This is the smallest size of viola I make, equivalent to a 3/4 size violin. It’s a commission from a viola teacher in Hong Kong, who wants it to lend to his pupils.
I really enjoy making these small violas, testing my expertise to deliver the best possible sound at an improbably small size, and making an instrument that will inspire a child to really enjoy being a viola player.
I’ve picked old wood for this viola, hoping that will help the instrument stabilise more quickly when it moves to a very different climate – Manchester may be humid, but it has nothing on Hong Kong and is certainly cooler! The front is beautiful, even grained spruce, and the one piece back is a dramatic piece of maple which looks to me that it’s had some mistreatment in its life giving it some slight staining, but the water and or fungus which caused the blemishes have also slightly reduced the density. Eating away some of the sugars in the wood will aid its stability and the lower density is also helpful for the sound.
I start by roughing out the back and front, then fitting the purfling, the decorative black/white/black strips round the edge.
Then I cut a channel around the edge, leaving the purfling at its lowest point, and sculpting the rise of the arching from there. I like to keep the arching for violas relatively full and high, which helps give the richness of sound I’m looking for.
I’m now working on the thicknessing. I take wood out of the underside of the back and front until I’m satisfied with the weight, stiffness and the sound the wood makes when I tap it. The back is thickest in the middle, thinner in the upper and lower bouts; the front is a more uniform thickness.
Then I cut the f-holes in the front.
For these small violas, I build the ribs directly onto the back. I prepare strips of maple to just over 1mm thick, then bend them to fit and glue them in place.
I’ve now fitted the bass bar, and fitted the linings to finish the rib assembly, before gluing the front to the ribs.
I’ve found some time between all the gluing procedures to make the light, simple head that matches the streamlined body of the viola.
The neck is fitted and carefully shaped, and now the viola is finished ‘in the white’ ready for varnishing, with protective foil over the fingerboard so that it doesn’t absorb too much heat when I dry the varnish in the UV cabinet.
The viola is now finished. I’ve varnished it a lovely warm caramel orange and given it a subtly aged and worn appearance. It’s very resonant and the first impressions are that the sound is even with a good depth and range.