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Making a double bass


Roger Hargrave
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Roger, I see the bass that you used to model yours on has slab cut wood (is it maple?) for the back and sides. To me, this looks particularly attractive. I think slab cut wood looks better on bigger instruments than it does on small ones, and in this particular one I think it shows itself in a spectacular way. Maybe also cause I'm so used to flamed wood that I find it almost boring. was there a particular reason for you choosing flamed maple instead?

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Beautiful Roger.

 

Can I ask, did you use a slot cutter bit in a router table to cut the top plate edge to thickness?

Ernie

 

I know nothing about routers, but I will ask Rene. However, if it helps I seem to remember that the router was hand held, but I was busy with something else at the time, so I'll ask to be sure.

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Roger, I see the bass that you used to model yours on has slab cut wood (is it maple?) for the back and sides. To me, this looks particularly attractive. I think slab cut wood looks better on bigger instruments than it does on small ones, and in this particular one I think it shows itself in a spectacular way. Maybe also cause I'm so used to flamed wood that I find it almost boring. was there a particular reason for you choosing flamed maple instead?

 

The wood is almost certainly chestnut and I have seen it on three Amati cellos. The patina was also very similar. The reason I chose this wood is only partly because I could not find any chestnut that matched. The main reason, as I said earlier, is that I fell in love with these (I bought two) sets. Also I know of several Cremonese cellos with almost identical maple in growth (very fine) and flame (strong and narrow). If I remember rightly the Strad cello with the flat gamba style back has a very similar back. See very first paragraph.

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The angle of the back is critical for both the sound and for the player. Don't ask me about sound, I know nothing about sound, I'm a violin maker, but the player needs access to the instrument (especially the lower registers) and this angle, whether on a flat or carved back instrument, helps to provide that access. Now if there is one thing that I have learned over years of talking to my friends Duane Rosengard (author and bass player in the Philadelphia Philharmonic), Rene Zaal (my present partner in crime) and many other bass enthusiasts; where basses are concerned there are no hard and fast rules. Without exception,everyone has told me this. Moreover, since starting this project it would seem that the entire bass community has tried to contact me, to support and encourage me, and to tell me that, "there are no hard and fast rules". It is like a reassuring mantra that needs to be repeated constantly. "There are no hard and fast rules". Apparently, the answer to bass making is to find the best models that you can and copy them with as much experience, intelligence, and intuition that you can muster.


Now the older I get the more cynical I become about the way many of my colleagues approach violin making. Indeed the more observant of you may have noticed this quality in my writings. I have never been one for the fancy answer; simple not ethereal. Neither have I ever described either myself or my profession as being artistic. We are craftsmen and women doing a rather pleasant job that requires some hand working skills and as much experience, intelligence, and intuition as we can muster. By now some of you may be thinking, maybe he should have been a bass maker after all. Well yes, but in reality violin making is not as far away from bass making as some violin makers might like us all to believe. Philosophically we may have our differences, but basically we are all trying to find the best models that we can and to copy them with as much experience, intelligence and intuition as we can muster. Moreover, as I have declared on many occasions, including most recently about baroque violins, there are no hard and fast rules in violin making either. Never mind bass makers, this should be the mantra for every violin maker everywhere.  "There are no hard and fast rules".

So where is this preamble leading. Well it is leading to the fact that the bass that Rene and I are copying is a stunner. In its way it is on a par with any great Cremonese instrument. It works extremely well, sounds like the launching of an ocean going liner and it looks almost as beautiful as my new red headed granddaughter. (See photo, taken just after I told her that she can take over the business).  And as such it is our duty to copy all the essential details as well as we can. Hence the angle of the back. Like the ribs I was pleased to delegate this job to Rene. I already wet myself bending violin C ribs and this job is one of the biggest nerve ticklers that I have ever experienced as an instrument maker. In effect you are required to bend a 5 mm thick back that is about 60 cm wide to a sharp edged angle of about 20 degrees, without creating a split. (I need to get these measurements right or Rene will strap me to a bass and float me out on the Ijsselmeer,)  If I crack a piece of ebony veneer while bending it to fit the curve of a baroque board then I simply throw it away and start again. Ditto with a broken rib. But a busted bass back of this quality? So from the Amati, Rene calculated the rib heights and this (back) angle and he built the mould. He then bent the ribs to fit the mould, after which he inserted the willow linings to stiffen everything, and planed the ribs to their final height and the correct angle. See first photo.


With the angle thus calculated he routed a line across the back with a tiny V shaped cutter to within about 1.25 mm. (Better him than me.) The back was then turned, clamped on a flat board with the upper portion suspended over the edge, and steam was applied with wet cloths and an iron until Rene felt that it wanted to go. Actually by this point I was also wanting to go. Then while heating it with an iron, downward pressure was applied until the required angle was reached. Once the angle was reached it was cramped in position overnight. The following day the studs (see photographs) were fitted to hold the whole thing in position. And not a crack in sight. Actually this construction remained very fragile and it required careful handling while I worked on the purfling, the edge-work, and above all the scrapping work to accentuate the flame, (mentioned earlier). This was a totally new experience for me. I don’t recall ever having  worked on anything quite so large and so fragile. It really required constant concentration. Turning it and finding ways to hold it while rounding the edge was genuinely nerve wracking.

 

After all this Rene, (actually his name has an accent, but I can't get it to work here), fitted the various cross braces, which I also know very little about. Maybe I can persuade Rene to say something about them. However, I strongly suspect that like violin bass bars, we mainly really on tradition, because no-one really knows how they work. Not that this detail has ever stopped violin makers and pseudo scientists from expressing opinions, even on this illustrious site. And I am not averse to offering my own opinions, especially when I know very little about the subject in question; like now.

 

HAPPY EASTER! 

 

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So I thought that I might clear up a few things. Several people have asked me about my arching edgework and purfling sequences. The method illustrated below is my reconstruction of the Cremonese system. I use this system whenever I am making a baroque violin. The drawings are exagerated slightly to help illustrate the process. However, I use several variations of this system depending upon whether I am making a normal modern instrument or an accurate copy. If I am not making a baroque instrument I do not need to finish the purfling and edgework with the instrument body and neck glued together. Instead I can finish the purfling and the edges before the instrument is even hollowed. I do a lot of copy work and working with the plates off the ribs makes finishing the edges that much easier. Nevertheless, I always try and incorporate the essential elements of this method, because it is this that gives the arching something of that Cremonese flavor. It gives it that natural figure of eight fluting that is so typical of all Cremonese archings and is quintessentially Amati. The Cremones system probably followed something to the following. I have included two drawings (sorry wrong sequence) that simply show the process of preparing and ataching the plates to the ribs. The picture shows the arching finished with a flat platform at the edge. The plate is then hollowed and a chamfer is cut on the underside of the overhang. This chamfer is the start of the edge rounding process. The plates are then glued permanently to the ribs structure and the purfling is inserted. The fluting is cut to the outer edge as described in detail below and the edge is rounded off.  The following pictures illustrate this process in more detail.

A. The archings were finished as Saconni states with a flat platform. On a violin this might have been as much as 5 mm thick. In fact some Cremonese instruments have worn corners that are almost 5mm thick. This flat platform alowed them to clamp with the kind of wooden screw cramps illustrated somewhere else on this site.

B. The purfling channels were cut using the single bladed cutters illustrated above. They have a depth stop that prevents the channel from becomming too deep. The single blade helps with the extra depth that is required because the edge is still fairly thick. 

C. The purfling is inserted and glued in place as described above.

D. A narrow U shaped gouge was used to cut along the line of the purfling to the depth of the fluting. This little trick is pure genius. Once this has been done the two sides of the purfling channel become separate entities. This meant that they never needed to work against the grain. Traces of this gouge are occassionally to be seen on del Gesu's violins at the corners, however even these traces have often been removed by larger gouge strokes that were used to shape the flutings. The fourth picture shows how this tight U shaped gouge initially cut across the corners. It is this initial cut that provided the basis for the typical feature of Cremonese archings. It also left the corner area flat so that it could be clamped as the fingerbord was being attached.

E. Remeber that at this point the back and belly were already glued to the rib structure and that the rib structure which already had the neck attached. The arching was then completed up to the tight U shaped channel. Sometimes on late Strads there is a bump on the archings where this blending process was not quite what it should have been. (Y) Saconni mentions this.

F. With the arching complete the outside of the U shaped channel (outside the purfling) could be cut with a curved gouge. This is most obvious on del Gesu's instruments, where the arching is scraped clean to the purfling while the outer curve of the fluting is straight from the gouge. Strad and the Amaties worked with great care. They cleaned up this outer fluting with scrapers, they then scribed a fine line around the edge to mark the point to which the edge should be rounded. This line is often still visible on the high point of the edge. However, it must have been applied on this outer curve because with the exception of the corners, the edges were lowered by the rounding process. Had they been applied when the edge was at its full thickness these scribe lines would have been removed as the edge was being rounded.

G. Shows how the edges (away from the corners) were lowered by the rounding process.

Now its bed time, so I will explain how I finished the bass belly arcjing and edges later.

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Classical Edgework

Roger Hargrave

Monday, November 7, 1988, 3:30 p. m.

 

Violin Society of America

 

Hello Link man, I don't like repeating myself although I am sure that I do it all the time. But, you might have noticed that I have actually changed these VSA drawings slightly and incorporated the reason why scribe lines are often visible on the top edge. And a big thanks for the clamp photos those are exactly what I was thinking of.  

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Roger, to get it right, in your opinion was the outline finalized before or after closing the box?

If its after, I have a problem with marking it with the chamfer done already, and it seems pretty clear that this underside chamfer was made before glueing the plates... I'm lost there...

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Roger, to get it right, in your opinion was the outline finalized before or after closing the box?

If its after, I have a problem with marking it with the chamfer done already, and it seems pretty clear that this underside chamfer was made before glueing the plates... I'm lost there...

 

No, an initial outline was taken from the ribs before they were taken off the mould. The ribs were then removed from the mould and the neck was attached. This loose structure was then clamped and centralized on the flattened back plate using the initial outline as a guide. Although discrepancies were usually very small, we do occasionally see traces of a double outline when the ribs are removed (especially on backs). See full description on my web site. At this point the final back outline was taken. The outline was finished first. This was followed by the back arching. The back was then hollowed and the chamfer added before the plate was finally glued to the ribs. Saconni's idea about finishing the outlines after the box was closed is I believe wrong. The edge was finished (rounded) as was the purfling and its fluting after the closing the box. But the outline was finished before the box was closed. By the way, Saconni really was the greatest. Without his initial work we would not have come as far as I believe we have. But there is still a long way to go, and consequently Saconni's book should still be read by anyone serious about fiddle making. I am not lying when I tell you that have worn out four copies. 

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No, an initial outline was taken from the ribs before they were taken off the mould. The ribs were then removed from the mould and the neck was attached. This loose structure was then clamped and centralized on the flattened back plate using the initial outline as a guide. Although discrepancies were usually very small, we do occasionally see traces of a double outline when the ribs are removed (especially on backs). See full description on my web site. At this point the final back outline was taken. The outline was finished first. This was followed by the back arching. The back was then hollowed and the chamfer added before the plate was finally glued to the ribs. Saconni's idea about finishing the outlines after the box was closed is I believe wrong. The edge was finished (rounded) as was the purfling and its fluting after the closing the box. But the outline was finished before the box was closed. By the way, Saconni really was the greatest. Without his initial work we would not have come as far as I believe we have. But there is still a long way to go, and consequently Saconni's book should still be read by anyone serious about fiddle making. I am not lying when I tell you that have worn out four copies. 

 

Roger

 

I have really enjoyed reading this thread. Thank you for your writings and for sharing info on this beautiful bass.

 

There have been discussions before about the Amati purfling and its deviation from the edge into the corner. I have looked but never found anything where you might have shared your theory on this. I don't want to turn this into a free for all Q&A but would love to hear your take on it since your are talking about the order of the way things were done.  I was taught and agreed with the possibility that the logical, natural steps causing this would be for the initial outline to have been drawn with additional overhang and purfling set based on the corner distance, and then final outline after purfling, which brings the purfling closer to the edge. In photos it always just looked to me to be to continual to have been deviated by hand. Do you think it was just deviated when marked and cut?

 

If you've written on this subject and I've overlooked it I apologize 

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Roger

 

I have really enjoyed reading this thread. Thank you for your writings and for sharing info on this beautiful bass.

 

There have been discussions before about the Amati purfling and its deviation from the edge into the corner. I have looked but never found anything where you might have shared your theory on this. I don't want to turn this into a free for all Q&A but would love to hear your take on it since your are talking about the order of the way things were done.  I was taught and agreed with the possibility that the logical, natural steps causing this would be for the initial outline to have been drawn with additional overhang and purfling set based on the corner distance, and then final outline after purfling, which brings the purfling closer to the edge. In photos it always just looked to me to be to continual to have been deviated by hand. Do you think it was just deviated when marked and cut?

 

If you've written on this subject and I've overlooked it I apologize 

 

OK its a difficult one which is probably why I have avoided it. I'm off to Holland tomorrow and I will have a think about it. Meantime ponder this: 

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About this edge-purfling question, I don't see strad using a completely different method than Amati did.

On some (many?) strads you can see the purfling tool mark following the corner shape before deviation ( see Sacconi Soil corner pic)

And it seems a lot of work to do the outline twice! I can't imagine these guys doing more steps than absolutely necessary.

But that's just me.

sorry Roger for spamming up your post...

Paul

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Another interlude. 

When we were in our final year at violin school, John Dilworth, Joe Thrift and myself decided to make cellos. The school was fairly new and I think that these may have been the first cellos that were ever made at the school. Certainly by the time we started we had no experience and neither had we witnessed anyone else making a cello. John started first and soon had his head carved and the body together. Unfortunately we had been taught to carve our violin and viola heads and only to roughly finish the neck and neck roots. The final working was to be completed once the necks had been mortised and glued into the body. There may have been some sound pedagogical reason for this procedure, but I have not yet discovered it. Nevertheless, for violins and violas this method did not pose any serious problems. But for cellos…

 

Having finished his head and the body, John dutifully fitted and glued the roughly finished neck into the mortise, and then his troubles started. It quickly became obvious that a cello is more difficult to maneuver than are violins and violas. Observing John trying to shape the neck and chin of the head with the cello body up in the air, prompted Joe, who was hot on John’s heels, to finish the chin and the neck before attaching it to the body. However, he was a little too hot on John’s heels and had not yet witnessed the problems that John then faced shaping the neck root. Fortunately I was a long way behind them both. Being able to observe them struggling caused me to fit the neck and then to finish the chin, the neck and the neck root completely, before finally gluing it in place. Today I do this with all my instruments. I also cover all the ribs edges and neck root areas that are not meant to be glued with tape. This helps prevent excess glue from running onto surfaces where it might be difficult to clean off. Working on the bass made this ‘modus operandi’ even more vital.

 

As has been seen, while Rene was making the ribs and jointing the backs and bellies I was designing and cutting the head. Rene also prepared the fingerboard. Apart from being hard physical and dirty work, this process is also entirely similar to making a high quality violin, viola or cello fingerboard. The underside was flattened where it was to be attached to the neck, and wood was then removed from the underside of the protruding part. As with violins, this last process needs to be carefully calculated. It is about removing excess weight without compromising on strength. As can be seen from the photograph the underside was also polished and the end was given a final long chamfer to make the board end appear more delicate that it actually is. Again this is a feature employed by most top violin makers. Rene then attached the board to the roughly finished neck. Before the next stage Rene covered the head with transparent kitchen foil, so that ebony dust would not mar the finished surface. He then roughly planed the board’s top profile. The final finish will be done after the varnishing has been completed.

  

Having concluded this preparatory work, last week Rene and I were back in his workshop, where among other jobs we shaped the neck together. Firstly we established the widths using the fingerboard width as our guide. This was quickly done with hand-made rasps. Both Rene and I use Herdim rasps. They are expensive, but they cut like blades and with care they can last a lifetime. Next we gradually created the long side profile. Finally, using a section template, we began to develop the neck shape. Again this was done with Herdim rasps (not files). From the lines created by the width of the fingerboard and the long profile we gradually created a series of chamfers running along the length of the neck. These chamfers narrowed slightly towards the head end. Each new chamfer was checked with a straight edge to ensure that they were neither too full nor too hollow. These chamfers were gradually linked and rounded until eventually the shape fit the template. If the chamfers are kept straight and even along the neck, a single template should be enough to check the whole length of the neck. I like to do this job in a darkened room with a directional light. It helps to illuminate any bumps and hollows. Having finishing the neck completely I blended the chin into the neck. From the photograph it can be seen that I have also already completed some of the wear or softening on the head. I like to do some of this before the final varnishing process. This can also be seen on the corners and edges shown earlier. Wearing a little at this point is easier than doing everything at the end. It also gives me the opportunity to look several times at the shapes, and to match the various areas of the instrument to each other.

 

With the neck and chin finished Rene prepared the mortise and chalk fitted the neck root. Rene uses yellow chalk which is easier to see, but more difficult to remove. So, it is really only OK for use in areas where it will not be intrusive. Once the neck was fitting snug, I rasped the sides of the button to the neck width. I then marked the button with a pair of calipers. (Pencil only for the photograph.) The center was set a little higher so that the curve comes back on itself very slightly at the edge. Although original Cremonese buttons often have the remains of a central (compass) point. I used a small piece of two sided tape to protect the button. At this point the neck root was finished almost completely. It just remained for the button and root to be blended once the neck had been permanently attached. As pointed out earlier, before gluing we protected the area with masking tape. In case anyone noticed I will replace the badly fitting cross band purfling later.  

 

In my humble opinion the neck is perhaps the single most important item on any instrument. It is so vitally important, because if the neck does not immediately feel right for the player, it will not matter what the instruments sounds or looks like. The sale will already have been lost. I spend hours working on necks, often at night in order to have the best directional light. In many ways violin (and bass) making is about the creative use of light.   

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