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Vuillaume cello plate thicknesses

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Hi there, I am an amateur working on my first cello. Although I don't think I can quite match the performance of my own cello, I would like to end up with a good sounding, powerful cello.
I'm about to do archings now, and since most of Denmark is closing down at the moment due to the whole corona thing, I expect to be graduating the plates pretty soon. I am basing my cello on a strad poster, a J.B. Vuillaume from 1865. That cello has from the very beginning given me some headaches, as everything is just slightly bigger than what I consider normal, and some of my wood had trouble fitting the specs. The ribs are 123-118 mm tall and 2.5-3mm thick, the bouts are wide and so on.. I have had to compromise on rib height and thickness simply because the rib stock I got was already cut. I ended up with 2mm of thickness and 119-118  mm height. I know I won't have the correct volume, but I'll just have to compromise a bit, as I have a very limited supply of wood here. Please tell me if there are certain things I can do to compensate for this loss of volume.
Now I'm arriving at the plate thicknesses, which look slightly odd to me. The top is quite thick, but the back is thin, and I'm considering if this is due to regraduations and therefore something I shouldn't follow?

Anyway, I was fortunate that my luthier had a beautiful Vuillaume cello (one of his earlier cellos, he said, if that helps anyone) in his shop the other day when I handed in my bow for a repair, and we measured the plate thicknesses. They seemed very different from what I read on the poster, and sure enough, there is a distinct difference. Here's a quick summary of the thicknesses:

Top
Edges: Poster - 4mm, Cello - 3.2mm
Upper bout: Poster - 4-4.5mm, Cello - 3-3.5mm
Lower bout: Poster - 4.5mm, Cello - 2.7-3.2mm (4.2mm around bass bar end)
Center: Poster - 4.2-4.8mm, Cello - 4-4.6mm

Back
Edges: Poster - 3-3.6mm, Cello - 4-4.5mm
Upper bout: Poster - 3.2-3.8mm, Cello - 4.5-5mm
Lower bout: Poster - 3-3.5mm, Cello - 4.5-5.3mm
Center: Poster - 5.5-8.1mm, Cello - 6mm
Center edges: Poster - 4mm, Cello - 5.2-6mm

Rib height: 110 mm

What I see is that the top is generally about a millimeter thicker on the poster than the one I saw, and the back is significantly thinner with a thicker center. My question is, should I just aim towards a graduation similar to the one I'm copying because the original sounds great and those fit for the model, or should I take inspiration from this other one as well? I must admit I'm worried that the top sounds very thick on the original, but is that just me being unexperienced?

I hope someone can help me get the thicknesses right. I'm still not sure if I should gauge the graduation by weight of the plate, frequencies, original measurements or something else. It seems that people get great results with either method...

Thanks in advance, Tobias

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Hello Tobias, just a quick question. Does you luthier have an opinion as to whether his cello's top has been repaired in any fashion or re-graduated? Many were. I am one of those strange folk who enjoy the forensic sleuthing of backward chaining the repair history. That's the fun of taking the top off, but then you have to do the repair work for whatever reason you took the top off. The rest is aesthetics, although the Oberlin bunch has explored a number of graduation tone experiments over the years. Lots of research there if you care to look it up.

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I think that's a lot of fun too, but I'm afraid I can't tell you much. We had a few talks about different areas that might have been repaired, but he didn't know for sure, unfortunately. The cello was not owned by him either, so I'm not sure how much of the background he has looked up, and I don't think he's had the top off. As far as I remember, he wasn't too sure the thickness around soundpost and center of the back, which fell to 5.7mm, and the area near the end of the bass bar was of original thickness. 

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Vuillaume arching is usually quite flat and prone to odd tonal issues, especially the cellos. I would go thicker on the top, at least. More like the cello than the poster, for sure.

 

 

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Really? I'm glad you said that, because I was probably going to make it thinner in some areas. I don't have the poster right here right now, but I think the arching is about 30mm.
What about the back, then? It seems quite thin in comparison to the top.

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Historically, part of the danger is repairers attempting to improve the instrument by re-graduating and removing more material which then might lead to a new bass bar etcetera. Besides affecting tone, the top may now be structurally compromised enough to create additional stress issues/cracks in the future, flattened bellies under the bridge or even divots in old basses. I personally love the tool marks, but the insides of Tony Strad's bellies were not particularly neat. He worked to his own fairly consistent formulas in very workmanlike fashion; and the historians say he accomplished tone changes with very minute material removal. Personally, I would try to mess with improving it a bit because I'm the guy in sentence number one. You are the one doing all the hard work, do what sounds great to you and be proud of your work!

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33 minutes ago, Michael Darnton said:

I missed that you are just starting arching, with all the talk of grads. Honestly, I would find another arch to copy.

Some arches that seem to do really well I'm my eyes and ears are the very heavily recurved ones a-la Forster. I was acquainted with one recently and it sounds outstanding. I had also worked Ina nice Scarampella that had the same kind of arching that also had similar tone qualities. 

But these are older instruments, and have had any number of strange things done to them over the years. So my observations are simply observations. 

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Thanks for your replies :-)
First of all, I definitely want to do the archings that fit the cello. They don't seem distorted to me, and also I really like the tone of the original instrument and even before I found it, I was planning on something to the flatter side.

You would do the back proportionally to the top, you say... I was thinking the same thing, it sounds weird to me that the bouts of the back is thinner than the bouts of the top. But then again, the center is quite thick, so maybe it's about the same mass in the two cellos, just distributed differently. When you say in proportion, do you mean same thickness?

I know that they go through a lot of repairs and changes which probably heavily alters the tone. I believe to some extent that if the instrument sounds good now, it doesn't matter so much how it started out, and you might as well copy the thicknesses that you see. So when I ask if it has been regraduated, it's not so much that I want to precisely copy the original idea of the original maker, but rather that I don't think a new instrument that needs settling in, wood that is probably going to change a bit over the years etc. could handle those very thinned out areas as well as an already seasoned one. So if something seems very thin to you, I might just want to go slightly thicker, for instance.

Nick, you say heavily recurved archings... I must admit that I don't know if you're talking about distortions over time or recurve/fluting in the channel area?

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I've heard that a comparatively thick top and a thin back are characteristics of many venetian Cellos in particular. Venetian Cellos, like the ones by the Goffrillers, Montagnana, and others, are often a Little larger, like your Vuillaume, and very succesful, acoustically speaking. I own a baroque Cello Cello that is inspired on a matteo goffriller, and it certainly has a thicker top and thinner back, but I cannot give you any numbers. It is a Cello with a large and warm Sound, with good projection. A thin back and thicker top also is a Little less heavy, which is a plus for a baroque Cello, and by psychological effect that makes it feel easier to Play. I'm only a Cellist, so take this post not too seriously. However Maybe it would be an idea to learn a Little more About that Tradition of Cello making, before proceeding. 

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For your first cello I would reccomend going with a fairly generic middle of the road model, arch and graduation. I don't know how far along you are on this but if you have already made the ribs and cut the plate outlines you are going to have to live with them or preferably put them aside for now and start from scratch with wood that is big enough for your plans. It is a very good idea to stick with one coherent plan rather than mixing and matching characteristics of different instruments or even worse different makers. Some of the best advice ever given is to "plan your work then work your plan".

As a beginner you really don't want to make an oversize cello. These are quite hard to make sound well and even worse can have maintenance and longevity issues. I would reccomend a model between 740 to 755 long such as those of Josef Filius Guarneri. If you are working in maple then ribs can be difficult to bend if they are more than 1.8 mm thick at least in he corner areas. Your mention of a Vuillaume with 2.5-3 mm thicknesses seems unlikely to be correct. Stradivari used about 1.6 and then lined the ribs with linen. 

Secondly I would definitely stay away from the flat centered abrupt arches of the old English schools and again go with a subtler Cremonese type arch. While these are difficult to get perfect at first even a close approximation will still work well and indeed the  aproximation is the best many successful makers ever achieve. There are many plans and drawings of this type of arch to guide you as well as geometric constructions such as curtate cycloids which can get you very close.

Lastly I would suggest a simple , uncomplicated graduation plan between 4.5-5 mm at the center of the top with lung areas reducing to 3.5-4 and assuming you are using maple about 7 in the center of the back reducing to 3.5-4 around the edges.

This may not result in the best cello you ever make but will usually result in one which looks OK, feels OK and sounds OK which is already doing pretty well for a first instrument and gives you some thing to build on.

My own feeling is that it takes two or three instruments on a new model to even begin to know it's quirks and I have some models that I have gotten pretty comfortable with after 50 or 60 built from the same templates and forms.

Good luck!

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Sorry..... I got switched up by your chart, so I'm not recommending you follow either instrument exactly.

Cremonese grads are usually that the center of the back is twice the thinnest areas in the bouts and the top is uniform, about 10% thicker than the bouts in the back.  With a flat arching, I'd make the top 4.5mm, so everything else flows out from that, maybe making the back a bit thinner than this would indicate.

The problem we consistently have with that type of French arch is a lack of punch with too many wolves. I believe the cause is the extreme flattness in the broad areas of the top, coming down from the center to the edges in the upper and lower bouts. The give no resistance for punch to develop, but flutter a lot causing wolves. I'd definitely find a way to put some curve in there, and there are a couple of ways to do that that work well.

Many of the instruments I've seen with Venetian-type thin backs have had, at some time or another, an attempt to "cure" them by putting a tonal patch in the back, and that hasn't worked, so I'm not wild about thin backs, either.

My philosophy of making has always been to find the best instrument your can, knowing that your result will always fall short. If you start with a lesser instrument, you are assured to make a lesser-than-lesser instrument.

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3 hours ago, Michael Darnton said:

 

Many of the instruments I've seen with Venetian-type thin backs have had, at some time or another, an attempt to "cure" them by putting a tonal patch in the back, and that hasn't worked, so I'm not wild about thin backs, either.

Well that's interesting! Do you know if the venetian makers always made thinner backs? I'm asking because amongst cello soloists, contrary to violin soloists, there seems to be a clear preference for venetian makers over cremonese makers, and I would bet that has a tonal reason. However if you say such thin backs are acoustically problematic, then I wonder if those venetian instruments have all been altered, or if some were made with thicker backs after all. Do you have any information on that?

 

I 'm a little surprised though, as my gofriller copy is clearly superior to the strad copy by tha same maker, that I also own. Louder, better projection, more even over all strings and equally subtle. 

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I have been in the workshop today making templates, and on my way home I visited another luthier to buy a piece for my bass bar. I happen to know that he works mostly from numbers, so I asked him, and he said about 4mm in the bouts of both plates and then 5,5 at the sound post (top) and the center of the back about 6-7mm. Those measurements sound very standard to me, and is probably what I expected to see on the back of my poster.

Interesting theory about the thin-backed cellos. I'm not sure if this is actually a thin back, because then it is thicker in the center, just distributing the wood differently? I wonder if having a havier "membrane" suspended on a thinner back would be a choice to alter playability..?

Nathan, great advice. Unfortately, I cannot follow it all. I agree with the make a plan, build the plan. That's usually how I build, and also how I'm building this one. The plan was 1) Do a lot of research on models, tonal qualities and so on, and decide what type of model I want. 2) Choose a specific cello and buy a Strad poster and 3) Build a copy of that cello, changing only the scroll and the neck shape to make it a bit personal and make switching between my cellos more comfortable. I chose the 1865 Vuillaume because I have a great cello already, and I felt like this one would both  suit my playing style and add something tonally to my life which my own cello doesn't have. That way, even if I can't make anything as good as what I have, I would probably still pick both cellos up from time to time and it wouldn't just sit sadly in a corner. Before I started the cello, I built a violin as proof of concept. A very rough one, sure, but I got an idea of what I was good at and what I needed to be careful with. And prior to that I have done restaurations on a hobby level for a few years.
At this stage, I have tried to copy the cello body exactly. I haven't been able to quite reach the specs, because yes, it really has that thick ribs in some places, and as I mentioned, some other pieces were just slightly too small. I have fixed most things like joining a little piece on one bout of the spruce etc.., so it's fine for me. I still feel like I'm in a proof of concept phase, however this time I do actually want to end up with a really nice instrument. The reason why I think it's kind of okay to not match the measurements exactly is... Well, I have one more set of wood, which is actually much nicer. So while that is just drying a few more years, I'm practicing. So yeah, getting to know the model is something I like too :-) 
The cello I'm making is this one: https://tarisio.com/cozio-archive/property/?ID=50814
I wouldn't say it's extremely flat, and if I understand the type of arching you're describing, I don't like those either.

So far I have made the ribs (2mm thick) and the scroll, I have cut the plates, inlayed purfling and have roughly removed some bulk excess and am now ready to make the arching based on the templates printed on the back of the poster, which I have made acrylic shapes of today. So I'm not about to change the model. I'm continuing with my plan of building this particular cello as my first one, trying to get a really nice instrument out of it that I would choose to play at concerts, although I know that's very. very ambitious. The reason why I asked about these graduations is not that I want to apply one graduation to another cello. I know it sounded like that, but at the moment I'm leaning towards doing pretty much the thicknesses described, as I feel that is the graduations fit for the cello that have resulted in the sound I liked. That said, I think it would be silly to copy imperfections, mistakes, damages, regraduations or similar that would make my new cello prone to warping or weakening over time, as I obviously want it to stick around.

That was a long message. I hope I replied to everything and hopefully cleared some things up that I had "worded" confusingly...

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