Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Working on the fingerboard

The scroll being pretty much done, it was time to do the fingerboard. First, it's necessary to make the back of the fingerboard perfectly* flat.

This was one of those things (like fitting a bass bar, shaping a corner, roughing out a top, building the entire violin) that took me half a day, but takes Michael Darnton about a minute. I'd put the fingerboard down on a sheet of glass and try to find where it was rocking, and take away a tiny smidge of wood. I'd try it again on the glass, and it would still rock just as much but in a different direction, and so I'd plane off another smidge of wood...and so on for an entire morning. Eventually, it got to the point where I was just pressing the fingerboard down onto the glass so hard that it flattened out, but this succeeded only in deceiving myself.

Eventually, I took the fingerboard to Michael. He pointed out my self-deception, rocked the piece of wood on the glass, whipped out his trusty Stanley 102, and made a half dozen alarmingly decisive strokes, and got the wood perfectly flat.
I'm not really frustrated by this. Making a violin is a process of excavating a delicate object from a block of wood. It's like excavating a delicate fossil from a matrix of rock. If you don't know the rock and you're not too handy with the tools, you would go as slowly as possible, and patiently remove matrix with dental picks and brushes. This takes a long time. If you're really the master of the rock and the tools, you have the skill to remove almost all of the matrix with dynamite, and you can get rid of the last millimeters with the dental pick and brush.

Now, I'm scared of using the big knife and the big planes for removing all but the last millimeter, just like I'd be scared of using dynamite to remove all but the last millimeter of limestone from a fossil. So I use the big knife, then the smaller knife, then the tiny knife, then the thumb plane, then the scraper, then maybe sandpaper. It takes me forever. But, Michael has practiced this for a long time and he knows how these things behave. So, he sizes up the situation, and knows exactly where to put the big knife--and boom!--out comes a violin from its woody matrix. He's paid his dues. Me, I need to practice.

*Once the bottom is flat, a gentle stroke with a plane puts a very slight concavity into the bottom--this helps with the gluing.

A similar process has to happen with the top of the fingerboard. However, instead of being flat, the top has to have a precise curve. We have a template for this.

I've seen a stiff steel scraper made that has this exact curve, and I think I may do this. It was a pain in the hiney to do with a plane. It could be worse, of course--the Amazing Ray Lee started with a big billet of ebony rather than a pre-shaped fingerboard blank.

Oh, and all this work planing a fingerboard? It makes a lot of ebony curls--so, meet Ebonezer.

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