JRJ - Reconstructing a Bass Viol
James R. Jennings

Reconstucting Bass Viol


During reconstruction

Assembly: Assembled back - inside
The pieces were first thoroughly washed. While applying water to bent pieces of wood bent was deemed undesirable, because of their tendancy to return to the original (straight) shape, the washing was judged to be essential given the severity of soiling. After the pieces were dry, they were sorted and placed in separate containers according to their original location on the bass. Pieces of the front were easy to identify, because they are softwood, rather than hardwood. The pieces of the back were large enough that they did not present any particular problems in identification. Fragments of the side assembly presented considerably more difficulties partly because there were so many pieces, partly because some pieces were missing, and partly because one half of the side assembly is nearly the mirror image of the other. Once matches were found within the collections of pieces, the slow process of assembling the existing pieces and making replacements for the missing pieces could begin. A pair of deep-throat c-clamps were used, although they were heavier than would have been ideal for working with thin pieces of old wood (particularly softwood), because of its comparatively low strength. A couple of Vise-Grip locking c-clamps also proved to be quite useful, especially for placing cleats near the middle of the front plate. By the middle of January, 2008, the assembly of the major pieces of the bass had been completed, as can be seen in the photos*.

Front:
Assembled front - inside Assembled front - outside The piece of the front that was still adhering to the heel of the neck was steamed and removed. When all of the pieces of the front were lined up, it quickly became evident that essentially all of the front was present, despite the fact that it was broken into so many pieces. The nails in the front proved to be relatively easy to extract. Since a number of pieces were being assembled, more than one glue joint could be made at one time. The availability of clamps was the limiting factor for much of the assembly. Whenever pieces were glued together, cleats were added to the inside surface. A few more cleats were added after the photographs were taken for final total of 48 cleats on the front. The bass bar seemed to be securely glued on, and was not detached. One of the breaks was right along the side of the bass bar, and a small part of the bass bar was removed to allow the cleats to extend all the way across the break. The inside surface was sanded to make it smoother, and the old finish was sanded off of the outside.

Back:
Assembled back - inside Assembled back - outside At the same time that the front was being assembled, repairs to the back were begun. The cracks were repaired before the halves were joined, because the smaller size of the individual pieces made it easier to work with the clamps. Whenever individual cracks were glued together cleats were put across them as reinforcement. Because the cracks were so long, extra long cleats (but still with the grain running perpendicular to the crack) were made for use in stabilizing them. Similar cleats were cut and placed across the center seam. When the entire back had been assembled, braces were fashioned and the bottom three glued on. The reconstructed side assembly was glued on, and the amount of bend in the back was matched to the angle of the sides. The fourth brace was then fitted to the bend in the back and glued on. The braces were shaped with a slight bow and hold the back in a slightly convex shape transversely. As with the front, the inside was smoothed and old finish was sanded off of the outside.

Sides:
Side assembly - right bottom Side assembly - right top Side assembly - left The pieces of the sides that were glued and wedged into the grooves in the neck were soaked, steamed and pried free. Similarly, part of the side assembly was still attached to a piece of the front plate and was likewise separated from it. All side pieces were added to the the collection and sorted out so that assembly could begin. Assembly began by combining the individual pieces into progressively larger fragments of each bout. When enough of the pieces were assembled, it became easier to see which pieces were missing. At that point, decisions were made about which pieces had deteriorated too much to be usable. Pieces of American hard maple (Acer saccharum) were then cut, surfaced, bent to an approximation of the original curvature, fitted, and glued to the existing pieces until each bout was complete. As the individual bouts were completed, they were glued together using the original corner blocks and end block until the side assembly was complete, except for the neck block. The sides were then glued to the back so that the angle of the bend in the back could be matched to the angle of the surface of the sides and glued into place. Once the back was securely attached, the last brace was then shaped to its final form and glued into place. All of the original pieces had oxidized considerably since they were made, and the constrast with the almost white color of the new pieces was striking (see photos). The side of the entire left lower bout needed to be replaced. The exisiting fragments were cut apart at the hole for the end pin and removed. Wide enough pieces of maple were not readily available, so three strips side-by-side were combined for the purpose. Unfortunately, because the side pieces adjacent to the neck broke when the instrument collapsed, it was difficult to fit the neck block. After the sides were glued to the back, a neck block was then cut and fitted and a groove for the base of the neck was cut. As with the front and back, the old finish was removed by sanding.

Neck:
Neck - partly fitted With respect to the neck, the largest job was reshaping the bottom into a dovetail to be inserted into the newly-made neck block. Most of the heel was simply cut off and discarded, and the remainder was cut and sanded into the necessary shape. Since the fingerboard was still attached to the neck, it was judged inadvisable to disturb it. Likewise, the nails in the side of the fingerboard were left in place and sanded down flush. The bondo that filled a flaw in the fingerboard, was also left in place. The holes in the scroll and fingerboard were filled, a couple of small patches were inserted into the scroll. The deep scratches present on the back of the neck were quickly improved by the sanding process. The smoothness of the fingerboard and back of the neck received special attention. When the finish had been removed, it was observed that the neck was made of oak, rather than maple, while the fingerboard was made of maple, rather than ebony.

*All photos on this page courtesy of Marty Merrill.

**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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