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Jim Bress

15 inch viola design

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A couple of my viola test drivers were shall we say vertically challenged and voiced a rhetorical wish that someone should make a good small viola.

Staring at my wood pile I noticed three nice black willow billets that have been sitting around waiting for a purpose. Too nice to turn into blocks and linings and too short for my 16” viola model. Now I’m thinking about a 15” (385 mm) viola.   In the rough sketch, I kept the c-bout the same and shortened the upper and lower bout equally to fit the billet. I also think it may be a good idea to increase the back arch height ~1 mm. Thoughts?

Thanks,

Jim

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36 minutes ago, Thomas Coleman said:

To my eye, it looks too disproportionate.  I would consider making the c bout wider and the lower bout narrower.  My 2 pennys.

edit.

also maybe widen the upper bout a wee bit.

 

29 minutes ago, Wood Butcher said:

I think it would be best to design a workable model on paper for a 15” body length, than to just sketch what will fit on the wood.

I agree on the disproportionality.  To me it appears a bit bottom heavy.  I left the c-bout alone because I think the c-bout has the largest effect.  As the U/L bouts are adjusted one or both will loose width making the c-bout proportionately wider.  I need to stare at things a while to really form an opinion.  Hence the initial rough sketch as the idea hit me (and there was no paper of the appropriate size at hand).  As decide which direction things need to go I will make a detailed draft. Probably multiple drafts. Thanks for the input.  I'll take all the spare change I can get.

-Jim

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Do you have the Denis book? You should draft a design with those principles. I think you only need a few base measurements like overall length to start with. 

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I have a successful 15.5 viola, but shorter is a difficult path. Widening the upper bouts makes it more difficult for the small individuals that we are making these for. If you widen the middle bouts too much you have to compensate with the neck set to keep the bow out of the wide c-bout. 

I treat a viola this small as a big violin. I'd probably avoid poplar. I like the warm sound, but on a small viola, it is difficult. You have to leave it thick because it is poplar, but you don't have the string tension to drive the thicker back.

Also, with short string length violas, I set them up with stark tension strings. The shorter string length needs extra tension, and starks feel like mediums on the shortened string length. My 15.5" viola has a 140/210 neck/mensur.

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1 hour ago, Three13 said:

You could lengthen the body by as much as 3/4 of an inch and graft the button from the cutoffs, if the idea didn't drive you nuts.

Thought about it, read up on how to do it, asked professional maker opinions that thought it was ok...still can't make an instrument that needs a repair by design.

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1 hour ago, Jim Bress said:

Thought about it, read up on how to do it, asked professional maker opinions that thought it was ok...still can't make an instrument that needs a repair by design.

At the Violin Making School in SLC, if (when...) you sawed a button off that was when you learned how to do a button graft. Graft it and put an ebony collar on it and it will look classy. 

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2 hours ago, Jim Bress said:

Thought about it, read up on how to do it, asked professional maker opinions that thought it was ok...still can't make an instrument that needs a repair by design.

That makes complete sense.

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I drew up a 15" Storioni viola.  

The model looks quite cool. Stunning wood doesn't hurt.  I haven't made it yet.

126242.thumb.jpg.6c0c7a4c4c6a183531137d97c5a06d30.jpg126241.thumb.jpg.1077303dab61670c28c40430406a9547.jpg

 

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I agree with duane and Manfio, 15" is excessively short.  I have made a 15 3/8" viola, and it was fun to play, but a bit lacking in violaness.

Also, I agree that the first sketch looks too bulbous in the butt.  Proportions need adjusting.  But also I think the design approach needs to consider what string free length you want.  If you want to keep a relatively long string (like I do), then a shorter body should primarily be shorter in the lower bout.

10 hours ago, Three13 said:

You could lengthen the body by as much as 3/4 of an inch and graft the button from the cutoffs, if the idea didn't drive you nuts.

8 hours ago, Jim Bress said:

Thought about it, read up on how to do it, asked professional maker opinions that thought it was ok...still can't make an instrument that needs a repair by design.

I made one with a grafted button for that reason, which you can see here.  It's a bit of an annoyance, but not a reliability issue as long as it is done without gaps.  If you don't have highly figured wood, it should be easier to make invisible.

 

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1 hour ago, Don Noon said:

I agree with duane and Manfio, 15" is excessively short.  I have made a 15 3/8" viola, and it was fun to play, but a bit lacking in violaness.

Also, I agree that the first sketch looks too bulbous in the butt.  Proportions need adjusting.  But also I think the design approach needs to consider what string free length you want.  If you want to keep a relatively long string (like I do), then a shorter body should primarily be shorter in the lower bout.

I made one with a grafted button for that reason, which you can see here.  It's a bit of an annoyance, but not a reliability issue as long as it is done without gaps.  If you don't have highly figured wood, it should be easier to make invisible.

 

I shifted the c bout down and tweaked the outline of the bouts a little thinner leaving the original c bout width. I can get a 365 mm string length with this rendition. It looks good, but what I’m hearing (Duane, Manfio, yourself) is that 15” viola is really too small to work. That’s good information  and kind of the point of this thread as I’m not interested in making a wall hanger. 

Thanks,

Jim

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12 hours ago, Jim Bress said:

Ken, that’s a beauty!  The c-bout width makes it look very violin-ish. Have you heard this instrument?

No, I just found out about Storioni  when I saw a viola of his in a book on Cremonese makers I borrowed from the MVA one of the first times I went there.  I was thinking that you'd have to do it way differently than a violin.  If you have shorter, stiffer strings, that should already change the tone.  If you make the arch high, and have a steeper string angle; 155 - 156 degrees or less; you would have a LOT more pressure on the body. Of course it would have to be less stiff than a violin. That should make it easy to get a lot of sound out of it; if it doesn't self destruct!  

I don't know, I'm just thinking.  A bad habit.  But it does LOOK pleasing.

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Making small violas sound exactly like big ones is not possible however some people still would very much like to play a small viola. 

I suggest making the rib height higher and the ribs thinner than normal.  The top and back plates should also be really thin.  The f holes should also have  a smaller area (narrower width but still long).

The flexibility increases and f hole area reduction help achieve a low frequency high amplitude A0 resonance which large violas usually have which is one reason why their C and D strings sound so deep.

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That looks like Julian Rachlin's viola, if so, I had it in my hands some years ago.

I would make the C and lower bouts wider.

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27 minutes ago, Marty Kasprzyk said:

Making small violas sound exactly like big ones is not possible however some people still would very much like to play a small viola. 

I suggest making the rib height higher and the ribs thinner than normal.  The top and back plates should also be really thin.  The f holes should also have  a smaller area (narrower width but still long).

The flexibility increases and f hole area reduction help achieve a low frequency high amplitude A0 resonance which large violas usually have which is one reason why their C and D strings sound so deep.

Hey Marty, I was hoping you'd poke your head in here.  I had too much brain activity last night and didn't sleep.  Around 4 am I came to the conclusion that a 15" viola probably has a low success rate and I shouldn't spend my limited time on an instrument less likely to work well.  I went on a hike at dawn, during which I remembered (as you pointed out) that there is a market for these small violas, which is why I thought of it in the first place.  This will also be my last instrument before making a cello for myself which will also have a willow back.  Even if the viola is a flop it will give me some practice working with willow.  So for now it's back on.  It's probably a year off which gives me plenty of time to gather information.  Nice tip on the f-holes.  I have some notes on the Oberlin viola project that talked about the tonal effects of f-hole width (distance between upper eyes) and length.  I'll have to dig those up and add it to my viola construction file.  

My ground zero is maintaining the c-bouts of the 16" Amati model I made that worked really well.  I was also planning on keeping with the 38 mm rib height (36 mm at neck block).  Do you take ribs higher than that?  The ribs will also be out of willow.  My maple ribs were 1.1 mm thick.  I'm thinking willow ribs should be a little thicker, but not sure how much.  

-Jim

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2 hours ago, Marty Kasprzyk said:

The flexibility increases and f hole area reduction help achieve a low frequency high amplitude A0 resonance which large violas usually have which is one reason why their C and D strings sound so deep.

I think the "big" sound on the C and D strings of large violas is due to the other modes, not the A0.  The A0 frequency of large violas is generally between A and B... which doesn't do much for the C and D strings.  It IS in the middle of G string first position... but I still think the impression of size even on the G string is more from the other modes. 

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In a listing for a 15 inch viola, Martin Swan says "Late 18th century England was really the golden period for smaller violas, and makers such as the Banks, Betts, Powell etc succeeded in making instruments which offer a rich viola sound in a smaller body".

Kae Goodsell in Australia who specializes in smaller violas (trained with Michael Darnton) has a pretty neat series of youtube recordings of several different instruments she's made; her 15 inch "Viola N" that was "inspired by B. Banks" sounds quite good.  The other recordings of her 15 1/2 to 15 7/8 violas help illustrate tradeoffs due to size (not as much openness and depth), but if someone needs or prefers a smaller instrument I think this shows that a musically satisfying result is possible.

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StanY, thanks for the links. The 15” sounds really good.  My phone thinks the other link is a phone number so I’ll listen to that later.   I wonder if the Banks was inspired by Amati viola. There’s a strong resemblance to the G. Amati I made. 

-Jim 

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Jim for some reason my mobile browser thinks that is a link but my laptop browser does not; it wasn't intended to be originally but that's a good idea, will try to update it to point to the rest of the videos.  Good luck with the project...looks like beautiful wood and a good challenge.

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Jim, I've been cleaning/organizing the basement into a nice workshop. Came across a Stainer viola 1678 form from Addie.  15 inches. Fat too. Don't know where the f holes are, but it might be worth a look. 

I have sizes written down:

391 197 128 248  but the drawing measures 15.09 long. Ok 3.9 mm. overhang.

Like trying to choose ice cream at Baskin Robbins.

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3 hours ago, Don Noon said:

I think the "big" sound on the C and D strings of large violas is due to the other modes, not the A0.  The A0 frequency of large violas is generally between A and B... which doesn't do much for the C and D strings.  It IS in the middle of G string first position... but I still think the impression of size even on the G string is more from the other modes. 

You're right. I mistyped. I meant to say the viola's C and G strings not "C and D strings".

But it could have been worse--I could have made an expensive viola player mistake by trying to tune my G string to a D string pitch.

 

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