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The Making of a Violin

By Mike Bloomquist


There are many revelations by artists about what inspires them or where inspiration can be found. Some of those revelations are inspirations in themselves. Whether it is a writing, a painting, a photo, or, especially a carving, the more I enjoy the piece, the more I want to know what launched the artist into that particular creation. If you practice this enough, it sometimes results in you finding similar inspiration, but with very unique and personal results. The inspiration for this electric violin was simple. It was the combination of a short tradition carving graduation gifts for my daughters and cowardice. That's right the main ingredient was pure fear. At this point if you're not in the mood for lengthy explanations, it is your chance to exit. Still with me? OK, you were warned.

Some history: A year before her high school graduation, I had the bright idea to carve my younger daughter, Melissa, a violin as a graduation gift. The project started well. There are several books on the subject "out there", some fairly plentiful information on the web, places nearby where tone woods could be purchased, and several mail order sources for tools. You can find preformed tuning pegs, tailpieces, fingerboards, and chinrests for sale. There are even kits available in various stages of completion. So, graduation time was getting closer, and there were two books on the bookshelf, all the maple and spruce that was needed, and a bag full of rosewood tuning pegs, tailpiece, and chinrest. The two pieces of maple were glued up for the back, and that's as far as it went. Is there such a thing as woodcarver's block? Believe it! I can sometimes sneak up on a project that's a little beyond me, but not this time. Melissa is a big collector of turtle "stuff", so she actually received a sea turtle carving for her high school graduation, and a promise of a violin for college graduation. She didn't seem disappointed, but you could tell she was going to hold me to the promised of a violin.

Thinking I had four years to wrestle with the violin project I breathed a little easier. That was a mistake. It seems that midway to a B.S. in Nursing, Melissa graduates with an Associates, and she wants to know how the violin is coming. Add to that pressure a second carving project for my older daughter, Laura, who is graduating at the same time with her B.S. in Elementary Education. See? Fear and desperation can bring on great inspiration. So, why did I see an electric violin as my salvation? 1) Solid body electric violins are expected to sound a bit different from acoustic violins. 2) I trusted electronics for amplification more than I trusted my carving ability to produce the violin body that is required for acoustic amplification. 3) Removing the acoustic amplifier left a lot of room for creativity where the traditional violin body should have been.

As near as can be recalled, this is how the design came about. First question: What do you absolutely have to preserve from the acoustic violin design so that the electric version doesn't require re-learning a new instrument. Starting at the bottom there is an anchor point for the tailpiece, a place for the cheek rest, a place for the bridge to sit against, the fingerboard, and the shape of the violin neck should be retained. OK, so these can be all mounted to a stick, with a wing for the cheek rest. Well, that's pretty ugly but a start. Let's overlay an outline of a traditional violin over that and draw a nice curved "S" within the shape. Not bad. There's a place for the cheek rest, but the "S" is too recognizable. It would be fine if our name was Stevens or Smith. So, reverse it then. That's better. With "the stick" it's slightly like a G-clef. Make it a G-clef? No, too cliché. Hmmmm, the reverse "S' has a nice shape, a nice flow. Flow/water . . . water/turtle . . . turtle/uniquely Melissa's violin.

How else can I make this uniquely Melissa's violin? Well she also loves swimming on her college's swim team. The turtle goes there . . . make it a sea turtle because they "fly". . . the swimmer goes here . . . hmm, third turn needs something. How about a dolphin? It fits. Now something isn't quite right about the flow of water criss-crossing "the stick". Well then pick a direction of flow for the water. It originates from a spring just above the turtle, crosses the stick, under the cheek rest, the swimmer is on it's crest, back across the stick at the bridge, turns with the dolphin, back across the stick, then "spills" into space. Make the stick part of the design every time the water crosses it, it crashes off the stick a little on the "upstream" side, and becomes the source of the flow on the other. OK, instead of the traditional scroll above the fingerboard we'll do another surf-wave crashing onto the peg box. That will tie it together well.


Hey! Don't forget to hollow out the back of the stick for electronics. Where does the phone jack go? Here, so the cable can go back behind her. Volume control? Here, but make the knob from wood same as the body, so it doesn't attract attention. By now you understand that the design process turns into this intimate conversation with myself. Hopefully that's not a unique process and doesn't require therapy. This method usually works well for me except when the conversation gets heated. Then I get ticked off with myself, stop speaking, and the creative process comes to a screeching halt. The one big advantage is, in the end, I'm always right . . . are not. . . .am too . . .are not! Well fine then!


Walnut was my first choice for the project and a good friend and carving buddy of mine donated a piece he had stockpiled. It was a thick, gorgeous piece of wood and, if I cut carefully, the body and neck could be all one piece with enough waste left to form the back to the hollowed out electronics area. A problem with the walnut was that it didn't go well with the preformed rosewood pieces I already had. This was solved by using the parts as models and carving my own set of tuning pegs, tail piece, and cheek rest from a block of English elm I had stashed away. The pre-shaped ebony fingerboard looked fine and added a third shade of wood. Yes, most of the decision to use the "store bought" fingerboard was also cowardice. Ebony is supposed be right under diamonds on the hardness scale. Early stages of shaping the body utilized my 14" Rockwell wood/metal band saw and the drill press fitted with Forstner bits. The Forstner bits were great for hollowing out the tuning peg box, the electronics area under the bridge, and the areas inside the curve where the band saw would have required an entry cut. After that it was 95% hand tools, scrapers, riffler files and my shop stereo. Stringing or setting up the violin was aided by the loan of a "real" violin by a friend of Melissa.


Parallel to the carving process was research and construction of the electronics. Research was done entirely on "The Web". Several sources advised piezoelectric pickups over the coil pickups used on electric guitars. Piezoelectric wafers basically change electrical energy into mechanical energy (piezoelectric buzzers) or mechanical energy (string vibration) into electrical energy (an electric signal). Several three dollar piezoelectric buzzers from RadioShack were sacrificed and dissected for Melissa's electric violin. After that, more research turned up a circuit that would match the impedance of the piezoelectric element to that of an electric guitar pickup. This meant the violin could be used with an electric guitar amp sometime in the future. The circuit also amplified the signal enough to drive headphones. Now, I have a very poor track record with electronic projects requiring soldering skills, because I have none. More Web research rescued me again with a very basic tutorial on the do's and don'ts of soldering circuit board projects. Even with global support, it took three prototypes before I had a working amplifier. This was then transplanted into the violin the day before Melissa's graduation. The circuit required two 9 volt batteries instead of one, so the back required some last minute hollowing out. I thrive on pressure.


A happy Melissa with the final product

Happy ending: The graduations went well, and both daughters were pleased with their carvings. What was Laura's project/gift? It was a faery with pierce carved wings, which is a companion piece for the unicorn I carved for her high school graduation. A story for another time. . . .

More progress and finished photos HERE.

Mike Bloomquist is a carver and carving teacher, and a frequent contributor to WOM.

You may visit Mike's web site, Wooden Dreams Woodcarving at http://www.borg.com/~bloomqum/index.htm or email him at m.bloomquistATverizonDOTnet.

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