I’ve had an exciting invitation; to take part in Klanggestalten, an exhibition of violin and bow makers that takes place over a weekend in Berlin each autumn. It’s an honour to be asked to participate, so I am busy making the instruments I will show.
I wanted to highlight the specialities of my work, which are all about making instruments that feel really inviting to play, both musically and physically, and of course this often involves violas. I decided to return to a model that has been very much my own; it’s enlarged from a Maggini violin that I was lucky to be able to measure a few years ago, and makes a very comfortable and good-sounding viola. At 15 3/4 inches it’s manageable by most players, but is big enough to have a convincing viola sound.
As always, I started with the ribs, thin strips of maple bent round the mould.
Then the head. I love the designs of these early heads from the Brescian makers, Maggini and Gasparo da Salo. They have lots of energy, looking like unrolling parchment scrolls. I keep the size quite small so that the instrument is light and well balanced.
I’ve now turned my attention to the back and front. As usual, I’m using slab-sawn maple for the back; cut with the grain lines roughly parallel to the arching rather than perpendicular, it gives the wood more flexibility and helps give the warmth and roundness we like to hear in viola sound. This piece has attractive bubbly markings. For the front I’ve used nice quality medium grained spruce.
I’ve wanted my instruments for Klanggestalten to show some of my specialities, so I’m doing decoration on this viola. I’ve copied the purfling inlay from the original Maggini violin. The purfling itself is a sandwich of spindle wood between strips of pear dyed black. For the decoration, I copy the design onto paper, glued it to the back and then cut the little grooves for the purfling. Then it’s a long and fiddly job, bending the little pieces of wood, cutting them to length and gluing them in. But it’s calming and meditative.
The purfling is at last done, so I’m able to finalise the arching. The lovely burnished sheen on the maple back is achieved by polishing the wood with equisetum, a plant that contains a lot of silica, like a natural version of sandpaper. I grow it in the pond outside my workshop so every time I need some, I can just go outside and harvest it.
With the arching finalised, I’ve turned the back and front over to reduce the wood to the final thickness. I worked slowly and carefully, flexing and tapping the wood till I was happy that everything felt right. Then I was ready to cut the f-holes in the front.
I’ve now taken the ribs off the mould, glued them to the back and glued the front to the ribs. Progress!
With the body together, the instrument really starts to take shape. I’ve fitted the neck and spent some time making a lovely slim and comfortable shape. Then the viola is finished, ready to varnish.
I’ve now varnished the viola, a rich warm chestnut brown. I’ve set it up carefully – this time I’m trying out a fingerboard of compressed beech, as a more sustainable alternative to ebony. The softer colour looks quite good I think. I’m now excited to hear the viola for the first time, waiting for a viola player to cross the threshold.
The viola did itself proud at Klanggestalten and several of the visiting viola players picked it out as one of their favourites, despite it being smaller in size than most of the others. A feature of the exhibition is the ‘Klangprobe’, when a top player puts each instrument in turn through its paces, playing the same excerpt on each. The instruments are anonymous at this stage and the names of the makers revealed at the end. Thanks to Professor Tomoko Akasaka from Münster Hochschule für Musik for her fearless playing!