Cello 1. Completed in April, 2012. The top is Sitka spruce, the back and sides are European maple (thank you, Ondrej Sima from SVS Tonewoods in Bratislava, Slovakia), and the fingerboard is Gabon ebony. This cello is my first foray into the world of violin family instruments.
This cello originated from a conversation with my old friend Beth MacCready while traveling on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry between Haines and Juneau. Beth took up the cello later in life and became passionate about playing. She quickly grew frustrated with her student grade instrument.
“Do you think you could build me a cello?”, she asked. “Yes”, I responded without hesitation. “I have wanted to build a cello for a long time. “
A search for information yielded the Henry Strobel book on cello making ( I already owned his violin making book) and an on-line tutorial by John Osnes, an experienced luthier from Anchorage, Alaska. The book has patterns and measurements and the tutorial has photos of every step. Between the two I felt I had enough information to successfully negotiate every step of the process. Some of the tecniques and tools are a bit different from guitar making, but the principles are the same. It’s all about making a responsive box. Good spruce is the key to success.
The cello began with this spruce log. About a mile from my home a neighbor cleared a spot for a shop. This tree was 48 inches (125cm) in diameter and 490 years old. It had survived storms and at least two forest fires. When it was cut, the top had blown off because of a rotten spot about halfway up. The remaining log was 22 feet (7 meters) long. Most of the log I cut for guitar tops, but I left one section longer for cello and cymbalom soundboards. The grain of this log is remarkably tight and even, and the wood is stiff with a very musical tap tone. It’s possible that upwards of 600 instruments will sing long into the future because of this log.
The cello is pretty far along at this point, nearing final assembly. Voicing the top was very similar to what I do on my guitars. In a silent room I methodically tap the top all over, listening for a musical response. If an area doesn’t ring, I carefully remove wood with a scraper until it responds. The entire top must be lively for the instrument to sing with its best possible voice.
I sent out photos to friends and many responded with the question, “Why is it so white?” Spruce and maple are light colored woods. The colors of violin family instruments vary from blonde to red to brown because of pigments in the varnish.
Here I am cutting the channel for the purfling. One thing I liked about making the cello was that every step could be done with hand tools. Violin making evolved in an era before power tools, and every step is well suited to hand tools. I believe hand tools are still the best way to do good work. Nothing can ruin your project faster than a machine.
The finishing process for the cello was much different, and more involved, than what I do for my guitars. No clear glossy lacquer here. Instead there are many layers of brushed varnish and hand rubbed oil color, as John Osnes says in his tutorial, “sculpted”. After one false start, which required scraping the finish back to bare wood, I was able to achieve a traditional finish with great depth of color.
A very happy Beth with her new cello.
I was able to play the cello for a time before Beth took it home. The sound of this instrument exceeded my expectations. Its voice is deeply resonant, responsive and even across all four strings. The volume could fill a concert hall. My friend Jonathan Kriess-Tomkins, cellist for the Indigo Trio, came over to play it and declared it “a phenomenal instrument” and “an instrument worthy of a soloist”. This was very gratifying to hear. I hope to make more cellos in the future, including one for myself.