This viola is a commission from a family in the West Midlands, UK, for their musical son. He’s on a smaller viola at present and we have timed making the viola, I hope, so he will be just ready for it when it’s finished.
The back and front are made from solid wood, two pieces jointed at the centre. The front is from lovely, characterful spruce that I bought in Germany years ago and slightly forgot about, so I’m glad to have found it a good home now. The back is of beautifully figured maple which has also been in my stocks for a number of years. I start by cutting out the shape of the viola, then starting to form the shape of the arching using planes.
The next stage is to fit the purfling, the sandwich of black/white/black wood that enhances the edge of the viola. As everything on the violin, it’s purpose is functional as well as aesthetic. If the instrument gets a knock or a crack, the purfling will often stop the damage running past the purfling; it strengthens the edges.
I fit it by first cutting the sides of the channel with a knife, then removing the waste wood between the cuts. Finally I trim the purfling to fit the groove and glue it in place. I make the purfling itself from thin strips of wood; pear dyed black and poplar.
With the purfling in, I finalise the arching. First I use a gouge to cut a channel round the edge with the purfling close to the lowest point; the arching rises from this. Then I plane and scrape the arching to its final shape. I choose a fairly high arching which is full to the edges, which should give the viola a rich and dark sound.
Then I turn over the plates and finalise their thickness. It’s different for each instrument, depending on the density of the wood and the arching shape. I work slowly, carefully measuring, flexing and tapping until I’m happy with how it flexes and sounds.
The next stage is to make the ribs, which are from strips of maple to match the back, planed to a thickness of just over 1mm. I bend them using heat; a tool called a bending iron which is specifically designed for violin makers. Then when the shape is good, I glue them directly to the back.
There is still more work to do on the front. I’ve cut the soundholes; the design is slightly unusual, to match the curves of the body. The final task on the front is to fit the bass bar, which reinforces the lower register of the viola.
While working on the ribs and the front, I’ve made the head. It’s a simple, light design which echoes the streamlined concept of the body.
And, finally, the neck is fitted and shaped, and the viola is finished ‘in the white’ ready for varnishing.
The viola is now finished. I’ve used a supple golden brown varnish, which shows the wood to its best advantage. I’ve set it up carefully using geared pegs which will make tuning easy. It seems to be sounding warm and powerful; it gets put through its paces with a good player next week.