This viola is a commission from an adult violinist who also plays the viola and wanted an instrument that would be easy to swap around with. This should fit the bill perfectly as it feels just like a full size violin. Graham has already spent some time with an earlier viola of mine of this size so he’s sure he’ll be happy with the size. This is lovely for me; his partner has had one of my cellos since he was a pupil at Chetham’s, so the connection goes back a long way.
We spent some time picking out a good piece of slab-sawn for the back which will work both visually and acoustically. I’ve matched it with a torrefied spruce front. This process involves heating the wood under vacuum pressure. It darkens the wood and increases its stability, and as some of the sappy parts of the wood are driven off, the density is reduced and the sound conduction increases. The downside is that the wood is harder to work and get a good finish on, though that’s a problem for the maker rather than the player! I’ve only used one piece of this before, for the tiny 32cm viola I made last year. That turned out well so it seemed a good idea to use another piece for this special commission.
I’ve started by jointing the front and preparing the back, cutting them out and roughly shaping the arching.
Then I cut the purfling channel and glue in the purfling, a sandwich I make myself of a poplar core bordered with dyed pear wood.
With the purfling done, I’ve finalised the arching. Firstly I cut a channel around the edge, with the purfling at the deepest point. This makes the characteristic edgework, and the arching rises from there, quite full to help it have a powerful sound.
With the arching finished, I turn over the wood and thickness the back and front. There’s a lot of wood to remove quickly at first, and then I work more slowly using small planes and finally a scraper, checking the stiffness of the wood, how it sounds when tapped and the weight, until I’m happy. The torrefied spruce front sounds great, really resonant.
Then I cut the f-holes. I use a slightly unusual design which I think fits well with the cornerless shape.
Now I turn my attention to the ribs, which I make directly on the back. I’ve planed up two nice strips of figured maple with have a similar narrow figure to the back. I’ve glued the top and bottom block in place, and then bend the ribs to fit the back and glue them.
Then I glue strips of wood running at right angles to the run of the ribs, where the corners would normally be, which reinforces the weakest points of the rib structure. After that I fit the top and bottom linings which strengthen the joint between the ribs and the back and front. When everything is cleaned up and trimmed back, it is ready for the front to be glued on. I havered over whether the label should read 2023 or 2024, but in optimistic mood thought I should be able to get the viola finished before the end of the year, even if not delivered by then to its new owner.
Before I do that, I fit the bass bar. I find that this unconventional design, pioneered by Christian Bayon, works really well, enhancing the lower register of the viola and improving overall resonance. Then I glued on the front.
Then I make the head. I’ve been working on a redesign of my original idea, a little more sophisticated than the very simple head I’ve done for years. I like that the shape of the head as it tapers into the throat echoes the curved wings of the f-holes.
I’ve fitted and shaped the neck, and the viola is finished ‘in the white’, ready for the long varnishing process.