JRJ - Reconstructing a Bass Viol
James R. Jennings

Reconstucting Bass Viol


Before reconstruction:

Initial condition:
In the summer of 2007, this string bass (double bass, if you prefer) was truly a "basket case" (in this instance a banana box served as the basket). It had undergone complete collapse and consisted of many pieces of varying sizes (See photo*), some smaller than a square inch. In a way, it could be considered a "bass kit", although it was broken into many more than the original number of pieces and some large pieces were missing. Alternatively, one might think of it as a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle with a quarter of the pieces missing. It is the sort of collection of pieces that is sometimes said to have a negative value, That is to say that it would cost more to rebuild a collection of pieces like these into a playable instrument than the sale price of the finished product. Fortunately, I did not have to pay myself for the time spent. Unfortunately, this bass was made without a neck block ("blockless wonder"). Instead, the heel of the neck was made unusually large to enable it to perform that function, albeit not so well as a separate neck block. The blockless design has a smaller gluing surface by which the neck is attached to the body than the standard design and is therefore believed to result in a less durable end product. It is tempting to ascribe the eventual collapse of this base to the absence of a neck block, but that cannot be proven. The number of cracks in the front, sides, and back appear to offer sufficient cause for failure without the added problem of a blockless design. In addition, accumulated dirt and oxidation seem to indicate that the glue joint between the end block and the back had come apart some time before the utimate collapse of the bass. Inasmuch as this bass was constructed with a carved top but a flat back, it is thus in the category of true bass viol. Apparently, it originally had friction pegs, but their holes had been filled and geared tuners added in a previous alteration. Unfortunately, numerous ill-advised attempts at crack repair were made during the course of the years. These included application of a variety of different types of glue, nails, knotted cord, and bondo. The final indignity, however, occurred when raccoons got into the building where the pieces were stored and deposited excrement on them. It was necessary to clean this off of all of the pieces before any other work could begin.

Front:
Essentially all of the front (a. k. a. top) was present, even at the outset, though a small patch had already been made on the left lower bout some time during its history. The front was, nevertheless, broken into many pieces. Most of the breaks were parallel to the grain, but one long break curved diagonally across both upper bouts from a position from the left f-hole curving upward and across the plate to a point between the bass bar and the neck and then down along the bass bar to the right f-hole. A piece of the front plate was broken off from the rest and was still adhering to the base of the neck. Additional breaks ran through each of the f-holes, and across upper and lower bouts. Although the bass bar was still securely fastened to a piece of the front plate, the front plate was broken immediately beside it. In the places where the bass touched the floor when laid on its side, the periphery of the front plate was worn significantly smaller than it was originally. Numerous deep dents and scratches were also present on the outside of the front plate and numerous small, round holes were present on the inside surface.

Back:
The back of this bass was originally flat, except for a transvers bend that extended across the upper bouts. It had become separated into two large pieces along the center seam, and a small part adjacent to the seam at the neck end was missing. Both of the large pieces had several long separations in them, some near the neck and some near the opposite end. One of the cracks ran the entire length of the lower bout and nearly the entire length of the c-bout as well before finally coming to an end. There was an old patch on the left upper bout, but the fit was too tight which had caused the original wood of the back to crack adjacent to it. In addition, warping had occurred on the wing of the right upper bout. Patterns of oxidation on the wood indicated the original presence of reinforcing strips along the center seam, but these were missing from the collection of pieces. Likewise, the oxidation pattern indicated the original position of four transverse braces, which were also nowhere to be seen. Dents and scratches were present on the outside of the back, but since the back is made of maple, a much harder wood, there was much less wear on the edge of the back plate than was observed on the front.

Sides:
The sides** of the bass were arguably in the worst shape of all the major components of the body. Not only was the side assembly was broken into more than a dozen pieces, but a number of pieces were missing. Indeed, there were large sections missing from all but the right lower bout, which nevertheless had a hole that was poked through it by some sort of sharp object. While most of the breaks ran parallel to the grain, diagonal and transverse breaks were nevetheless common. The worst breaks were those that were transverse and located directly beside the corner blocks or end block making it difficult to reinforce them with cleats. Even within the various pieces, there were numerous cracks, insect damage in some places, and places that had been greatly weakened by rot. After sitting around separated from each other for many years some of the side pieces were bent in ways that were never intended by the maker. The sides of both upper bouts were broken where they were joined to the neck, and numerous pieces were missing next to the break. Fortunately, the corner blocks and end block were all still in usable condition, although tool marks had been left on the corner blocks when the instrument was assembled. Regrettably, as mentioned previously, the bass was made without a neck block.

Neck:
The neck was made of oak and had a maple fingerboard. Unlike the body of the bass, the neck was essentially intact, although still in need of repair and redesign. There were some small pieces broken off at the end of the scroll and also minor degradation of the wood where it had been wet. The fingerboard had some small (insect?) holes and a broken place on the right side near the end which had been filled with automobile body filler. The heel of the neck was enlarged to function in place of a neck block, and the maker apparently made very little attempt to smooth out the tool marks, which remained clearly evident. Also, because of the blockless design, the ends of the side pieces were glued and wedged into grooves, one on either side of the neck, near its base. These pieces needed to be removed before the sides could be assembled completely and before modifications could be made to the neck. Nails had been pounded into the fingerboard along the left side. Deep scratches and dents were present in several places.

*All photos on this page are courtesy of Frank Jennings.

**The sides of instruments of the viol/violin family are NOT "ribs". Although they are often called "ribs", that 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 is a "rib", the back braces of this bass viol or of a typical guitar are "ribs", but the sides of a viol/violin are NOT "ribs". Check your own dictionary, if you don't believe me.

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