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Owyhee Mountain Fiddle Shop

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Violins in Southwest Idaho
Updated: 35 min 46 sec ago

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

Catching a Few October Rays

Wed, 10/25/2017 - 2:23pm
Buffed up and, for now, done with woodwork, my two newest are hanging in the sun. An old method of enhancing the grain, it is slow, yet does a good job, retaining what we like to see in fiddle wood.  A heavy stain would lock the flames in place.  This way, if all goes well, the flame will dance as one moves it in the light.

Of course, after one day, I'm already seeing a few scraper marks in the backs that I wish I had seen before.  Will see how they behave in the next day or two.  May just leave well-enough alone, as they say.


Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Some Idaho Fiddling History: Ike Crosby

Mon, 10/23/2017 - 1:34pm
Jan has been playing fiddle with our band, the Acrasians, for a bit over a year now.  Her family has been in Idaho for a few generations, and it seems she knows someone every where we go.  She got to know an older fiddler in the area here who was playing back in the early 20th century.

Letter to Jan from Ike.  All capital letters, single spaced. Paragraph breaks are mine, placed following Ike’s periods.  Probably also written in 1990.

Feb, Thursday the Eight, 2/58 PM

HI Jan & Family, Recd. your great letter today and was very
glad to get it and am hoping that some week end or for that
matter come any time I’m here in place most of the time, having
no legs am somewhat handicapped, so not too hard to locate.

Now about my first fiddle, I made it out of a cigar box believe
it or not, we had a German neighbor next door who was an excellent
violinist, played classical music as well as any, he gave me
a few lessons, mostly just how to hold the fiddle, no, he called
it a violin, he was a violinist, I’m only a fiddler, I had two
brothers that was fiddlers both older and gone from home when
I started, my dad also played when he was a kid, and his dad
my granddad was I guess better than the rest of us.

I guess it must have been around 1910 or 1911  I was doing the
janitor work at the two room school house in a little town
called Leland, in Nez Pearce County Idaho, I got four dollars a
month, those days Montgomery Ward sent out their catalogs they
had fiddles advertised in them, I had saved my money until I
had seven dollars and enough more to pay the shipping charges
so I ordered one, Mother told me I should have told them and
they would have put more with it and got a better one, any way
as soon as I learned to tune it I could play after a fashion.

In the summer on a big wheat ranch I did chores and there was a
young girl that could second on Pi-ano and we had some wond-
erful times, and at the dances after I was a little bigger I
would play for the dances when the regular musicians went to
the midnight suppers, yes those days we dance all night some
times until daylight.

I worked on ranches a lot when I was a kid and we lived in a little
town and Dad always had some horses around, and after I grew up
I broke horses for a horse outfit that were sold to the army.

You ask where I went to learn my first tunes, I knew a lot of tunes
we learned to sing in school, those tunes and anything I could
whistle I could play on the fiddle, and at a dance I might learn
one or two new tunes, and I went to a lot of dances.

Ame here most of the time except when I go for a foot or leg
measurement, will be gone Monday P.M.

As ever,  Ike.

Envelope is postmarked 23 Jan 1990, Boise, ID. 

Return address is R.F. Crosby, 1615 ‘ Th St., Nampa, ID 83651

Addressed to Jan Beckwith, XXX W. Linden, Caldwell, ID 83605


And a second note, on green paper --

1/21/90

Friend Jan, I am now in the Valley Plaza Retirement Center
1615 8th St. Nampa, and I have my violin with me, why dont you an
and the kids run over and try my fiddle, no it’s a violin.

Came from Spain, I’ve had it 73 years, come try it.  I cant hear
but had another man tune it and I played some, bring your
husband if he would like to come

Best regards, as ever Ike Crosby.


Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

Buttoned Up

Tue, 10/17/2017 - 1:43pm




 My two most recent, all together.  Plenty of detail work left before moving onto the varnishing, but I can now heft them to my shoulder and they feel like fiddles.  That's fun.
Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

A Viking ship...

Fri, 10/13/2017 - 4:05pm


... with a crew of horned-helmet warriors.




Please, no Spam.


.
Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery

A Freed Rib, or Six

Wed, 10/11/2017 - 11:50am




 The plates, top and back, are done to the point that they can be glued onto the ribs.  So this means the ribs have to come off the forms.  I have linings both top and bottom, the first step for removal is to trim these from square to tapered.  All sorts of ways to do that.  What you basically want is a big surface at the outside, to create a bigger gluing surface, tapered down to thin on the inside, to reduce weight and stiffness.

I take a compass and set the pencil at about half the width of the lining, in the vertical sense, and trace out a line on the linings all the way around, top and bottom.  Then a sharp knife, cut a bevel from the line to the inside edge, tapering down to meet the rib.  I usually make a few nicks on the form and on the ribs, but nothing so much to worry about.  And it doesn’t need to be perfect right here, because I’ll clean it up later after the ribs are off the form.

Once the linings are trimmed, I use a small hammer and knock the blocks loose from the form.  Then a flat chisel, I strike diagonal cuts to take out the ‘inside’ corners that will disappear anyway. 

When those fragments are out, it’s a matter of carefully loosening the ribs -- may have a few accidental glue spots that you don’t want to rush loose -- and then bending the ribs outward a bit, tipping the form as you go.  I start at the C-bouts and work towards the larger, lower bouts.  Once the endblock is free, you’re pretty much done with the removal.

Then, trim up the blocks and clean up the linings a bit. 

Next, glue on a plate or two.


Categories: Hand Tools, Luthiery