July 19, 2007: The Form
By way of introduction, I have been asked to make a copy of Bonnie Hampton’s Brothers Amati cello of 1616 for her.
A snapshot of the the freshly sawn out form shows it still raw and unfinished, yet already resembling the outline of the original cello.
August 20, 2007: The C-bouts
The rib height on the original cello is lower by 10 mm than the sort of “standard” we were taught in school. A lot of thought and discussion has occurred with numerous colleagues, in considering various questions surrounding the construction of the original. The consensus of several colleagues is that the slightly lower ribs on the original cello are certainly not a an acoustical detraction to the sound, as empirical observations of other intruments with such features demonstrate, and of course, knowing how wonderfully this cello sounds. And while I did not have the time with the cello to look inside to see if there is evidence of the ribs having been narrowed over time, it does seem most likely that the brilliant Amati brothers did not make mistakes and probably made them just this way, or close to it originally. So I’m leaning towards making the rib height just as it is.
This installment shows the progress of the C-bouts. The wood starts out straight and is bent with high heat and a little moisture. When ready, the ribs are glued in with the counter blocks pushing the rib against the form and holding it until the glue is dry.
August 23, 2007: Upper and Lower Bout Ribs
The first two images have my full upper bout push block holding the rib in place against the form until the #2 cornerblock gets its counterblock placed and clamped for gluing.
The third image has the #2 block clamped. Note that on the other side, the left upper rib is still unattached at the corner and away from the form.
August 29, 2007: Finished Rib Assembly
Here’s how the cello is starting to look with the rib assembly built. It shows the shape of the outline now
Next come the willow linings around the insides of the ribs, which will reinforce the outline and smooth out the ripples a little. During this time, I will be getting the back and top plates joined and prepared. They will get the outline of the rib assembly traced onto them before being sawn out.
September 22, 2007: Roughing out the back and top
The process for making the back and top is nearly identical, so in some cases, the top will be pictured and in others the back, and alternated to show the progression with only one image to represent a certain step, even though the work takes place on both. The back and top plates are most often made of two pieces which are separated down the center of a wedge-shaped billet and opened like a book and joined along their thicker edges. This is called book matching because each half mirrors the other. With the joined plates, the finished rib assembly is laid onto the center line of each plate and the outline of the ribs is traced on. The back and top are sawed out accordingly and the first image is that of the sawed out top.
This point is when the archings are roughed out of the thick slab of wood shaped as a cello. At first a great deal of wood needs to be removed around the edges to begin shaping the curvature. Gouges and aggressive hand planes, called “scrub planes”, are used to carve away excess material. Once the bulk has been cleared away, the accurate edge thickness is established around the outline and the rough arching is blended into this border.
Following the scrub planes, the next step of refinement calls in the fingerplanes which are used to begin to smooth the surface and get rid of the bumpy tracks left by the coarse tools. For developing and finishing the arching, the work is done in dark area with a very low-angle light shining across the arching, which creates shadows describing the shape as it emerges. Once the arching has become fairly refined, although not yet finished, I will move to the next step, which is to install the purfling, and which will be described in the next chapter.
October 1, 2007: The Purfing Inlay
Purfling is both decorative and protective, shielding the back and top archings from cracks immediately advancing inwards following a serious bump to the edge. It acts as a reinforcement and a stylistic element that often shows small individualistic mannerisms of the hand of the maker.
To accomplish it, the outline must be cut and smoothed since the purfling will lie parallel to the edge, setting off the outline in black and white lines. Small irregularities show up pretty clearly. Then a groove is cut into which the purfling is laid with glue. This paves the way for the final arching shape to be completed. The next section will show that.
October 15, 2007 – Part 1
Following the inlaying of the purfling, the final arching shapes are refined and smoothed to a finished shape. In the case of this copy, it was necessary to create individual control strips which conform to the arching cross section contour templates, which were derived from the original cello. The first two images show those controlled areas marked with pencil, in which they make a close fit with the templates. This process enables me to re-create the shapes as they appeared on the original, or at least come very close.
The truth is, this process turned out to be far from easy and as straight forward as it seemed it ought to be. However, the end result which took much more time than I had anticipated, does conform rather closely to the templates and it is hoped, creates an arching shape closely resembling the original. The process utilized finger planes and scrapers. And once the surfaces were scraped smooth, I checked them with the templates only to find that they needed some remedial attention with the fingerplanes and to be rescraped. This back and forth business cycled about 5 or 6 times for the top and fortunately fewer times for the back. Now that I’ve declared the archings finished, I will probably work on them some more, off and on, for many more hours over the course of the next few days, since they are close but still require refinement. The next section will begin with the hollowing out of the inside archings.
October 15, 2007 – Part 2
The outside archings determine the voice character of the cello and the inside graduations are responsible for the instrument’s balance and power. With the outside archings of the back and top completed, the plates are turned over to the insides and are carved out. At the start of this step, the inside is still flat and as full as a cup of flour scraped level. First the excess is carved out using aggressive tools and then the process returns to the fingerplanes.
The ultimate goal in this step is to approach the hoped for thickness graduations carefully and maintain uniformity. For this process, I rely upon my intuitive senses to hear the tap tones [a photo of me listening to them is in the “Approach” section of the website, and is the 5th photo down on the page under the heading of “Making The Instrument”.] and flexing the back or top to keep track of its advancement. I listen more for a quality of clarity and strength in the tap tone rather than seeking a specific pitch. The stiffness and/or lack thereof,… the “bendiness” of the back and top in various directions is also an important guide for me. When the two factors begin to coincide with each other in a manner that satisfies me, then I unify the thickness measurements and work visually to create as smooth of a surface on the inside as I can. I believe that it is crucial to have well-conceived and executed outer archings on an instrument and the well formed inside shape which follows them will lead to an effective, acoustical plate, which will produce the voice of the instrument.
When the thickness measurements are very even and the inside shape is fluid and flowing with the fingerplanes, then it is scraped smooth to the finished surface. The photo of the inside of the top in the last image shows the finished inside, which is also how the inside of the back looks. The care involved focuses on the fact that once the wood has been removed, it cannot be replaced. The successful arrival at the final destination with this work is something guided by experience. Many times I will lay the back or top aside when I believe it to be finished and wait until the next day, after a night’s sleep, to ask, do I still feel the same way? Often I will find more small improvements need to be made.
At this point the back and top plates are finished. The top will receive its important acoustical accessories with the F-holes and bassbar. However, I will now depart from the corpus work, let the finished plates “rest.” Making the scroll is next.
November 2, 2007: Making the Scroll
In the schedule for each instrument I make, I usually prefer to make the scroll first. The simple reason for that is that once the corpus has been closed and the body is finished, I prefer to have the finished scroll waiting to be installed. However, in the process of making this copy, I felt as if I was seemingly much more at the mercy of a different schedule because of slightly different demands. I was uncertain how much time it would take to begin several parts so I rearranged the order. My thinking was that the scroll could wait and would be less challenging than the outline and archings. Once I got the back and top plates finished, the making of the scroll awaited me.
As our modern age of technology allows, I enlarged some fotos I had made of the scroll of the Amati cello to use as the pattern. I glued this fotocopy to the side of the maple block, out of which I sawed the scroll. This foto guided my carving of the entire scroll. I realize I din’t include every little step of progress along the way in the scroll chapter but I hope this gives an idea of the process.
Now that the scroll is finished, my next task is to make the fingerboard for it. First however, I will finalize the F-hole pattern taken from the original and cut the F-holes and fit the bassbar to the top. Thereafter, all the finished parts are ready for assembly. Please return to my website to view that chapter as well as the final assembly.
November 6, 2007: Finishing the Top
The top of the cello always needs extra work compared to the back. When the inside of the back is finished, the edge is rounded and it’s ready to install on the rib assembly. On the top, however, after the inside is finished, the F-holes must be cut and the bassbar must be fit and glued in.
Because this is a copy, it became very important to make certain that the F-holes were laid out as close to the position of the original as possible. Cutting them also required a fairly strict adherence to the original outlines. However, on the original, the right F-hole showed some considerable wear from nearly 400 years of soundpost adjustments, to the extent that the shape of the right edge of the hole was pretty eroded from what the original had most likely been intended. Since I’m not making a replica or a reproduction, I chose to shape the F-holes as I believed they surely must have been originally cut before the wear had occurred.
The bassbar is distinctly my own without any concession to what is in the original. I hope my bar and what is in the original are similar. Mainly I hope that what I’ve done with the graduations of the back and top, and the bassbar will yield a sound that sounds like a close relative of the original. Something I do which I believe very few other makers do is to finish the shape of the bassbar outside of the instrument and glue it in finished. Turns out, I still had to modify it a little once it was in but most of the work was already done.
The next section will show the final assembly of the finished parts into a completed cello in the white.
November 26, 2007: Assembling the Finished Cello Parts
Getting to this stage with an instrument is always fun. First, with the top glued on, out comes the form. At this point I have already fit the neck. This enables the next steps to follow quite quickly. The back is glued on, closing the corpus. Realistically, there is actually a fair amount of work involved in the getting the inside of the body ready for the back to be glued on. This includes cutting away the waste on the inside blocks and adding reinforcement strips to the ribs, as Strad apparently did, in the hope of reducing rib cracks. Then the neck set is finished and it is also glued in. This is followed by gluing on the fingerboard and finishing the final shaping of the back of the neck where the thumb goes. The cello is now officially finished “in the white”.
December 10, 2007: Varnishing and Finishing the Cello
Recently, I have begun fitting up my instruments in the white and putting on the strings in order to make some final adjustments before the varnish is applied. This last segment of making this cello includes the addition of pegs, bridge, soundpost, nut, saddle and tailpiece. When that is completed, I take everything off of the cello and cover the fingerboard with foil in order to protect it during the varnishing.
The varnishing is done by applying a primer to the wood, which is followed by a filler/sealer coat. That process adds a lot of color to the wood. When the surface is finally properly prepared, the top coats of varnish are applied. The varnish I use is that which I make myself from raw ingredients such as larch resin, called “Venetian Turpentine” and linseed oil. In the old days, this would have dried in direct sunlight. Nowadays, we use UV bulbs in a confined space like a box or small closet. This provides the light which dries the varnish in a controlled environment, without wind, dust and flying insects of trying to do it outside.
With the varnish completed, the fittings are once again installed, the strings put back on and the cello finds its voice as a finished product. This cello asserted itself with the strings reattached and immediately showed a great deal of promise. The sound was deep, powerful and clear, and the response was surprisingly easy and this cello is off and running. This cello will continue to grow in its response and resonance and it is a very satisfying conclusion.
Thank you for following this process with me as I made this cello. I will next be making another cello. For me it will be yet another adventure. Please come back to check on our progress.