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The Essentials of the Beginning Humble Luthier


aaronjt
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I've been dedicated to the education of violin makers now for five years and feel I should throw in my hat.

I'm talking strictly to the parameters at hand, i.e., "beginner", "on a budget.."

First I believe, without question, that the "The Art of Violin Making" by Johnson and Courtnall to be the consummate violin making volume. However, using "on a budget" as a criteria, as so many do, I do not recommend it in this case ($100). Rather I recommend Henry Strobel's book "Violin Making Step-by-Step". Reasons: It's inexpensive ($29.50). It has two complete sets of plans (one to remove and destroy as you require making templates, etc.) and the other stays in the book making it complete. It has a valuable table of measurements on one page. It describes several methods to do a job (not dogmatic). People will criticize that it doesn't make a perfect copy of any Strad, but who cares. It makes a fine violin.

Now, this book, like all books will by no means fully suffice as questions must come up no matter how a procedure has been described. That's why you need the support of either a local maker willing to answer questions (ideal) or of a forum such as this one. Membership in regional associations can also be helpful. But beware. Because there are myriad ways to skin this cat, the discussions can become very drawn out and wander off the path of being useful. This distracts from your objective and finishing a violin. Anything that keeps you theorizing and away from cutting is counter to your goal.

Violin making workshops are very helpful in that you can try tools and decide for yourself what works for you before you invest. However, I don't believe workshops to be ideal for beginners - budget again. Furthermore they can even serve as a distraction because beginners often tend to feel inferior to more experienced makers and it keeps them from pursuing the task at hand, i.e. cutting!

As for kits, forget it. It will simply waste your time and you will learn little on the journey. It's not that hard to make one from scratch. Avoid highly flamed wood as it requires advanced skills and razor sharp tools to work (again - I'm working on my experience that most beginners' don't really know what a sharp tool is all about). It is also much more expensive if you are buying it from a vendor.

The fact is, in order to understand the basic principles of what it takes to make a good sounding and good looking and easy playing violin, one must build (in my opinion) roughly 20 violins. And that only gives you a rudimentary understanding. Point is you will never build #20 until you've built #1. So decide on a method (or book) and be true to it until #1 is done, assess your work and get busy on #2 and so on.

Be sure to keep us all posted and give us pictures. Everybody enjoys watching new people get involved.

Good luck,

Jim B

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Be sure to keep us all posted and give us pictures. Everybody enjoys watching new people get involved.

Jim has written very well, and given lots of great advice. Also, one thing cannot be stressed too much: expect to make mistakes. When (not IF) you do, welcome them as opportunities to learn. I probably spent as much time during #1 correcting mistakes (i.e. asking, figuring, learning how) as I spent in non-mistake activities. Learning how to properly correct and recover from a mistake can fast-track your skills - you'll learn lots that you wouldn't otherwise learn. And don't be shy about it - if you post pictures of your mistakes here, even the real doozies, what you'll find is lots of support and advice. Go ahead, ask me how I know...

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Jim, thanks for taking the time to write, you had a lot of very good things to say. One thing you mention has long been a failing of mine, the tendency to become all-absorbed in the acquisition of knowledge, to the detriment of my doing the actual work of cutting wood. It is a personality trait of mine, and has accompanied me throughout my days (in various disciplines). But with regard to making violins, and to my defense, I have not yet been able to acquire the tools and materials needed to get a start in making. Yes, I did just purchase the Biddulph publication on del Gesu, and I do have the Courtnall book, as well as Saconni's book, but to me these were essential for my long-term development (and I would acquire more if I could, but my budget is somewhat limited...however, I do have some of the lesser-cost ones, such as few by Strobel, and a couple on varnish).

I really feel the need for a more complete understanding of my goal as I go about the process of making my first instrument. For me, it is very important to have as firm an understanding of my objective as I may realize, to guide my thoughts as I make my first. And as my understanding has improved, my concept (my knowledge) of the ideal has risen to an ever-higher level. Actually, thinking about it now I shudder at the thought of having tackled my first instrument with the Strobel book alone. Certainly various techniques used in making will vary slightly from one source to another, but the end goal has always remained more or less fixed.

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No knives? Nary a finger plane, not even a scraper?

Nope. I built my first violin without two of these three. I did use an exacto knife for the f-holes. Actually it's what I still use though I know modify the backend of the blade a bit. Overall I'm pretty poor at tool collecting. I don't even have real carving gouges. I use lathe/turning gouges that I picked up years ago for the right price. Better tools aren't going to make me a better builder so I'm happy keeping my tool collection as small as possible though I have been tempted lately to upgrade my scroll carving tool set.

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I was fortunate. I didn't start with a book but rather with a person. And I can't imagine trying to take on the task with any book or compilation of books alone. That's why I stress that some sort of support system involving real people really helps to make the journey more productive.

JB

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Jim - You should copy what you wrote above and keep it at the ready for the new makers (I'm one of them)...

Also, Aaron - (the orig poster), I think you mentioned that you have been reviewing the C&J text. If that is the case, they are pretty clear what tools are necessary along the way. Though as Wm. Johnston proves, you can get by without acquiring them all. Also, they discuss wood selection in the beginning of each of the Front and Back chapters, as well as a section early in the book on tonewood, I believe.

You had asked what you needed, but also where to source things. I believe there are suppliers identified in the back of the book as well. There are so many places to source tools and wood from. I'm learning that it's nice to call places and get a feel for how they do business and communicate. It sounded like you knew what you wanted in the way of wood, so go out there and find it! Do a search on "tonewood" here and you'll find plenty of resources...

H.R. above mentioned acquiring tools as you go. If you have a clear understanding of the step/s you are working on in the overall process, get the tool/s needed to complete that step. Hang on to your dough (and save more) until you need a tool to complete an upcoming step (or series of steps). There's nothing wrong with planning ahead, and trying to get everything you may need, but no one is really going to be able to tell you everything you are going to need. That's part of the discovery of the process, and part of the fun of making. For example, do you have what you need to make a template and a mould? If not, better work on that!

Also, I second what Jim says about wood and sharp tools (i.e., to work highly figured woods, one needs to know how to get razor sharp edges on tools...and, I'd add...how to preserve them for as long at possible). Soon you will need to flatten rib stock to 1mm and cut your corner blocks...make sure the tools needed for those steps (many ways to go about it, but typically a block plane, scraper, and corner gouge) are very sharp. So, you'll want to look into sharpening strategies from the get go...

And, really more cannot be said about just getting into the work and into the wood...you will figure out so much about what you need and why, by doing.

Enjoy!

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Great advice from Jim. Especially the sharpening advice. You'll save yourself so much heartache and compromised work by learning what "sharp" is. You may have experience already, in which case apologies for reiterating the obvious. However the thing that comes out of the packet and can cut your finger easily isn't sharp.

In the Pratchett Discworld books Death carries a scythe that hums as he moves it, because it's slicing the air molecules. Aim for that :-) More realistically aim for something that scares you when you pick it up and that you have a lot of respect for.

Speaking of which, I've never managed a scroll/head without cutting or jabbing myself somewhere along the way. I'm sure if enough DNA comparisons were made of blood in the pores of Stradivari scrolls, we could find enough samples that match to enable us to clone the old guy. Then we could find out what his secret really was :-)

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Great advice from Jim. Especially the sharpening advice. You'll save yourself so much heartache and compromised work by learning what "sharp" is. You may have experience already, in which case apologies for reiterating the obvious. However the thing that comes out of the packet and can cut your finger easily isn't sharp.

In the Pratchett Discworld books Death carries a scythe that hums as he moves it, because it's slicing the air molecules. Aim for that :-) More realistically aim for something that scares you when you pick it up and that you have a lot of respect for.

Speaking of which, I've never managed a scroll/head without cutting or jabbing myself somewhere along the way. I'm sure if enough DNA comparisons were made of blood in the pores of Stradivari scrolls, we could find enough samples that match to enable us to clone the old guy. Then we could find out what his secret really was :-)

++++++++++++++++++

Like any beginning profession, build up your tool box on the way, more this and more that . Why worry?

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Just to add my 2 cents ... and for simplicity I think there are two types of people; those that are process oriented and those that are result oriented. Process oriented people will read the Art of Violin Making from cover to cover and enjoy complexities and traditions of this ancient craft and will want to acquire all the knowledge and tools before starting to build a violin A result oriented person only wants to read the section that deals with the particular stage where he is at; only needs to acquire the tools that are need at the time etc. In my opinion is good to be both but I would lean towards result orientation otherwise too much thought will lead to a type of paralysis and a sense that making a violin is an overwhelming task. And one more important requirement is to have access to some experienced makers ... this is what makes this site so valuable.

P.S. I avoided the joke that there are 10 types of people those that understand binary and those that don't.

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P.S. I avoided the joke that there are 10 types of people those that understand binary and those that don't.

Interesting... I was just having a conversation with my youngest last evening, who just graduated from high school... we were talking about how things have changed since I was his age, and I got onto the topic of how I came into my career (Computer Applications Developer) with just my HS diploma and a programming course, and the rise of Microsoft, etc... anyway at one point I was trying to explain to him about how computers are based on Binary digITs (BITs), and what a Byte is, etc... he didn't get it... :)

Okay, we now return you to your regularly scheduled topic...

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Interesting... I was just having a conversation with my youngest last evening, who just graduated from high school... we were talking about how things have changed since I was his age, and I got onto the topic of how I came into my career (Computer Applications Developer) with just my HS diploma and a programming course, and the rise of Microsoft, etc... anyway at one point I was trying to explain to him about how computers are based on Binary digITs (BITs), and what a Byte is, etc... he didn't get it... :)

Okay, we now return you to your regularly scheduled topic...

Tim, before returning: Things used to be different. The new "new math" is the result of the failure of the old "new math". You likely know this one, perhaps some others will enjoy Tom Lehrer, "New Math"

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From my own perspective, since I began with nothing but the determination to build a violin; and after beginning to move wood, bought Henry Strobel's books, but now have the Courtnall/Johnson tome (as well as others with even more budget-popping prices)--

Had I begun with the Courtnall/Johnson book, I think I would have satiated my "lutheriginous" tendencies in drooling over that book, and others like it, and probably NEVER would have actually built a violin. As it is, I have now built six violins, three violas and a double bass, and though my work schedule has not allowed me to do much for the last several months, I am beginning to gain momentum toward another sortie. The making process became an addiction before the first one was complete.

All to say, I agree with Catnip. It is wise to begin moving wood "immediately if not sooner"--and the more the better. Even learning to sharpen, as vital and irreplaceable as that skill may be, is not as important as learning to "get on with it". That is one thing I appreciate about both Michael Darnton and Lynn Hannings, in Jim Brown's workshops--they teach a concept, then shoo everyone back to their respective benches with the admonition to "get back to work".

The sharpening issue is vital to comfort, safety, quality, and throughput..but if one is not actually putting steel to wood, then all the rest is the stuff of dreams. If all the tools I had were a whet-stone, a flat file and a large tablespoon, I think I would begin moving wood...

Chet

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I'm reminded of the interview with Ivo Pires by American Lutherie.

His career began at age 8 when he stole a shingle off his grandmother's house (in The Cape Verde Islands) and fashioned a knife by pounding a 4" nail flat, then sharpening it on concrete. He had seen some musicians playing, and that is all it took.

He finished a ukulele he copied by looking at a friend's Martin. At age 9. Sold the third one, and all this done by intuition and hand made tools.

"Yeah, right," I said, "not to mention a little genius."

Today you can put any instrument on his table, and he will copy it or repair it. Violin, Sitar, ouds, bouzoukis, grand piano, whatever.

Anyone shopping for a role model need travel no further.

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...I really feel the need for a more complete understanding of my goal as I go about the process of making my first instrument. For me, it is very important to have as firm an understanding of my objective as I may realize, to guide my thoughts as I make my first. ...

Two quick comments:

1. Its sharp if you cannot feel it cut you

2. Jump!

Regards

Tim

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Two quick comments:

1. Its sharp if you cannot feel it cut you

2. Jump!

Regards

Tim

+++++++++++++++++++

To understanding complicated things, we need experience.

Once I was a young boy, opened and took apart a poctket watch (not breaking it). Then I put all

the parts back. It did not run.

If you took apart of a violin (by parts) and put them back together (glue and clamps etc.), it can be played but it may not be as good.

There is something there, no book can teach you but ecxperience.

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Interesting... I was just having a conversation with my youngest last evening, who just graduated from high school... we were talking about how things have changed since I was his age, and I got onto the topic of how I came into my career (Computer Applications Developer) with just my HS diploma and a programming course, and the rise of Microsoft, etc... anyway at one point I was trying to explain to him about how computers are based on Binary digITs (BITs), and what a Byte is, etc... he didn't get it... :)

Okay, we now return you to your regularly scheduled topic...

Ha ha ha!

Great story.

I believe that you are my age.

I have has similar discussions with both my son, age 30, and my grandson, age 10, about computer basics.

Back when, when I first started getting interested in electronics and was thinking about making "electronics "my career, none of this was really workable in the sense that no one actually owned a computer at home, or even used one at work.

"Computer Science" seemed to be only a theory, really, and the existing computer (singular) was still in a large room at Bell laboratories, or at AT&T, or perhaps in some government lab somewhere... Scientific American notwithstanding.

In my high school electronics class, we not only understood about the theories regarding BITs, but about how a basic computer could be constructed from simple electronic circuits including electro-mechanical relays (ones that could either be turned on or off - contact or no contact - and were about the size of a spark plug) or even how transistors could be used (again, an electronic switch, on or off - 1 or 0) and about how all knowledge could conceivably be translated into a language based on a series of on-off, base two, bits of information.

If you had enough components, and a lot of determination, you could even make one yourself that could do math calculations. (Or, perhaps, if you were pressed for time, you could simply use your slide rule which was, in essence, an analog computer itself.)

I remember thinking - yeah right, that'll work!

It seemed that the amount of on-off combinations needed to impart, store, or calculate, any important information, was immense beyond what was remotely probable.

Of course - oh me of little faith - didn't realize that there were minds at work even then, designing integrated circuits that would allow a virtual universe of little transistors to be inscribed on fingernail sized chips of silicon, eventually making the storage part of the whole thing inconsequential.

Had I only been a bit more astute, I would be living in a ten room glass house on a cliff somewhere in Palos Verdes, Southern California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean now instead of living in a two bedroom circa 1950 ranch house the rural middle of the desert.

Oh well - the point is that I do not believe that such things as this are being taught up to and including the high school level any more. With rare exception, this type of information is now college level specialized information. Just like when you ask any pre-college level kid, "Have you read, -insert your favorite classic here-" you will get a blank stare back - "read?" they will ask. Do you mean, have I Goggled it? ".

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One thing you mention has long been a failing of mine, the tendency to become all-absorbed in the acquisition of knowledge, to the detriment of my doing the actual work of cutting wood. It is a personality trait of mine, and has accompanied me throughout my days (in various disciplines).

You can fix this

This has always been a point I like to press home also.

Build.

My personal mantra is;

"When in doubt, build."

Build something today.

Get some wood and start your mold.

Go to Home Depot and see what basic hand tools are available.

If you can't do that, go to the store and get some paper and a pencil and start drawing your mold out, full size.

Not that there's anything wrong with armchair luthiers, mind you.

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  • 2 weeks later...

So the project has officially started July 9th, today I purchased wood from a local violin maker, some 33 year old wood from wales, decently flamed, good wood for a beginner, and all the other wood needed, bass bar, linings, blocks, fingerboard, scroll, etc. also have purchased many pfeil gouges and ibex planes including a saw, and many patterns, still need to buy a sharp knife, sharpening tools (does a 8000 grit whetstone work?) calipers are needed. But everything is set in motion and should have pictures of starting out here in a few weeks. Also a 9 1/2 plane, and going to try and even out the spruce and maple to potentially join the wood. Might need some assistance with that.

Aaron

post-28896-1247292493_thumb.jpg

post-28896-1247292529_thumb.jpg

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In my experiences, the first instrument costs about $8000 to build, and you won't likely recoup your initial investment if you mange to sell the first one. The second one only costs $7916.00 to produce, and the cost diminishes more as you build more. :)

Seriously, ensure you buy quality tools, as they will last a lifetime, or longer. If you buy cheap, you'll soon be shopping for quality tools when you discover that $3.00 chisel doesn't hold an edge...

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Seriously, ensure you buy quality tools, as they will last a lifetime, or longer. If you buy cheap, you'll soon be shopping for quality tools when you discover that $3.00 chisel doesn't hold an edge...

Which is when you learn what to look for in good tools and hunt around markets and find it possible to buy very good tools for bugger all. My favourite chisel (Anton Berg - Swedish) cost $2.00. Not to mention the mid 1800 back saw for $5.00...

Tool buying is almost as addictive as making violins :-)

Tim

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In my experiences, the first instrument costs about $8000 to build, and you won't likely recoup your initial investment if you mange to sell the first one. The second one only costs $7916.00 to produce, and the cost diminishes more as you build more. :)

Seriously, ensure you buy quality tools, as they will last a lifetime, or longer. If you buy cheap, you'll soon be shopping for quality tools when you discover that $3.00 chisel doesn't hold an edge...

I probably spent about 600 dollars so far, does that 8000 dollars include tools like a drill press etc? seems like quite a bit, I bought some decent gouges, about 2 or 3 of them and 2 Ibex planes so far, wondering if a Flat whetstone will work to sharpen, or if I need something curved, bought a saw, and wondering what I should use for a clamping system, need to make a mold, wondering if I should make it one piece or just two piece.

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I probably spent about 600 dollars so far, does that 8000 dollars include tools like a drill press etc? seems like quite a bit, I bought some decent gouges, about 2 or 3 of them and 2 Ibex planes so far, wondering if a Flat whetstone will work to sharpen, or if I need something curved, bought a saw, and wondering what I should use for a clamping system, need to make a mold, wondering if I should make it one piece or just two piece.

I think the $8K was a slight exaggeration..

Yes, you could spend that amount - but you will spend far more in time than money, and it will be well spent. Get on with it!

Tim

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