Making a Violin: Ribs, linings and a bit of Uh Oh

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Ribs around mold with linings glued and clamped

Ribs around mold with linings glued and clamped

This blogging thing definitely requires consistency, which I don’t seem to have had.  So we are now fast forwarding a bit. Brian had me make a practice back but I didn’t want to write about the practice part, I was waiting for the real thing, as if practice is not real. Or maybe I didn’t want to overstay my blogging welcome.   But here I am, I’ve now been out of practice mode for over a month and I haven’t written a thing. This is where writing block meets wood working.  More of a happy alliteration than anything else.

The ribs are now bent around the mold.  We thinned them on a machine to 1.1 millimeters.  So thin, that I was afraid to breathe on them, amazing that something so thin and delicate supports the instrument. The ribs are bent around a hot iron like machine.   There are six pieces to the ribs.  It’s an awkward process because you don’t want to overbend them, the whole idea is to get the flow of the shape.   Heat allows the thin wood to soften enough so that it can be molded and shaped, but then once it cools it goes back to its more rigid form.  It’s tricky and delicate and the iron is hot and it’s easy to get burned.  Brian bent the center curves but let me play with the outside ones.  I put a drop of water on the wood and heard the sizzle and then as I’m holding the wood against the iron with a metal strap that I hold onto tight I felt the give.  As ifs the wood let out a deep sign and relaxed, it was at that point that I pulled the metal strap around the curve of the iron.  Not too much.  We then placed the rib around the mold.  I forgot the blocks. I’d spent the past few weeks cutting the blocks.  The blocks fit in the mold and the ribs are glued to the blocks.  Brian picked out some perfect pieces of wood for the blocks and I had to square that and then measure them to a precise height.  He pulled out one perfect piece that he said he’d been carrying around for over 10 years.  Maybe longer. A long time to have a block of wood sit around. It was beautiful and all I had to do was keep it square and sand it to the correct height. 

Square isn’t something that seems to work well with me.  It was supposed to be idiot proof. The rotating sand paper was already square to the base plate. All I had to do was hold it evenly and let the rotation do the work.  I blame it on being short.  That’s the only rational reason I can think of as to why I couldn’t actually just hold the block steady.  The machine was too high, it was awkward. I pushed just ever so slightly against the top, not holding it even and what happened?  A fraction of a millimeter. That’s all it takes, a hundredth of a millimeter and I had sanded the block at an angle. An angle that was enough off square to relegate that piece of wood that Brian had been saving for just such an occasion, that piece of wood that now would not fulfill it’s destiny, it would never become a cornerstone of a violin. 

So that was the blocks, but now I was on the ribs.  So much of this process is about flow, it is all  line and visual beauty.  I watch Brian as he helps me bend the ribs.  He pushes and prods the wood to get the perfect flow.  He says, “see, it’s not quite right there,” and I look at where he’s pointing. I nod. Of course I nod, I don’t want to seem like an idiot, but I do not completely see.  My eye is not truly trained, but when he takes the rib and flattens it out a bit on one of the curves, then I see. I understand. The eye just knows that this is a restful curve. This is a powerful curve. This is a curve that will withstand sour notes and hours of repetition to get the sound just right. This is a curve that will cradle the baby to sleep, that will hold the future.

And then it cracks.  The final push into place and I hear it.  The malleable wood had hardened again and it didn’t want to be coaxed or pushed or cajoled, so it cracked. Crack.  Say it over and over again, crack.  A firecracker, a crack in the armor, the crack of dawn, a crack in the rib.  Brian said not to worry, it happens all the time, we had extra ribs to thin and bend.  But it was my first time and I didn’t want it to happen to me.

I came back the next week and we had an extra piece of wood to use.  We cut it to size and bent it.  It seemed so promising, and once again just before it was in place, crack.   As loud and deafening as a crack of thunder, that small little crack in the wood reverberating through the small studio.  We only had one piece left. One piece that matched the other ribs perfectly, one piece already thinned to its’ impossible thinness.  We held our collective breath.  It held. 

Then there are the liners.  I was worried about the thinness of the ribs, how easy it would be to poke a hole through them, but I needn’t have worried.  There is a set of shadow ribs, made of willow and not quite as thin.  These, too, are bent and fitted next to the ribs. 

I have to back up a bit.  Because I don’t think I’ve mentioned the mold.  The mold is just that.  It is in the shape of the violin and the ribs are bent around it and glued to the blocks that are lightly glued to the mold.  The ribs are bent around the mold and the linings are attached to the ribs but they don’t cover the total rib, they are attached above and below the mold, so that when the mold is removed at the end the linings will not meet in the middle. There will be a gap that is still impossibly thin all around the middle.

I love the linings.  I love the stability and security they create.  There is strength and elegance in the curves and the structure.

 


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