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Before and After

Mountain Luthier


Before and After

As with transforming anything that I have worked on, it has also been a transformation of self. From September 29th 2007, with the wish to have a cello to fix up for the house for guests to play, I unintentionally became a luthier.

Early in October 2007 my eBay prize arrived. The neck was a little crooked, indicating a broken neck block and poor seams on the upper bouts. Had the paint stripper that someone had used in refinishing attacked the glue? It is possible that after the “Home Depot” one-step finish was applied, the cello made ominous sounds as seams and neck gave way when one strung it up to play.

Taking on that project, I had to prepare myself for the possibility that anything could go wrong. I might have to build a replacement for any part I might destroy. I prepared by buying the book “Building a Cello Step by Step” by Henry Strobel. A thoughtful young friend bound for the North Bennett Luthier School lent me a book documenting Rene Morel’s restoration of Bernard Greenhouse’s storied Stradivarius cello, “The Countess von Stanlein.”

That was inspiration enough. I felt emboldened to tear into this cello, glue the neck and seams and build corner blocks. I had to create tools I couldn’t otherwise afford. I made a garland clamp, neck clamp and endpin reamer. I built a mold, as I restored her, if ever later I wanted to build a new cello.

By Christmas Eve 2007, I was on the kitchen floor rolling around on my back. The cello was supported on my shins as I tried to recover a little shaft of wood rattling inside the cello body. This comic scene repeated until I was successful setting the sound post.

Today this cello I call “Lady Cello” (because of the narrow bouts) rests on the mantle. The one-step finish remains until I discover a way to safely refinish it. The wing of the bass f hole sticks out a bit, indicating need for a new bass bar.

The Twins

What better way to learn how to do a bass bar in a cello than to do a small one first. I bought this lion-headed violin on eBay in Feb 2008. Everything looks better online. When the violin arrived, I realized the photos online could not justly show what I saw. What had begun life as two early 19th century trade violins, had been hastily joined into this unplayable wall hanging. This instrument doubtlessly had suffered this indignity for more than a century .When hopeful people asked if it could be repaired, violin merchants shook their heads “It’s cheaper to get a new one.” The top was 1cm wider at the c bout than the back. Ribs and back had been twisted and splayed to fit the oversized top. Exposure to humidity and temperature extremes had ravaged the top, creating cracks that could not be closed. ….and the top needed a bass bar. One violin needed to become two again.

Birthing of “Redeemed”

First order of business was to remove and restore the top and build a violin around it. I scraped bigger cracks to accept spruce shims. All others were glued and cleated. Once it was stable enough, I cut out the carved in bass bar and constructed a new one. The outline of the top began to suggest a plan for the ribs and a back to match. Maple salvaged from old furniture and spruce with the correct grain and density from old crating were used. Books often warn against use of kiln dried slab cut wood. Ellen Barker author of a violin building text mentioned …”tonal considerations that would be more suitable for constructing a viola.”

A subsequent eBay purchase nabbed a useable scroll for the project and a wonderful collection of molds and templates for the Graf von Browne Stradivarius.(Was this von Browne the patron of Beethoven?) This scroll came from the estate of an unknown deceased luthier from central Missouri. It was a scroll of unusual beauty: plain red maple, deeply undercut with volutes extended laterally beyond the bounds of normal scroll work.

The result was a violin with a sweet, mellow sound … almost murky. It was almost difficult to hear the tone within a violin section of more focused instruments. The tone carries remarkably well. The bass is rich. It is hard to get a disagreeable sound out of it.

This first violin was christened “Redeemed”. Musician acquaintances from the Flickr photo sharing community voted on a choice from inspirational messages found in fortune cookies from a Mongolian grill in Durango. “Redeemed” performed in her first concert at Farmington, New Mexico in San Juan College’s presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” in December 2008.

The “Evil Twin”

Work on the twin of Redeemed began in earnest December 2008. Because of the scowling lion, twisted back and ribs, I called her the “Evil Twin” .I decided the ribs were not worth saving. A custom mold for the garland based on the back was crafted. A mold was glued to the back. The back served as a guide as a router undercut the mold to form ribs that would give the edges the correct overhang. Only wood suitable for constructing violins would was used. I was able to manipulate the back to make it useable with some compromises. One c bout is longer than the other. This was more exaggerated in the top I crafted. I had another opportunity to practice fitting a bass bar.

I encountered numerous problems.

Placing f holes and bass bar in the “Evil Twin” was a challenge on such a narrow instrument. Half of the ribs had to be ripped off the mold and redone. The corners of the first top carved did not satisfactorily follow the garland. A second top was carved. A suitable tail gut could not be found for the baroque style tailpiece. Finally, I fitted up the unvarnished “Evil Twin“ for a sound test.

There was a commotion from across the room. “Redeemed” lying peacefully in her open case appeared to explode in a fit of jealous rage at the sight of me fiddling with another fiddle. Parts were flung around the room. I added insult to injury and borrowed Redeemed’s tailpiece and strings.

Playing in of “Evil Twin” was sweet. She has all the advantages of “Redeemed” and a more focused sound prized in a violin. The rich blend of carefully tuned old and new woodworked. I crafted a “baroque “ tailpiece from wood given by long time Silverton resident Phil Dodd. The part uses a modern tunable tail gut. “Redeemed” was carefully reassembled, her dignity restored . UV light hastened the finishing of “Evil Twin” in a drying cabinet .

I had this terrible nightmare before final assembly as the sealer on the fingerboard cured:

I was working on “Evil Twin” when suddenly the lower bout shrank and the scroll drew in like a turtles neck. To my horror, she puckered and shrank to the size of a withered aspen leaf. The form of a swarthy man with a broad brimmed beaver hat, somber black attire with a lacy collar and long curly locks appeared.

He had stepped out of the 80s… okay, the 1680s. He beckoned to me:

“I can help you build the perfect violin, but first you must sell me your soul!”

There was the snap of a whip and he disappeared in a spark and wisp of smoke. The wind arose outside like the moaning of lost souls. Window panes rattled. The wilted violin twitched in the draft from the window. Suddenly the windows flung themselves open, and the withered, leaf-like violin flew out into blackness of the night.

I awoke in a cold sweat at 4AM , eager to check on the “Twin” .The scowling lion winked at me as

I peered in the drying cabinet. She was just fine.


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