This is a model I have returned to intermittently through my career. It’s the smallest cello I make and perfect for players with small hands.
Before Stradivari came on the scene and standardised the size of the modern cello in the early 18th century, cellos were made in two sizes; a smaller, more soloistic model and a larger instrument, more suited to playing the bass lines. Andrea Guarneri made a number of lovely cellos of the smaller size, using poplar for the back which added to the responsiveness and warmth of sound. I’ve adapted this model so that it’s even more friendly for smaller players; I’ve made it a little narrower in the upper bouts so that it’s easy to get round.
This one is a commission from a player for whom an instrument that feels small and manageable under the hand is an absolute priority, as well as quality of sound of course. So I’m happy to oblige.
As ever, I’ve started by making the rib assembly. I’m using maple for the ribs, matching up with the head, and I’ve found some lovely quality, slightly figured wood which will go well with the back. It’s a long job to prepare the wood, planing down the strips to just under 2mm thick, and then bending ribs to fit round the mould, fitting the linings and then flattening the edges which will eventually be glued to the back and front. But once the work is done, it’s really satisfying to see the sinuous curves of the wood.
While the glue sets on all the different stages of the ribs, I’ve made the scroll. It’s a painstaking piece of carving, checking that all the curves flow in three dimensions.
It’s an exciting point when I start working on the back. I am using a lovely piece of poplar with all sorts of irregular and interesting markings. I start by roughly shaping the arching from the thick plank of wood, and then I finalise the outline with an even overhang from the ribs.
The next stage is to fit the purfling, the black/white black strips that run round the edge of the cello. As well as being decorative, the purfling helps strengthen the edge and reduces the chance of cracks running the past it. I make it from three strips of wood glued together, dyed pear from the black and willow for the white.
Now comes one of my favourite parts of making the cello, finalising the arching of the back. Its lovely to sculpt the sinuous curves and to see how beautiful the wood is as it becomes smoother as I plane it with small planes and then scrape it. That done, I turn the wood over and hollow the underside. This is a painstaking process, checking carefully to see how much wood is there, what it weights, how stiff it feels and how it sounds when I tap it. Each piece of wood is different so I have to respond to that.
I’ve taken the ribs off the mould and finalised the internal faces of the blocks and linings, then glued the ribs to the back. The sequence is a little different for this cello; I’m springing the top surface of the ribs out slightly, to make the front of the cello wider than the back. This is a feature you see on quite a lot of old cellos, including the original Andrea Guarneri. I think that possibly having a slight angle on the ribs helps the sound to radiate. I’ve never been sure if this was done deliberately in the 18th century or if it was a result of shrinkage or rough rib bending, but this is my method for achieving the effect.
I’m now on with the front; I’ve purfled it and again, producing mountains of wood shavings, I’m finalising the arching.
That done, I’ve cut the f-holes. This is a job I love, though hard on a cello because my arms aren’t long enough! When they are done, it gives real personality to the cello.
Then it’s time for thicknessing, and the final task for the front, fitting the bass bar, which helps to strengthen the front and enhances the lower register of the cello. Then I glue in my label and at last, glue the front to the ribs.
The final stages of making the cello ‘in the white’ are done; I’ve fitted the neck and shaped it carefully so that it is an elegant, slim shape that fits the hand. Then I cleaned and tidied the body, all ready to start the long varnishing process.
Mid-November and the cello is finished. I’ve used my most recent batch of oil varnish and coloured it with red and brown pigments, giving a lovely rich warm colour. And the colour is reflected in the mellow, deep sound which is also projecting when it needs to be, and responsive.