This viola is a commission from a student at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. She has the original Betts viola on loan from the Benslow Loan Scheme and it suits her physically very well, so we decided just to make a viola based on that, rather than one of my usual models.
John Betts was one of the foremost English makers of his time, working in London. He is especially known for his violas; which were a speciality in general of English makers at that time. It’s a lovely instrument and I’ve been excited to study it in detail, and to be able to have it in my workshop to measure; a luxury I don’t often get.
There is a lot involved in the preparation of a new model; first drawings and then making all the templates and the mould before preparing the wood for the instrument itself.
I’ve started by making the ribs. There was enough wood in the one-piece back I’m using to cut the ribs, so they match the back perfectly. The wood is quite highly figured and looked as if it might be hard to bend, but it worked out fine. I made the mould from walnut, a recent change from the plywood I have used for years. It makes the whole rib assembly somehow a much more pleasurable task, handling something made from such beautiful wood. Walnut is stable and easy to work, the perfect choice.
Over the days it takes to make the ribs, letting the glue dry between all the stages, I’ve been working on the scroll. The Betts head has unusual proportions: the scroll part is really quite small but the pegbox is long. I’m always highly conscious of reducing unnecessary weight for violas so I have slightly reduced the pegbox length for mine but I’ve still tried to keep the character of the mismatched proportions, which I plan to echo later on with some decoration on the back.
The back of the violin is in one piece; a handsome piece of maple that I bought some years ago in France. The front is of high-quality spruce from the Fiemme Valley in Italy, where Stradivari sourced his wood. The area was subject to Storm Vaia in 2018 which resulted in damage to many of the trees. I took part in a crowdfunding campaign to save the timber, run by the local specialist violin wood yard. And a couple of years later I took delivery of some of the very wood, including the front for this viola.
I’ve started by roughing out the arching, then finalising the outline with an even margin round the ribs.
My customer was keen to have some decoration on her viola. I thought that it would be nice to look for inspiration from the historic English instruments, so I showed her pictures of quite a number of early viols, well known for their wonderful craftsmanship and decoration. She especially liked the decoration on a tenor viol by John Rose from 1598. I simplified and adapted the design to fit with the viola. I have kept the decoration quite large in proportion to the back, wanting to echo the idea of mismatched proportions we had with the long pegbox and the small scroll.
I constructed the design with ruler and compass and then copied it onto paper. With that glued to the front I could mark out the design, cut the channels and bend and glue in the purfling. It’s such a fun thing to do!
I love how when I scrape over the decoration you get these stripy woodshavings. And the final planing and scraping done, here’s the finished arching.
Ilana lent me the original Betts while I finalised the arching and cut the f-holes. I haven’t copied it slavishly but subtly changed aspects like the arching and thicknessing to give the viola more projection. Also I slightly redrew the f-holes to be more in keeping with crisper new work.
The back and front have been hollowed out. I work carefully checking the thickness. It’s different for each instrument, taking into account the shape of the arching, the stiffness and density of the wood, and how it sounds when I tap it. When it’s right it’s flexible but not too much so, and there is a good ring when I tap the wood. That done, I fit the bass bar inside the front, which helps support the string tension from the bridge and reinforces the lower register of the viola.
Then I take the ribs off the mould and finalise the internal surfaces of the blocks and linings. Time to glue the back to the ribs then the front.
I’ve now fitted and shaped the neck, taking care to make it really slender and well-shaped so that the viola is as easy as possible to play. The instrument is now finished ‘in the white’, ready for the varnishing process.
The viola is now finished. I used a rich red varnish which I think will match its customer’s hair! I’m really pleased with the sound; it’s open and powerful with a surprisingly good C for its size, and also a warm and flexible A.