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"Violas and that!" (Shelbow and tkinson's Viola Therapy!)

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"Violas and that!"

I hope no one objects to me having two bench threads but I do own more than one bench so think it should be acceptable!

Those of you who may have looked at my main bench thread (Hans Kipferele's Bench (Violin Cobbler)) will probably be aware that I foraged, (sawing and splitting it then making many long trips home, back and forth, with my wheel barrow), a lot of windblown black poplar about a year and three quarters ago. This photo shows my sawing vice in action with a small part of my poplar hoard behind it, my garage is pretty nearly unusable now as it is full of poplar and junk!


I was hoping I could use it to try to make a viola (and even an archtop guitar at some point?) and over the year I showed some pieces to a few experienced violin makers who said it seemed ok which pleased me since I had spent so much energy and a fair bit of time on acquiring and 'processing' it.

Viola Therapy?

A while ago, Shelbow, that illustrious stalwart of this site, and I were talking, for a while I had been telling him about my poplar hoard and how I always seem to be a bit un-motivated so it seems natural that we concluded it would maybe be a fun and motivating thing to do if we both had a go making a viola!

lt would be fun, we would hopefully learn a lot and it could maybe even have some therapeutic effects (hence the "Viola Therapy" part of the title of this) in that the friendly competition would hopefully help us become a bit more motivated and a bit more active in our instrument making pursuits?

"Violas and that!"

So, this Bench thread is going to be about "Violas and that!" . What I mean by that is that this will be about our viola making and all things connected with that. (I have to take all the blame for the thread title) The idea is that Shelbow and I will both contribute to this thread and hopefully a gentle competition will motivate us to get things moving a bit quicker than my usual sloth like pace?

So mid last year I got started. Here I am deriving my viola outline by tracing it from my computer screen.


Before we met up in late autumn 2023 we had discussed our viola making and I promised when we met I would bring him a piece of my poplar to get us started so I got busy with my frame saw at the end of summer. I had kept this piece of poplar in the house after initial drying so it seemed quite dry. I do quite like sawing wood !(and hammering nails  - when I get the chance)


I sawed halfway down.


Then I cut the sawn section off


I got two bookmatched pieces big enough for one piece 16 inch viola backs, there are knots, as usual, but hopefully these can be avoided or their effects minimised?


Here are the two potential viola backs after a bit of tidying up. It is quite plain wood with a subtle ripple. Unfortunately it does seem to have at some stage taken on some greyish staining, probably during its time outside during the initial seasoning steps


and here they are with my viola back outline sitting on top


When we met in autumn I gave Shelbow one of the backs and kept the other for myself. I admit I have done nothing on my viola yet and I don't know if Shelbow has started on his viola yet. I don't know how or if this dual contributor thread will work  but we'll see what happens. Hopefully I can shame myself into action? Anyway -

Let the Viola Therapy Commence!

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Carry on Andrew! I like your posts. Reworking my Chinese finger planes was far less work than your little wooden ones, and my wife thinks that they are charming. But she hasn't seen yours!

I have thought of making another bench thread too. They get too long, and my work is different today.

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On 1/8/2024 at 12:41 PM, Ken_N said:

Carry on Andrew! I like your posts. Reworking my Chinese finger planes was far less work than your little wooden ones, and my wife thinks that they are charming. But she hasn't seen yours!

I have thought of making another bench thread too. They get too long, and my work is different today.

Hello Ken and thank you for your encouragement.

I have been looking at your thread "Inside First" and am always impressed at the wide range of projects you take on, your creative approach and the way you seem to be able to have several very different projects on the go and still manage to bring them to completion. (I have made my first three violins carving the inside first as it seemed to make sense to my untrained violinmaking attempts.)

I had better get my viola started now or at least soon to justify starting this thread! But first I think I am going to make myself a cheese sandwich as I need to build up my viola making muscles!

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9 hours ago, Shelbow said:

I must confess, I have done absolutely nothing so far. However I have been abroad for a while and only just got back.

Thanks to professor @Andrew tkinson for the wood :wub:

I think I will start on the scroll soon. I wish to make it look like a croissant.

image of whole singular croissant


Delicious idea, if you manage to make it so realistic that the performer gets hungry!:P

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  • 2 months later...

Spring is nearly here and at last I've made a start on my violas! (I say violas as I've decided to make more than one, for a bit of variety and to use up some of poplar!)

In the first half of January I refined my tracings to produce an outline that seemed acceptable to me, here I have cut out a half outline to use as a template


Here is a clearer view of my half template. I have made two centre lines so I can use the one template to produce two similar outlines both 16" long but with slightly different width lower bouts. I hope this works ok?


To get an idea of the full outline I placed the cutout next to the half outline I traced the cutout from. (These are shown on an old "shove ha'penny" board which I find is a nice size to use as a small drawing board when sitting in my nice armchair)


I then resumed work on my two unfinished violins for a while (shown on my main bench thread) then began working on my violas again in the second week of March. Here I am planing the endgrain of a piece of poplar so I can see the annual rings better, as I had been advised by an experienced maker to orient the wood so the most 'quartered' side of the one piece back will be on the soundpost side


I then spent some time looking at the prospective backs and using my half template to work out the best place to draw the outlines to avoid the knots as best as possible and to position these potential weak points well away from the soundpost areas


I had cut the poplar for my backs a generous thickness. I hate losing material in shavings so decided to saw the backs thinner closer to the eventual arch heights. Here I am using my old marking guage on one of the backs


Japanese "Whaleback" wide bladed rip saws (Maebiki) have very large teeth so I find that chiselling a narrow groove helps keep the saw on track when starting the cut


Close up view of teeth in the chiselled groove when starting the cut


Over half way


I surprised myself and managed to cut a thin board off quite successfully on both of my potential backs. The dreaded knots I am hoping to avoid can be seen here!


I had noted a couple of my poplar logs were wide enough for slab cut backs so I took the worst potential piece - saving the better pieces for the future instruments - which had a split, following an annual ring, to about half way down the log. (This damage had been caused when this piece of tree had been blown down by the strong winds of early 2022) It is about 9 1/2 inches wide so my template (see above) if used in narrower mode should fit? The split/shake can be seen on the end, following the curve of the annual rings


Side view of the split


I measured down about 18 or 19 inches and used a handsaw to saw around the curve of the split. (I didn't want to just saw the piece through as I wanted to preserve the length of the rest of the log as it has more possibilites for other project if kept long)


I then split the outer slab off - clonk!


The wood has interesting looking small knots and undulations which suggest attractive - at least attractive to me - figure?


I then used an axe to trim the slab/chunk a bit flatter so it could be gripped firmly in my vice when sawing a couple of potential backs


Sawing the slab backs


This piece of wood seems denser and took quite a bit longer to saw, my saw needs a bit of a sharpen also.


Using these big saws is good exercise, cheaper than going to the gym!


I got two potential backs out of this chunk. I sealed the ends as I was bringing the wood from my damp garage to the relatively dry surroundings of my house


I then took a piece of the thin poplar that I got when I sawed the backs thinner and cut a bit off the width of my half template


I planed this smooth so i could use it for a more permanent version of my tracing paper half template


After planing down to around 1/8 inch thick


Here I am tracing my outline on the thin piece of poplar


The  outline pencilled in


Then sawn out


I then filed the template down to the pencilled line


The half template with the two centre lines - for two different lower bout widths - shown


The template still needs some work as flat sections in the c bouts can be seen even in this photo!


I then planed the inside of my backs nice and flat ready to mark the outline.


Sharpening my old jackplane iron. I don't know what type of stone this is but it works well with water.


Marking out a back outline. I pinned the template to the back.


Marking the other half


The finished outline - the wider version


I drew the outline on the outside to get an idea of the scale of the knotty problem!


Here is the narrower piece of slabcut poplar planed flat and ready for marking. It is a bit streaky but has a nice 'bubbly' looking figure, i think!


I used the 'other' centre line of my template, as this slab back is narrower than the piece i did above, as can be seen here


The two backs marked out.


As you can see, I am making things up a bit as I go along. I would welcome any advice or comments,

Hoorah! At long last I've finally started my course of viola therapy.

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