I have been intrigued by this early Stradivari viola for some while; it’s a rarity in his output, the only one made to this model, and unusually with a poplar back. I’ve heard it played by Antoine Tamestit on recording and been blown away by the expressiveness of the sound. During last year’s lockdown I was without orders so I had a chance to try making my version of it, and was pleased with the result; the sound had an instant fizz of responsiveness and a rich depth. It found a home almost as soon as I finished it, with a talented young player.
I’m making it again partly on spec, for a player who is interested in the model but lives in the Netherlands, so as I had an unexpected space in my order book it seemed easiest to make it anyway and hope she likes it!
I start by making the rib assembly. Using a mould, the traditional technique from the time of Stradivari, I bend and glue the thin strips of maple. Finally I glue in the spruce linings, which will reinforce the eventual gluing surface with the back and front.
While the glue joints of the rib assembly dry, I start work on the scroll. All the Stradivari scrolls are cello-style with little shoulders, which not all players find comfortable. So I have redrawn the scroll a little smaller and lighter than the original without the cello shoulders.
The next stage is to start work on the plates. I’m using poplar for the back as per the original, this time a one-piece back with attractive tiny pimply knots. The original Stradivari viola has quite a wild, wide-grained front. I can’t quite match that but I have found a high-quality rather more regular but wide-grained piece of spruce which a guitar-maker friend sourced for me in Switzerland. I start by sawing out the plates a little larger than the finished size, then roughing the arching before finalising the outlines.
Then I fit the purfling. I make this from strips of pearwood which I dye black, separated by a strip of poplar. I cut two parallel grooves round the edge of the back and front, chisel out the waste wood between them, and bend, fit and glue the purfling in the channel. Job done!
Now it’s one of my favourite parts of making an instrument, finalising the arching. It’s lovely to see the subtle curves of the arching develop and the grain of the wood show in its full beauty as I move from planing the wood to scraping. I use templates to help me recreate the shape of the arching of the original viola.
With the arching finished, I turn my attention to the inside of the back and front, and reduce them to the final thickness. I work carefully, taking into account the arching shape, measurements of the original which I’m lucky to have, the weight, how it feels when flexed and how it sounds when tapped. Eventually I’m satisfied.
Then I cut the f-holes in the front, one of my favourite tasks. They really bring the instrument to life, like its eyes. The front is then finalised by fitting the bass bar, which reinforces the lower register of the viola, and also helps support the weight of the bridge. After that I’m ready to start putting the body together, so first I glue the back to the ribs.
Then in goes the label and I’m ready to ‘close the box’, the best Friday afternoon job!
Then I fit and shape the neck. Linda has quite small hands so we had a look at suitable measurements, and I hope she will find this very comfortable. And after carefully cleaning and checking over the viola, it’s finished ‘in the white’, ready for varnishing.
The viola is now finished. The varnish is a translucent caramel colour, which really brings out the subtlety of the poplar back. I’ve set up the viola with geared pegs and a carefully cut bridge and soundpost. First impressions of the sound are that it’s even, resonant, has good projection and a lovely rich warmth.