I’ve had a break of several weeks from the workbench: I had to move out of the workshop to work temporarily in the house in mid-January, as the workshop was suffering water ingress and had to be stripped out and tanked. Fortunately the builders finished just before the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown, and my wonderful brother arrived to help with the repainting and refitting. Even more fortunately we were able to get paint! Moving back into the workshop has almost coincided with the 40th anniversary of my start as a professional violin maker; my brother was there too, and helped me kit out my first workshop at Staunton Harold in Leicestershire in August 1980. So in true Tony style he made a banner.
Anyway, it’s great to be back at the bench with a nice warm, dry workshop, clean and freshly painted with a few upgrades to the storage so for now at least there is a proper place for everything. And huge thanks are due to Charlie and his father Glyn, who have had the confidence to order a new viola at this time, when discussions had to take place by phone and video call rather than in person.
Charlie is a student at Chetham’s School of Music, and plans to audition for music college in the autumn. He’s tall and broad shouldered so we’ve gone for the largest size viola I usually make, which has been a successful model which I’ve made for several professional orchestral players in the UK and abroad. This is based on a viola by Gasparo da Salo, which can be seen in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Gasparo was one of the earliest violin makers, working in the later part of the 16th century in the small town of Brescia, on Lake Garda in northern Italy. He was known mostly for his violas, which are large but magnificent in tone and (to my eyes) fascinating in their rugged but effective craftsmanship. The original is a large tenor viola which I’ve scaled down to a more manageable size.
I had a chat with Charlie about the sort of sound he likes, and heard him play on a video call. I selected several possible pieces of wood for the back and sent photographs, then we were able to discuss them and pick one that he liked the look of that I thought would give the warm and responsive sound he’s after. I’ve started, as usual by making the ribs, thin strips of maple bent round the mould. When the ribs are all bent, I fit the linings; narrow counter-strips of spruce which reinforce the eventual gluing surface with the back and front.
While the various glue joints of the ribs and linings dry, I work on the scroll. I always particularly enjoy the Brescian scrolls, for their querky freedom. A particular feature is that the turns are sharply undercut, giving the impression of an unravelling parchment scroll. Brescian scrolls are often quite large for the size of the instrument, but this is something I definitely don’t follow as I’m very conscious of the importance of saving weight. I’ve redrawn this one over the years until I’ve come to what feels just right in terms of weight and size to balance the viola body.
I’ve now started work on the back and front, the heart of the instrument. The back is from a quietly figured piece of maple with a lovely silky texture, which Charlie picked out from several that I had selected for him to choose from. I selected the spruce for the front to compliment the maple; it comes from the Fiamme region in Italy where Stradivari sourced his wood, and has a lovely even, regular grain.
I like to do some pre-hollowing of the solid block before anything else; it’s quick and easy to remove wood at this stage. Then I saw out the outline following the finished ribs and do the preliminary work on the arching, using planes of different shapes and sizes. The final picture of the three below shows the back and front with the outlines finalised.
The next stage is purfling, the decorative inlay round the edges of the back and front. For this viola, I’m using purfling I made up from a sandwich of pear wood dyed black and spindle wood. Spindle was used by the early Brescian makers, and has a lovely ivory-like sheen. It has a fine, close-grained texture and is quite stiff, so it helps create a good, wobble-free line.
The purfling is inlaid into a channel. I first cut the sides using a specialised tool, then pick out the waste wood in the middle. Finally the purfling is bent and trimmed to shape and glued in place.
With the purfling done, it’s time to finalise the arching, one of my favourite parts of making an instrument. It’s lovely to see the beautiful qualities of the wood emerge as I smooth and scrape the surface, and to create the fluid curves. It’s also critical to the acoustic success of the viola; the strong shapes which rise almost straight from the purfling help to create a sound which is warm, rich and responsive.
After arching comes thicknessing; reducing the inside surfaces of the back and front to what I hope is an optimal balance of weight, sound when tapped and stiffness. I work carefully, planing then scraping and checking the measurements until I’m satisfied. No two instruments are the same, as model, arching shape and wood are all variables; the experience I have gained in my fingers and ears tells me when to stop.
The next stage is to cut the soundholes. For this Gasparo model, they are large and joyously unsymmetrical, adding real character to the instrument.
The final job for the front is to fit the bass bar, which strengthens it and enhances the lower register of the viola. Then I take the ribs off the mould and finalise their internal surfaces before gluing to the back. Finally I glue on the front, using these specialised cramps.
I’ve fitted the fingerboard to the neck and then fitted the neck into the body and shaped it carefully so that it should feel really comfortable in the hand. The viola is now finished ‘in the white’, ready for varnishing.
The viola is now finished. The varnish is a soft golden brown oil varnish, with slight ‘antiquing’; some wear and patina in the final finish. I’m looking forward to hearing it played; for now it feels resonant and powerful.
Charlie used his viola for the recording he made for his music college auditions. Watch it here: