Craftsman / Artist
The ideal violin neck is subjective. It changes as you grow, develop, and mature. Perfect today is old hat tomorrow. The neck itself moves, as does the fingerboard. Not as quickly as our tastes but more like a painting of a slow tortoise.
The fingerboard is shaped with a radius across it’s width. The other direction, parallel with the strings, looks flat. But it is actually curved. String height is so low on a violin that without longitudinal concavity – the fingerboard’s scoop – vibrating strings would buzz against the fingerboard.
When a favored fiddler’s favorite fingerboard appeared beyond flat, clearly convex along its length, it was time to learn the art of the scoop. After chipping up a few natty practice fingerboards, I tried a good one. It was easier. Quality wood shaves more cleanly. “Scraping” of the fingerboard was performed. Seemingly random, together the strokes produced a concave surface to the fingerboard. Nearly flat along the high E edge. Visually pronounced along the low G. Gradations in between. Finally, comparison of the newly scooped violin fingerboard with my Products Engineering Corporation straight edge. Convex no more. Just the right amount of concavity.
After the scraping comes the sanding. Dusty thirsty work with multiple grits of scratch cloth. 220, 320, 400, 600, 800, 1,000. The glossy finish I want? The easy way is to dump sealer over it, a thick polymer coating. But tradition prefers bare wood. We scraped and sanded the old sealer off the fingerboard during the scooping. The reshaped wood now prefers special attention. The musician wants skin-smooth wood under their fingertips. A natural shine is wanted.
Micro Mesh makes it easy. With products developed for fine art restoration, our slat of century-old ebony is no challenge. Working up through the colored grits, the wood begins gleaming at about 6,000 grit. But do we stop? No! All the way to 12,000 grit, buffing like the best Park Avenue manicurist. The wood shines!
We started using Micro Mesh Buffing Sticks a few years back, touching up a bit of mandolin here and there. Then discovered an ebony violin nut can be made to shine. After a few more fingerboard refurbishments, we’re sold on Micro Mesh. Fingerboard sealers we’ll save for fretted instruments. All of our fine stringed instrument fingerboards are going out the door bare wood shining. Sparkling like Eve’s smile ≈≈≈
When it’s time to booze up, we have many choices. Clyde stocks gallons of generic hooch. With adult-proof lid, can rust, and drippy spout, we may buy in desperation or ignorance but regret our choice. Acquire in haste, repent in leisure.
We’re dabbling into the arcane world of spirit varnishes and stains. After the tool sharpening guy from Southern Italy insulted me, it’s likely I’ve transcended the hobbyist. Genuine need for solvent worthy of a professional spurs investigation.
Internet research brings to mind Fido chasing his tail. More opinions than the autumn leaves we crunch across during an evening stroll. To filter flow & clarify consumption, we contact National Finishes Expert Phillip Pritchard and confirm what we suspect. Hunches are backed with facts. Myths dispelled. When it is time to get our Varnish On, there is only one choice. The professional choice. Behkol.
We ask Phillip the advantages of Behlen spirit solvent over 190 proof hooch or hardware store quality denatured alcohol, when working with spirit varnishes. We cannot possibly paraphrase Phillip’s wisdom; an excellent quote you will have! – ATB
190 PROOF HOOCH IS 95% ethanol and 5% water. It is designed for drinking purposes, best enjoyed after applying your finish. Off the shelf denatured alcohol, sold primarily as a cleaning solvent, is a high concentration of ethanol and enough denaturant to prevent human consumption. Alcohol is hydroscopic and naturally draws water from the environment; in a general purpose cleaning solvent it should pose no harm but there’s no telling how much water it contains.
Behlen Behkol Solvent also contains a high concentration of ethanol, but it’s carefully sourced and controlled for minimal water content. The denaturant used is less toxic than other common choices. We add a stabilizing solvent to provide a greater shelf life for your dissolved shellac. All solvents used in Behkol are alcohols and are carefully selected for better shellac compatibility. This does add cost to Behkol Solvent, but it is purposely formulated for use as a shellac solvent, eliminates solvent related issues and provides higher performance when finishing with shellac. – Phillip Pritchard
The 1860s violin had a rough life. Through celebration and funeral, joy and woe, work and pleasure, countless songs found voice. Probably a trade instrument, sold to one of the trade musicians who supplied background, accompaniment, and main attractions before radio.
First to a right-handed player and later to a southpaw, a well-penciled calendar kept this fiddle busy for decades. At some point, perhaps in the 1920s, the peg box could take no more abuse. Donated to a church, and into a closet it rested, used as backup to the backup.
Neighborhoods change. The church moved. At their giant rummage sale this gem made its way onto a long folding table covered with relics. Purchased and sold yet again, changing hands from New England into the Keystone was a welcome destiny. This time not to play second fiddle. She is getting the full spa treatment!
Everything looks wrong for this wandering minstrel, but she has backbone and spunk. Incense wafts from the f-holes, Alma Pané informs me. Hmmmmm! Mystery solved? As I ream the peg holes to round, the intriguing smell released from its wood finally explained ~ ~
She’s getting peg hole bushings. I ream the peg holes back to round, insert and glue fitted boxwood peg hole bushings into the holes, and cut them flush with the peg box. Then the bushings get drilled and reamed for new pegs. A lovely experience for any fiddle, the excitement of momentarily returning to life as a violin! But those protrusions of extra bushing are not going to surrender placement without a fight.
Just in time, I discover Zona and their lovely razor saws. With this precision blade I’m able to safely cut within a couple hundredths of the peg box. Far less wood to slice away with my chisel. Papa always said, “Stick with what you’re good at”. I’m better at cutting wood than shaving wood, so there you go!
1860 nears completion. With D’Addario 4/4 Helicore Low Tension strings, 1860 will again be kicking up the hootenanny and serenading lovers, young and old.
LITTLE DEER ISLE, MAINE Generational downsizing had Jeff moving fiddles. In the right place, I acquired a Johann Baptist Schweitzer Copy of 1813 in rare good condition. Down the Eastern Seaboard the Baptist (bap•TEEST) was shipped. To Pennsylvania for mild refurbishment, strings, set-up, then further south to William in Georgia. Its stop-over proved to be more than a quick pat on the back. The pegbox was wonky.
While this instrument may have been made for 1:20 taper pegs, someone had later used modern 1:30 taper pegs. The new standard has provided superior tuning performance and pegbox health since its inception about 1900. This narrower peg, however, will not fit simply by “shoving it in as hard as you can”.
In a fog, flummoxed by ratios and angles, we turn to two of the best luthiers and mathematicians in the world for answers. The question, “What’s the difference?”
From Ontario: Basic trigonometry gives tan(angle)=rise/run. The angle is then inverse tan(rise/run), which gives an angle of 87.14 degrees. The compliment is 2.86 degrees. Thus, your 1:20 reamer is 2.86 degrees. – Charles Tauber
Not to be outdone, we’re gifted the link to a “Taper & Angle Calculation” program from a reader in Tatamagouche, the village in Nova Scotia. A 1:30 taper is scarcely larger, 3.33%
Closer examination reveals it is no big deal. With existing peg hole damage, it’s not even six-of-one, half-a-dozen of the other. We’re saved the expense, for now, of an imported Old World specialty reamer. Bill is still waiting in Georgia; lead time leaps forward. My domestic Juzek 1:30 tapered reamer with three straight cutting flutes works perfectly. The Juzek peg shaver (USA production with some imported parts) produces both blisters and perfect pegs. A little pool cue chalk on the peg surfaces, along with D’Addario Kaplan Amo strings, completes the job.
Steve Fields played the finished restoration at Woodside Creamery Farm yesterday. He pronounces the effort, “Perfect!” Another All-Smiles-Day!
It all started in March while visiting Wintergrass, the Wilmington Delaware Bluegrass Festival. A fella had a mandolin of pure line. Shapely neck and smooth body. Her voice! Golden, well articulated, clear, and rich. Sharp when required. Clearly an effort from one of the best finishing schools!
Off we went to see where she was born, meet her parents. The York Pennsylvania studio of Bluett Brothers Violins. Chris Bluett (blu•ETTE) proudly shows me around his latest, a clean F-body mandolin with intricate headstock, the violin in progress, a few guitars from earlier years there for a visit.
Chris has been making instruments his entire adult life. It takes more than skill and an understanding supportive wife. It takes dedication and respect for the craft. Born into every instrument. A tradition he proudly supports through an active apprentice program. Chris Bluett, carrying the torch.
His world is clay. But to us, he is rock. Rock Star of the pottery world Jim Sudal continues to amaze. While other artists rest at their benches, content to watch understudies handle production and reproduction, Jim continues to design and produce.
Careless for my own safety, I venture another visit. Pushing into hordes ten deep, from screaming jumping teenagers to powdered octogenarians, I secure two tables for local friends. Perfect for the patio, outside or in.
A few wall tiles completes my purchasing experience. There is something for everyone. It is always a pleasure giving my hard-earned money to Jim. Because he earns it!
Jim Sudal Ceramic Design 7037 E 1st Ave Scottsdale
There is always a story behind the story. Smells of clean sweat and grass at twilight on the ball field. Echoes of Widow Baxter next door reciting her daily Rosary. Seeing the bent man uptown most days as he stops to gaze wistfully at an old mansion just off Main Street.
Every guitar tells a story. One glance at an old guitar speaks volumes. Years later, a few strums can recall times past. Adolescence. High school. Slow afternoons at the feed depot. Waiting for an infant’s birth, dropping your guitar by the fence to run inside at the newborn’s first cry.
Even before high school, I knew my cousin’s Gibson was special. It sounded better than guitars on the records he played. Jeff claimed he bought his guitar from Keith Richards; Aunt Joan said it was her father’s guitar.
The clocks’ century hand has now completed a quick four decade sweep. I find myself before a WALL of Gibsons! At the finest music store this side of Planet Earth, Acoustic Vibes Music. Some of these sound exactly like Jeff’s guitar. But that was years and years ago …. How did Gibson make a new guitar sound like an old guitar? Investigation time!
Repeated visits to AVM, I enter Room Gibson and sample each of twenty-two on display. A plush Cadillac with the sleeper screaming motor, the soft cowboy crooner, a punchy piece that looks 80 years old … and sounds it! The Vintage series Gibsons receive a proprietary Thermo Cured top – well worth 25% more. No doubt, Gibson has made an amazing return to top-flight build quality from near bankruptcy in the 1980s.
After playing all these guitars, to which do I return? An unlikely mating for a man convinced a smaller-bodied short scale acoustic would be his one and only guitar love. The Super Jumbo body of the SJ-200 is a perfect fit, with curves in all the right places. The SJ-200 Vintage has the tone I can grow old with.
The SJ-200, like all my favorite artists played from the ’40s to now. Now with a premium Vintage top. The Adirondack red spruce top is Thermally Aged giving the look and sound of a seasoned SJ-200. The SJ-200 Vintage is my pick!
Tight body, no doubt. In the silent Gibson Room, I can feel the guitar coming to tune via harmonics between adjacent strings. As tones oscillate closer toward unison, Gibson build quality becomes unmistakable. Solid guitar, solid tone. With sound so clear, so crisp and exact, you’ll think you’re in a studio atop two million in equipment, recording your next Platinum Record. The one that should have been.
Ray Whitley went to Gibson in 1937. He asked Gibson to create their biggest acoustic guitar. It was given the name Super Jumbo or J-200.