This is the third and final instrument I’m making to exhibit at Klanggestalten, the exhibition in Berlin that takes place in October every year. I’m lucky to have been asked to participate this year.
I gave a lot of thought to what to make, as I wanted to highlight what I think is special about my work. As I often undertake personalised commissions, sometimes to suit someone who finds standard sized instruments uncomfortable, I thought I’d reflect that by making a slightly undersized violin.
The Guarneri del Gesù models of this period all have a slightly undersized body length, and the stop length, the distance from the top edge of the front to the f-holes, is correspondingly small. There are different options for how you treat that – if you want to get close to standard measurements, you can fit the bridge a little lower than the normal position – the centre of the bridge in line with the nicks of the f holes – and then make the neck length accordingly. Or you can keep the bridge in the normal position and make the neck correspondingly shorter to give the correct ratio, giving a slightly shorter string length. Perfect for players who find the normal stretch a little difficult. So I’m planning to go for the latter option, which will make a violin edging towards a 7/8 in size, and hope that some diminutive German violinists visit the exhibition!
As ever, I’ve started by making the rib assembly. The strips of maple are bent using heat and glued to blocks fitted in the mould.
While I’ve been working on the ribs, I’ve also made the scroll. The later del Gesù heads are really crazy, but this is rather more restrained and shows his debt to his Cremonese neighbour, Stradivari.
Now I turn to the back and front. I use maple for the back, the same as the ribs and head. I have picked an attractive two-piece back with nice figure, over fifty years old. The front is from spruce; this is a lovely piece that comes from the valley in Italy where Stradivari sourced his wood. This was one of the trees that fell in the big storm Vaia a few years ago, and I took part in a crowdfunding initiative to save the fallen trees for violin makers.
I start with thick chunks of wood and then using planes of different sizes, work the wood down to close to the final arching shape. I have guides taken from the original instrument to help reproduce the shapes.
Next up is fitting the purfling, the black/white/black strips round the edges of the back and front. I cut a channel and then bend, trim and glue the purfling in place. When that’s done, I gouge a channel round the edge with the purfling at the lowest point, which gives the lovely recurve from which the arching flows.
Then I finalise the arching shapes.
With that done, I turn my attention to the thicknessing. I remove wood carefully and slowly; I’m looking for a good balance between weight, stiffness and the sound it makes when I tap the wood. I don’t have precise measurements but I know when it feels right.
Then I cut the f-holes, the ‘eyes’ of the violin.
It’s always a lovely time when the instrument starts to come together. I’ve fitted the bass bar, taken the ribs off the mould, finished the internal faces of the blocks and linings, and glued the back to the ribs.
And I’ve now fitted the neck and started the varnishing process. Firstly I put some light colour into the wood so that it is a warm gold, which supports the varnish colour and reduces the risk of the glaring newness that you get if you varnish straight onto the ivory tones of the wood. The fingerboard is covered in foil so that the black ebony doesn’t absorb the heat from the ultra violet tubes I use to dry the varnish.
And now the violin is finished. I’ve gone for a mixture of red and brown pigments in the varnish which has given a nice warm dark orangey brown colour. First impressions of the sound are positive; it’s a rich quality with lots of power and even through the register. I’m looking forward to showing it to more players.
The violin was a bit hit at Klanggestalten. It was chosen as one of only three sets of instruments played by the wonderful Mandelring Quartet at their concert which was the highlight of the event. Many thanks to the Quartet’s leader, Sebastian Schmidt for choosing my violin and playing it so beautifully in Janacek’s ‘Kreuzer Sonata’ quartet.