A little while ago I had an interesting call from Stella, a viola player and teacher from Switzerland. Alongside her teaching practice she’s working on a dissertation, which has set her thinking more and more about the quality of her pupils’ instruments. She wondered if I had ever made a viola the same size as a half size violin, and if I would be up for making one for her, that her pupils could use, so that they had the experience of a good quality instrument.
I’m always up for a challenge, and having successfully made a number of violas which are the size equivalent of a three quarter size violin, I thought I could make this work. So here goes!
I’m using my normal cornerless design. I’ve already make a few half size violins, so I started by looking at my design for those, and modified it by increasing the width in the lower bouts and also in the waist area. One of the virtues of the cornerless design is that it’s easy to make a wider waist, which is a critical area for viola sound. Even though this will be a tiny viola, I will be able to keep quite a wide spacing on the f-holes and a correspondingly wide bridge, which will go a long way to giving a viola rather than violin quality of sound.
The next important choice was the wood, looking for light weight and good acoustic properties. I’ve picked slab-sawn maple for the back, as opposed to the more usual quarter-sawn timber, this will give more flexibility which should offset the stiffness that comes from a smaller body. This particular piece comes from one of my usual wood dealers in Germany; I’ve used wood from the same tree before with good results. The front is from spruce, and something of an experiment. I’m using wood that has been torrified; heat-treated under vacuum, which is a sort of artificial ageing process, giving the wood more resonance and reducing its density. Should be a perfect match for the little viola.
I’ve sawn out the back and front from the solid wood and have then roughed the arching.
Now I’m fitting the purfling, the inlaid black/white/black decoration around the edge of the back and front. First I mark and cut the channel, then bend the purfling to fit, then glue it in.
Before I finalise the arching shape, I round the edges and use a gouge to flute the edges, leaving the purfling at the bottom of my cut, so that the arching can rise gracefully from it.
I’ve now finalised the arching. I’ve worked very carefully, looking at making a strong shape, medium high arching, quite full to the edges, which in my experience works best for a good quality of sound for violas.
Then it’s time for the thicknessing. I was quite apprehensive about this, thinking that achieving sufficient flexibility and good clear ringing tap tones might be quite a challenge without going too thin. But actually, thanks to good wood choice and good arching, everything fell into place remarkably easily and I’m happy with the result.
Alongside the thicknessing, I cut the f-holes. And alongside that I’ve started work on filling that irritating resin pocket in the upper bouts.
I build the ribs of the cornerless violas directly onto the back. I make the top and bottom blocks and glue them in place, then prepare strips of maple just over 1mm thick. These are bent to shape and glued to the back. Then I fit strengthening strips of wood where the corners would have been, and fit the linings which reinforce the glue joints against the back and front.
While all this bending and gluing is happening, I get on with the head. It’s a simple shape which echoes the body, and it’s light in weight.
Before I ‘close the box”, I’ve fitted the bass bar which reinforces the bass register of the viola and helps support the tension of the strings.
And lastly, I prepare the fingerboard and fit it to the neck, then fit and shape the neck. For the fingerboard I’m trying out Sonowood compressed maple – an alternative to ebony. It’s stiffer than ebony which I think will be advantageous for the little viola, to help give more clarity and definition to the sound. I took a lot of trouble over the neck shape, to make it slim and comfortable for the little hands that will play it.
Now the varnishing process begins.
It’s now January, and I’ve varnished and set up the viola. With some trepidation I took it to show one of my regular viola testers. It seems that the gamble has paid off! It definitely sounds like a viola, a good clear sound on the upper three strings, not quite so open on the C, but that feels as if it will improve with playing and some experimentation to find the optimal stringing.