William Castle -
© William Castle 2013
8 Welsh End, Whixall,Whitchurch, Shropshire SY13 2NU
Starting and finishing
As this is my first post, perhaps a good place to start is to write about starting, something I find much easier when it is an instrument rather than doing a new page on my web site! But actually, it is the finishing of an instrument which is the hardest part for me.
In the making of an instrument there are actually lots of hard parts. Some of them
hard because they are technically difficult and require precision, like fitting a
bass bar or cutting a bridge, which is the very last job before an instrument can
be played. Others are difficult in that you need to get them right because they are
so important to the sound, such as shaping the archings, and thicknessing the back
and belly. But when completing an instrument, it is the emotional which is the hard
part; it is the uncertainty of finishing the journey and wondering what comes next;
the culmination of weeks of work, wondering how the instrument will sound. When I
was younger I found it hard to slow down enough and concentrate on doing a good job
with the bridge, which in itself is very important for the sound, in my haste to
hear the instrument for the first time. Nowadays it is much easier, but still when
tuning up the strings, checking the bridge is upright and re-
Sometimes an instrument sounds fine on day one; admittedly it will sound somewhat raw, but you can still hear its intrinsic quality. Hopefully it will speak easily and you will get an idea of how it will project, and for me the most important thing that it has an interesting sound. Other times however, it doesn’t quite work as you might hope. This is when it really is hard. Then you have to hold your nerve and avoid rushing to alter things, because it may be that with a week of playing, the pieces of wood that up until now have been a pillar to hold up tons of twigs and leaves will ‘learn’ how to vibrate. Still, very often a change of soundpost position or a different type of string will make all the difference, or on rare occasions it may be necessary to open the instrument and do some work on the inside.
Whatever an instrument sounds like at the very beginning, I try and play it without listening too hard and rushing to make any judgement, which is easier said than done! Anyway, on day two, it always sounds different, better, a little more settled, a bit less surprised to be asked to make a sound!
Then I usually manage to leave an instrument without adjustment for about a week, but after that I usually change something, a different type of string, or move the soundpost, and then I play it more or lend it to someone who can really play properly. Then come some more adjustments, often a slightly longer soundpost as the first one usually becomes a bit loose.
By this time the making of the next instrument is usually well underway, and I am thinking about sorting out the wood for the following one, so the wood, if it is not already in the workshop, has time to aclimatise to the workshop atmosphere. So usually I have one instrument being made, another being varnished or just finished, and the wood for the next one on the top shelf next to my bench, and as soon as I have the neck glued in on one instrument, [so only the neck shaping needs to be done before it is varnished] I start on the next one. This means that by the time I stop to varnish the first one, the preparatory work on the next one is mostly done. By starting immediately I have tricked myself into overcoming the inertia of starting out on the next instrument.
There is a German phrase, Alle Anfang ist schwer [all beginnings are difficult] . This may be because we don’t know the problems we will encounter, or in my case with each new instrument, it is the emotional investment, as well as the time and the concentration, that could build into a wall of reluctance to make a start. But for me, being in the workshop, making something, being in the midst of a job is so normal, so familiar, that the process of the work gives me a feeling of composure – certainly not a meditative state, but nonetheless centred and in the right place. So having an ongoing project is where I like to be; and as to how do I get started, well I already have!
A new viola
Last week I strung up my new viola for the first time. It is an Andrea Guarneri model which I have used as a model since the mid 1980s, this one being for a customer in Norway. One of the comforting things about this model is that it nearly always seems to work from the beginning, and this one is no exception. In general, violas can be slow to respond on the C string and be harsh on the A string, but this model seems to avoid those problems, and the notes in first position on the G string in particular are wonderful.
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This the early stage of the next violin, a Pietro Guarneri model from 1742. The back is one piece of Bosnian maple, with deep figure, as is the scroll. The belly is a good piece of wood, but when I sawed it in two to create two matched halves a knot revealed itself. But because the wood was still too thick, I managed to plane some of it out, and by sliding one half against the other when joining the two halves, the knot is going to miss the corner on the bass side, and on the treble side it will be cut away when I do the hollowing. Phew!
The linings are already glued onto the ribs on one side, with the others bent ready to be cut to length and glued on the other side. This will happen after I have planed the ribs to the correct height.
First stages of a new violin
When I make an instrument I work on one at a time. For me this is the way to focus on the particular pieces of wood, the model and style of the instrument, which translates into an instrument which hangs together visually and tonally. The only exceptions are varnishing which often happens after I have started the next instrument, and joining the halves of back and belly. For the violin I have just started I hadn’t got a belly already to go, so instead of joining just the belly, I planed the joints of five bellies and two backs so that when I have a jar of special and rather expensive glue [isinglas] ready I can use all of it. So, last Saturday morning I glued all seven pieces, and then planed another two in the afternoon to use all the glue.
This is my new viola, just finished last week. It is in the style of Pietro Guarneri of Venice, with a back length of 15 1/2”. Some instruments just seem to work right from the beginning, and this is one of those, with a proper big viola sound combined with quality.
Many Venetian instruments are quite red in colour, which is quite difficult to achieve so I spent a considerable time mixing varnish and colour to get it right, and this is the result.
This is a bit of a novelty for me-
It was about 20 years ago that I started making normally small violas [between 15 and 16 inches] and because of the demand for good sounding instruments of this size, since then I have made more smaller violas than ones over 16 inches. Building a successful small viola is definitely more difficult than a large one, which is probably why so few violin makers attempt it, there being a number of important considerations which need attention to ensure the instrument works well, particularly on the C string.
The body length of this instrument, as well as the neck length and string length are the same as a violin, so it feels like a violin to play, but the width, the archings, and aspects of the fitting up are like a viola, so it sounds like a viola.
My original intention was to make an instrument to rent out to a young person who definitely wants to play viola, but isn’t yet big enough for a larger instrument, but I have also had interest from adults who are principally violinists, but who occasionally play the viola or have problems reaching to the C string on a larger instrument.
Drawing on my experience with small violas, this very small viola has all the features of my usual small violas, but with the obvious additional measure of not having any corners. This makes the instrument quicker to make, but it also frees the plates to move more easily in the lower frequencies, so that an instrument this small really does sound like a viola.