Time to start a new viola! Here’s the set of wood, all ready to go:
But before I begin, let’s take another look at what it is I’ll be making:
To me as a violin maker, this is not the viola. This is:
All the sound is created by you, the musician, when you bow the string. Sound is a wave; it’s created by the displacement of air. The string, by itself, doesn’t move enough air to make a sound that can be heard. It has to be amplified. And that’s what this is:
An amplifier. A pretty sophisticated one, I admit; instruments of the violin family produce the most complex sound of any, second only to the human voice itself.
It’s easy to get distracted by the beauty of these things, and also by the history–the first ones were made over 500 years ago, when Michelangelo was finishing the Sistine Chapel. But when you get right down to it, its purpose is very simple: to make as much of the sound you produce audible in the last row of the hall.
Just as the sound begins with the string, so does the design. It all flows from there. The string has to be long enough to have enough tension to vibrate at a constant pitch. At the same time it has to be short enough to make the intervals playable. While the string length of the violin is very standardized, those of violas and cellos vary considerably – up to several centimeters. Over time, the medium string length – what you might call the average – for violas has worked out to be 37.5 cm. If you want to see a detailed look at the process of designing the model for this viola, I've included it at the end of this posting. Here I'm working on the design:
Once I have the finished design, I use a piece of plastic to make a template (I'm recycling an old cello template I don't use anymore). I scribe it with a knife:
I go over the template to find any breaks in the curves, and correct by eye:
I don’t really care if it follows the drawing exactly; I want the curves to be true, and you can only really get a sense of this as you’re working it. This will be the template for the inner form, which the rib structure will be constructed around; and so I subtract the edge overhang and the thickness of the rib:
Now I have the finished template:
I trace it on the plywood board for the form:
After cutting it out on the bandsaw, I true up the curves:
But this time I do follow the template as closely as I can – the idea is to split the pencil line and make it as symmetrical as possible. Any inconsistencies will be magnified, and while I don’t care if the finished instrument is symmetrical, I want to at least have that as a jumping-off point. Once the outline is done I cut the spaces for the four corner and upper and lower blocks:
And then, as a last step, I seal the block areas with glue:
I also varnish the form, just to keep it from getting dirty. The next step will be to start the actual rib structure.
So here's how I design the model. I start with the overall string length, measured from the bridge to the top nut at the end of the fingerboard (if this is too much technical information, you can scroll on down to where I stop explaining and actually start working):
But in transferring that to the design of the body, I have to take into account the angle of the strings:
The actual measurement is 37 cm. To ensure that when you shift into upper positions you can hit the right spot consistently, the total length is divided by an established ratio of neck to body string length, which is from the edge to the place the bridge sits. That ratio, 7:10, yields a neck length of 13.8 cm, and a body string length – known as the f-stop, or simply the stop – of 22.2 cm. That will be measured over the arch, so on the drawing, I measure it at an even 22 cm:
This now locates the bridge. The notches of the f-hole line up with the side of the bridge. I know the length of the f-hole, so I can locate the upper eyes. I start with the most important element, which is the distance between them; this regulates the stiffness of the top, and then transmission of soundwaves to the upper part. I then measure the width at the bridge – this also is critical for the flexibility of the center, which is the heart and soul of the vibration of the instrument. While I’d like to say that these numbers come from some golden formula, descended from Pythagoras and the Golden Section and Fibonacci and all of that, they don’t. There are all sorts of systems of design that mathematicians and violinmakers have come up with over time to try to explain how this gorgeous design was generated; and the fact is, none of them work. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to measure a considerable number of the greatest sounding instruments, and they’re all over the map. Even among the works of a single maker, you find wide variations. So I’ve taken what you might call the pragmatic approach: I use the essential measurements that I have found to work best, and then do a sort of connect-the-dots with curves to join them up. So here we go. First I lay out the eyes and the central width:
Then, since the notches are in the center of the f-hole, I use a compass to find the lower wing:
I then draw in the lower eyes:
The top of the lower eye lines up with the inside of the prufling on the lower corner, so now I can locate the C-bout:
I have the bout widths I want (1,2,3). Also, the distance is the same from the outside of the upper and lower eyes to the edge (4), so I know where the outside of the lower corner goes; and so, as I said, I just connect the dots with a nice curve.
- Montreal Chamber Music Fest—Brandenburgs a la Wallfisch
- The Montreal Chamber Music Festival—Canada's Instrument Bank Steals the Show
- More from Montreal: The Les Petits Violons School
- Montreal Violin Competition, Pt. V—It's a Wrap!
- The Montreal Violin Competition, Pt. IV, the Results
- The Montreal Violin Competition, Pt. III, The Finals
- Live from Montreal: The Montreal Violin Competition, Pt.II
- Making a Cello, Part II
- Live from Montreal!
- Making a Cello: Part One