I have just recently signed up to take part in the Ole Bull Project.
Many violinmakers from around the world are making their interpretation of the 1744 Ole Bull
Guarneri del Gesu violin. While I don't normally make copies of old violins, I could not resist
joining in this exhibition as well. Most of the makers who have joined the project are likely
building fairly traditional copies of the Ole Bull Guarneri. My copy will also look traditional but
I also use a lot of non-traditional techniques and tools in my building so I will be building my
violin in a unique way. I am going to document the progress of my copy on this webpage to show
the new techniques that I have been developing over the past few years.
Step #1 in building a new violin is to collect your materials together. I found the top for my Ole
Bull copy last May without realising it. I will be using some non-traditional techniques in
building my violin so it is a little ironic how the englemann spruce top for my violin was cut. My
friend Evan and I went out in the forest with a two man cross-cut saw and cut off a section of an
old dead tree that we found. This wood has very even grain with some pretty fine spacing. This
will be the first violin that I have built using this wood. Evan has a blog where he wrote about the
wood collecting trip here.
Last night, Nov 14 2009, I finally decided to extract a usable violin top from the billets that we
collected last May. Do to the twist in the wood, this wasn't as simple as just splitting a couple of
pieces off, smoothing them and then jointing them. Instead I had to split an extra thick wedge
off of a billet. Then one face of this wedge was planed flat. Since I don't have a big enough
bandsaw or table saw I then had to handsaw the thick wedge into a bookmatched set of wood
for a violin top. It turns out that I also don't have the proper kind of handsaw for this kind of
wood cutting so I instead had to use my small crosscut saw as a rip saw.
Someday soon I'll have to invest in the proper kinds of tools for wood processing. It took a lot of
time to saw this wood in half. I didn't measure the time but it took two full beers before I sawed
all the way through the wedge.
Once I had the wedge sawn in half, I found out that the wood has quite a few worm holes in it
which are accompanied by a little staining. I don't think the wood is as bad as these pictures
make it look because the wood was cut extra long. I think that most of the worm holes can be
placed outside of the violin's outline or under the fingerboard. Any wormholes that are within
the outline will be patched on the inside to assure that the top is structurally sound.
I have plenty of wormhole-free spruce in my shop but I have put so much time and effort into
this top so far that my mind is made up to use it in spite of its shortcomings. One possibility
that I am considering for this violin is using a 'wormy maple' back that I bought a year ago for
an experiment (which I never actually did). There is a picture of this back beside the top. The
problem with this idea is that the back has far more 'character' than the top so I don't know
how well they would look together on a violin. I am also considering a flamed maple back
similar to the one in the picture below since I have a sister set to the one in this picture.
Note: the spruce doesn't have any flamed figure, what you are seeing are the handsaw marks.
Ok, this is my first update in around two weeks. It is now Dec 7, 2009 so I thought that I should
post the current state of the violin. I have now bent and glued the sides to the mold. I have not
yet glued in the linings but there is no hurry to do that part.
The top has been roughed out. As you can see there will be quite a few 'worm holes' showing. I
didn't mention it above but the worm holes were actually made by carpenter ants so I'm not too
worried about any critters still being alive inside this wood. I'm planning on antiquing my
violin a little so I think that once I do more work I can get the ant holes to just look like normal
dents or cigarette burns. This piece of spruce is pretty different to carve than any of the other
spruce that I have used. It has a different feeling to it when I carve it and my tools make a
different sound as they carve the wood away. There is some blue staining on this wood so I
think that there may have been some bacterial activity in the wood. Whether that is the cause
of this wood acting different I don't know. Based on my gut feeling I think this is actually really
good wood even though it is far from being beautiful.
I have decided not the use the funky stained maple back shown above. I decided to go
conservative on the choice of the back's wood. I decided to use a piece of moderately but
irregularly flamed piece of european maple. It doesn't look too much like the Ole Bull violin's
back but it's closer than what I was considering using earlier.
Time for my weekly update for Dec 13, 2009. I've been busy with astronomy grading this week so
I didn't make as much progress as I would like to have made. Still I now have the back roughed
out and the arching on the top is a little closer to being completed.
Today's big project was to determine to f-hole layout of the original Ole Bull violin and then use
the same layout on my violin. I think that the look of the f-holes is largely determined by how
they fit in with the outline of the violin and how they relate to 'landmarks' on the violin. Even
though this is supposed to be a copy of an old violin my top will still be slightly different than
the original violin's top. For that reason I am laying out the f-holes based on the outline of my
top rather than just trying to use templates taken from pictures. As you can see on my picture I
have used features of the outline to locate the upper and lower holes. I didn't worry too much
about drawing the f-holes so that they would look exactly right, I'm more worried about getting
the position correct. I'll do the actual carving of the f-holes much later along. For right now I
just needed to cut the slot along the length of the f-hole so that I can finish the arching of the
plate with the f-hole's length accounted for.
Update for Jan 6, 2010. I've been traveling for two weeks so I haven't made much progress on
the violin in that time but I thought I should post an update on what I have done.
I have been trying to complete the top for this violin. As you can see from the pictures below, I
carve the inside and outside of the plates at the same time. Each piece of wood is unique so I
feel that the traditional method of first determining the arch to use and then later graduating
the plate is flawed. By carving both sides of the plate simultaneously, the plate can be shaped
to obtain the desired tone from almost any piece of wood. I thump the plates with my knuckles
and rub my fingers over the wood while listing to the sounds produced when I try to determine
where to remove wood from and also which side of the plate to remove it from. This takes quite
a bit more time to do than the traditional method of arching first, then graduating but I feel
the results are worth it.
You can also see that during the shaping process I use a 'carved-in' bass bar to make sure its
effects are taken into account when designing the arches. Once the arches and graduations are
finalized I will remove this bar and install a typical glued in bar.
Once the arch was close to finalized I lightly glued the top to the sides, trimmed up the edges to
their final size, then roughed out the f-holes. Once these changes were made I finished the
arching. I did this to be sure that the stiffness added to the top by the sides was taken into
account when doing the arching near the edges.
The arching is now finished and is fairly similar to the arching on the Ole Bull violin. I haven't
taken the time to compare my arches to the templates from the old violin but they are pretty
similar looking except that I think my arches might be about 0.5mm lower than the original. I
used wood that was different than that used on the original so the arch should be a little
The f-holes are mostly completed, I'll do the final trimming after I glue in the purfling. I think
they are similar enough to the originals but they are still not exactly the same. The bass side
f-hole is a little more upright than the original's and the lower eye on the other f-hole is too
round. My mind started straying a bit when I cut that eye and I started carving it towards what
I thought was the better looking direction rather than the direction of the original. By the time
I realized what I was doing it was too late. I think I'll leave it like this though.
Next on the to-do list is to inlay the purfling, glue in the bass bar, and do the final scraping of
Update for Jan 27, 2009. It's been a while since I've had an update on the violin, sorry about
that. Right now I am working on finalizing the back's arching and graduations as well as the rib
height. To do this I glue the back to the rest of the body, insert a soundpost and then determine
how the violin performs soundwise. Then I make small changes. Arching changes can be made
with the body fully assembled. If I want to change the graduations or rib height then I have to
take the instrument apart, make the change, then glue it back together. So far I have glued the
back on and taken it back off three times. I figure that the violin was designed to be taken apart
so I should make use of that design feature when building.
February 8,2010 update. I have now completed the violin's back. It's graduations are roughly
similar to the original Ole Bull's back. My back ended up being 6.1mm at the thickest point
compared to 6.5mm for the original. I think this is pretty close considering that the original Ole
Bull violin has a more highly flamed back which would need to be left a little bit thicker to have
the same stiffness. I will post the final graduations of the top and back plates soon. The final
mass of the back is 108 grams, the top's mass is 64 grams.
As can be seen in the picture below I have now inlaid the purfling.
Next I will need to carve the neck for the violin. Since I set the neck before gluing the back on I
can't do much more work until I make the scroll and neck.
Update for March 1 2010. Been pretty distracted lately with other projects. I'm putting the
finishing touches on a viola, I built a really nice electric guitar in one week, plus been doing
physics research as well. Since I only have about five weeks left to get this violin completed it is
finally time to get serious about carving the scroll.
Scrolls have to be my least favorite part of the violin to make. Years ago I bought a duplicating
router so that I could spend less time carving scrolls. It was never a timesaver so it got little use.
About a year ago I bought a small hobbyest cnc machine. I started writing the code to carve a
violin scroll with this machine back around Thanksgiving but like I usually do I got distracted
by other things. Since the deadline is starting to loom, this weekend I finally finished writing
the code to carve the violin scroll.
I don't intend to stop carving violin scrolls by hand I just want the cnc machine to rough out the
necks for me. This will save me many hours of handwork and allow me to focus on the finishing
touches (and charge lower prices for my finished violins.) My plan is to rough out the scrolls so
that they are 1/2 to 1 mm oversize. Then I will carve the last bit by hand so that they are all still
This morning I cut out a scroll on the cnc machine for the very first time. I didn't want to waste
good wood on a first attempt so I cut it out of a douglas fir 2x4. That first attempt left a little to
be desired so I then modified my code and cut a better scroll, picture below, but it is about 2mm
too small. Tomorrow morning I will scale up my design a little and rough out the maple scroll
for my Ole Bull copy, then tomorrow night I can just focus on putting the final touches on it. My
plan is to have the violin ready for varnishing this weekend.
Also, here is the guitar that I built in one week. So if I don't get my Ole Bull violin finished on time,
it was this guitar's fault. I woke up on a Saturday morning and knew that I couldn't work on
anything else until I bought this wood and made it. It looks like a solid body guitar but it is
hollowed out on the inside to make it lighter and so that it would feel more like an acoustic guitar.
I normally play acoustic guitar and don't care for most electrics so I decided to build myself
something different. It is great for playing slide guitar.
Update for March 8, 2010. I used my cnc machine to rough carve the scroll for my violin and then
finished carving it by hand. If I ignore all of the time that it took to program the tool paths to cut
the scroll then the cnc machine feels like a great time saver. In reality I'll have to use it to carve
several more scrolls before I can break even on the time investment.
I made the first attempt at setting the violin's neck on Saturday night. I had the neck glued in and
drying when I noticed that the neck looked like it was angled off to the side in a funny way. Even
though the neck lined up with the centerline quite well, because the f-holes aren't symmetric
about the centerline the result just didn't look right. So I had to remove the neck, remove the glue,
and wait for everything to dry. I was irritated and stressed out at this point so it was better to quit
working for the night and go have a few beers and play guitar with the physics grad students at
Then the next morning I reset the neck at a slightly different angle that looks much better. While
I was waiting for the glue to dry on the Ole Bull violin I decided to set the neck on another violin
that I have been working on for far too long. Later Sunday night I glued the back onto the Ole Bull
violin. Now I just need to finish shaping the neck and varnish it, and finish the f-holes.
Update for March 10, 2010. Last night I prepared the wood for varnishing and this morning I
applied the base or ground coat. For this I use a specially processed caramel mixed with pumice as
a first coat. The caramel enhances the chatoyancy of the wood and the pumice smooths the wood to
a fine finish. This mixture is applied mixed with water, not oil. The next coat is caramel mixed with
water and lime. This coat improves and darkens the color of the wood. At this point the ground will
dry to a milky white color which is not transparent.
The next step is to apply a very thin coat of varnish which will make this layer transparent. I
usually use spruce or pine resin dissolved in alcohol for this but this time I tried applying a very
small amount of linseed oil instead. I decided to give linseed oil a try since I really like the results
that I got on my pine guitar using this finish. Plus recent research has shown that Stradivari seems
to have used a very thin coat of oil as the first finishing layer on his wood. I kept the amount of oil
used very small. I applied a tiny bit to a rag and then rubbed this on the violin. There was so little
oil on the rag that it took a lot of pressure and rubbing to get the oil onto the wood. All of this
rubbing helped burnish the wood to a very smooth satin finish. I won't know until I have varnish on
this violin whether I like using pine resin or linseed oil more for making my ground coat
The pictures below were taken in the same lighting as the ones above so you can see how the color of
the violin has changed. I don't think that I will have to apply much colored varnish to get it to the
final desired color.
Update for March 17, 2010. I have the colored varnish on the violin now. For the color I used the
colored pine resin that I cooked here, Colored Pine Resin. You can vary the color of this varnish by
adjusting the number of layers applied. Since the Ole Bull has a yellow varnish I intended to use
just a coat or two of this resin. Instead I was doing this in a poorly lit room and applied the first
coat pretty unevenly. Then had to make up for that by adding a second coat. Then the second coat
looked so much better than the first that I couldn't resist another coat. And the violin came out
slightly more orange than I had intended. However if you compare the color of the violin to the
photographs of the Ole Bull, they are very close. But I suspect that the photographs are more
orange than the violin is in person.
Final update. Due to a combination of things my Ole Bull violin wasn't able to make it to the
exhibition. After the exhibition was over I decided that the violin would look better with
red-orange varnish rather than the pale yellowish varnish shown above. So now after a quick
re-varnishing the violin has a color more closely related to Paganini's Guarneri than to Ole Bull's
Guarneri but I think the color change was for the better.
The violin sounds very nice but since I don't play violin I'm probably not the best judge of its tone.
That said I don't hear any of the nasel sound that many other builders have experienced when
using this model.
This violin will soon be listed for sale on my currently available page.
October 12, 2010, final update. Yesterday I packaged the violin in its case, put it in a box and
then mailed it to its new home in Italy.