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. 

Sharpening Tools

I've finally learned to sharpen my own tools. Apparently you should spend a third of your time (okay, maybe that's an exaggeration to emphasize the importance) sharpening. Working with dull tools is both dangerous and ineffective. 

I now own my own diamond stone, waterstones, Nagura stone, and burnisher to sharpen my knives, chisels, gouges, and scrapers. 

The permanent marker trick is great to help you see what's being ground off the blade.