This viola is a commission from America, from a player who does a lot of chamber music and who wants a small, manageable instrument that will hold its own. Abi and I have discussed what they are after, by Zoom and email, so I’m ready to start.
The first choice is the wood. The front is a stunning piece of spruce from the Fiemme valley in northern Italy, the region where the classical Italian makers sourced their wood. Storm Vaia hit the region in October 2018 and felled a huge number of trees. One of the woodyards that specialises in wood for violin makers launched a crowdfunding campaign to save as much of the timber as possible. I took part and a year or so later was able to claim my share of the wood. It’s really lovely, and the quality will be just right for the viola. The back is from oppio, the native field maple that would be found near Cremona. It’s a little softer than the flashier Balkan maple which is more often used for violin making, but that softness is ideal for violas.
I’ve jointed the back and front, then done some of the hollowing of the plates before cutting them out and roughing the arching. As I make the back and front before the ribs for these cornerless instruments, the beginning seems to go very fast.
The next stage is to fit the purfling, the decorative black/white/black wooden strips inlaid around the edge of the viola. I first cut the sides of the groove, remove the waste wood, then bend the purfling and glue it in place.
I’ve now finalised the arching, using the high, full arching shapes that work well to create a rich viola sound. Then it’s time to finish the thicknessing, taking off just enough wood that the plates become flexible and resonant whilst still maintaining strength.
Ribs are next up; I build them directly on the back. I glue the top and bottom blocks in place, then bend and glue the ribs, then fit the linings, and little vertical strips of wood where the corners would be, to keep the structure strong.
Meanwhile I continue work on the front, cutting the soundholes and fitting the bass bar. The soundholes are a variation on the standard shape, more sinuous to fit the curvy outline. The bass bar helps reinforce the lower register of the viola, and I find I get good results with this innovative design pioneered by luthier Christian Bayon.
I’ve made the scroll, a simple, light design that complements the streamlined body.
I’m concerned that the viola will adapt well to the warmer and damper climate of Louisiana, so I’ve sealed the inside which will mean it reacts more slowly to changes in humidity and temperature. Then I glued the front on, fitted and shaped the neck. Abi is concerned that it should be as slim and manageable as possible, and I’m happy to oblige.
The viola is now finished ‘in the white’, ready for varnishing.
And now it’s finished. The varnish is a rich orangey red. It’s sounding great! Even over all the strings, resonant and responsive. This time I’ve tried a new string combination; it’s important to choose strings which are designed for the violin-sized string length. If you use viola strings they are both too long and also don’t have sufficient tension to give a good response. I discovered that Pirastro make a violin C string in their Evah Pirazzi line, for five-stringed violins, so I’ve fitted this with the Evah violin A, D and G. Seems to work well, with a large range of tonal colours.