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.