As lockdown continues into February of 2021 and customers are thin on the ground, I’m continuing my survey of what I call the Stradivari Outliers: the models which are atypical of the Stradivari workshop output. This started by accident, when I measured and then made the 1734 ‘Habeneck’ violin, in fact by Francesco Stradivari, Antonio’s son. I’d also had in mind for some time that I’d like to make the ‘de Munck’ cello, another atypical instrument, the only one in the Stradivari output to a long, narrow design. That is nearly finished now, I’m nearing the end of the varnishing process.
What remains is a viola. I’ve never been especially keen on the Stradivari violas; fabulous as the craftsmanship and varnish is (and the back of the ‘Archinto’ is one of the most beautiful things I know), I’ve not been convinced by the design or the sound quality. But this one, the very first Stradivari viola, is different. The model is to my mind a better design for a viola; broader, and with a poplar back which I expect to enhance the richness and darkness of tone. So this is my chance to find out.
I had a few days of drawing and making templates and the mould before I started work in earnest. I’ve started with the rib assembly, as usual bending the thin strips of spruce round the mould, then gluing the spruce linings which support the eventual glue joints with the back and front.
In between working on the ribs, I’ve been preparing the wood for the back. I had a suitable piece of poplar in my store, but it was double thickness, and I didn’t want to waste the possibility of a second viola from the piece. So out came my trusty rip saw, and after about four hours of sawing (not all done at once) the job was done. I (almost!) enjoy this process; it’s interesting that when you get past the ‘this is boring, when will it be done’ feeling and sink into a more meditative frame of mind, the saw takes on its own life; it cuts better of its own accord with less effort from me. It’s a shame that we do less of this sort of hand work now, being so reliant on power tools; I notice that the violin making students we support through the RAB Trust never ask for funding to buy hand saws. A shame, as it’s useful to have these skills.
The final task of the first week is to make the scroll. Here I’m less enthusiastic; all the Stradivari viola scrolls are the cello-type design with shoulders. Most viola players, especially those with smaller hands, find the shoulders add uncomfortable bulk, and these heads are larger and heavier than they need to be. So I’ve redrawn the scroll a little smaller, without shoulders. I’ve tried however to keep the spirit of the original, especially the increased width across the eyes.
It always feels like a real treat when it’s time to start cutting into the wood for the back and front. I draw round the ribs to generate the outlines and then cut out oversize, before roughing out the arching using planes of various sizes. Then I finalise the outlines. Stradivari has been thinking about the mechanics of viola playing; the upper bouts are quite rounded so it’s easier to reach to higher positions. And there is a satisfying tubbiness about the model which to my mind is good for sound quality. The C bouts aren’t especially long, which enables the F-holes to be set higher than on the later Strad violas, giving a consequently slightly shorter string length; another aspect which makes life easier for many players.
You can now see the attractive grain of the poplar, and a number of little knots which are characteristic of this timber. The front is spruce; this comes from the Val de Fiemme region in Northern Italy where a lot of Stradivari’s wood was sourced. They suffered a big storm in 2018 which flattened a lot of the valuable spruce trees. One of the local woodyards, which specialises in wood for violin makers, opened a crowdfunding scheme to save as much of the best timber as possible. I participated, and now that the wood has been harvested, sawn and seasoned, I took delivery of a box of wood and have started to use it. It’s lovely; light and strong.
The next stage is to inlay the purfing, a sandwich of black-dyed pearwood and poplar which runs around the edge of the instrument. On the original viola the purfling is quite fine, which enhances the elegance of this somewhat Amat-inspired model with its long corners.
I’ve now finished the arching. This model is very different from my normal violas; the arching is reminiscent of Nicolo Amati, rising slowly from the purfling and with a defined, slightly pinched ridge in the C bouts. It’s like a sleek supermodel in comparison to my normal chubby Brescian models, which have much more wood straight from the purfling. As this is the time for experimentation, it will be a great opportunity to see how the sound compares to my more normal work.
The poplar for the back, which I use intermittently for violas anyway, is looking pretty, with a few little knots. Poplar and its close cousin, willow, vary considerably in density, from the very light to close to the very lightest maple. This one is towards the denser end of the scale and has taken a good finish.
I’m now working on the thicknessing, carefully removing wood from the underside of the back and front. I think about how the woods sounds when I tap it, how it flexes in my hands and how the weight feels. I have the thickness data of the original Stradivari viola, not to follow necessarily but for comparison. I definitely felt that although my final front thickness was in the same range as the original, I definitely needed to go thinner for the back. But I’m happy with the end result.
With that finished, I cut the f-holes in the front and fitted the bass bar, making everything ready for assembling the body.
I’ve taken the ribs off the mould, finished the internal surfaces of the blocks and linings and glued the ribs to the back, then glued the front to the ribs.
The viola is now finished ‘in the white’, after setting and shaping the neck. I’m pleased with how it has come together, and the weight and balance feel good. Varnishing next.
Now, at the end of April, I’ve finished the viola. It has a rich golden brown varnish and I’ve set it up carefully. I took it to one of my viola player friends so that I could hear it. The sound is better than I had hoped; rich and complex with many colours, and responsive played both loud and soft. “I could play a concert on it today” he said.