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Making a double bass

Roger Hargrave

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About ten years ago a wood dealer came to my workshop to sell me tone woods. I bought several pieces, but while I was doing this I noticed several sets of bass wood in his vehicle. Now normally I would not have given them a second glance, but they were so special that I got him to remove them and place them in the sun for me to examine them more closely. In the back of my head I think I was thinking about one piece cello backs. They were Bosnian maple and totally spectacular. I had never seen such fine grown double bass wood. They had matching ribs and head blocks. The flame was very similar to several Cremonese instruments, including the flat backed 1690’s cello that is pictured in the ‘Antonio Stradivari in Japan’ book and several Amati instruments including Hieronymus II. The Flame was fine, but well defined. I fell in love with it and bought several sets, along with the beautiful matching belly wood that he also had for sale. Don’t ask me why.
Sometimes it is just fate.


Two years on from this momentous purchase, a purchase that did not impress my long suffering wife Claudia, I received an e-mail from Rene Zaal. Rene was one of three younger Dutch students at the Newark school when I was in my final year. This group included Koen Padding the varnish guru. The e-mail contained a picture of a sound-hole  As it came up on the screen my immediate thoughts were that it must be an Amati family cello, but I quickly realized that it was a bass sound-hole.


I called Rene and asked him about the rest of the instrument. He told me that the back and ribs were made from Chestnut wood, and that most people had expressed the opinion that the back and ribs did not belong, and that the head was also a replacement. He sent me pictures of the back and within hours I had checked my records, where I found two examples of cellos by Hieronymus II with identical back and rib wood, right down to the patina. (I later found a third example). A few days later I was making the four hour drive to Rene’s workshop in Holland. When I arrived I found that, for a bass the condition was exceptionally good and once again I fell in love.

To cut a long story short we decided to make a copy using the wood that I had previously bought. We took outlines rubbings and measurements of the body, but there remained the problem of the head. The head was a mess. However, in my cellar I had a beautiful plaster cast of a brothers Amati cello.  We decided that we could use this as a basis for our bass.


The thing about Amati family instruments is that they are all remarkably similar in concept and they often used interchangeable designs. One example is the brothers Amati viola that was owned by Harry Danks. This instrument has violin sound-holes  It would also seem that the Amati family simply reduced or enlarged designs as required. It is almost as if they had access to photocopy machines capable of enlarging and reducing sound-hole outlines. In fact they were probably using pantographs, an ancient and ingenious mechanical device for enlarging and reducing drawings. (See photos of violin and cello casts.) 

Because I have little knowledge of bass’s I took my plaster cast to Rene’s workshop to check what size we should make the head. As anyone that has made an Amati head copy, or repaired an Amati head will know, they are probably the most aesthetically beautiful heads of all. They do however have one drawback. The elegant slender taper of the peg-box results in an exceptionally narrow peg-box, making it very difficult to gain access to the two end pegs. (Violin A and D).  Stradivari corrected this by making the back of his peg-boxes slightly wider and allowing the first turn to become rapidly narrower after the A peg. Not as elegant, but certainly more practical.


The scroll on this bass had been grafted onto a wide and somewhat ugly, although undoubtedly more user-friendly peg-box  However, when I took a closer look at this head, although drastically altered by the highly invasive grafting process, the swing of the scroll itself was consistent with the plaster cast of the Hieronymus Amati cello head. So much so, that I believe that although altered almost beyond recognition, the scroll could also be the rather sad remains of an original Amati scroll.


Whether original or not, simply enlarging the Amati cello head would not have been an option. The peg-box would simply have been too narrow. This meant re-designing the head with a wider box while trying to retain the elegant flow of an Amati peg-box into the first turn. This picture of the plaster cast shows how narrow the inside of the peg-box becomes at the A peg end. Also clearly visible is the way in which the central spine between the two flutings stops under the throat allowing the two flutes to merge into one larger one. This feature is typical of Andrea Amati and the Brothers. It does not seem to have been a feature of Nicola Amati or his son Hieronymus II. Because our bass is inspired by the Amati tradition and is not a direct copy, we decided to keep this rather elegant feature on our head. 




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The first task was to make full size drawings of the head, and from these to construct suitable templates.


From the side drawing it is possible to note two or three further features often found on Amati heads. The first is the comma form that the eye of the scroll creates where it merges with the chamfer on the final turn. The second is the fact that on almost all Cremonese scrolls the peg-box runs smoothly into the first turns of the scroll. This feature was inspired by classical Greco-Roman architecture and the mathematics of natural forms. The peg-box and scroll are integral parts of the same feature. Consequently the throat can be placed almost anywhere between the two converging lines. Essentially the top line of the peg-box eventually merges with the line that runs along the back of the box and forms the outside of the scroll.


It can also be seen that the drawing and the template fit almost perfectly when set back to back.   

Several similar features can be found on Amati instruments. For example, if reversed, the outlines of the C bouts form an ellipse. Although the edge-work had been largely replaced (a fact of life for most ancient basses), the center bouts of this bass are no exception; on both sides they form a perfect ellipse. Eventually this factor made reconstructing the corners so much easier.


Having drawn the outlines and made the templates the neck block was squared and the side profile was marked on and sawn out. 





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Having drawn the outlines and made the templates the neck block was squared and the side profile was marked on and sawn out. Working close to the line with the saw it is only necessary to finish to the outline with a course rasp. I also do this with violins. With the exception of the top of the peg-box walls nothing of this surface remains, so further cleaning up is unnecessary. 


The next job is marking the various widths using the Cremonese style drawings that I tried to emulate.







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Having established the widths, the sides of the peg-box were cut away, planed and rasped. Normally for this process I would (use the rip saw pictured to) saw down the sides of the neck root, along either side of the neck and the peg-box walls, and up to the first turns of the scroll. (As far as they are cut away here.) I normally do this for cellos, violas and violins. I could not do this here because I did not have the information about the neck lengths and widths. (We had not yet made these final decisions)







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It is perhaps worth pointing out that on most Cremonese scrolls, but especially on Amati’s, the curves are always strangely flat when a file or a straight edge is placed against them. This makes it quite easy to create the correct flow, simply by using a flat rasp or a file. This trick works very well even on small violins.



Next up were the chamfers. Like Strads, Amati chamfers were always applied before the flutings. The flutings on Amati instruments were always deep (even when worn) and a little more rounded than Strads flat bottomed flutes.







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As can be seen from the darkened wood, wetting the end grain helps with this process. As indicated earlier, under the front of the scroll the two flutes become one on early Amati’s

Next up is hollowing the peg-box. I was a bit shocked as to how long this job takes.

Again wetting the wood helped.






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Well I don't want to get into doing to much answering. There is still a lot to do, but since you two are the first. Carl this is just like doing a violin only on a larger scale. I use most of the tools that you can see here and I mark out and work in exactly the same way. I even add bits to widen the eyes occasionally. Obviously I use a smaller twist bit for the peg-box, but I still use a twist bit. Adam I live in a small village too. Perhaps not quite so remote, but it has felt like Antarctica here at times this winter. In fact I woke up to minus temperatures and snow this morning and the storks came back last week; poor things.

I would also just like to thank Jeff Holmes here for helping me out with uploading the photos, not to mention everything else he does for this site. 

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Does the Bass have a body? (please excuse daft question)

Yes, we are almost finished, but because Rene lives in Holland and I live in Germany we need to find time to finish it together. Sides, back, belly arching, neck and purfling are all done, we just need to finish hollowing the belly, so that we can cut the sound-holes and fit the bass bar.  


Here is a quick preview. Rene is the one with all his hair. He did the rib bending and bending the back plate. That takes real courage. 





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