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Owyhee Mountain Fiddle Shop

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Violins in Southwest Idaho
Updated: 27 min 18 sec ago

Tool marks

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 1:29pm
Purfling installed on 4 plates (2 fronts, 2 backs) and now working down the arching.  Here is a spruce viola top.  Parallel gouge marks from the rough arching.  Smaller (aka smoother) tool marks around the purfling now, smoothing out the perimeter.  Starting to take the gouge marks along the spine out with finger planes. Then onto scrapers.  Then onto horsetail.  Smaller shavings with each successive tool.
Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Stephen Shepherd Obituary

Wed, 01/31/2018 - 12:06pm




Stephen in his Salt Lake shop, 1978.  Photo courtesy of George Stapleford.


Stephen's obituary can be found at this location -- http://www.premierfuneral.com/obituaries/Stephen-Shepherd/#!/Obituary

The text of his obituary --

Stephen Arden Shepherd
“Tater”

Stephen Shepherd, was born April 20, 1948 in Salt Lake City, UT, to Arden Warren and Vida Johnson Shepherd. He passed away January 24, 2018, a kind release from the debilitating effects of a stroke. He leaves a sister Merrily Runyan, Clovis, CA, and nieces and nephews.

Stephen Shepherd was a unique individual. Whether known as Stephen Shepherd the author, lecturer, and expert in 19th-Century Woodworking, or as “Tater”, the Mountain Man and adventurer, he influenced many people and sometimes irritated others with his infallible knowledge. Arguing historic technology with Stephen was frustrating and pointless – his knowledge was vast. And he shared that knowledge with anyone genuinely interested.

He was always building, repairing, tinkering and inventing, very often simply to see if he could do it – if it could even be done. Many of his friends are proud owners of a “Tater-made” item, from furniture to walking-sticks to quill pens. He shared his knowledge by writing four authoritative books on woodworking, and re-published two more “rescued” books of great value to historians of 19th-Century crafts.

For the most part he lived a 19th-Century life. Almost all his furniture and re-created items were made and restored using only hand tools. He had no power tools in his shop. His careful craftsmanship, restoration and renown finishing techniques, including gorgeous “painting and graining”, gained him world-wide recognition. His clients over the years included many wealthy collectors and The LDS Church Historic Collections.

He dressed for most of his adult life in 19th-Century-style clothing, including when traveling to other states. In 1976, during the bicentennial re-tracing of the Domingues/Escalante journey to Utah, Stephen and companions met the party in the desert, dressed authentically as fur-traders. Their clothing and accoutrement authenticity far outshone that of the re-creators! For decades he attended Mountain Man rendezvous all over the west, and was always welcomed by everyone.

People loved Stephen Shepherd, and were proud to know him. Sometimes they were friends of Stephen, sometimes friends of Tater, some not even knowing they were one and the same! His cheerful demeanor, his willingness to laugh at society’s faults, and his dedication to his friends make the memory of Stephen “Tater” Shepherd precious to all of us who were close to him.

Per Stephen’s wishes, no services will be held, donations may be made to This Is the Place Heritage Park in his memory.

********************

Stephen (left) and myself (right), Mill Creek Canyon, February 1975.  We camped this way.  We were much younger then.


George Stapleford (left) and Stephen (right) near Moab, Utah, March 1975.  Better camping conditions, still cold.






L to R, myself, Stephen, LaMar Higbee, Taos, New Mexico, May 1975.  Yet better camping conditions.



George, Stephen, and I, September 2016.










Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Not a Good Businessman

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 11:03am
I really don't like the cheap Chinese fiddles being sold these days.  A heads-up: if you are thinking of buying a violin, bow, and case on-line for $100, just buy beer and pizza instead.  You'll be better off.

I have found one place, however, where inexpensive instruments, not bottom-of-the-bucket VSOs, are useful, and that is in the fractional violins that go out on rentals.  Even then, I don't just pull them out of the box and send them on their way.  Typically, new (real) violin strings, work over the pegs, adjust or replace the bridge.  Throw the bow away, substitute in a Glasser or something similar that has a chance of surviving.

And my rentals are rent-to-own, so I move the kids up through various sizes as they grow.  If the kids stick with it, the parents are well into paying for a decent full-size fiddle by the time the child has grown to that size, and has learned, through various mistakes, how to take care of a fiddle.

The other day, this poor 1/4-size violin came in, brand new, from a reputable supplier.  The fingerboard was a ski-jump.  I debated sending it back, but didn't want that hassle.  I debated asking the supplier for a new fingerboard.  That just seemed too demeaning to all of us.  So I decided to waste more time.

Here's the old fingerboard --


And here is the new one --




After all my reading and work with Hardanger fiddle design, I started to get a little interested in the inlay process, something I haven't done much of.  So I found a piece of bone, a cut-off from a guitar-nut blank, cut it quickly to a rough diamond shape, laid it out on the center of the fingerboard in a random spot, and started the inlay.

I didn't notice at the time, but I drifted a bit to one side during the inlay process, something to be on the look-out for if I do more of these things.

I also did a little bit of simple engraving, which is a bit crude, but I think it looks better than just the bone diamond.

Also cut a new bridge, installed new Prelude strings and a Wittner tailpiece.  For a cheap little fiddle, it ought to work well for someone.

On a sad note, my long-time friend, Stephen Shepherd, passed away yesterday.  He had suffered a stroke a few years back, and went from being a vital historic cabinetmaker and author to a semi-paralyzed invalid.  Early on, it looked like he might come out of it.  He didn't.  When I visited him in Salt Lake this past Thanksgiving, he was basically bedridden and bored, starving himself to death.

I will miss him.

Here we are, the Three Musketeers, at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, in 1974.  Stephen is center, I am to the left, and George Stapleford to the right.





Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Back together again.

Mon, 01/22/2018 - 12:31pm
From my post last December, Learning from the Humble:





Now back together, and back in the Middle School orchestra room:


I glued the pieces, those that made sense to look after, back together.  Bushed the C and A pegholes, installed internal crossgrain cleats in the pegbox across the C and A peghole locations.  Added a chunk of curly maple on the treble side, where it was missing and badly splintered.  I didn't spend too much time with color-matching, it was a functional school repair that I probably underbid -- but, as in my previous post, the back and ribs were nicely done.  Worth saving, I thought.


I did add some clear varnish to the bare wood on the body, lots of bare real-estate on that body.  But now that, too, is protected a bit from normal use. 

This viola should serve for several more years, barring too rough of use.  Or dropping.  Can't warranty against dropping.






Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Too Far

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 11:57am
"Having lost all sense of direction, we were able to double our speed."

I was having so much fun looking through Brian Derber's new Violin Making book, trying familiar things in different ways, that I forgot I was making a Hardanger fiddle and not a regular violin.  I woke up one morning on the weekend, suddenly thinking about those different, overlapping Hardanger f-holes, how high they were, when, dang!  I have been arching the middle section as normal.  I quickly laid out the ff's and determined that I had, for me, gone too far.  Maybe someone who had made Hardangers before could see there was enough wood left, maybe not.  For me, I needed a fresh start. 

So, I joined another set of spruce halves on Monday.  On Tuesday, flattened the inner surface, then traced the outline, sawed it out, cleaned it up a bit and took down the edges, leaving the piece nice and fat in the center.


The new top is at top in this photo, the previous version below, with typical f-holes drawn in place.  I can salvage that top for a new fiddle.  The overhang is still a little wide, and if I'm careful with the corner blocks, using the same mould, I should be in good shape, even a little ahead on that one.

Wednesday, I pondered over the Hardanger holes, using a few resources I've gathered up.  Not much really on the placement of the holes themselves, so I did the best I could, closed my eyes, and plunged a few holes.

Today, Thursday, I started cutting wood around the arc of the stems.  Trying to follow Salve Håkedal's nicely illustrated tutorial.


Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Saturday in McCall

Sun, 01/07/2018 - 10:51am
No fiddle work in this post, just a view into our neck of the woods.

We took advantage of free introductory classes in cross-country skiing offered at Ponderosa State Park near McCall, Idaho.  Splendid instruction, and, after years of snowshoeing, nice to be able to slide about.  We did ok on the classic cross-country class,  fell a few times during the skate-ski class, and got up just as often.

My wife doing the no-pole shuffle --


She got a very brief video of me not falling down.


Skis, boots, and poles provided by HomeTown Sports in McCall, all in great shape.  We'll be renting equipment from them in the future

A couple of the local boys, not needing skis --


We had a great lunch at Salmon River Brewery in McCall.


A light snow amount so far this year.  Usually Payette Lake is frozen over, and we're out walking on it in our snowshoes, other folks out there ice-fishing.  Not so this year.  Hoping for more snow and cold temperatures to come soon.

Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Out with the old

Fri, 01/05/2018 - 12:43pm

This is a violin top I made a couple years ago.  It was on a Guarneri del Gesu inspired violin I was making, and in the spirit of Paganini's del Gesu, "il Cannone", I left the plates thick.  An experiment.

As I was carving it, I uncovered a small branch in the lower bout, treble side.  Very frustrating to find it at that point in the process.   I did learn to look for the tell-tale sign, the cross-section of a branch on the outer edge.


Flustered but not defeated, I continued carving, being careful around the rapidly changing grain.  I managed to get under it, without much distortion to the arching.  The weird grain was still there, and I grew to like it somewhat.  It did bother me, wondering what sort of sonic impact it would have.

So then I went on.  Here it is at the point in time we'll call "X" with my Brothers Amati plate underneath.  I like to build two at a time.


So I finished both of them, strung them up.  The Brothers Amati I liked.  The del Gesu I hated.  Give it a couple weeks to stretch and compress.  Still hated it.  No volume, unpleasant tone.  Ok, it was an experiment, heavy plates.  And there was that weird branch grain.  Maybe it was to blame. So I pulled the top and thinned it down.  Put it back together.  Now it was louder, but still an unpleasant tone.  Matters were worse.

Took it to a show in Portland, Oregon.  Folks played it.  Other makers played it.  Most didn't mind it too much, but generally a polite bunch.  It didn't sell, but not many violins sell there in a good year.

Moved the soundpost around a bit.  Made a new soundpost.  Still hated it.

I pulled the top again.  Thinned the top more. Thinned the back.  Put it together and strung it up.  Now it was even louder, still hated the tone.  Nasal, maybe, though with a head cold or bad allergy.  Bad diction.  Like listening to someone with a loud, sloppy voice, telling boring, long-winded stories.

Was it the branch grain?  Nothing I did seemed to help.

Took it to Weiser.  Folks played it. Some were complimentary.  It didn't sell.  Not much did that year at Weiser, either.  Still, I hated it.

Brad Holst, a fellow violin repairer from Medford, Oregon, was there, had put a few of his violins on the table at my temporary shop at the Weiser Fiddle Contest.  He said: "What's the spacing between your upper eyes?"  42 mm, I answered.  "Hmm, " he said.  "I'd be curious to see what it measures to."

So I pulled out a tape measure, and it came out at 39 mm.

Back to "X" point in time.  I laid-out the terminal holes incorrectly on that plate.  Distracted by the branch, perhaps.  Well, shoot.  I kept the fiddle around for a couple months after that, then finally said "no" to myself.  I wouldn't sell something like that.  Pulled the top off, made a new one.

I still am not crazy about the tone with the new top, but I don't hate it now. I could even play it for a few weeks and maybe learn how to handle it.

I thought about keeping the old top, with its too-close eyes, in the shop as a reminder of my mistake.  Then, I realized, I make new mistakes every day, so don't need some reminder hanging on the wall. I'd rather have something nice to look at.

Last night's contra band rehearsal was at my place, a cold night, snow on the ground, so we had a nice fire in the fireplace, and cleared out some old debris, including not just that top, but a top from an old factory fiddle that had been badly cracked and put back together with Gorilla (TM) Glue.  That was not my repair.  I tried to clean it up and put it back together, but it was too far gone, and frankly not that good of a top to begin with.  So I made a new one for that old fiddle, strung it up, and it sold within a week.

Here's the old top, also on its way to the afterlife.

I was wishing for a viola top, to test whether they actually do burn longer.

Life goes on.  Things are created, exist for a while, then are gone, elements to be recycled into something else.  Here's a photo of some bread I pulled out of the oven while writing this blog post.







Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

DIY Marking Gauge

Thu, 01/04/2018 - 1:24pm

Not my idea, probably an old one at that, but simple and effective.  An adjustable marking gauge you can make in a few moments.  Good for putting that running dent in the wood, something to cut to.  The little screwhead lets allows you to get into the curves, which is nice at this point in the making.

Handy little adjustment tool, too.


Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Cleaning Up the Borders

Fri, 12/22/2017 - 3:41pm

Not to the final borders yet, but looking more like fiddles.  A little spit on the end-grain of the spruce sure can make cutting easier.  Plus, cutting spruce just smells like Christmas.  Not sure what the maple smell reminds me of, but I like cutting the edges on the maple.  Smooth and buttery.

Trying to snow outside my door now.  Will warm up some nice drink and relax for the evening.  Enjoy your holidays.
Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Sunrise on a clear day, low horizon

Thu, 12/21/2017 - 1:46pm
Rough arching a viola back.  Just liked the image.  Maybe at the point I wanted to stop working on this project for a few minutes.  Maple is a hard wood.  I can touch up the gouge, maybe do a little more tomorrow.  Other projects need attention.
Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Two New Fiddles

Wed, 12/20/2017 - 1:48pm
Every once in a while, I actually finish an instrument, or two. 
This has been a real-live 5-string fiddle for about two weeks now.  Played the contra dance in Boise with it the Saturday before last.  Also played it last Saturday, sitting in with the Serenata Orchestra in Boise, for their sing-along/play-along Handel's 'Messiah'. 

Scroll is based on the stern-piece of the Oseberg Viking Ship. Here's an earlier shot, during the varnishing.


As we say when we're being vocally emotional: I am not completely unhappy with it.


 The body form is based on the Brothers Amati that I drew several years back, following Francois Denis' method, and the f-holes are del Gesu inspired. 




My most recent, being a violin for about a week now, is based on a del Gesu, the 'Plowden'.   The form comes from my tracing of a CT scan from the poster put out by Strad Magazine a few years back.

 Also del Gesu inspired f-holes, which I like so am using them wherever I want to.

I'm not completely unhappy with this one, either.  Both are still stretching and growing.  Kinda fun to play them each day, note the changes.

I also just shipped off a fiddle, constucted here, that is a Christmas present, so I won't spill the beans yet. 

And an eastern European white viola that I had been varnishing and set-up went out the door to a very happy customer.  She actually got it before it was really ready, having had a bad accident with her then-current viola, and needed an instrument for a few holiday concerts.  But she liked it enough as-was to buy it.  Just did the final intial adjustments this week, after the concerts.





Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Manual of Violin Making

Tue, 12/19/2017 - 11:15am




  I've made a few violins, that work to some degree, so I know at least a couple ways to build one.  But violin-making is like so many other intellectual activities: the more we learn, the more we realize how little we actually do know.  We start to get a glimpse of possibly what might be out there to be discovered. 
   When I write 'we', I certainly mean 'I', but maybe also 'you'.
   When I first read of Brian Derber's new book on violin-making, I said to myself that I did not need another expensive violin book, that what I needed to do was to just keep cutting wood.  If I had extra money, buy more wood.  Or maybe a new tool.
   I made the mistake of looking on the web-page for the book.  It has a couple sample pages.  I made the further mistake of looking at those sample pages.  From them, I learned a way of looking at the fluting in f-holes that I thought was just spectacular.  It made sense.
  Within a couple days, I contacted Brian Derber via e-mail to order the book.
  It's good.  I have not read all of it.  It is huge.  But I have read the sections pertinent to the viola and hardanger fiddle I had already started making.   In the spirit of an adventure -- not to mention I paid for the book, so I'm going to use it! -- I altered the way I am doing the rough arching (photo above) to follow the process in the book.  Not a conversion necessarily, but an experiment, a playing with a new-to-me method.
   In any book, there is a chain of knowledge.  In 'how-to' books it might go something like this: From what the author thought, to what the author wrote, to what was finally printed, to what the reader read, to what the reader understood, to what the reader could convert into a physical object.  We do what we can and adjust from there.
  So I have the new book. I am also continuing to cut wood.  Learning.  It's fun.
  If you are interested in the book, you can find the link here -- The Manual of Violin Making, by Brian Derber.
  If the link does not work, you can find Brian at the

  • New World School of Violin Making
  • 6970 Red Lake Dr.
  • Presque Isle, WI 54557
  Current price, including shipping in the US, is $375.  This edition is limited to 500 copies. 
  There's nothing to beat the experience of attending a workshop, seeing the work being done in person, getting feedback, and so on.  I've attended the Southern California Violin Makers Workshop several times, and can recommend it.  I also attended the now-defunct violin-making workshop that was held at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California, lead by Boyd Poulsen.  There are other good workshops out there.  You can go to one. 
  Brian's book is really good supplement to that experience.  Good text, plenty of photos.   And if you can't attend a workshop, but are determined to build fiddles, it would be useful.

  In other exciting news, my car's odometer rolled over 100,000 miles last night on the way back from Scottish Country Dance.  It's been a good car, a 2010 Kia Soul that I bought new in 2009, and I hope to be driving it for several more years.
  Combining the current craft-beer renaissance with good cars and good information on violin-making,  I conclude that we live in the best of times.


Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Excavating.

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 2:31pm

After an hour of slicing off maple, 10 minutes on the spruce is a real pleasure.  Outline here is still quite rough, to allow for any weird chipping out at the edges.  I know how I work.  Maybe a little too fast at this point, but I compensate for that failing by leaving a good margin.  It's easy enough to work down as the plates get thinner.

Here are the back and the top, with the edges cleaned up a little, still out from the final shape.


Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Learning from the Humble

Fri, 12/08/2017 - 1:01pm

 A call from a local middle-school orchestra teacher.  "One of my students broke the scroll off a viola, and I need it repaired.  It's borrowed from another school!"  So, here it is.  Not just the scroll, but the entire pegbox.  A really bad break.  Financially not worth repairing.  It is, at first glance, an older 15" student viola, which has put in plenty of years work.  Just replace it.

"Can't do that.  It's borrowed.  I can't say her viola is broken."

It will cost _________.

 Pause.  "I don't have that much money in my budget."

So here it is.  I'm trying to figure something to do, and I think I have.  Not charging enough.  Hoping  the work also serves as pennance for some sin, past or future. 

But the back --


It just amazed me.  It has long been proven beyond any reasonable doubt that it is impossible to photograph varnish.  Photos, even video, can not catch the reflections as you or the instrument move through the light.  Even with a camera as nice as a cell-phone.  But here are some photos.


A one-piece back, with great clarity and motion.  It could be as simple as amber shellac and clear spirit varnish.  The wood, underneath, is aging to something of a grey-green.  It's a great combination.


So, even if I don't gain any pennance from it, at least this one may have a chance to make music again. 

And I have a new conceptual model for varnish color.
Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

St. Andrews Dinner & Dance

Sun, 11/19/2017 - 12:21pm
We make fiddles so we can make music.  And often we make music so folks can dance.

Our local Scottish Country Dance club, the Thistle & Ghillies, had our annual St. Andrews Day dinner & ball last night.  Good times.  And while most of the dance was done to recorded music, my wife Monica, on piano, and I on one of my fiddles, did play for the waltz at the end of the evening.  We're not a big enough group to have live music all the time.

We do, though, regularly play for the Boise Contra Dance Society dances, on the second Saturdays September through May.  If you're in town, come on by and dance with us.

Here's another shot of last night's St. Andrews Day dance.



Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

First ribs in place...

Fri, 11/17/2017 - 3:48pm
... little to show for what is actually a fair amount of progress.



What has happened to get to this point?  Form selected.  Blocks squared and installed.  Outline traced onto the blocks.  C-bout curves cut into the corner blocks.  Curves cut on the neck and end blocks.  Ribs thinned to proper thickness and trimmed to starting height.  Bending iron fired up and curly maple bent into shape.  Glued and clamped into place.

Not shown -- the top and back plates are joined (individually, that is).

I find the other ribs much easier to deal with, so basically this fiddle is moving along into its second trimester.  Once the ribs and linings are in place, the outline can be traced onto the plates, and serious carving begins. 

This is my Hardanger, so it will have typical Hardanger f-holes -- a new adventure for me.

Note also in the photo, just right of center at the top, the plastic handle of a cheap chisel.  Even so, probably older than many of you reading this.  I bought it in the 1970s, just out of high school, working as a carpenter.  It is not what one would call a good chisel.  I had a good friend who would chastise me, if he could, for including such a piece of sh*t in my photo here, but he can't. 

And I use this cheap thing all the time.  Need to slice some old, gnarly glue out of a mortise?  Here you go.  Works as an old-glue scraper, too.  Split some wood into blocks?  Whack!  Won't stay sharp for a long, long time, but takes a good edge quickly and is just dandy, in this instance, for working blocks down to the point where my good gouges and scrapers can take over. 

What works, works.
Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Ribs and teeth

Mon, 11/13/2017 - 11:40am
Thinning ribs with a toothed plane, to avoid tear-out in the highly flamed maple.  This side will go inward on the finished instrument.

An old task for me, but in a new context.  For the Hardanger, I'll go as I generally do with violin ribs.  For the viola, about 10% thicker.  So 1 mm and 1.1 mm!  Not much, but a difference.


Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Quitting time

Sun, 11/05/2017 - 3:40pm

I spend most of my time in the house, where my shop is, hunched over the bench, worried about bumps or awkward curves in my carving, thinking this new batch of varnish really isn't the right color.  Sometimes I'm practicing tunes, wondering if I'll ever learn how to play the fiddle.



It's nice to quit for the day, step outside, and see something that just is what it is.  Knocks me down a gear or two, and that's a good thing.


Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Light, and sympathetic strings (in the future)

Fri, 11/03/2017 - 12:37pm


Glancing light is a great tool for violin making.  With it, you can see how many (many, many) bumps one has on a surface, and it can even direct you towards how to remove them.  As I stepped outside the other evening, near sunset, I noticed these autumn leaves on our carport floor.  Note the shadows cast by these not-quite-flat leaves.

I decided to try my hand at making a Hardanger fiddle.  With some online research over the years, a plan from the Guild of American Luthiers, and a photocopy of the English translation of Sverre Sandvik's "Vi byggjer hardingfele", I decided to plunge in.  Since I expect I'll have enough problems with the basic mechanics, I decided to simplify some of the decorative details, such as the scroll. Instead of the traditional dragon, I wanted something like a canoe prow.  To get things uniform, I followed the Lancet arc, here described in "By Hand & Eye" by Geo. R. Walker and Jim Toplin.


It's a decent book, with practical methods for creating shapes in spaces.  My one quibble with the book is that the authors imply, maybe even state, they are not measuring when using a divider or a compass.  While it's true they are not reading a number off a ruler or tape measure, and then not using written math to divide or multiply, a divider is a elegant and exacting way to lay out work.  It is measuring, with extreme accuracy and precision -- assuming your divider or compass stays tight.

Their book is worth having.



Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery