I love the beginning of January. When my Dad was alive he always made us laugh by making comments about ‘getting back to normal’ when we visited; he was a keen model engineer and liked nothing better than spending time in his workshop where he made exquisite model trains and engines. As I get older I have to admit the family resemblance!
So, new year, new viola. This one is a lovely commission; Olga has been playing my smaller violas for nearly eight years, starting with a 14 1/4 inch viola and more recently with a 15 inch. Now she’s at university the time has come for her ‘forever’ instrument. She visited me before Christmas and tried a couple of my violas, settling on this as her favoured model.
I came up with this model some years ago. It’s based on an enlargement of a Paolo Maggini violin. Paolo Maggini worked in the Northern Italian town of Brescia around the turn of the 17th century, and is best known for his lovely violas, which however tend to be on the larger side. A lot of the Maggini violins are also oversized, and this one had been altered substantially, so rather than copying it as a violin it made sense to take the outline and enlarge it, making a highly playable smaller viola that works well. I’ve made it almost every year since I came up with the design.
I’ve started as usual with the ribs. These are from thin strips of maple, bent with heat and glued around a mould. When the ribs are all bent, I glue narrow strips of spruce, the linings, to the inner surfaces of the ribs so that the eventual glue joint with the back and front will be stronger than it would be if it were only the 1mm thickness of the ribs.
While all the glue joints are drying I get on with the scroll. I love the shape of the Brescian scrolls. Unlike Cremonese scrolls, the turns are undercut, so looking from the front and back they are like unfurling scrolls of parchment.
With the ribs and scroll finished, I turn my attention to the back and front, and it feels as if the viola is really under way, as the plates are what really determine the sound of the viola. For the back, Olga has chosen a lovely subtly figured piece of maple, sawn ‘on the slab’ which means that the grain lines are roughly parallel with the arching. This gives additional flexibility which works particularly well with violas. I’ve matched it with a high-quality spruce front with fairly wide grain lines. I’ve found that this sort of spruce works well for violas too.
I’ve started by roughing out the arching shapes from slabs of wood, and finalising the outlines.
Then I fit the purfling, the decorative inlay that runs round the perimeter of the back and front. I make it from three pieces of wood glued together; dyed pear for the black and poplar for the white. I cut a channel around the edges of the viola then bend, trim and glue the purfling sandwich in place.
With the purfling fitted, I’ve finalised the arching. For this model, the arching is fairly high and full to the edges, which contributes to a warm viola quality of sound.
Next stage thicknessing, taking wood away from the underside of the back and front until there is a good balance of weight, stiffness and the sound when tapped. This is different for each instrument, and towards the end I work slowly with thumb planes and scrapers, checking carefully to see how the wood feels. The back, which works a little like the cone of a loudspeaker, is thicker in the central part, to add weight to this pumping movement. The front, which radiates the sound, is an even thickness all over. I do the front thicknessing with the f-holes roughly cut so that I can see visually that the thickness is even where it’s visible, and everywhere else I check with calipers and my fingers.
And with the thicknessing to my satisfaction, I finalise the shape of the f-holes. These ones I think of as looking quite cheerful and friendly. They have a purpose too, the quite basic one of letting the sound out of the viola!
The final task for the front is to fit the bass bar, which reinforces the bass register of the viola and helps support the weight of the bridge. Then I take the ribs off the back, finalise the interior surfaces and glue the ribs to the back. Then all is ready to ‘close the box’ and fit the neck.
Lovely tranquil January has been an opportunity for a lot of focussed work in the workshop with good concentration, so the viola is now finished in the white. I’ve fitted the neck, and as ever, shaped it carefully so that it will feel good in the player’s hand. Now the long varnishing process starts.