the bass bar, which reinforces the lower register of the viola. And then I take the ribs off the mould, finalise the internal surfaces and glue the ribs to the back.
I’ve now glued the front to the ribs and fitted and shaped the neck, so the viola is finished ‘in the white’, ready for varnishing.
The viola has had its varnish; I’ve been using some new pigments that I made myself after taking a course on pigment making last year. For this viola I’ve added a mixture of brown and gold to the varnish, which itself already has some colour. I’ve set up the viola carefully and it’s sounding good; a rich, even and powerful quality.