Appalachian - 2019 - Graduated, voiced & varnished by Stephen K. Perry, Chicago, Illinois
$1600 special - just because people here have been nice to me, and I need to free up some capital.
In addition to benchmaking violins and fiddles, I have building up violins from the white for over two decades. My Appalachian, Kentucky, Cumberland, and other models built up from white violins have received a decent amount of acclaim and are played by many fine fiddlers and very skilled amateur violinists. I take great care and pride in what I do. This is all my work. I have no room full of assistants doing this and that. It’s all my handwork.
This particular Appalachian model was built up from a rather good European white violin obtained from International Violin in Baltimore. As is typical, the neck and fingerboard needed a good deal of work, the graduations (thicknesses of the top and back) were rather hefty, and the bass bar was quite a bit more robust than required. A lot of work went into the instrument. It plays easily and has much more sound than my current small shop will really handle! Response is very fast. Balanced from G to E strings, crisp, clean, powerful, easy to play softly, but will handle strong bowwork, which yields a blossoming and very open sound. Tone is essentially neutral, and surprisingly maleable. I like it very much.
• European wood and manufacture of the original white instrument (not a cheap instrument to begin with!)
• Good quality ebony fingerboard
• Despiau bridge cut very carefully by hand with edge tools, not roughed off with a belt sander
• Polished ebony pegs
• Ebony tailpiece with one fine tuner (can be changed upon request)
• Guarneri-style ebony chinrest
• Pirastro Tonica strings (can be changed upon request)
• Finishing schedule of 1) faint micro-particle yellow pigment into the wood; 2) thin shellac sealing coat; 3) rubbed in silica and oil varnish ground with faint honey-amber tint, multiple coats until sufficiently level; 4) amber oil varnish with mulled in pigments, varying colors including asphalt; 5) light antiquing; 6) dilute glazed coat of thin Cyprus burnt umber in orange-brown and dark brown; 6) sealing coat of amber oil varnish; 7) Tripoli rubout with oil; and 8) French polish with my own soft spirit varnish.
• Final setup including rigorous voicing
Please see the following discussion for more details. Do not hesitate to write with questions.
Final thicknessing and voicing of instruments from overseas in the US began in the 19th C, with a focal point in Chicago, oddly, where I am right now! Importers and larger shops continue this practice, having skilled workers go through instruments made elsewhere, then varnishing and setting up those instruments for sale in their shops or on the wholesale market. For example, the House of Weaver graduates and varnishes a range of instruments. Individual workers, including me, are well-known for this process, including John Silakowski and Royce Burt.
The incoming instruments range from very inexpensive Chinese production instruments already varnished to fine, master-built European instruments ready for final tweaking and full-professional varnish and setup. Varnishes range from a quick spirit coat through the full schedule of UV aging, faint stain, sealer, ground, and numerous delicate varnish coats. Setup ranges from rough student level through (rarely) very careful neck and nut shaping, hand split soundpost, precise peg fitting and polishing, and precise cutting of a double clamshell bridge. The amount of time and skill required to do the former are fairly low. A full professional setup takes several careful hours, after the extensive amount of time required to disassemble, carefully carve, reassemble, and varnish a white instrument.
APPALACHIAN AND CUMBERLAND INSTRUMENTS
I started producing the “Appalachian” line of instruments in 2002 from my then-shop Gianna Violins. The early versions were based upon unvarnished (“white”) instruments sourced from Eastman Strings. Eventually, I moved to instruments imported directly from Romania and purchased from a Bulgarian friend. I produced way over a hundred of these, my notes indicating coming up on 200, but Iikely missed some. I still see the older ones come through. They sound good and are holding up well!
I have been going through some of my old stock of Bulgarian and Romanian instruments, and trying newer instruments from Romania and Poland. These are very nice, but do cost a bit more. This is one of the latter. My graduation and voicing systems have advanced a good deal, and I am doing a full blown top-end setup on the new instruments. Both back and top get graduated using a moderately complex basis system that builds some flexibility into some areas of the top allow the bass bar movement and where otherwise too stiff. Once the graduation to the numbers, as adjusted by stiffness, is complete, I go through extensive acoustically guided fine graduation, including ribs, linings, plate wood, and bass bar. I pay great attention to the "pillars" above and below the F holes, the flex of the central plateau, and the thicknessing from neck block to end block, an area that forms the structural core of the top. I assemble the instrument using fish glue from International Violin, which I really like. When together, I do all the final detailing of the woodwork, including the fingerboard and nut, and do a first pass voicing of the body from inside and out. Inside work is accomplished with scrapers on metal rods, involving only minor adjustment.
My usual graduation pattern is influenced by the graduation maps of Jeff Loen, the average Stradivari and del Gesu maps of Simeon Chambers, and to a small extent by the work of Jack Fry. I don’t slavishly follow any system. Instead, I work down gradually to a pattern that matches that particular instrument, where the central plateau flexes and twists the amount I have found works well, and where the “pillars” above and below the F holes have a certain amount of spring. The thickness of these areas varies depending upon the arching of the specific instrument. I also go through a first-pass detailed voicing, including working the critical F hole wings, if useful.
My varnishing system involves the wood, the ground, and finally the overlying varnish. For the wood, I finish all surfaces with a scraper, sandpaper only being used on the neck and edges. After initial scraping, hot water raises the grain for a second pass. Reflected light shows how much grain texture remains on the top. I don’t attempt to make this texture completely regular – violins are not bowling balls!
Once sufficiently level, I UV darken the wood for a period of time, not tremendously, just to get additional depth. If UV doesn’t bring up the figure, I will use a little bit of a darkening treatment from International Violin, which I also use to get the top and back to be a bit more of the same tone.
The first color goes deep into the wood, but is very subtle. Yellow pigment is stirred up in mineral spirits, then left to settle. The very finest particles remain in suspension. The decanted faintly tinted mineral spirits washed over the instrument with a brush soaks into the wood fibers, putting a faint reflective yellow under everything else, a yellow that warms the deepened wood figure and highlights the grain of the top, just the tiniest bit. Building a finish is a little bit at a time.
My sealing medium has varied over time and depends on how the instrument is responding, but is usually an egg albumin and gum Arabic mixture, very dilute, washed on in two thin coats, or thin shellac. These are followed by a rubbed in mixture of the sealing medium and vanishingly fine silica mulled together, then wiped on and rubbed off, filling the pores and texture slightly. This is not a thick “mineral ground,” but simply packs the wood surface with extremely fine particles. There is no buildup over the wood to speak of. When dry, the wood pings at a higher pitch, and I like the way the instruments respond.
From that point, finishing is fairly conventional. I thin and brush on several layers of dilute oil varnish, rubbing each lightly with rubbed out 600 grit wet and dry abrasive paper to get nits and hairs or other debris, if any, off. I may tint these dlute layers to set up for the final color. I have used yellow, blue, asphalt, and amber for various instruments to get the base color set. Once the surface will take color cleanly, I mull pigments into either tinted or clear oil varnish and brush on layers. As more color builds, I usually darken the color with asphalt. Pigments I use are primarily natural, including madder lake, various umbers (real burnt earth), some yellows, some blues, and asphalt. At the end, I buff with Tripoli and olive oil to a nice sheen. Multiple passes of French polished soft spirit varnish create a soft gleam.
First, the fingerboard gets planed to a 41.5 mm radius, with just a bit of relief. Scraped and sanded down, the last sanding with 1500 grit and thinned mineral oil. I do this in conjunction with shaping the nut to a graceful arc and final dressing, staining, and treatment of the neck and sides of the fingerboard. The neck gets a final French polish with spirit varnish, over the polished oil.
Pegs are good ebony, turned here, and carefully fitted, then polished. I leave them slightly short so they don’t extend during their break in.
Soundpost I split from good spruce, shape into a square, then octagon, and so on. To 6.5 mm, per Jerry Pacewicz of Triangle Strings. I fit this symmetrically with the bar relative to a mix of mid points from the center bout width, upper F hole eyes, and midpoint between the F hole notches. Usually this is along the joint of the two halves of the top, but sometimes not!
Bridge blanks are generally Despiau, width to allow 1.5 mm overhang of post and bar. I follow a complicated, but standard, system of foot fitting, setting the height with the G and E strings, then shaping front and back with a plane to leave a good deal of belly. The Triangle Strings site description of this process influenced my approach, and is worth a look. See “techniques.” This is a bit tedious. I end up with fairly thick wood in the “belly,” but a narrower waist. Response speed and clarity is improved. The bridge gets polished down to 2400 grit micromesh.
Once strung, my system of voicing was developed from inital exposure to that of Deena Speers, highly modified and greatly expanded upon by discussion with numerous workers, various arcane writings, and my own systematic experiments. I go through from G to E working the more-fundamental end of the spectrum, getting each string to do what it likes without fuss, and to be balanced. Then back down through E to G, bringing up or toning down the higher partials. Along the way, I work on the breadth and depth of the low and mid tones, and on any overdriven strings. Often the A and E need to compressed in a bit to avoid excess brashness or too much of a nasal edge. The bridge wings, tailpiece, afterlength and other aspects get considered during this process. For mandolins, I have marketed this approach as “mandovoodoo,” and have completed hundreds of instruments.
Based in Friendsville, in East Tennesse for almost 30 years, working as a geologist then an attorney. Part to full time in musical instruments since 1993. Moved to Chicago early in 2018, concentrating on cooking, companionship, and building violins.
Music: When I was 7, I insisted on learning piano. Spent rainy days reading through Chopin and Mozart. Rock bands, solo performance, and trios. Classical guitar through master classes with Tom Patterson, Anthony Glise, Lily Afshar and numerous others. Soloist with Baroque ensembles playing recorder.
Hand working: Auto mechanics from a young age. Model airplanes. Custom steel bicycle frames. Residential construction. Cabinet work. Then in the early 1990s, restoration of violins. Reworking vintage instruments for performance by the late 1990s. The Appalachian line and benchmaking beginning at the turn of the century, along with the expansion of Gianna Violins. My musical instrument work has steadily evolved into a concentration on acoustic understanding and improvement.
Tools and technique evolve to form a personal style. Mine is evolving.
United States, Chicago, IL, 60643
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Returns accepted. Buyer must contact seller within 7 days to arrange return. Refund will be given as Money Back.
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Additional return policy details: Returned in same condition as departed, please!
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