Making Music

First steps in building the electric fiddle. The tiny sketch was my concept thumbnail drawing. I used the x-ray of a Stradivarius to create the design on graph paper. Then I enlarged my design to full size to make the half pattern. Carefully cut out, I used the full size design to make the plywood template. I only cut the holes in one half because I can flip the template over to make the other half. On some of the instruments I may leave the holes out entirely.

A few months back my wife expressed an envy for a violin stand so that she didn’t have to unpack her instrument to practice. She thought she’d be more likely to play if the instrument was standing by, ready. It took only a couple of weeks for the stand to topple over, spilling the violin and bow on the floor. The fingerboard popped off. I later found a better-designed stand that grips the neck of the instrument automatically. If she wants another one, I’m ready with an idea.

As a rank amateur when it comes to fine instruments, I refused to try to set the fingerboard back in place. I suggested our old friend Dave Nerad might do a better job. The violin sat for a long time before she finally agreed to let me take it to Dave.

In the meantime I thought Patti deserved something less risky to play around on, and since we’d been talking about electric violins, it suddenly occurred to me that the first major project out of my new wood shop ought to be a gift for her.

A couple of years back I purchased an electronic book about designing and building an electric violin. With Christmas coming up, I decided to see what I could do about building an electric violin, my first attempt at building something from scratch.

The component search began simultaneously with the designing process. I went online with a list of items to buy: nut, fingerboard (being short on time I didn’t envision being able to carve a fingerboard or neck, so I intended to buy those parts), the end pin, tailpiece with its various related parts, the strings and so forth. The most important component would be the bridge, since it would include the pickup that would determine the quality of the sound.

I opted for a good Yamaha design, knowing that I would have a bit of re-wiring to do. The pickup was designed to be used on an acoustic violin rather than a purpose-built electric. I also wanted to figure out whether or not to use an on-board pre-amp to boost the signal from the weak piezo bridge pickup. I found an onboard pre-amp mounted in a jack, which would solve two mysteries at once. But the jack was bigger than I would have hoped, so it changed the design I had already  created, requiring me to abandon the left-hand cutout on the lower bout.

To design the body I first sought face-on images of fine violins. I selected an x-ray image of a Stradivarius to work with. I overlaid graph paper on a printout of the image and cut the fiddle back to its minimum requirements. I knew a violinist needs the sensory block of the body to help place their left hand on the high end of the scale, so that curve had to be maintained. Bridge distance was a constant, and so was body width where I would be mounting the chin rest and end pin.

Electric violins tend to either mimic acoustic instruments or go extreme in their shapes. I’ve seen electric violins designed to look like machine guns so that the instrument, carried in a regular violin case, startles the audience. To my mind, though, the violin is a product of prolonged musical romance. We’ve been copying Stradivarius since the sixteenth century. Writers look back to Shakespeare and luthiers remember Stradivarius. I decided to exploit my fascination with the f-hole in my design of an electric violin that doesn’t even require one. As a former graphic artist, I’ve always been intrigued by the the f-holes on the family of violins. They are hard to draw, but ubiquitous. Where did this design originate?

Using the image of the Stradivarius, I preserved that crucial curve at the top of the body. I sketched my idea onto graph paper overlaid on a printout of the body of the violin. I decided to end the curve in a solid reproduction of the upper serif of an f-hole, referring to the squared-off cross members that are sometimes a feature of the swash. I kept the lower end of the central bay of the standard violin. Maybe I eliminated the top end because my bow sometimes tends to scrape against it. The outline of the lower bout remains intact. That doesn’t sound like a lot of change, but when I later began cutting out the shape in plywood, it became clear that the alteration was pleasantly baroque and that it provided me with a brand new way to handle a violin. The hand naturally seeks out the narrow part of the body just above where the bridge will go.

I struggled with the idea of including regions of empty space within the body shape. The vacant areas would reinforce the concept of the f-hole, but when I cut out the shape of the body I was struck by the outline alone. Either approach would work, but with the elongated cable jack containing the pre-amp, I needed extra space inside the instrument. I also considered how difficult those holes would be cut out perfectly, to sand and smooth, and to prepare a finish that covers all the corners perfectly. All that would take time, and it was already late November.

Another consideration, though, was the idea that eliminating weight might be an issue. An acoustic violin weighs so little, but a chunk of solid maple can feel pretty heavy. If I take out the mass of those non-essential areas, I bring the weight of the instrument back towards what a player expects.

I spent a couple of days shopping online for components. There are just a few parts needed, but the total mounts up quickly. By the time I’d purchased a couple of violin necks (I don’t have the time to make my own this time), a bridge with piezo pickup, a preamp jack, fingerboards, nuts, pegs, tailpieces and endpins I began to think I was running out of budget. I still needed to find wood for the body, though. I wasn’t very successful at locating blanks of the right size, and I sure didn’t want to order oversize blanks just to throw away the excess.

The offcut of my resawn Bigleaf Maple board shows subtle spalting. The pattern is rich enough that I threw out my idea of painting this fiddle. Varnish or lacquer with maybe a hint of wood dye?

There is a lot of exotic wood being used by luthiers these days, but one variety that is turning out to be popular is the stuff that grows all over my place, the Bigleaf Maple. Several years ago we had a big maple blow down in a strong wind. It took down a fir along with it. With all that lumber lying around, we decided it might be worth getting some of it milled up. But nothing much ever came of the boards. They’ve lain around going gray and cobwebby. I had one rough two by twelve maple board in my barn and I decided I’d cut into it as an experiment. To my surprise, the wood had a nice spalting to it. I squared up the board and ran it through the band saw and planer. It looked ideal for this project.

As I worked with it, I found flaws in the wood and I was tempted to abandon it. Tiny bore-holes, ragged break patterns and wild patterns of grain and color nearly made me look elsewhere. But I reckoned that this was a handmade first effort, and it would be appropriate to include faults like these. As a matter of course I made faults of my own as construction proceeded, and these are also included in the final instrument.

Tonight is Christmas Eve, and as I expected, the project isn’t quite finished. I’ve stolen lots of shop time to work on it, to the extent that my wife is complaining a little despite reassurances that she’ll actually like the results. Tomorrow I’ll present her with the shaped and sanded body and the neck/fingerboard, partially completed. It’s a perfect point to discuss how to dye and finish the instrument, something that I worried about by myself. Her input will be welcome. Tonight I’m posting this article so that I can set up the next posting: a photo essay she can peruse at her leisure to witness the process I followed in creating her instrument…during those stolen hours in the wood shop.

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