Thursday, 1 December 2016

Summer Travel

In late November the weather flipped from balmy 18C to driving snow off Lake Huron. The time of long days and easy travel is over.
sailing around White Cloud Island Georgian Bay
Is there a musician who has not spun out or been eerily wrapped in fog on the way back from rehearsal or concert? I so admire their vitality, dedication and courage. They incessantly traverse through hum drum infrastructure.
our commute

In this time of globalization and climate change, I feel privileged to have been able to stay , work yet expand my horizons within a relatively small geographic area.
                                                                                                                                                                               Concentrating on finishing my latest cello this summer , I rebuild a treasured cello and restored 2 violins, which were unstrung by accidents, did service and fit up work, experimented with fittings as well as catching up on back ground such as making varnish .(More in future posts)

Summer Music Festivals, I believe, are a congenial way to travel for audiences and musicians alike. The latter embrace the challenge of unusual repertoire and combinations and the intensity of going to the edge,yet seem to find a landing spot, which brings opportunities to meet and chat.
We had our instruments played by talented students and professionals at WLU Quartet Fest, the Canadian Music Competition,Kincardine Summer Festival and the Sweetwater Music Festival both as trials and in concert situations.
Roman Borys putting my newly strung cello through the paces 

                                                                      What is it about life music that leaves me fuelled, I was wondering after a performance with the PSQ, David Gillham and  Chiharu Inuma at the "Music Room" in Waterloo?
 Ian Narvesson's space offers a grand piano,the friendly open nordic decor of the 70s, an uncomplicated generous hospitality and proximity to  world wandering accomplished players . So I hitch hike, dive in and sneak as if the dynamic range and  the inner pulse were my own

Meredith Hall, Roman Borys,Mark Edwards (harpsichord )and Matthias Maute with  Haendel Arias in the "Early Music Rock Stars" Concert, Sweetwater.

Mark Fewer, Annalee Patipatanakoon,Aiyun Huang,Steven Dann and Roman Borys perform Jaroslav Kapuschinski's"Alikeness"

more photos at

Of course it feels good to be able to contribute to excellence at the margins through emergency repairs and adjustments. Jurani  and Ever, Mexican students at Quartetfest put a flea into my ear to travel to Aqua Caliente with my toolkit. I am not immune to the pull of exploration.

glueing fingerboard at WLU

Greg and I had a lot of fun with our foray into Quebec at the beginning of July. Rebecca Pierce and Charles Arsenault hosted us in Montreal for a couple of days of a Metroplolitan luthier's life. The crew at Wilder and David's are experienced and efficient at servicing instruments and bows out of their travelling tool box. We heard about the Con Cuerda project, which took Rebecca and Charles to Colombia. They were amazed by the gratitude intensity and engagement of the musicians there.
atelier vivant at the makers forum in Drummondville

We asked Charles to show us the documentation of his restoration  of a shattered Gagliano violin,now played again,which is mind boggling.

 We joined the makers forum for exhibits at the Canadian Music Competition in Drummondville. In between the last rounds of competition finals and the amazing Gala event,we hiked in la Mauricie staying at a quirky guest house in St Ellie de Claxton with a self serve common, reading and breakfast area and a bath shared by 6 rooms. Quebecers do seem to be able to easily share at least tables and banter. I fondly remember the late and hilarious outing with 8 gregarious, ravished Quebec colleagues after the festive Gala concert looking for Drummondville poutine.
the Saint Maurice river, an ancient route

Sunday, 26 June 2016

My robots

    A hand made string instrument in the age of 3 D copying ?

This was the heap of wood in April, material for my cello now happily underway. I always suffer from a bout of laziness at this stage.

 Before using hand tools, I make use of any machine assistance available and feasible to remove the bulk.

The planer (bottom right) deals well with flattening the two spruce boards before joining them (always by hand plane) as well as with squaring the neck block, before sawing out the silhouette of the scroll.

The bandsaw in the back is set up with a 1/4" blade for this purpose.

Of course this was done by muscle of apprentices in the 17th century. We had to do it also in our training for the lack of band saw access.


   We built our workshop in 1990 without the foresight of a machine room .With a restricted area now we are paying by having to juggle the saws and the planer.  
   This stage of making is noisy and dusty.
It takes planning and set up skills to preserve
the best qualities of the material.

The neck block is augmented, before squaring to achieve optimal grain direction.

Additionally 2 nasty knots have to be navigated.

Routing the neck to add a carbon fibre rod stabilizes cello necks, eliminating one of two reasons for changing elevations.

The final silhouette of the scroll, back and spruce top is                                                                                                                               defined by knife, chisels and gouges such leaving no trace of machine marks.

The willow is sawn to length approximately, then split.


 The 2 1/2" slab back takes the most pre-paration. I don't want to spend the morning flattening the underside-future glueing surface and do it in three passes with the router (here on a poplar board), which requires only a few strokes of the hand plane to clean up.

Before winging the back, I want to remove the bulky thickness (I only need 1 1/4" of height) ,but must recognize  that our trusty laguna saw doesn't have a throat deep enough to pass a nineteen inch wide board, ripping  extra boards at an angle. (I was hoping to keep them for violas).

The Architectural Millwork in Paisley deals with elaborate historical reproduction of windows, (such as for example the giant Roundhouse windows in Toronto) staircases and all manner of historical architectural details and mouldings. I would not dare interrupting the efficient run of a set up.
This once though, I had Bob Johnston plane my roof shape after hours.

In the tradition of Otto Erdesz, I use a dye grinder to remove more bulk; A brutal stage,
and a shocker to sensitive musicians.

It does save my hands for the carving to come and I am good at avoiding slips with my low centre of gravity.

To obtain the outline I have my rib structure finished first.

 The top board on the wood pile would have been the most practical option for preparing ribs. Plane one side perpendicular to the bottom by hand, then rip it with the carbon tipped bandsaw blade at two mm thickness. (front band saw)

However our stock of cello ribs, especially highly flamed ones are mainly imported from the European tone wood trade. They come in inconvenient 3mm panels (almost twice the thickness needed). This is necessary to avoid warping during transport and storage.

Nothing beats the shiny structure of a hand planed surface on the outside.
To thickness the ribs at 1.5mm I might use the drill press to mark the depth, but the material is fragile and there is no extra to cover mistakes, so I finish with tooth plane and scraper.

So -Are my instruments handmade? How important is the direct physical engagement?
Well let me introduce my last "secret" assistant, before I answer this question.

The late Elgin Walter, an incredibly talented metal worker and machinist made this copy router for the music teacher and prolific amateur luthier Ed Bartlett. We inherited it from him. It is a beautiful piece of engineering (albeit an antique) and since it takes up a good part of our upstairs we try to use it occasionally. It can serve at recording the arching of unusual models. (Though the "plugs "are over size in height) We have been pre routing patches for restorations from plaster casts. And it is very well suited for production work. We have of course plugs for the "Pulcinella".

I would not regularly want to machine right up the the stage of scraping to the finish. In my experience a machine set up endlessly repeated leads to gross exaggerations and distortions of one's tendencies. To experience the shape anew hand carving is of the essence. It allows for feeling the structure of the wood. It makes the work flow and  develops the hand writing.
If I had the means and where-with-all to 3D computer carve a famous instrument from scans, I would of course do it- once.
To experience the physicality, one's hand carving skills is just a lot more fun.



Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Across Canada

inspired by G Rogeri

This April an exhibition will accompany the concerts of violinists - and ambassadors for the forum -Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan in Edmonton, April 20/21  and Vancouver, April 23 to 26 .

Visit  or  for details.

It is a great opportunity for musicians in the West to experience the rich array of violins,violas,cellos and bows currently being created in Canada.

For the violin I am sending,I was inspired by the beautiful flow of lines of a Giambattista Rogeri violin. While I have only memory and a few photos to go by ,I drew my impressions free hand on previously decided proportions, approximating the photo.

The basic measurements are well within the norm: 
                                                                                  string length: 328mm
                                                                                  body length:  354mm
                                                                                  upper bout:164mm,
                                                                                  centre bout:107mm
                                                                                bottom bout: 207mmm 

Once I was happy with the drawing’s flow, I derived the inside -, the sound hole  and the scroll templates , a basic set around which to construct the instrument. 
This is not an approach to copying,but a mindful development.

To be led by visual memory only, could lead the violin maker astray.Just think of the grotesque “Stainer copies”, which poured out of Germany in the 1800.
With my project here, I felt Stradivari’s  straight  and upright  C bouts were not my preference stylistically. I have to acknowledge though ,that Stradivaris centre bouts impart less stiffness below the breast,than the rounder open C’s of the Rogeri. With time we develop an imagination of the movement,the interaction of the arching influenced by outline and the placement of the “ffs” 
( sound holes).

My violin at the forum is the third incarnation of this model and I am proud of the response and roundness of the tone. 
I chose a tough European spruce top,highly flamed Canadian dense red maple ribs and a one piece red maple slab back (fifth and last instrument from this aged board). The scroll is of homogenous and -as in the Rogeri of subtly shimmering European maple.

My own amber varnish on a well tanned golden background radiates like the warmth of the sound ,an unashamed flaming red.

Saturday, 12 March 2016


Pulcinella is a type of cello,which we developed together and the only one we share in making.

By 2009 we had collected about two dozen models of revered and stage worthy cellos.While copying is an important practise, blind reverence for anything famous or Italian is simply decadent. Deeper insights can be attained through juggling and recomposing the elements according to intuition and experience

II love playing outside (weather permitting) .I need a comfortable string length.What I wanted at the time was a simple,elegant, compact cello with a sturdy, focused sound. Additionally it was my wish to make it ,not cheap -this is impossible, but more accessible price wise. I designed the “figure 8” or corner less cello .The simple guitar shape is of course noting new-Stradivari made such a violin and many others have since.

Tongue in cheek I call the model Pulcinella. Admittedly an Italian name draws more attention than “figure 8”or “cornerless”.Pulcinella ,the  prankster of the Commedia del Arte can be mean , which I hope my cello will never be. However I do like it to be able to zing and growl.

The sound expectation was inspired by the materials, especially “Liriodendron tulipifira”, which we use for the back.Searching for Poplar years earlier, a specialty wood dealer sold us a trunk full of this ”yellow poplar”. I was disappointed at first. The greenish wood was heavier than poplar and smelled of swamp.But the ugly duckling turned into a swan, when we tested it out on violas. There is something peculiar and intriguing about the sound.
We soon sourced boards large enough for one piece cello backs. The tulip tree is the largest North American hardwood ,native to the Carolinian zone.
Combined with Engleman spruce for top plates and finely worked hard maple for heads and ribs the all native material is capable of an iridescent sound.

How did the corners reappear? Eventually a prodigy playing the cello on stage complained, that he had nothing to hold onto when bowing.While I love the elegant simple shape, which has internal corner blocks, we have made more cornered versions.

 Are you curious,if such a cello is a good fit for you? You may make an appointment to try it. If you love it, you are in luck. This cello is half price. It can be ordered with a string length of 675mm or 685mm ( a large 7/8th size or a small full size) with or without corners.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

the wood loft

My companion Gregory and I are sharing the stash of wood accumulated over 3 decades.
We are trying to stay grounded in a whirl of the global trade and the inflation of visually dazzling wood.
The beginning of the year finds us claiming the materials for our next instruments, joining and preparing backs tops, necks and ribs...
We stumble over our history and it is time for us to eliminate or give away some of the wood we have found, moved, seasoned for years and experimented with.

good bye  old spruce

I would not want to miss the experience of going up into the Austrian Alps together with 2 other luthiers and a harpsichord maker in 1984. We searched for four old growth spruce trees, had them cut in the winter and brought down in May to be radially sawn. Going through the whole procedure makes you appreciate all that can go wrong: checks, knots, fungus, radially but still off split sawing wrecked two thirds of the wedges within a year. Now for most of the remainder an excessively dense structure suggests it will make a beautiful dresser, once sawn up into boards.

local maple

Floating logs downriver and under water storage was common practise in Europe i.e. in the famed Val de Fiemme, where the Cremonese makers might well have gotten their spruce. This technique is thought to have a stabilizing effect and encouraged a thorough seasoning of the wood structure. The same was done for transport during the pioneer years in Canada. We did our best  to lift logs from lakes- alas always found unsuitable species, like Hemlock or really twisted eastern Cedar. We paid for "tone wood" brought up from the depth of Lake Superior and received beautiful stone like fir and birds eye maple, which we are happy to pass on to someone.
testing split ,essential for spruce tops 
Buying European wood grown in Val de Fiemme or the legendary Bosnian maple is no guarantee for first rate results.We have not travelled to select European wood in a long while, but we demand a lot from our tone wood dealer as far as  the split, the structure and the specific weight is concerned and pay a high price.

Another good logging technique consists of ringing a tree a year before cutting it as "standing dead." Gordon Carson of Mountain Voice British Columbia has occasionally been able to supply such wood. He also marks his Engleman spruce  and Engleman/White hybrid logs with a code, and splits generous wedges.
As far as North American tops are concerned we have settled on this species versus Douglas fir or Sitka spruce, though neither can be claimed as local.

My joy are the eastern Maple boards and the log we found over the years at local sawmills. They date our excursions and instruments long in use. They also allow us to make distinctly local instruments and gain some consistency when using wood from the same tree.

this cello neck block needs re- sawing
For the most part saw mills here do not accommodate violin makers. Boards are usually slab cut and it is hard to find matching ribs and necks. The staff almost never knows the species of maple, distinguishing only between rock and soft maple. Phenotypes are incredibly diverse often with exiting flame, but just as often with worm enclosures and fungus streaks, especially when it is grown in a swampy area. Our favourite red maple thrives both in wet and upland areas. Sugar maple is too hard and silver too loosely structured, but black sometimes works a treat. To confuse things further all of them can be hybrids.
sorted violin viola section and willow for blocks bottom left

cello wood minus poplar

By now we recognize our best candidates. Silky homogenous softer maple for velvety sounding violas slightly harder red or black for violins and the rare piece that can be winged for cello. Luckily there are great healthy poplar species and the tulip wood to supply a one piece cello back, whereas Europe's classic black poplar is suffering from a blight.

Lastly- here are the wild cards, the multicoloured loosely structured or off grain boards as well as the dense nutty maple we will give up.