I’ve had a long period of catching up with odd jobs, varnishing and finishing instruments, also preparing and cooking resins for varnish, and some work for the charity I chair which supports student violin makers, www.rabtrust.org.
Now at last I’m properly back at the workbench, with an exciting new project.
I’ve had this cello model in my sight for ages, and in fact bought the wood for the mould in the spring, but other work intervened. It’s a very late Stradivari cello, to a pattern unique in Strad’s output. It’s quite long but very narrow. I’m always interested in the ergonomics of instruments, and I’ve wondered if the slender shape might be an asset; less flexion of the hips giving more freedom to the spine.
I’ve become intrigued with concept of narrower instruments; normally I think greater width gives richness to the bass. But a couple of years ago I made a copy of an early viola by Matthew Hardie which is also quite narrow, and worked surprisingly well. And more recently I’ve made three versions of the late Stradivari ‘Habeneck’ violin, also fairly narrow, but which have been certainly some of the most successful violins I’ve made. So this is the cello to match. Another interesting aspect of the design is that the C bouts are exceptionally long, a feature associated with a good bass register, and something in common with the Matthew Hardie viola design. So, we’ll see… I’m always up for a challenge.
The preparation for a new cello model is always time-consuming. Drawings, templates, and the mould. But all done now, and I’ve been bending ribs.
Next up, the scroll. I’ve really enjoyed trying to capture the clean workmanship and the lovely sinuous curves of the Stradivari scroll.
The back of the cello is from a nicely figured piece of maple I bought in France about 20 years ago. It’s a slightly narrow piece, so perfect for this cello; I’d been saving it for a narrow instrument! I start by drawing round the ribs onto the back and front, and then starting the hollowing before I even cut out the outline. This reduces a lot of weight early on, making the plates much lighter and easier to handle. And by removing as much wood as possible early on, it means that when I come to final thicknessing, the work goes faster, lending fluency when it really counts.
I’m now doing the preliminary arching of the plates. The photo shows the front, another narrow piece from my stocks; a lovely quality piece of spruce from northern Italy, picked for me by a guitar maker friend who went there to buy wood for himself a couple of years ago.
I use a selection of planes to form the arching shape, lined up here. The wooden ones are all homemade. They wear out after a few years – the friction of the wood flattens the soles – so one of them is a new replacement. This also gives me an opportunity to refine the design.
With the rough arching finished, I’ve finalised the outline and inlaid the purfling, the decorative strips of black/white/black wood that run parallel to the edge of the cello. Before I can finish the arching, I sink the fluting, the channel that runs round the edge of the instrument and forms both the inside of the edgework and the beginning of the arching shape.
The arching is now finished, so you can see the lovely quality of the wood I’ve used. I have carefully reconstructed the arching shapes of the original cello and made templates to guide me when working, so I’m happy with the outcome. It’s interesting that the arching is very full to the edges in the C bouts, another feature I associate with good sounding instrument with a rich bass and complexity of sound, so I’m really quite hopeful for this one.
I am so enjoying making this cello. I hesitate to say this, but the (almost) uninterrupted flow of life during the second lockdown is good for concentration and creativity. All that can be said is that we might as well hang on to the few positives of a grim time.
After arching comes thicknessing; removing wood from the inside of the back and front until it’s just right. What’s just right? Taking into account the density and strength of the wood, a good balance of weight, flexibility and the sound it makes when tapped. This one seemed to find the sweet spot quite easily; the plates are light and resonant.
And now, one of the most fun jobs, which really transforms the cello, the soundholes. On this model they are quite small and set close together. The classical makers were very conscious of the use of the use of geometry and proportion, so it’s quite logical that the smaller soundholes are placed closer together, keeping similar ratios as with larger cellos. And this chimes too with the narrower body. I’m intrigued as to how the sound will work out. And incidentally, I think they look lovely, and have brought the cello front really to life.
With the soundholes done, I’ve fitted the bass bar, which strengthens the front and enhances the lower register of the cello. Then all is ready to take the ribs off the mould, finish the internal surfaces and glue them to the back. Then to glue on the front, ‘close the box’. Which I was very happy to do on a Friday afternoon, always a satisfactory end to the week.
One week on and the cello is finished ‘in the white’, ready for me to take a Christmas break. I’ve fitted and shaped the neck, finished the edge work and checked over all the surfaces so that it’s ready for the long varnishing process. I love how it all seems different now it’s together; the head looks a lot more elegant emerging from the smooth sinuous neck than it did from a block of wood, and the arching reads differently on the ribs with finished edgework than it did on the plates on their own. One of my January jobs will be varnishing.
February 2021 and the cello is finished. I’ve used a rich reddy brown oil varnish and set it up carefully. It’s responsive; the sound is even and projecting with a lot of complexity. Looking forward to one day, post lockdown, actually hearing it being played by somebody else!