Me making a violin

By Sam Harper

Making the plates

July 10, 2009

I've been a little concerned about making the front and back plates. You have to carve them in an arch, you see. First you shape the outside, and then you hollow out the inside, and the thickness really matters. I always read as much as I can before trying something so scary. I've been doing a whole lot of reading about arching. It's an interesting subject. The main reason violins have arched tops and backs is because there is so much pressure from the bridge and the wood is so thin. If you want the violin to last for hundreds of years, you have to arch the front and back.

There are a lot of different techniques for getting the shape you want. Some people use templates. They rough it out with a gouge, then use a thumb plane while checking it against the template, then use a scraper to finish it.

Some people copy the templates from famous violins such as Stradivari, Amati, Guarneri, or whoever. Other people design their own. I read an interesting article a couple of nights ago that explained how people design their own arches. If you take a plastic lid or some plexiglass cut in a circle or something, poke a hole it in off center, put the lid against a straight edge, put the pencil through the hole, and role the lid along the straight edge, the pencil will draw an arch. And you can vary the size and shape of the arch by varying the size of the disc and how far off center the pencil hole is. Brilliant, I tell you!

But I did not want to design my own arch just yet. I'd rather copy another violin to ensure I get close to the ballpark. I searched the internet for arch templates I could print out, but I couldn't find anything. Bummer.

Then something great happened. Yesterday, I was helping my friend, Rachel, move. She had some posters with pictures of violins hanging on her walls that she was going to throw away. There was a poster of an Amati violin from 1766, a Guadagnini viola from 1785, a Gagliano cello from 1704, and a Rogeri violin from 1704. Yeah, they're all Italian. Here's the Amati:

I told her I'd be happy to take them off her hands, which she was agreeable to. I began to take them off the walls, and when I looked at the back of them, what to my wondering eyes should appear but detailed dimensions! They even had the arch drawn on different parts of the instruments, so it will be very easy to copy them. Check it out!

What are the chances of that happening? I had just been searching the night before I helped her move. It's providence, I tell ya!

March 7, 2012

It's been a long time, eh? As many of you know, I've been tool challenged. Remember those chisels and gouges I showed you on Page 1 that I was so happy to get for so cheap? Well, they were crap. I guess you get what you paid for. After going nearly three years without working on my violin, I decided to be bold. I spent $463.92 on some good chisels and gouges that just came in the mail today, so I'm going to continue this build-along.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking I could buy a student violin for $400, and it would probably be better than the one I'm making. But this is the way I look at it. These tools have good resale value, and if I don't continue after this one and make more violins, I can always sell them and get nearly what I paid for them. Besides, imagine my joy when I string up and play the violin I made with my own hands! And imagine the bragging rights I'll have! Maybe chicks will dig me.

Anywho, about two and a half years ago, I did do a little work that I haven't posted here. I glued the back plate up and cut it out. I'll show you some pictures and do my best to remember what I was thinking when these pictures were taken.

I started off with this piece of walnut that I originally acquired for the purpose of making bow laminations out of. This is what I decided to make the back of the violin out of. If memory serves me right, it's about 36" long.

I cut that in half and was going to glue the two pieces together, but there was a gap.

Professionals use a block plane to fix that gap, but I used a belt sander, trial and error method. Then I put some glue on it.

Then I used some cheap bar clamps I got at Big Lots to clamp it together.

The following day (I'm guessing), I traced out the shape using the ribs I already had glued up and a washer to create space. There's supposed to be an overhang on the edges, you see. I used a silver sharpy because it shows up better than a pencil on the dark Walnut.

Here it is all traced out.

I keep forgetting to mention this, but between all these steps, I got my camera out and took a picture. I usually leave that step out when I'm explaining things because then I'd have to take a picture of me taking a picture so I could show you, and that would be well nigh impossible. That is, unless I had two cameras, a tripod, and an automatic shutter feature on one of them.

Moving on...After I traced it out, I cut it out with the bandsaw, cleaned it up a bit, and this is where I'm at today.

The purpose of that lip is to glue the neck onto the body later. The top plate won't have that. I left those corners near the c-bouts kind of wide so that when I'm carving the plates, they won't chip off. I'll sharpen them up at the end.

This is where we've been for the last almost three years. Stay tuned because I've got the weekend to myself this weekend, and I plan to start carving this plate. I'll show you my new tools, too!

May 27, 2012

Just to show you that I am still working on the violin.

June 19, 2013

I've been working on this build along for a few years now, and I realize that for some of you, the time is short and you're worried that you may never see the end of it. I apologize for that. You see, I was tool challenged. Remember those cheap gouges I showed you on page 1? Well, they turned out to be ineffective. It wasn't just that they couldn't hold an edge either. It was that the bevel was too steep, and I couldn't even cut wood with it. I thought about using a bench grinder to grind a better bevel, but I decided instead to go ahead and invest in some good tools. Here they are.

These tools cost me $463.92. That includes shipping. These are Dastra gouges (and one chisel) I got at Diefenbacher Tools. I justified it on the basis that they have good resale value, and if I decide to never make another violin after this one, I can just sell them.

Here's what I ordered:

Part # 509-0005. This is the scroll carving set. It includes an 8mm, 10mm, 13mm, 16mm, and 20mm gouge, though I'm not sure what the sweep number is on them. They are different sweeps because the radius of the curve on the scroll gets tighter and tighter as you work your way up. The sweep #, by the way, indicates the radius of the cutting edge, which this chart explains.

Part # 515-0107, which is a 7mm chisel for use in carving out the peg box.

Part # 512-0611, which is a #9 sweep, 6mm gouge, and also for use in carving out the peg box.

Part # 407-0822, which is a #8 sweep, 22mm gouge with an inside bevel. It is for carving the corner blocks where the corners of the c-bouts go. You need that inside bevel to carve the corner blocks unless, like me, you use a drum sander attached to a drill press.

Part # 552-0525, which is a #5 sweep, 25mm gouge used for carving the plates. That's the big one in the picture.

Now check out the difference in the angle of the bevels of these two gouges--the new on the left and the old on the right.

I got the gouges professionally sharpened and began work. First, I scribed a line with a silver sharpie around the edge to make what I would carve down to. I used a piece of scrap wood to hold the pen at the right height while working around the whole edge.

According to my book, you're suppose to get it down to 7mm, then add the purfling, then carve it thinner. I don't plan on adding purfling, so I put the line about 4 mm. I'll stay above the line until near the end.

Finally, I got to play with my new tools.

In this picture, I've got the plywood clamped to my work bench, and the plate is screwed to the plywood from the bottom. There are two screws that go into the plate near the middle so that when I carve out the inside of the plates, the screw holes will disappear.

Although the gouge was doing just fine, it was still time-consuming and tiresome, so I decided to give myself a boost by roughing out the arc with the belt sander. Here's how it looked after the belt sander:

It didn't work very well on the c-bouts, as you can see, but it moved things significantly ahead. After this, I started working on the edges with the biggest gouge.

Notice I'm going across the grain and not with the grain. That's so I don't lift splinters. All the videos I saw on youtube do it this way.

I decided not to use a template to get the arc. I'm just going to wing it. Here's a video I posted on youtube of me working on the c-bout area.

In the video, you can see that I no longer have the plate screwed into a piece of plywood. I found it easier just to clamp it to the work bench. Of course I have to move those clamps when I work on parts of it.

Here's what it looks like as of today.

I still have a ways to go.

July 28, 2014

It's been five years since I started this violin, and I'm not even half way through it. It has occurred to me that given my mortality and the rate at which I'm making this violin, I may never finish. That would be a real travesty! So I have picked it back up. Let me update you.

I wish that after gluing those two pieces of walnut together, I had run them through a planer or thickness sander so I could make sure the bottom part was perfectly flat so it would glue nicely onto the ribs without requiring clamps to force it into place against its will. But since I had already begun the arching, it didn't seem possible.

I tried using my friend's jointer, but that was a disaster. I through I had ruined the bottom of it and there was no fixing it. Out of desperation, I ran it through the thickness sander, flattening the arc, then flipped it upside down and ran it through again. Saints be praised, it worked! I got the bottom nice and flat, and there was still enough thickness left for re-arc it.

Some guy who read this build along sent me an email and suggested I use a flap sander attached to an angle grinder to rough out my arc. He said he had done it. I just finished a bamboo backed Osage recurve build along, and was sitting here wondering what I should do next when I decided to go ahead and give it a shot. I had already bought the flat sanding attachment a while ago.

It worked beautifully! Here's a couple of pictures of what it looked lack when I was done with the flap sander.

I used a combination of sand paper, emory cloth, cabinet scrapers, and orbital sander to refine it.

It's pretty walnut, isn't it? Even if this violin never sounds good, at least it'll be pretty.

Now that it's taken me 5 years to arc this violin back, I'll start the hard part--hollowing it out.

Later that same day. . .

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "But Sam, what about the purfling?" I'm not doing purfling. It's too hard, and I want to finish this violin before I die. But, FYI, the purpose of purfling is to stop checks and cracks from spreading. It also looks good. I suppose my violin might look naked without it.

Okay, back to hollowing out the backplate. . .

I used the ribs to trace a line, then set my compass to about 8 mm and drew a line with that. I'm going to use that as a guide for how far to go when hollowing out the backplate.

I darkened it with a green sharpie so I could see it better, and notice how I left it fat where all the corner blocks are going to be so they'll have a good gluing surface.

I made this jig to drill holes in the under side of the back plate. It's a dowel glued down into a piece of wood and lined up with a 3/8" drill bit in my drill press.

I set the 'stop' thingy to where the gap between the dowel and the end of the drill bit would be about 4 or 5 mm. That way, when I drill all the holes, they'll all create a thickness of about 4 or 5 mm, and I can use that as a guide while hollowing it out so I can get roughly the same thickness everywhere.

Pretty clever, huh? I didn't come up with that. But I can tell you that I was really nervous that the "stop" would slip, and I'd end up drilling too far in some places, so every now and then, I'd take the violin out and check the gap again. It went smoothly.

Here it is with all the holes drilled.

You can tell by the depth of the holes that I didn't get the arc perfectly symmetrical. Oh well. I made that doohickie out of plywood so the plate would sit in there, and I could work on it, but it didn't work very well. I tried using the gouge for the sake of tradition, but that doohickie just didn't hold it well enough, so I went back to the angle grinder and flap sander. This is about as far as I dare go with it.

I accidentally crossed that green line, but not far enough to ruin the gluing area.

I used the cabinet scraper, then sand paper, and got it to look like this.

I found it easier to work with by holding the plate in my lap while scraping and sanding instead of that jig.

My book recommends having it 5 mm thick in the middle and fade to 3 mm thick at the widest parts on both ends. They use calipers to measure to check thickness as they go. I've found that you can feel changes in thickness pretty easy just by pinching it between your fingers and sliding your fingers around. I don't know what the exact thickness is. I'm winging it. But I did sand a little more in the wide parts to get it thinner than the middle.

Once you have it roughed out, you're suppose to tune it, which involves strategically thinning it in various places so that the end result is a better sounding violin. There are all kinds of different ways people tune plates, some of which is pretty technical. I tapped on it a lot with my finger, but I have no idea what it's supposed to sound like. I'm leaving tuning to luck.

I decided it was ready to glue to the ribs, and I had to decide whether I was going to glue it up while the ribs were still attached to the form and risk not being able to get it off, or whether I was going to take the ribs off and risk there being a lot of spring back, and it not fitting right to the plate. I decided with all the prebending, the blocks, and the liners I glued in there, it wasn't likely to spring back much if any at all, so I tappd those blocks and took the ribs off.

All but one came off pretty easy, but with a little coaxing, the difficult one came loose, too, and the ribs slid right out. It kept its shape pretty well, too.

I'm going to glue those up as soon as I pick up some bolts to make clamps out of at the hardware store. More later.

Later the same day

I went to Lowes and got twelve 1/4" bolts and some wing nuts and came home and made some clamps.

I wish I had gotten longer bolts because these barely fit on the violin. They probably won't fit when I try to glue on the top plate.

The traditional glue of choice is hide glue, but I used Titebond III. It took me so long struggling with those clamps that the glue was already starting to dry by the time I had it all clamped up, which made it hard to wipe off all the excess glue. I had to scrape it off with a pocket knife. I'll just have to do some extra sanding later to make it look nice.

It's only 3:30 pm. I guess I could start working on the top plate. I'm not going to go through all the detail, though, because it's basically the same as this except that I'm going to use cedar. I'll come back when I'm ready to do the F-holes.

Upgrade your browser for a better viewing experience »