This is the largest viola I normally make. I drew up the design some years ago, based on the Gasparo da Salo tenor viola in the Ashmolean Museum. That’s a very large instrument, so I redrew it to what is a more comfortable size.
This one is a commission from a pupil at Chetham’s School of Music. He’s been hiring a Maurice Bouette viola from me for the last year, and is excited that he’ll be having his own custom-made viola soon.
As ever, I’ve started by making the ribs, strips of maple planed down to just over 1mm thick, bent to shape and glued onto the blocks which are fitted into the mould. When all the ribs are bent, I fit the linings, small strips of spruce which reinforce the eventual joints with the back and front.
There is quite a lot of downtime while making ribs, while all the different glue joints dry, so I use that to start work on the head. This is a favourite job, I do enjoy the freedom and spontaneity of the Gasparo heads. I’ve redrawn the original quite considerably, keeping it as small as I reasonably can to minimise weight.
The back of the viola is made from a solid piece of maple which I carve to shape, using a selection of planes of different sizes. I gave Seb the choice of a couple of pieces which I thought would work well with the model, and he’s gone with a lovely, subtly figured piece. The front is a different approach. I’ve picked some beautiful, lightweight spruce from Switzerland, and instead of carving the wood, the initial shape is made by steam bending. I find this gives additional resonance and responsiveness to the viola.
With the arching roughed out and the outlines finalised, I’m ready to start the purfling. This is a sandwich of pear wood dyed black with a central core of, in this case spindlewood, which runs round the edge of the viola.
I start by cutting the edges of the channel that the purfling is inlaid into, then removing the waste wood. After that I bend the strips and cut them to length, finally gluing in place.
When the glue is dry, I sharpen my nicest small gouges and cut a channel round the edge, with the purfling near the lowest point. This is a critical step; the shape of the arching flows from this channel from the inside of the purfling, and the space between the purfling and the edge is a vital part of the distinctive edgework of the instrument.
I’m not done yet with the purfling though, as this one is getting a second line around the edges plus decorative patterns on the back.
Two days of intensive work later… I copy the drawing of the decoration onto foundation paper – this is something used when making machine-sewn patchwork, one of the hacks I use in violin making borrowed from my sewing hobby. It’s thinner than normal paper, and I think not made from cellulose, so it glues really well to the wood. Then I line up the drawings exactly on the inner line of purfling and glue them in place. After that I cut round the outer lines with a knife and use dividers set at the width of the purfling to mark the inner lines, then finish with a knife and pick out the waste.
Then a lot of cutting and gluing tiny pieces of purfling and bending sharp curves. When I finally join the decoration into the inner line of purfling, it’s like the trills at the end of the cadenza, and I feel a slight pang of sadness that this excursion into exuberant decoration is done.
When the glue has dried, I plane the purfling level with the surface of the wood and remove all the paper, so that I can see the decoration in all its glory, and then continue to finalise the arching.
And it’s lovely to see the final arching and the decoration in all its glory.
I now turn over the wood to reduce the back and front to their final thickness. I remove the wood first with planes of various sizes then with scrapers; checking measurements of thickness and weight and checking the stiffness when I flex the wood and the sound it makes when tapped. My experience both conscious and subconscious tells me when I’ve taken off enough wood and it’s time to stop! Each instrument is different, depending on the model, arching shape and qualities of the wood.
Then there is more to do to the front before I’m ready to glue the body together; I cut the f-holes and fit the bass bar which reinforces the lower register of the viola. Then I’m ready to take the ribs off the mould and finish the internal shapes of the blocks and linings.
Then the ribs are glued to the back, the label goes in and the front is on, to ‘close the box’.
With the body finished, I’ve made the fingerboard, from some really lovely old ebony fingerboards I bought recently from a retiring violin maker. Then all was ready to fit and then shape the neck. I’ve left it a little larger than usual as Seb has huge hands, but I’ve still taken my usual care to make a good shape that will feel comfortable to play.
And now the viola is finished in the white, ready for the varnishing process. Firstly I’ll give the wood some colour and a suntan. After that I will seal it so that the eventual coloured varnish doesn’t sink into the wood. All the varnishes I make are homemade, a skill in itself…
…and now it’s finished. Seb wanted a very dark, shaded varnish and so I have done my best to comply. I’ve added a little wear, some scratches and patina, so it doesn’t look 100% new. The sound seems rich and powerful with a fast response – I’m looking forward to hearing it!