Thursday, August 21, 2014

Book Recommendation: The Universal Dictionary of Violin & Bow Makers by William Henley

This compilation catalogues historical and accomplished makers—a helpful guide in determining the value and import of an instrument. I imagine this would be helpful when doing appraisals. Identifying an instrument to determine it's monetary value can be tricky because labels are often misleading or lacking much identifying information. But, if you at least have the maker's name you could look it up in this book and see if he/she is listed.

Apparently this book is most relevant through the 1950s/1960s or so. It's been in print beyond that, but it's not up to date with more modern makers. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Light in the Dark

When it comes time to smooth out the surfaces of the top and back plates, a dark room with a light angled low (in a chiaroscuro sort of way) onto the wood highlights the texture more than direct lighting will. 

Another Violin Painting

My summer apprenticeship has come to an end, and as a gift for my great teacher, Juan Mijares, I painted this little diddy:

Glue Brushes

I found a pack of brushes in the kids craft section of IKEA for like $3.00, and seriously, they are AMAZING brushes for that price. I got them to use for actual painting, but I did pull one out to use as a glue brush and it's so awesome. Love it. I like using a brush with finer bristles because you can paint glue on with the detail you need for the small, detailed surfaces on a violin. 

Here's a recent painting I did, just for jollies. Painting, lutherie, writing—it all comes from the same creative center. I consider myself an artist with four hats under the artist umbrella: painter, performer, luthier, writer. 

And a watercolor from a while back:

Trimming & Shaping the Linings

You could use a plane to trim the linings down to the rib edge, but it almost seems safer to use a chisel to get really close, then use the sandpaper adhered to glass to level and even out the entire top surface.

Now you can trim the bottom edge of the linings down with a knife and use some sandpaper to smooth it.

Here's an extremely childish doodle of various lining shapes people use. The first or second shapes (or something between them) are great, just fine. The others show cuts that remove extra "bulk." Some makers worry about that sort of thing. 

Gluing in the Linings with Clothespin Clamps

Bending the linings with the bending iron to fit the curves is much easier than bending the ribs. Once they're shaped, you can trim the linings until they're very snug in the mortises. You don't want to cut them too short. 

Clothespins wrapped with rubber bands are cheap and very effective clamps to hold the linings in place. You can start by putting a pin-clamp any place their might be a little gap, then work your way out from that point. 

Although hide glue dries well in about 4 hours, it's always safer to just let joints sit overnight before removing clamps. 

Cutting Mortises in Violin Corner Blocks

The mortises in the violin corner blocks, which will secure the linings in place, only need to be 7-8mm deep and maybe 6-7 long. A little marking tool like the one below is helpful when marking a pencil line to that 7-8mm depth. I guess you should settle on an exact number before you make your marking stick. 7.5 perhaps? 

Note that on the top and bottom blocks you just cut a shallow corner, then cut the ends of your linings to fit with that angle. 

A really sharp, thin, and strong exacto knife works really well to cut out that mortise. 

Juan just uses a chisel he made out of nail to pry that little chunk of wood out. 

And then you can test the fit of the mortise in the corner block with a scrap piece of your lining. 

Next Step: Bending and gluing in the linings. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Heating Hide Glue with a Bottle Warmer

Melting or heating animal hide glue crystals in water with a bottle warmer is an old trick I learned back when I was the string instrument tech at the BYU Instrument Office almost ten years ago. 

I just eyeball the water-to-glue-granule ratio—equal parts, but more or less water depending on how thick or thin you want it. Let the glue just soak for a few minutes until it's gummy and has absorbed the water. 

Melting your own hide glue from crystals, at least in my opinion, gives you a hide glue that's way better and easier to use than Titebond liquid hide glue right out of the bottle. That stuff is suuuuper thick. I guess you could thin it with hot water, which I've done before, but then it's like if you're dealing with hot water, you might as well melt some dry glue in hot water and get the consistency you want.

It's so easy! I just set it to warm up the glue at the "heat up a room temperature liquid" setting. Set it according to how many ounces of liquid you're heating up. It doesn't have to boil. It shouldn't, which is why the baby bottle warmer is so perfect. 

Some use a thermometer, but I don't know how important that is if you just aim for hot and melted but not boiling. All you need is a hot liquid to work with. It'll change temperature the moment you pull your glue brush from the pot or bottle, so the temperature isn't worth streasing  over.  

Hide glue doesn't have to be that thick. You could aim for honey consistency, or Mrs. Buttersworth high-fructose corn/"maple" syrup. But more often, even thinner than that to where it drips off your stirring stick (I recommend the handy, disposable plastic drinking straw) in watery droplets instead of a thicker honey-like drizzle. 

Again, a slightly thicker glue can be appropriate depending on what you're doing. 

When I attended the GAL (Guild of American Luthiers) conference a few years ago in Washington State, I attended a demonstration where a luthier used a high-pressure steamer, like one you'd use for cleaning, to melt hide glue into place once it's been applied around a whole instrument top (he demonstrated on a cello) and clamped into place exactly where you want it. Amazing technique done by someone known for restoration of historical instruments. I wish I could remember his name off the top of my head. 

Anyway, the reason I'm thinking of this particular conference workshop was because there were all these woodworkers asking questions about what exact temperature or thickness or brand of hide glue is ideal. And the teacher was like, guys, it's just glue. It's not rocket science. 

But he pass around a small jar with glue crystals having soaked for a while into jelly granules (like soaked chia seeds), and also a container of heated, very thin hide glue with which he instructed us to dip the tip of a finger in, then dab it together between your fingertip and thumb. And as the glue cools on your finger while you're doing this, you can feel how incredibly sticky it is and will be as it starts to stick. 

So even if it appears thin, don't panic, it's strong stuff. Think of how thin super glue is and how strong it is when it dries. Hide glue has been used for centuries because it's strong stuff. You can have faith in it. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sawing Off the Excess from the Ribs

This is a method of clamping down the rib with a block lined up as a safety guard when sawing or slicing (with a knife and straight edge) off the excess length of the ribs. 

A saw line, final line to which the edge will be planed, and guide line beneath as a reference parallel were drawn. Once sawn, a hand plane lightly shaves off the excess and leaves a clean line. Wet the ends of the rib wood grain before planing to soften the wood and avoid splintering. 

A neat idea is to set the plane blade at an ever-so-slight angle so one side cuts slightly less than the other. Then you can move the plane to one side or the other depending on how much you want to shave off. 

Gluing Upper & Lower Bout Ribs to the Blocks

An exciting step in the violin making process is gluing the upper and lower bouts ribs in place to complete the rib structure. 

Juan and I found that this is MUCH easier to do with two people with one person holding the ribs in place, all lined up, while the second person tightens the clamps. 

The order you'll glue the ribs to the blocks:

Top block
Upper corner blocks
Bottom block
Lower corner blocks 

Use blocks shaped to the outside curves of the corners, top, bottom, and shoulders (optional, especially if you have a second person holding them in place) between the clamp and mold to hold the curves in place. 

Juan showed me how to measure and plane the lower bout ribs to join up just right at the base of the violin. 

We tried a really neat trick in The Art of Violin Making (
that involves overlapping the bottom ribs by a millimeter and securing with masking tape. Then you put the outsides together and meet the ends together and when you open it the masking tape kinda stretches and pulls the ends together in an elastic, tight, rubber band kind of way. Such a helpful tip. The diagram shows how to do it much better than I'm explaining it.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Cutting Feather Edges for the Violin Rib & Block Corners

I was nervous to do this step: using the corner gouge to cut a feather edge on each corner. If you mess it up both your block and rib can end up in the trash. I waited to do it with Juan's supervision instead of at home. 

But it went so well! I am finally feeling very comfortable with my corner gouge, and Juan's setup of sitting down with the mold resting on your knee and the block against the side of the bench for support and a cutting surface was very effective. With a proper light and this posture, it was so easy to make little, precise cuts. 

At home I was hacking off big aggressive chunks on my cutting board, but Juan showed me how to just shave a little bit off from each side, flipping the mold over to reference the corner lines drawn on on each side of the block. I didn't falter as I cut the corners and they each turned out great. It may be the one thing I've done so far that I actually felt proud of as gouging finally felt comfortable and natural to me. 

After cutting with the gouge I used my new $2.50 Harbor Freight file to smooth out then outsides of the corners and the new feather edge (or bee sting). Then Juan showed me his tiny scrapers that we used to just clean up the corners. 

Before doing any of this cutting though, we used a square to draw a line on each corner leaving 2mm or rib wood from end of the corner to work with as far as feathering the edges goes. I did 3mm on the top corners because the tip of the top corner on my template didn't come to a clean point—it may have been chipped. 

Bending Violin Ribs: Upper and Lower Bouts

On Tuesday the 29th we finished bending ribs. "We" being Juan and me—Juan demonstrated with a couple ribs and I tried the others. 

The very last rib, the top left, I did all by myself. (I'm such a big girl.) I really started getting picky with it and after trying to perfect the curve with absolute precision I realized I needed to just stop messing with. Like a painting you can't stop dabbing at when you need to call it finished and just step away. It actually turned out really well with a good curve to fit the mold. 

The tricky thing with the bending iron (really, there are many tricky things) is getting the right amount of moisture on the wood balanced with the right amount of pressure, time pressed into the heat, moving around to keep from getting kinks or flat parts, avoiding burning the wood if the iron is too hot, figuring out where to place the wood in the bending strap so the part curving the opposite way is poking out the handle. You know. All that. 

We tried a trick from my violin making textbook that was new to Juan--using a little piece of damp cloth (we didn't have fabric and used a piece of damp paper towel) to place between the rib and the iron to steam the wood a little, infusing it with some moisture, before removing the cloth and continuing with the bending process. It worked really well—I like the even distribution of steam it provides. 

A trick of Juan's that was helpful and more comfortable to me than the awkward bending strap was a thick piece of cork padding you could use to press the wood onto the iron with just your hands. That was helpful for touching up small areas where the curve needed correction or smoothing out in a fairly localized spot. 

Next step: glueing and clamping these on place, then linings. It's finally beginning to look like something! 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Shaping & Gluing in the C-Bout Ribs

My heat-bending prowess shines most often when curling my wiry hair (which, conveniently—and inconveniently—actually bends like wire). And, interestingly enough, curling hair is a good concept to embrace when bending wood because the molecular process is the same. Heat loosens or softens the molecular bonds in the protien. You can reshape the protiens while they're hot, and when they cool they will maintain their new shape and structure.

Like curling hair, once you have a curl/bend, it's harder to tighten the curve once you've done it the first time, and easier to loosen the bend if necessary. So it's better to over bend or make the curl tighter than the opposite (if I'm remembering correctly).

Here's Juan demonstrating some bending. Because the C-bouts are tricky with so much tight curvature and a higher risk of breaking or cracking, Juan did my final C-bouts while I practiced curving one out of a scrap piece of rib wood.

Juan made these clamps while he was in school at the Violin Making School of America. (I visited the school when I was in Salt Lake last month. It is a wonderful  institution.)

Note: the ribs aren't glued to the mold, just to the blocks. Put the glue on the blocks, not the ribs so you don't get glue where you don't need it.

We used some rather thin hide glue to attach these. Peter Prier uses Titebond sometimes. Hide glue is used on violins because you can take apart parts put together with this water soluble glue. You can use Titebond wood glue for things that you don't ever want to come apart. Corner blocks? You could go either way, I guess.

Juan wished the glue we used were thicker, but he didn't think we'd get to gluing during our lesson, but we did, so we used the glue that was out and prepared.

Next step: Trim and file the outside block corners and top and bottom blocks. Scrape down more rib wood to 1mm thickness. Then at my next lesson we'll try bending and gluing on the lower bouts of the base of the violin.

P.S. Here's a quick logo I made using the Cropic app on my phone to use as a link on my personal blog,

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Cutting Corners: Reshaping the Corner Blocks

After gluing in my new set of corner blocks, I trimmed them down with my new corner gouge. The corner gouge for violin making is unique in that the bevel of the blade is on the inside curve instead of the outside. It's trickier to sharpen, but is really an invaluable tool for this step in the process. I thought I could get by without one, but I'm so glad to have welcomed this tool to my collection.

I decided to work on this in the well-lit kitchen instead of in the garage on the workbench (which is covered with car-fixing stuff) and decided to try using a super-giant cutting board to do my gouging. I laid everything out on the floor with this cardboard under the mold to save this pristine cutting board from getting too scarred.

I'm going to remember this cutting board trick. Violins are so small that you could really get quite a lot done on a cutting board if you don't have a workbench handy or just want to work in a new space as a change of pace.

Once the corners are cut down pretty close to the lines on both sides (drawing lines on the top and bottom of the blocks keeps you perpendicular), you can use a file to smooth out the surface. After that, no need to scrape or use sandpaper--the filed surface is just fine (and perhaps better than a slick, smooth surface) as a contact surface to which you'll glue the ribs. 

Book Recommendation: The "Secrets" of Stradivari

The "Secrets" of Stradivari 
recommended by Tim. 

Luthier & Bow Maker Tim Stephenson

I've known Tim for ten years. He worked on my bass and rehaired my bow throughout my time at BYU, and I still bring him my bow to rehair when I'm I visiting Utah from out of state. 

While I was working as the string instrument tech in the BYU Instrument office beginning in 2004, we took many of the instruments to Tim for more serious repairs--at the time, the most "intense" work I did was glueing open seams. Anyway, I was very interested in Tim's work and methods and asked him lots of questions whenever I visited his shop. 

Now, so many years later as I'm getting into violin making myself, I was able to reconnect with Tim during my last visit to Salt Lake City in March. We had a great time talking shop and he showed me a few of his techniques. I tried out a few finger plans and some gouging on Tim's bench, roughing out my practice viola plate with his long-handled chisel and bench dogs that fit the curves of the viola as pictured. I like how he sets his plates in a cradle rather than just on the bench. It raises the height of your working surface to be more level with your elbow. 

I absolutely recommend Tim. He's even rehaired Joshua Bell's violin bow, for crying out loud. 

Lie-Nielsen Block Planes

Apparently Lie-Nielsen planes are the best. I've used Lie-Nielson planes at work, but I haven't purchased my own yet. These two were recommended to me as good choices for violin-making.

Meeting Peter Prier, Founder of the Violin Making School of America

For years I’ve heard about Peter Prier & Sons violin shop and the associated Violin Making School of America (VSMA), founded by Peter Prier. Ever since learning about Peter when I was at BYU, I started creating an image in my head about what he must be like.

When I was working at the instrument office we usually took any major repairs to Tim Stephenson. I believe we took a couple instruments to the Prier's shop that were in need of serious repair, but most of the valuable instruments and all bow rehairs went to Tim, to whom I always took my bass and bow, luthier, in Salt Lake City.

During my sophomore year at BYU, which was 10 years ago, I started working at the instrument office doing string instrument repair and really began developing an interest in become an instrument maker. I remember talking about the possibility with Eric Hansen, my bass professor, who mentioned VSMA. I researched it thoroughly, looking at the tuition and curriculum. At the time, I was still at BYU, so I needed to finish my degree there, but I thought that after I graduated, perhaps I could go to Peter Prier’s school afterwards.

I’ve talked about this dream and this particular school even, regularly since then. I talk about it with Sam a lot, my dream to have a woodshop in our home where I can make violins. Formal luthier training through standard three-year schooling would be invaluable though, if I were to make a career of it.

I brought my violin mould, templates, Stainer plan, and textbook to Utah with the thought that I could meet with Tim Stephenson and/or Peter Prier and show them my work and get some tips and inspiration. So after I arrived I sent an email with my background and luthier experience to Peter Prier:
Dear Mr. Prier, 
My name is Liz Lambson. I'm a bassist and aspiring luthier from Colorado Springs. In 2003 I went to BYU to study bass performance where I also worked as the string repairwoman/technician in the BYU Instrument Office. Since graduating from BYU I've worked as a luthier specializing in setup and repair at Kennedy Violins ( in Vancouver, Washington. 
In the last year I've had the great opportunity to apprentice with luthier Elmer Fairbank and am working on my first violin, having focused on setup and repair before now. 
Currently I am spending the summer in Colorado Springs where I'm enjoying the great opportunity to study with Juan Mijares, one of your former students. 
I'm in Utah this weekend visiting family through Tuesday. I would love to visit your shop to meet you as I've learned so much from you through your former students. Is there a time I could stop by and introduce myself? 
Thank you, and I look forward to seeing the school if you're open for visitors. 
Liz Lambson
I received this response:
Dear Liz Lambson, 
Thank you very much for your email. It sounds like you have the passion and love for violin that we share. Congratulations on your accomplishments and progression in violin repair, set up, and now making. 
I am sure that Peter would like to meet you and discuss violins and give you a tour of the shop, however, he and his wife are currently serving a mission for their church and he will not be in the shop for the next year. His son Daniel is running the shop during that time. 
We welcome you to come in and visit. We can give you a tour of the shop and show you any of the interesting instruments we have available at this time. The Violin Making School is running separately from our shop these days, so if you would like to arrange to see the school, please call the school at 801-209-3494. 
I was so disappointed to hear that the Priers are serving a mission and I wouldn’t be able to meet him. Why didn’t I ever stop in while I lived here? I think because I had no credentials then, but now I’m confident enough to consider myself both a luthier and someone worth meeting.

I made an appointment to meet and talk shop on Friday, June 6th, specifically mentioning that I’m building my tool collection and wanted his input. But when I arrived at Tim’s yesterday afternoon, he was running late. So I said I would run an errand and come back.

On my way to Tim’s I had passed the Violin Making School and was so surprised to see it, wondering how I’d never noticed it before. The doors were open and the windows were big—I could see a few students in there working on instruments and just felt this great longing to be in there with them. I wanted to stop by and just walk in, but I knew I needed to call ahead.

So I called the school, and I was told the school isn’t open to the public. I managed to make an appointment to visit the school on Monday, June 9th and meet the head instructor.

Although I couldn’t stop by the school that day, I decided I would check out the Peter Prier & Sons shop next to the school while I was waiting to meet Tim.

I figured that even though Peter Prier wouldn’t be at the shop, I could still check it out since I hadn’t been there before.

Callie and and I had a great conversation about our backgrounds and experiences and relationship with violin making, and she pulled out many of the valuable instruments by original Italian 17th- and 18th-century makers in the Prier’s special collection for me to look at. And THEN after seeing my Stainer mold, she said, “Wanna see our Stainer?” They have an original Stainer?? I was so excited.

I got to play it—as a bassist who is not a violinist. But what an incredible opportunity, to see and hold and play an original Stainer violin! It was magical.

We wrapped up our conversation as I needed to go and meet with Tim, and as I was packing up my mold and templates, I heard the door open behind me and Callie suddenly said, “Peter’s here!”

And we were introduced.

I learned that the Priers happened to be serving in Salt Lake City, and on this particular day, Peter decided to check in on the shop. I honestly believe that this was no coincidence, but that we were destined to meet—it turned into the most inspirational and wonderful experience as he talked. He was as excited about my first violin as I was, expressing such great appreciation for my handiwork, admiring and complementing what I’ve done so far, giving me tips, probing my knowledge, congratulating me for the things I’ve learned and practiced so far. He pointed out the asymmetrical points on my mould, curves you could feel but not see. I asked if I should smooth them out, try to get everything as close to perfect as possibly, and he urgently grabbed my arm and said, no, this is what makes it unique, what makes it mine, don't change a thing, this was my work, done by hand. This is what makes a handmade instrument meaningful and unique.

And as the conversation went on, I asked him if it’s necessary to go to school to become an accomplished violin maker, and he firmly believed that there could be no better way to master the trade than to completely immerse myself in it—even for whatever amount of time possible. Even a year at the school, he said, would be so good. I asked if they do that at VSMA, and he said no, but … he’s the founder, so he has his own recommendations for flexibility.

I confessed how badly I've wanted to attend luthier school and become an accomplished violin maker, and he fervently encouraged, almost pleading with me, to do it, to go for it, do all I can to learn and find a way to go to a school—it didn’t even need to be VSMA, maybe the school in Chicago or in Boston or New Hampshire—but find a way to go. He said if I don’t I will look back and say, “I wish, I wish I had,” and I know he’s right. There’s nothing stopping me from becoming a great violin maker.

I was so moved as he encouraged me to go after my dream. I felt my heart and mind just open up and fill with the light of hope that I CAN achieve my dreams and become the artisan I long to become.

Peter, Elder Prier, said he knew this was no coincidence that he walked in, but that he needed to meet me, and I felt this same way too. He was so kind and loving like the warmest grandfather I can imagine with his German accent. He gave me a hardbound book dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the violin school as a gift. I gave him my card when he expressed a desire to keep tabs on me.

What a privelege to meet him and receive and consider his recommendation to attend the school he founded. He is an inspiring and accomplished man with such a legacy.

Redoing the Corner Blocks

Peter Prier pointed out that my corner blocks were too short. I could make up for that by raising the center of the arching by a millimeter, but I decided to take them all out and learn how to properly make them with Juan. 

The biggest mistake I made before was gluing the blocks in with a ton of hide glue and clamping them tightly to dry. This meant they were pretty much IMPOSSIBLE to take out--and they're supposed to come out easily when you lift the rib structure off the mold. I had to chisel and hammer and mutilate those original blocks to get them out in pieces. My mold suffered some chips and splinters in the process. Ugh. Luckily the mold doesn't need to be in perfect condition. It's just a gluing surface. 

I had such a time the first time around getting my blocks cut to dimension with perfectly square corners all around. 

Juan showed me how to do it so easily, teaching me which dimensions are really important. For example, the side of the block you'll be trimming into the shape of the corner--who cares how deep that is if you'll be cutting it away? It just has to fit the shape of the corner, which is pretty small. 

Splitting the block wood with the natural grain/split is the most important in establishing your reference side. Everything will be squared to that side so you can chisel the block with the grain and it has the most strength and integrity supporting the violin structure. The top block is the most important because it takes the pressure of the neck. 

Apparently some old makers don't even use corner blocks and just glue the rib corners together. Crazy! I think they're crucial to support a violin that will be more durable and long-lasting. But the point there is that they don't have to be perfect. Nothing does, really. That's what makes a handmade instrument unique from its look to its sound. 

Summer Studies with Juan Mijares

I am treasuring the great opportunity to study this summer with violin maker Juan Mijares ( of Colorado Springs. There is no better way to learn, in my opinion, than through one-on-one, hands-on private instruction. 

My lessons with Juan, who is such a knowledgeable teacher, have been invaluable. I am learning so much. I am also seeing that if I were to establish a career making violins in greater numbers, I would need full-time training to really master these skills. One weekly lesson and a couple hours of practice each week are not enough.