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!