Novice Maker

So, after you’ve got the neck foot shaped, you get to do the hard part. The neck set.

You start off by drawing the profile on the violin’s ribs a bit smaller than the final size. There’s some measuring and math involved, but I won’t bore you with that. 

After you’ve got everything drawn on, you score the lines, cut into the edge of the top plate a little inside them, and cut out some notches. Those notches will act as your buffer zone while you carve out the rest of the top plate in between them.

The next step is to take a chisel and start shaving off wood. You’ve got to take it really fine, otherwise you risk detaching the ribs from the top block, and every time you take some wood out, you need to re-score the lines or else you’ll have the wood chip out on you. For the first bit, you just keep everything nice and square, and keep removing wood until you’ve gone all the way through the purfling. 

This is where things start to get really hard. When setting the neck, you have to precisely control the centering, length, pitch, yaw, and roll of the neck. Your manipulations of the dovetail change all of that. The bed controls the depth, pitch, and yaw, and the sides control the roll and centering. Fortunately, you get to do the bed and then the sides, so long as you’ve taken proper care setting everything up.

You control the depth by making the whole dovetail deeper. You control the pitch by angling it back—the back end is deeper than the front. You control the yaw by making one side deeper than the other. Changing any one of these things affects all of the others, so you can’t just concentrate on getting one right and then doing the others.

You start out with the chisel and scoring method until you get close (the rule of thumb is that you’re always closer than you think, so leave lots of room for error), and then move on to sanding blocks for precision control. Even then, it’s easy to mess up. A few swipes in the wrong place, and all of a sudden the end of your fingerboard has dropped half a millimeter, or swung to one side.

Of course, the entire time you’re doing this, you’re also religiously checking that the neck is doing what you want—placing it in the groove and measuring each variable.

When all that is done, you’ll hopefully have your neck bed properly established and you can move onto getting the sides done. If you screw up, you get to shim it and start over.

Sorry about taking so long since the last update. I actually finished the neck set on my first instrument, but I couldn’t document it. I’m starting on the second one now, so I should have frequent updates for you guys.

After you’ve spot-glued the fingerboard on, it’s time to shape the neck and neck foot. The first thing you do is draw the foot profile on the end of the block. You find the center of the fingerboard and draw a perpendicular line down from it that is the length of the overstand (distance from the fingerboard to the top of the instrument, usually 6mm), plus the thickness of your top plate, plus the height of the ribs, plus the thickness of the button, plus 1mm. Then you draw a horizontal line 21mm long centered on the end of that and connect the ends to the edges of the fingerboard.

After you’ve got that done, you get to start on the fun stuff, hogging off wood. For most of the length of the neck between the top of the fingerboard and the foot, you take everything off right up to the fingerboard. You leave extra at the top so you don’t do anything bad to the pegbox or tail, and at the foot because you’ve got to take it in steps.

When shaping the foot, you take off wood with the chisel until you’re about 2mm outside of the profile lines, parallel to them when seen from the end, and parallel to the fingerboard when seen from above. Next, you take a moment to flip the neck over and sight along the back in order to make sure that the foot is centered with the scroll. Then, using a block plane, you take it down to 1mm outside the lines. It’s very important that you start paying attention to flatness at this stage, because if the sides of the foot are not perfectly flat in all directions, you’re gonna have a bad time. If everything checks out, you keep using the plane to take it down so that you’ve got a perfectly straight line from the 21mm line to the edge of the fingerboard.

Livestreaming

Lately, I’ve been thinking about doing some livestreaming while I work on my violins. It would be a pretty low-key thing for the most part; set up a camera, put LastFM on mix (I have pretty questionable taste in music, FYI), and chat with whoever shows up while I’m doing it. The streams would last two to four hours, depending on how much time I have available, with the occasional all-day stream, schedule permitting. 

There are a couple issues with the idea though. The first one is getting a workbench set-up I can use at home. The second is figuring out a camera set-up that I can use to show close-up work, but that doesn’t have issues with taking the work out of frame when I have to move stuff around. The biggest issue, though, is that the most time-consuming aspects of violin making are also the most boring to watch. There’s a lot of cool stuff to see, but it would be heavily interspersed with long hours of scraping and/or filing.

One reason I’m thinking about doing it is because I think some of the stuff would be really cool to show, like gluing in the purfling or closing the box. The other is because it would really help my productivity if I’ve got people to chat with while doing the more tedious stuff.

What do you think, if I were to set up a livestream, would any of you guys be interested in watching?

That terrifying moment when you realize you’ve been measuring from the wrong spot.

Tool Spotlight: Apron plane
So I was lucky enough to get a new Lie Nielsen Small Block Plane (aka, apron plane) with a low angle bed. I can’t believe I never got one before, because it’s pretty much the perfect tool. It fits perfectly in my hand, the low angle makes it great for working with the grain or across end-grain while taking extremely thin cuts, and since block planes are bevel-up planes, you can redo the blade to effectively make it into a high-angle plane for working on difficult, figured wood.
I’ve got three blades for mine, the toothed blade on the left, the normal one on the right, and the one in the plane has a 50 degree micro-bevel on it that I was using to smooth some figured maple. I was taking even shavings that were 0.01mm thick!

Tool Spotlight: Apron plane

So I was lucky enough to get a new Lie Nielsen Small Block Plane (aka, apron plane) with a low angle bed. I can’t believe I never got one before, because it’s pretty much the perfect tool. It fits perfectly in my hand, the low angle makes it great for working with the grain or across end-grain while taking extremely thin cuts, and since block planes are bevel-up planes, you can redo the blade to effectively make it into a high-angle plane for working on difficult, figured wood.

I’ve got three blades for mine, the toothed blade on the left, the normal one on the right, and the one in the plane has a 50 degree micro-bevel on it that I was using to smooth some figured maple. I was taking even shavings that were 0.01mm thick!

Spot-gluing the Fingerboard
So, after you’ve got your scroll done, you get to move onto the fingerboard. It’s pretty simple in concept. First you flatten the underside of the fingerboard where it’s going to meet the neck. Then you make the sides square and bring the width down to the right dimensions; the sides aren’t straight though, there is a half-millimeter deep curve along the length. Next, you flatten the front of the fingerboard to the right height, while creating another half-millimeter scoop along the length. Last of all, you position the fingerboard in place on the scroll, dry-clamp, double-check that everything is aligned right, and then spot-glue the fingerboard to the neck.
I have to say, ebony is a dream to work with, but the black sawdust makes your hands all gross and dirty.

Spot-gluing the Fingerboard

So, after you’ve got your scroll done, you get to move onto the fingerboard. It’s pretty simple in concept. First you flatten the underside of the fingerboard where it’s going to meet the neck. Then you make the sides square and bring the width down to the right dimensions; the sides aren’t straight though, there is a half-millimeter deep curve along the length. Next, you flatten the front of the fingerboard to the right height, while creating another half-millimeter scoop along the length. Last of all, you position the fingerboard in place on the scroll, dry-clamp, double-check that everything is aligned right, and then spot-glue the fingerboard to the neck.

I have to say, ebony is a dream to work with, but the black sawdust makes your hands all gross and dirty.

Also, have a picture of my workbench. When I took this picture, I was working on flattening that fingerboard. Normally, I don’t have the chalk-plate out.

Also, have a picture of my workbench. When I took this picture, I was working on flattening that fingerboard. Normally, I don’t have the chalk-plate out.

So, I guess I should update you guys on my progress.  These are old photos showing some of the steps of carving the scroll. 

The next step is to draw on the pegbox and scroll. It’s harder than it looks and sounds. After that, you bandsaw the area just outside of the lines on the pegbox and use fingerplanes and files to bring it down to the line.

My First Scroll

The very first thing you need to do when making the scroll is make sure you have a finished template that matches the scroll of whatever violin you’re using as your model. If you can, you want to use a 1:1 scale photocopy of a picture of the scroll, otherwise you have to do what I did, trace the picture and glue it to the aluminum piece. After that, it’s a simple—but tedious and finicky—matter of filing down to the line. You have to be extra careful to match the bumps and flat spots of the original, and make sure the finished product is the exact same size by laying it down over the original photo.

When you’ve finished filing, you then use an extremely tiny drill bit to drill holes along the spiral line. I actually made about twice as many holes as I needed here, but that’s not going to hurt anything. The holes are so that when you’re transferring the template to the scroll block, you can use a scratch awl to mark where the windings are going to be.

When the template is all done, you’re going to need to trace it onto the scroll block, but before you can do that you need to shim the sides of the block with spruce so you have a flat surface to draw on. That step is actually pretty quick and easy. It takes maybe fifteen minutes plus glue time if you’re going slow.

Next is clamping the template and tracing it! First you have to position the template properly. The front end of the scroll needs to be 1.5mm off the face of the block, and the inside of the step at the bottom end of the pegbox needs to be 0.5mm away. You do it that way so future people doing repairs will be able to re-flatten the neck if they need to, and do so without hitting the scroll with their plane. After everything is all clamped up, you trace the template lightly with a scratch awl, and then go over the lines with pencil. You also need to lightly poke the awl through the holes on the spiral.

After you’ve got that all done, you remove the template, and use a square and pencil to extend guidelines to the other side of the block and then you clamp the template in place and repeat the tracing on that side. Your placement has to be perfect, otherwise your scroll is going to be hideously lopsided when you carve it.

The last step is just a simple matter of making sure the bandsaw blade is square to the table, is sharp enough to not burn the wood when you cut across the endgrain, and then you get to cut the scroll blank out, staying as close to the line as you can comfortably get.