Ute Zahn ~ Violin Maker
At the Violin Makers' Workshop in Oberlin, OH this year, we went through a process of making lake pigments that was relatively simple (if a little messy at times). I particularly liked the accuracy of the recipe we were given -- rather than the customary vague "oh, a handful of this, a pinch of that".
It was with great enthusiasm I embarked on making my own pigment when I got home. I bought fancy lab equipment, and plant substances to draw colour extracts from. I set up shop on my patio. I weighed and measured, steamed and stirred.
So I wasn't prepared for the strange phenomenon that followed: having followed the recipe exactly, instead of the lovely golden/orange/brown pigment we came home with from Oberlin, I ended up with somewhere between rose (looked at with kindly eyes) and brick (on a less happy day). Onwards and upwards, I suppose! By the time I've explored the full range of possibilities, I'll have the full palette, if nothing else.
For a while now, I have been dreaming about moving my workshop out of the house. The idea was to escape the inevitable onslaught of distractions ... watching the baby rabbits devour my garden and weeding what's left, for one ... and spend time around other adults doing interesting things.
When my bowmaker friend Jesse Berndt told me he had signed a lease on a studio and was looking for someone to share it with, I jumped at the chance.
I collected the keys for the space today and am hoping to move in over the weekend. Once we have finished the workbench shuffle and unpacked the tools, this will mean I'll have to keep regular hours -- at least some of the time!
An exciting feature of the studio building is that it features a performance space, which I am planning to make good use of ... watch this space.
This has been a very busy year for me, at the school as well as in my studio, not to mention the ever-present needs of string players around the world LSF is trying to respond to. When my colleague Bill Scott offered me the chance to share a table at the American Viola Society's "Festival of the Viola" in Oberlin, OH, I was therefore quite excited ... about the idea of being able to just sit somewhere quietly for a few days.
I wasn't quite prepared for hordes of excited violists, keyed-up after so many engrossing, inspiring and thought-provoking seminars, master classes and rehearsals, eagerly descending on the violas on show, sometimes en masse.
Of course, there isn't a maker alive who doesn't delight in the opportunity to hear their instrument played by accomplished musicians. I had the chance to hear my viola played in Warner Hall by violist Elias Goldstein, an exciting experience -- it isn't always possible for me to arrange a concert hall for instrument try-outs. To read Laurie Niles' article about the great viola play-off, click here.
While the cast was drying out, I got busy making a new top block -- here it is, complete with the original label from which I painstakingly scraped the old block, fiber by fiber.
This week, I have been working all sorts of hours in order to fit and glue the patch, give everything a thorough final inspection, glue the body together, and re-set the neck before my annual journey to the Holy Land, otherwise known as the Violin Maker's Workshop in Oberlin, Ohio. Every year, I have noble intentions of arriving there with all my prep work intact and all my tools sharpened. This has yet to happen, but hope springs eternal. Meanwhile, I am happy I'll have my cello back to play on within a few days of arriving back here -- the Hungarian interlude, lovely as it was, concludes today.
Now that the cracks in my cello are stabilized, it's time to think about preparing for the patch. To this end, I've made a partial plaster cast of the top of the instrument, which is a messy process involving a bag of rice, a vacuum cleaner, and some play-dough. This is where I found out that childhood has come a long way since I last played with the stuff -- the only goo available at my local Target was scented.
Apple-flavoured cast, anyone? (I opted for the strawberry, thinking I might want to actually play with the apple).
As per usual, I ended up with splotches of plaster in unexpected places, but the actual cast turned out quite nicely. It is, of course, possible to make castings from other, neater, faster-to-use materials, but I've always got more accurate castings and, as a result, better-fitting patches with plaster.
While I'm waiting for it to dry out, I'll make a new top block, and prepare the piece of wood for the patch. With any luck, I'll have a big enough piece of the original spruce left over from when I was making the instrument. (It would be asking too much for me to have marked it with the year and model ... I didn't think that far ahead when I was 20).
If you look closely, you can see the outline of the bridge feet, the cracks, and a few grain lines.
Meanwhile, in my garden a pair of wrens are busy building an entirely different structure, something I could happily spend many hours watching. But there is a violin to be built, so back to the workbench it is.
Great news: I'm so excited to let you know that "Luthiers sans Frontieres" has joined "amazon smile", a program that offers amazon customers the opportunity to support a non-profit of their choice through their amazon purchases, and at no extra cost.
Next time you use amazon, please consider spending a few extra seconds to follow the prompts for "amazon smile" and select "Luthiers sans Frontieres" from the list of participating non-profits, and you, too, could put a tool into the hands of an aspiring violin maker in the Third World!
And thank you.
Once all the old glue and the blackish gunk was cleaned off the ribs and top, I glued the soundpost crack -- the culprit at the bottom of this whole enterprise. It was only as I was working glue into the crack that I noticed there was rather more movement than anticipated -- there was a second, much smaller crack parallel to the first, well hidden by the dramatic gash the bridge foot had made as it crashed into the top, and further obscured by crusty varnish crinkles in the bridge foot area (created by the bridge moving, or being moved, around when the varnish is still fresh).
Oh well, at this point, what difference does it make?
On a much happier note, despite another cold snap (May in Minnesota is different from May in other places), my blade? shoot? reed, I suppose, of equisetum has shot up to about eight inches tall, and another very skinny and tender-looking shoot has tentatively poked out of the pot. I crouch over it, whispering encouraging words ("it will get warmer, it will get easier, it will get better.")
... the school year is over, which has freed up my time somewhat. Enough to finally start on the big cello repair. To that end, I have taken my cello apart, something I last did about twenty years ago, when I re-worked some of its insides. Accordingly, there was an accumulation of rather nasty-looking gunk around the bottom block.
Since the neck was knocked loose in the fall and needs to be reset, and since the top had to come off anyway, and moreover, I still have all the templates and clamping blocks I made for the instrument in the first place, I decided to remove and replace the top block, too, rather than shim the existing one before resetting the neck.
This presented an interesting challenge: the original label was glued to the top block. Preserve it? Sacrifice it?