I don’t know if there is any connection with the Covid-19 pandemic, but I’ve had a surge in interest in my small violas for young players. Perhaps it’s just chance or maybe families and teachers are extra-focussed on the wellbeing and development of their children. Whatever the reason, I’m always happy to make these small violas, which are a model I designed years ago and have been refining ever since, with the aim of making affordable but musically satisfying instruments for children. The first of the orders is this, which is lined up for rental to a young player who is changing schools in September and will then be ready to move up from a smaller sized viola.
For these violas, I start with the back and the front. It’s important to choose good quality wood, that has a good grain structure to enhance its acoustic qualities. I’ve picked a two-piece quarter sawn back which I bought in France a few years ago, and a well-sawn spruce front from the same source, with quite a wide grain which I think works well for violas. I start by roughing the arching of the back and front, then I finalise the outline and inlay the purfling, the decorative black/white/black strips which enhance the edges of the instrument.
That done, I finish the arching, paying attention to make good strong shapes which rise swiftly from the edges, another aspect which enhances viola sound. When I’m satisfied, I turn the wood over and hollow the underside. I decide when to stop based on how flexible the wood feels, how it sounds when I tap it and its weight. Each instrument is slightly different, depending on the wood and the arching shape.
I build the ribs for these violas directly on the back. First I glue the top and bottom blocks in place, then bend and glue the ribs, which are strips of maple planed to about 1.2mm thick. Finally I fit the linings, strips of spruce which reinforce the gluing surfaces with the back and front.
While all this bending and gluing is going on, I finish the front; cutting the soundholes and fitting the bass bar.
And I’ve also made the head; a light, simple streamlined design that fits with the curvy body.
Everything is now ready to ‘close the box’; gluing the front to the ribs using specialised cramps.
Everything goes fast now. I’ve fitted and shaped the neck, and the viola is finished ‘in the white’, ready for varnishing.
I’ve now varnished the viola, using a nice golden coloured oil varnish, and put in a little wear and patina so it doesn’t look brand new. I’ve set it up carefully using good quality fittings, and geared pegs which can be helpful for young fingers. The sound is rich and resonant.