This viola is a commission from a player who has braved the complications of lockdown to try and find her perfect instrument. I sent two small violas to her by courier to try, which she liked but which didn’t quite fit the bill. After discussing by email and video call we have established, I hope, what will suit her small hands and requirements for sound. I felt I could match this best by revisiting this viola model.
It’s actually the first viola model I ever made, while I was a student in the 1970s. The original belonged to a friend of one of my fellow students, and we went to measure it together. 40 years later I inevitably bring more expertise to the project, so I have gone back to the drawing board and revisited the viola as if it were completely new to me.
It’s a lovely outline with graceful, long Amati-style C bouts. The 18th century English makers were in thrall to the Amati and Stainer style of making and their work owes a lot to this inspiration. I decided to make my new mould from walnut, as opposed to my customary plywood. One because I had run out of plywood and didn’t want to buy a whole new sheet and two because this was what was usually used in the 18th century, as it’s a stable wood. I glued together five strips of wood to make the mould, which means it’s even more resistant to warping than had it been one piece. And wow, it’s lovely to work and looks beautiful. I’ll be sticking with that for future moulds.
The photographs show some of the sequence of making the ribs: the C ribs, made from strips of maple planed to 1mm thick, bent and glued in place; the linings glued in place; and finally the finished rib structure.
Meantime, I’ve been getting on with the scroll. I wasn’t happy with the information I had for the original; measuring techniques have moved on so much. I decided instead to work from photos of a Jacob Ford viola of the right period. I’ve kept the size small, not much bigger than a violin head, so that it’s light and manageable. I like the coherence of design; the turns of the scroll are quite large, both from the side view and the front view, so it all hangs together really well. And somehow it pulls together chunky and delicate at the same time.
I’m really happy when it’s time to work on the back and front, which are the soul of the viola. For the back we’ve chosen an attractively figured piece of maple, cut on the slab (meaning that the grain lines are parallel with the arching) which should help to give the warmth and richness of sound that Jo is looking for. The front is a good quality piece of spruce with a fairly wide grain, which again is associated with the sound quality we’re after.
These photos show the sequence of working on the back: firstly I do some of the hollowing, then I cut it out and shape the arching to fairly close to the finished shape, using a succession of planes of different sizes.
That done, I finalise the outlines, following an even margin from the ribs.
The next stage is to inlay the purfling. I like to make this myself as it really influences the look of the finished instrument, depending on the materials I use and the width of the strips. For this viola, I’ve used dyed pear wood for the outer strips. The white central strip is spindlewood which is similar to the woods often used at the time; it has a lovely, almost ivory sheen, and bends well to smooth curves.
I start by cutting a channel all round the back and front, then bend the purfling and trim to make neat joints in the corners. Finally it’s glued into place.
I’ve now finished the arching, keeping to high, full arching shapes that work well for smaller violas.
I’ve now finalised the thicknessing, removing wood carefully while I check the weight, stiffness and the sound it makes when I tap the wood, until I’m satisfied with the results. Then I cut the f-holes. These are quite typical in style of the Amati-inspired English instruments, and as they are quite narrow in width, they allow for a good space between them, which I think will enhance the richness of the sound of the viola.
The final task on the front is to fit the bass bar, which enhances the bass register of the viola and helps the front resist the pressure of the bridge. That done, I take the ribs off the mould, finish the internal surfaces of the blocks and linings, and glue the ribs to the back.
Then I glue the front to the ribs, using my specialist cramps.
I’ve now fitted and shaped the neck. Jo was keen for a slender neck, narrow at the nut, and I have been happy to oblige. The viola is now finished ‘in the white’, ready for varnishing.