Building a Viola


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Having built several violins and becoming happier with my craftsmanship and sound quality, I am now thinking of building a Viola.

I intend to follow Strobel's book for my first attempt.

Are there any particular aspects of the process that are going to feel very different from violin construction?  Anything I should watch out for?

I think I have heard violas are often made from poplar or other materials rather than maple.  What is the reason for this?  Any drawback to using maple or cherry?

Thank you in advance for your kind comments.

I anticipate the flurry of viola bashing jokes... so let's just say that I am taking a walk on the wrong side of the tracks.  This instrument will be a gift to a young student with high enthusiasm, but lesser means.  I would like to make a nice job of it.

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What I can say you is trying to avoid the main problems associated with violas: a "dead" C string, wolves, slow response, a too narrow dynamic range (you change your bowing and almost nothing happens in terms of sound volume and color) lack of clarity (notes will mix during quick passages).

Make a viola with none of these problems and that is easy to play.

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Llike you, I decided to make a viola after making several violins. Reasons I chose Strobel's plans are that I was familiar with his violin book already, and I specifically wanted to make a smallish viola which his plans are for. I hadn't really known that there isn't really a standard for viola dimensions until I looked into it. His viola book is much slimmer than his violion book, and refers you to the violin book for many things. Avoiding the problems Manfio mentions is a good recommendation, but of course getting there might take more than one try. My viola came out nice and seems to play well. But the person I had in mind to show it to lives on the other side of the country and didn't make her annual trip to the west coast this year due to Covid.

Good luck. Think about the size. Strobel's plans could be modified if you want to make a larger viola than his plan. Larger might improve your odds of an open sounding C string.

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58 minutes ago, Geigenbauer said:

Sounds easy enough.

Just like my violin teacher when she said: Okay, now play that again and leave out all the mistakes. :D

Yes, but in order to reach a given result, you have to know what you are looking for.

I think Stroebel's designs were based in a Stradivari model. As a viola maker, I do prefer "fat ladies", that is, wider violas, but the upper bouts can't be too wide for comfort reasons.

Here one of my 16-inch violas in Berlin, the player is principal of the European Youth Union Orchestra, and studies at the UDK Berlin. These orchestral excerpts are very difficult to play, and the viola must "help" the player.

 

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29 minutes ago, MANFIO said:

Here one of my 16-inch violas in Berlin

Very nice! Thank you for sharing Manfio.

I have never made a viola myself. Since one of my sons decided that this is his instrument of choice it is definitely on my list though. I will bookmark what I learn on this thread for later when I actually try making one.

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Thank you for all of the helpful comments!  It took me about six tries to get a violin that sounded the way I want.  Sounds like I will have the same issue with viola making - with added issues avoiding wolfs and getting a C string that sounds.  (Odd that I fought with dead A strings on violins for awhile, but never dead G strings - something is different about the viola.)

I don't have a specific student in mind, I just network to identify an appropriate home for my instruments - earnest students with limited means for a nice instrument.  It makes me happy to give them.

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I am also curious about the love of low density spruce that is oft repeated on Maestronet.  I get very fine results from high density, old growth, red spruce - with much more tonal and dynamic response than I get from Engelman spruce. 

But I am an enthusiastic amateur, so I may be simply naive.

But the high density is very picky about arching and graduation.  Since I have learned to work with it, I am lost her to use anything else.

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54 minutes ago, MANFIO said:

I do like light wood for violas, and that for the back wood too.

I have just used US maple for a violin it is very tough and hard, it seems like you can go thinner with this wood. Do you use it for your violas? I saw one of these suppliers had testimonial from you on the site.

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I wrote an article about viola making to the Philadelphia Viola Society some years ago. Here
SOME IDEAS ABOUT VIOLA MAKING

By Luis Claudio Manfio

When a luthier decides to make a violin, he has two basic models: Stradivari and Guarneri Del Gesù. But if the instrument is a viola it is not all that simple. First there is the question of size (from 15.5 to 18 inches), then the model, that can be Cremonese (Amati, Guarneri, Stradivari), Brescian (Gasparo da Salò, Maggini, Zanetto), Venetian (Busan), or personal. Depending on the choices of the maker the resulting viola can vary a lot in terms of sound, playability and appearance.Then comes the sound, dark or bright. All these possibilities will affect violist’s decisions when they are looking for a viola too.The viola is tuned one octave above the cello so, ideally, it should be half of the size of cello, but that would make it unplayable.

As a maker, my main idea is more making a tool for the musician than an art object; instruments are made for making music, so most of my energy goes to sound and playability. Bearing that in mind, and being also a player, I try to avoid the most common problems associated with the viola: a too narrow dynamic range (you change your bowing and nothing happens in terms of volume and sound color), slow response, a dead C string, lack of clarity (notes will mingle in quick passages) and unfocused and hollow sound.

First, let us talk about the size. Playing comfort depends not only on the size but also on the string length, weight of the instrument, neck thickness and width, rib depth and how wide the sound box is, mainly in the upper bouts. There are many violists with injuries due to playing a big viola over the years. Fortunately, today there are many teachers that will warn their students about the risks of playing an oversized viola. Many players, when they are young, can handle a big viola but, as they get older, many of them will move to a smaller one. Playing conditions must have an influence too, if you play in the opera you may have to face up to six hours of playing, and that can be hard in a large viola even if you are a tall player with long arms. Most professional violists will move to a smaller viola that sounds good as soon as they have an opportunity to do so. I think we can see that today there is a trend towards small violas.

It was Michael Tree that advised me to become a viola maker some decades ago, and he loved big violas, so I made many 17 inch violas. They were very good, but hard to sell, since they required tall players. So I started reducing the size, setting eventually in a 16 inch model that most players can handle. Sometimes I make also a 15.5 inch model for small players.

My main model is inspired in Andrea Guarneri, which I reduced to 40.7 cms. (16”), but with the lower and C bouts a bit wider, keeping the upper bouts as the original Andrea Guarneri (19.3 cm.). Too wide upper bouts make it difficult to stretch up to the higher positions.

A smaller model is not only more comfortable but will also make playing difficult pieces easier. It is good remembering how difficult viola auditions are today. In order to make it light I use low density spruce and maple that is less dense. I make my scrolls 5% smaller than the original Andrea Guarneri and without shoulders, that is, violin type, and fit them with violin pegs (a Tertis idea). Necks don’t need to be thick and wide; they can add a lot of weight so I make them almost as thin and narrow as a violin neck. I try to make the blocks and linings smaller too, and with very light wood, I am always trying to take off some grams here and there and, eventually , it makes a huge difference for comfort playing. Long corners can look beautiful, but they may play havoc with bow clearance, so I make my viola corners on the short size. Deep ribs can make the viola uncomfortable, not only under the neck root but also under the chin, so I make my ribs on the shallow side, at 37 mm in the endpin and 34 on the neck root. Too deep ribs may make the sound hollow and unfocused too. Good C bout widths coupled with f holes that are not too close are good for the basses. I make my f holes parallel, that helps creating a long and wide platform in the top that helps resonance.

I follow Renè Morel’s ideas about string and neck length, 15 cm. for the neck and a comfortable string length of 375 mm. Most of my players like to produce a big sound so, following Zukerman’s advice, I make my plates on the thick side, backs are from 3 to 7 mm. thick, and tops are 3. mm thick that, coupled with a relatively massive bass bar, helps producing an instrument with few or almost no wolves or rasped notes. I try to make a viola that sounds good also in the 7th position of the C string, a very difficult region in sound production that is used a lot by top players.

The use of thicker graduations also prevents that the viola will not choke when the instrument is played fortissimo with the bow near the bridge. When I draw my bow from the end of the fingerboard towards the bridge increasing the bow weight I want a dramatic difference in volume and color to be heard, without that it is very hard to interpret music. Just think about the flexibility of a contralto opera singer, that’s what we want from a good viola.

For sound colour I like a dark, but focused sound, that can also be edgy when you want it. Violas are unmerciful with makers, if you make something wrong the resulting instrument will not sound good. So I do prefer focusing to the same model and size, keeping precise notes about the wood used, weight and tap tones of the tops and backs in order to get consistent results.

A good thing about being a viola maker is that you can count with a helpful viola community. Most players, principals, soloists and teachers are always willing to test drive your instruments and give their opinion on them. Whenever I meet a very good player I ask, “what can I do better?”.

Today’s violists are lucky to count on some makers specialized in violas that are constantly exchanging information, it is a relatively new thing that makes the life of viola players much easier.

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7 minutes ago, Stephen Fine said:

There's a sweet spot on the continuum between

muffled - nasal - sonorous - boomy

I think a viola belongs in between nasal and sonorous.  Usually, decent but not great violas manage a strong C by becoming boomy/hollow.

I think 41.5 cm is the perfect size.

Maria Callas voice comes to mind, at least the way it breaks up

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On 10/16/2020 at 10:05 AM, MANFIO said:

 

A good thing about being a viola maker is that you can count with a helpful viola community. Most players, principals, soloists and teachers are always willing to test drive your instruments and give their opinion on them. Whenever I meet a very good player I ask, “what can I do better?”.

 

  :)

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On 10/15/2020 at 11:10 PM, MANFIO said:

What I can say you is trying to avoid the main problems associated with violas: a "dead" C string, wolves, slow response, a too narrow dynamic range (you change your bowing and almost nothing happens in terms of sound volume and color) lack of clarity (notes will mix during quick passages).

Make a viola with none of these problems and that is easy to play.

 
With violas we see a new taste in instruments that are more than just orchestra background noise. The viola suffers from an unfortunate geometry. Unlike the cello the body is too small and the fingerboard too short. If you play on the higher A string it sounds forced, and on the C it is often nasal. It is unlikely that the viola will ever reach the grandeur of the cello, it just has unfortunate dimensions..
Many makers tried to improve the viola. If you go to the instrument museum in Brussels you can see lots of Vuillaume's attempts of a mix between viola and cello. None of them survived.

Nowadays modern makers have improved the viola a lot. This started with Tertis who had himself made violas with an increased air space by using 17''+ bodies - very damaging for the player, but with a significant improvement in sound. Many of those were made by Arthur Richardson. Some of them sound really nice.

Other makers tried weird shapes, some with excellent sound, for example Hitzoki Izuka. There is a lot of trial and error research that went into these instruments.
Now some makers can build violas of around 16'' with a marvellous sound. 16'' is manageable for most players. Manifio in this forum is such an expert. His violas sound excellent in YouTube sound samples. There are other makers who have also been very successful. I have tried many, one of favourites is a viola by UK maker Piper who tried many viola shapes.

Makers need to make lots of instruments until they found their ideal sound. If the viola gets more recognition the taste of sound for this instrument may evolve, maybe differently than we expect.
 
 

 

 

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Don't know about wood but a a violist I find the model is important in relation to the performer, finding the right size for you is important. I think. Some models are just easier to play.

In terms of sound if too brilliant the instrument sound violin like, if too dark gets lost in the mix and the sound loses edge.

Lots of compromises in viola playing!

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8 hours ago, JavierPortero said:

Don't know about wood but a a violist I find the model is important in relation to the performer, finding the right size for you is important. I think. Some models are just easier to play.

In terms of sound if too brilliant the instrument sound violin like, if too dark gets lost in the mix and the sound loses edge.

Lots of compromises in viola playing!

Yes, there is a balance.

In one side, a too bright, focused sound, quick response, but the sound lacks warmth and "viola" sound.

On the other side, a too dark, unfocused sound, slow response, lack of clarity (notes will mix in quick passages) and projection problems.

Finding a midway between this two sides is very important.

 

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