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Viola plans — for a viola smaller than 16.25 inches

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I plan to make a 15.5" viola in the next few years, but wanted to make a smaller version of a Tertis pattern. I bought a used copy of the Harry Wake book and took it to a copy center. I recall I reduced it 7% and it printed plans for my 15.5" viola.


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I wrote an article about viola making to the Philadelphia Viola Society some years ago. Here:
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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52 minutes ago, Christopher Jacoby said:

Great piece, Luis!

I would add that the graduations mentioned are going to be successful with the lowest density wood possible, generally. If you're making with stiff or heavy wood, you'll have to reconsider grads and arches to succeed with a little viola.

Thanks, yes, low density wood.


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14 hours ago, violins88 said:

We’re can I find plans for smaller viola, yet still has a good sound. (Please hold the viola jokes.)



I believe the Strad produced a poster of the 'Cozio’ viola 1773 by Guadagnini a year or two ago...  if that helps.  If memory serves it's back measures 400 mm.

I haven't heard this particular one, but have heard some rather nice sounding Guads.

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Helen Michetschlager offers some good advice for making violas in this article. https://helenviolinmaker.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Transcript-of-talk-to-Lutherie-2006.pdf

I used information in this along with some ideas from her website to make a short scale viola for my daughter (a violinist). Her website documents her current projects which you can learn a lot from. https://helenviolinmaker.com/talks-and-articles/work-in-progress/

Hope this helps. 

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