Gregory Singer Playing George.

Polishing Edward

Violin Maker Visit: William Mason Violins Fredricksburg, VA

July 11, 2014: Visiting William Mason Violins, Fredricksburg, VA

Today I visited Bill Mason of William Mason Vi). I had met Bill at the Southern Violin Association’s (SVA) annual meeting on May 25th in Atlanta (http://southernviolinassociation.com or on FaceBoohttps://www.facebook.com/SouthernViolinAssociation). The SVA is an association of violin makers and violin shoppes located in the Southern states. The purpose of the SVA is to promulgate information about violin resources in the South as well as to provide a networking and learning environment to promote additional skills for its members. The May 25th meeting was my first event with the SVA, we had two shoppes represented and several makers. Bill and his wife Elaine delivered a presentation detailing how they got their shop started and the business model they are implementing in Fredricksburg Virginia.

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There was also a presentation at the SVA meeting by David Chandler illustrating how he collects downed North Carolina red spruce in the Appalachian National Forest for the tops in his violins. David gave each of the participants a block of red spruce to use in our instruments.

After the presentations, makers showed their instruments to each other and garnered suggestions, accolades, and additional insight on how they can continue to improve their craftsmanship in the art of making violins.

The meeting was a success in many respects; networking, information, and most significantly for me being with a group of people dedicated to making great violins. Bill had asked me to send him one of my violins to consign in his Fredricksburg shoppe. He also extended a warm invitation to visit he and Elaine if I was ever in Northern Virginia.

Well, this week I was in Northern Virginia and took a morning to visit Bill and Elaine at their shoppe in Fredricksburg. They lease space in a historic building in downtown Fredricksburg. The building used to be a creamery, today it houses William Mason Violins. Bill has developed a very interesting business making violins, selling violins, and passing on the craftsmanship to several apprentices. The historic building has space for Bill and Elaine to live over the shop, a machine room, a work room with space for 9 apprentices, a varnishing room, a show room, a practice room, a bow repair room, and plenty of storage for the businesses rental violin cases, instruments, bows etc. The space is perfect for hosting violin and bow making workshops. Bill plans to expand the facility to house a performing arts space for chamber music and small ensemble performances. William Mason Violins is gradually becoming an “Everything Strings” facility in historic downtown Fredricksburg Virginia.

Bill spent 3 hours with me going from room to room and bench to bench comparing notes, sharing tips and tricks and chatting about our shared passion of violin making. It was a wonderful visit, a wonderful trip. If you ever get near Fredricksburg Virginia, I highly recommend you stop in and visit William Mason Violins.

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Violin Making: Setting the Bass Bar in Fiona

One of the mysterious steps in violin making is setting the bass bar. There is much discussion about the bar tension, placement, and thickness; all factors that affect the tone of the final instrument. Also all factors that can not be changed after the top is glued on. Today I shaped, glued, and trimmed the bass bar in Fiona. Oh all the questions? The wondering? The acoustical samples and science. Every article I’ve read on “What makes the sound of a good violin?” Now I see and measure the details, someday I’ll understand or get a ‘feeling’ for the effects and results.

Tap Tone Test

I took tap frequency readings and weighed the plates prior to cutting the F-Holes, after cutting the F-Holes, after setting the bass bar, and now again after trimming the bass bar. After trimming the plate resonance frequency is at the same point as prior to cutting the F-Holes. The removal of wood for the F-Holes, the additional stiffness and trimming of the bass bare canceled each other the F-Holes to resolve to the same acoustical values.

Fiona, #6, is a bit lower frequency than Diana, #4. Diana had an F for the front plate and F# for the back plate. Fiona is 1/2 step lower with D# for the front and F for the back. This is also what Claude, #3, measured at. Fiona also weighs a bit less for each plate, with equivalent dimensions, which is expected with the lower frequencies. The wood has a little bit less density.

Continual Learning

As I build each instrument and record the resonate frequencies and plate weights. I can observe the effects as the building process progresses, as well as the final tonal effects on the instruments. The more I build, the more I understand. Right now I’m hypothesizing and observing.

There is a violin maker in the Maestronet blogs who used to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a Mr Don Noon. His tag line reads, “Making fiddles ain’t rocket science…  it’s much more complicated.”

Everyday, new lessons, more progress; the path to mastery

 Photos journey of setting the bass bar

Fiona with a fitted bass bar. The plexiglass brackets hold the bass bar in position while checking the fit. Chalk is spread under the bass bar, and then the bar is pressed into place, removed, and inspected for even chalk on the bar. Where its not even, the chalk and a little wood is removed until the bar fits perfectly.
Fiona with a fitted bass bar. The plexiglass brackets hold the bass bar in position while checking the fit. Chalk is spread under the bass bar, and then the bar is pressed into place, removed, and inspected for even chalk on the bar. Where its not even, the chalk and a little wood is removed until the bar fits perfectly.
Top view of Fiona's bass bar. The bar is placed in proportion to the center line of the top plate. The placement is close to the line of the G string, the lowest string on the violin. The purpose of the bass bar is to transmit the lower frequencies down to the larger 'bass' end of the violin's vibrating top plate.
Top view of Fiona’s bass bar. The bar is placed in proportion to the center line of the top plate. The placement is close to the line of the G string, the lowest string on the violin. The purpose of the bass bar is to transmit the lower frequencies down to the larger ‘bass’ end of the violin’s vibrating top plate.
High Tech bass bar clamps :-) You can purchase cast iron C clamps to span perfectly over the bass bar. I like to use the simplest technology that works. Stradivarius did not have cast iron spanner clamps, but then he probably didn't have rubber bands either....
High Tech bass bar clamps 🙂 You can purchase cast iron C clamps to span perfectly over the bass bar. I like to use the simplest technology that works. Stradivarius did not have cast iron spanner clamps, but then he probably didn’t have rubber bands either….
The under side of my bass bar clamps, wine corks. The corks are cut in half and line up with the bass bar. Without them you don't get even pressure, also the cork (or modern plastic corks in this case) provide a nice pliable surface to avoid denting the soft spruce.  Once done with the process, I celebrate by finding a new wine cork :-)
The under side of my bass bar clamps, wine corks. The corks are cut in half and line up with the bass bar. Without them you don’t get even pressure, also the cork (or modern plastic corks in this case) provide a nice pliable surface to avoid denting the soft spruce. Once done with the process, I celebrate by finding a new wine cork 🙂

Violin making: Rib Assembly on Fiona

The first steps in making Violin #6, Fiona is building the violin rib assembly. To get started we set the corner gluing blocks to the form and then gluing the ribs. It all sounds pretty simple until, like most things, you get into the details.

This first photo shows fitting the template over the form and marking the edges of the corner blocks. The insides of the corner blocks are trimmed and clued first, then the outsides of hte blocks. If you trim the outside, the point is so fragile that it will break when clamping in the C bouts, the tight middle rib pieces.

Fiona #6, triming corner blocks to fit the Strad violin template
Fiona #6, triming corner blocks to fit the Strad violin template

We test if the corner block is trimmed close enough by trying to hold a pencil line on the wooden block. If the block is the correct size the pencil will slip down the side rather than draw on the edge.

This next photo shows fitting the clamping cauls to the corners. A clamping caul is used to hold the exact curve during clamping. If the caul is not an exact reverse surface from the corner block, you will get gaps which are weak glue joints. Also the ribs need to fit, clamp and glue perfectly square, else the finished violin will not rest flat on its side, all four outer edges of the plates touching flat.

Fiona #6, Setting the glue cauls for the corners, top, and bottom blocks
Fiona #6, Setting the glue cauls for the corners, top, and bottom blocks

 

Once the cauls are all trimmed and fit, a test clamp assures that the ribs will fit tight into the corner blocks. The entire assembly is clamped up without glue with each corner seam checked top and bottom for a clean fit. Once everything is correct pencil lines are drawn on the sides and forms to show the exact position when the gluing starts.

Fiona #6, Testing Clamp fit of the ribs onto the Strad form
Fiona #6, Testing Clamp fit of the ribs onto the Strad form

If it doesn’t fit dry, it will certainly not fit in the rush of getting everything together before the hot hide glue starts to set.

Next Steps Trimming the top and bottom and gluing the rib assembly together.

 

The Making Violin #6, Fiona Started today

Sound Testing #5 Edward

With #5, Edward, playable in the white, I did a set of recordings for comparison to when Edward will have his varnish on. The recordings consist of a set of open string bowings; G, D, A, E and then a D major scale, and a three octave A major scale. The final recording is a tapping on the bridge, this measurement will provide a frequency ‘ring’ of the instrument independant of the bow and/or player skill required in the first set of recordings

Prior to making the recordings I tuned the sound post, moving it a bit forward and to the treble side. The slightest movements of the sound post had an impact on the sound of the instrument. The changes ranged from shrill to mellow, to nasal or hollow. The adjustments strive for a pleasant blend of these two scales; a tiche to the left, a tiche to the right, oh too far and a tiche back to the left. Once satisfied, then the sound test were done and recorded. I keep a set of recordings on every instrument first the tap tones taken when graduating the plates, then the instrument in the white, then when the varnish is first complete, then after a couple of months of playing. The scientific process of improvement; measure, compare, adjust, measure, compare, adjust then repeat.

The Start to Making Violin #6

These paragraphs were musings about the  process with finishing Edward, now on to the real purpose of this post: Starting to make the next violin!!!

The following photo shows the spruce and maple that will be planed, cut, glued, carved and scraped into a fine violin.

Raw wood for violin #5: top spruce billet, bottom maple billet, maple side pieces, and maple neck block
Raw wood for violin #5: top spruce billet, bottom maple billet, maple side pieces, and maple neck block

 

Wood for making Violin #5; Foreground is a jack plane fitted to a fixture to create a striking board. It is used to get a square, true edge for gluing.
Wood for making Violin #5; Foreground is a jack plane fitted to a fixture to create a striking board. It is used to get a square, true edge for gluing.

The first step is to plane the plate glue edge perfectly square and straight. The striking plane jig holds the plate flat and cuts square, then the movement across the blade will determine the straightness of hte edge.  The goal is to hold the two pieces of each plate together in front of a bright light. If any light shows through the seam, then it is not a good fit. Holding the plates together square or straight should show no light, then hold the edges a skew with the the top aligned with the bottom on one end and the bottom with the top on the other end. This will show a straight line, and no curve or angle in the cut. The finished edge will match perfectly creating a clean thin glue line in the finished plates.  An axiom in violin making; a little extra care early saves work later. Same as “Haste makes Waste.”

 

Edward #5 Setup to Play his first tunes

Today Edward, Violiln #5, was setup and played in the white. Edward was started in February of 2014. When I went to the Tuscon violin making workshop, Edward’s ribs were done and the plate edges were trimmed. Today setup was completed in the white, prior to varnishing. The reason I’m setting up Edward before varnishing is to take a set of sound recordings before and after the varnishing process. By analysing the pre and post sound samples, I’ll be able to determine what affect the varnish process has on the sound. As I complete more instruments I will be able to see how the sound developes, always making refinements for more and more quality in the instruments.

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Edward White setup
Edward White setup

Varnishing Beatrice

Finally at the stage of varnishing my early violins. The following photos show the varnishing stages of Beatrice my second violin.

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This photo shows Beatrice with two coats of cold rolled linseed oil. I actually use the food grade fax oil from the health food store. Also she has two clear coats of a oil varnish and two coats of an amber/yellow colored varnish. There will be at least 6 more coats of color before she is done.

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Varnishing the Neck

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Putting her back into the infrared drying cabinet to cure. By using a drying cabinet I can get a new coat of varnish every day.