JRJ - Reconstructing a Bass Viol
James R. Jennings

Reconstucting Bass Viol


After reconstruction:

Final Assembly: Completed bass - right side Completed bass - left side Completed bass - back view Completed bass - front view
The neck was given its final fitting and glued into the neck block. The placement of the front was the last step in the assembly process. This required considerable effort in the final fitting. The back had been given a slight curvature, such that it was slightly convex on the outside, which in turn caused the sides** to be slightly angled. Thus, where they join the front, the sides are a small amount closer together than they are where they join the back, an effect that is most pronounced for the upper bouts. This caused the mating surface, to which the top was to be glued, not to be quite planar. The difference was, however, small and it proved possible to even the surface sufficiently with a modest amount of effort in sanding. The angle of the sides proved advantageous in a number of places, because it increased the amount of overhang and therfore compensated for wear that had removed some of the edge of the front plate. The photos* show the completed bass in the summer of 2008.

Finish - Front and Back Plates: Detail of front plate showing old patch Detail of front plate Finished bass - f-hole Finished bass - back plate Finished bass - front plate
Final sanding of the outer surface was done after assembly. This was done both to remove the last bits of the old finish and also to smooth the wood before applying the stain. A comparatively dark stain was chosen with the hope that it would mask the less than perfect condition of the bass and any mistakes made during the assembly. When stain was applied to the front, it was initially much too dark. Because the stain caused the grain to be raised, the process of removing the excess stain accentuated the contrast between the grain and the areas in between. Upon viewing the result, effort was made to promote the effect, which can be seen in the photographs. Mutiple coats of laquer were then applied to the front and back.

Finish - Neck: Heel of neck Scroll - back Scroll - front Scroll - left side Neck - back Neck - front
Raised grain on the back and sides was not a significant problem, but there was great density and color contrast between the brown, oxidized wood of the original and the almost white wood of the patches. Stain was applied more heavily to the new wood in order to reduce the contrast with the old wood. The small patches on the scroll were sanded smooth and blended in with the original wood using stain to minimize the difference between the comparatively light color of the wood used for patches (white oak: Quercus alba) and the original wood. The large multicellular rays, which are characteristic of oak, show particularly prominently in the heel of the neck. The sides of the peg box originally had holes for friction pegs, but these had been filled in some time ago and replaced with geared tuners. The scroll was finished like the front and back plates, while the fingerboard was covered with multiple layers of deep ebony stain and laquer.

Fittings: Bridge End pin Tailpiece
A soundpost was turned on the lathe to the nominal diameter of 3/4 inch from a small piece of white pine. On the first try, it was found to be slightly too large in diameter, and it would not fit through the f-hole. Reducing the diameter just slightly corrected the problem. It was cut slightly longer than the appropriate length and was gradually shortened by trial and error until the final fit was obtained. After looking at various commercially available tailpieces, it was decided to make one. Wood for the purpose was cut from an unusually large buffalo berry (Shepherdia sp.), which is a very noxious invasive pest in this area. It has tough, hard wood which was deemed suitable, particularly because of its resistance to splitting. Because the wood is comparatively light colored, it was give a dark stain in order to lessen the contrast with the stain of the front plate. Likewise, an end pin was made out of buffalo berry and stained in the same way. A bridge blank was obtained from a supplier and fitted to the front in the usual manner.

*Photos on this page courtesy of Fredrick J. Wild.

**The sides of instruments of the viol/violin family are NOT "ribs". Although they are often called "ribs", that designation is dreadful misnomer. A rib is a skeletal element enclosing the skeletal cavity, or in a more general sense something that resembles ribs in form or function (as in the framing of a wooden ship, for example). Thus, the base bar, the back braces of this bass viol, and the braces of a typical guitar may legitimately be considered "ribs"; whereas, the sides of insturments of the viol/violin family are NOT "ribs". Check your own dictionary, if you don't believe me.

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