At the end of last year (2009) I decided for some strange reason to begin building a Viola da Gamba. Perhaps I had momentarily got bored with my lutes. I had just sold a lute to Japan, which completed a circle of about six years of learning. A hobby had become a profession, if you will. I felt like widening my perspectives, and using my acquired skills of woodworking and instrument construction in a new way. I used my Christmas holidays building the gamba, and got it to pretty good shape. Above is a picture of its current state, drying the linseed oil that acts as a sealer before the varnish. (If the Viola da Gamba is a new thing for you, use wikipedia, or search for Jordi Savall on Youtube.)
So it begins. Above you can see a mould for a treble Viola da Gamba, and the back and sides that are maple, only roughly planed at this point. Below is the decorative inlay on the back plate.
The pattern is made of standard violin purfling, which I bought at the same time I bought the maple. I could have made it myself from ebony and maple, but this was of course faster. As you can see, the lines are arranged in an over-under pattern, like celtic knots, which means that the inlay is made of about 40 individual pieces.
The maple was an old log which I bought from a music store. The owner had inherited the piece from a hobbyist violin maker, and he told me the log had been drying for some 30 years on top of a shelf, which I believe because it sounds so "hollow" and is so dark in colour. Unfortunately it has no flame pattern, but I can live with that, mostly because of the sound it makes when I tap it.
Here we have skipped forward in time. The sides were bent in a way that is identical to bending violin sides, or lute ribs. I use a hot air blower and a T-section of iron plumbing pipe. Unfortunately, I left some brown spots on the first piece I bent, because I have never bent maple before. The mould was built so that it can be disassembled and put back together. Here the bottom has been removed so that the back of the viol could be glued on, as is the top part in order to have access to the insides of the instrument. The beauty of the design is that I can always screw the back and bottom on to keep the shape correct. The neck has already been made, glued and screwed on. I use a screw because the neck does not a have a specifically cut mortise in the neckblock to hold it steady, like a modern violin, but is glued on with a perfectly flat surface. The screw of course secures the hold, but also it is the easiest way to apply pressure to the glue seam while it dries.
In this picture, I'm correcting a cracked part of the back. The back, you see, is bent where the clamps are, in order to give the player more room. This means making a groove on the inside of the back and then making a very tight bend there. Stupid me had already made a groove for the purfling that surrounds the bend on the back on the outside, so it cracked. Here you can see the bend, and also a view of the scroll, which is not quite your standard violin scroll. A see-through version.
Below is a picture of the neck-body joint.
Here you can see a tool I made for the marking of the purfling channels that follow the edges of the soundboard and back. It has a small blade attached to an arm which is attached to the body. All parts can be secured with a wedge. Simple, yet effective. I still have to cut the channels by hand, though. But this device makes accurate work fast and easy, and has proven to be very useful elsewhere too, such as for edging a lute soundboard, or cutting thin strips of veneer that are all the same size.
Here is a family of little finger planes I made for shaping the top of the viol. They are seen here resting after a hard days work on top of the viol top, which is attached to a plywood holding device (well, a piece of plywood attached to the top with screws), which is fastened to my table with G-clamps. I bought the plane blades from Tonewood.sk, they are sold as replacement blades for a line of commercially produced finger planes. Two have a curved bottom, and one has a straight one. With the curved bottom it is possible to plane the inside curves of the top, and also the whole underside.
Here I am gluing edging strips on the inside of the body. These provide more gluing surface for gluing the top on.
The we again skip forward in time. The top was glued on and the purfling laid on that side too. I made a fingerboard and the string holder, to match each other. I repeat below the first picture in this post so you can see what I'm talking about. The cores of both are made of maple and I used 1.5mm cherry for the center panels and then purfling (black-white-black) and ebony on the edges. Note the C-holes of the top instead of the f-holes on modern violins.
Terrible, horrible mistake: I cut the pegbox too deep, so that it was only about 0.5mm at its thinnest point. Enough for light to shine through. So I had to find a way to fix the problem, as I knew it wouldn't look good and it would probably break if someone grabbed a hold of that part. I glued a thin strip of birch on the inside of the pegbox to strengthen it. Due to poor clamping, it just made the thin part sag in, creating a depression on the outside surface of the pegbox. Ugly. So, Here is my solution:
Let's carve a pattern on the backside of the pegbox! The design is my own... Well it is based on someone else's work but then, so is everything that any human ever does. Now, this does not completely solve the problem, as carving makes the part even thinner, but at least it hides the problem in a confusing pattern.
And to wrap this post up, a picture of all the instruments that I currently have (well, the ones that I've made) with the gamba. From left: 13 course baroque lute, 14 strings theorbo, 7 course renaissance lute, a body for an 8c lute, 6c lute, and a 7c soprano lute. Say hello to your new friend, Mr. Gamba!