Blog by the creator, Brian Lisus

Carving the scroll

Monday, June 14, 2010
Sharon Peddie is one of South Africa’s leading goldsmiths; her specialty being that of copying antique Victorian jewellery. She was one of my students at the violin making class I run once week.
After beginning her first violin Sharon decided to pause work on the violin body and began carving a scroll. I was in such awe of the scroll that she produced that I promptly decided to ‘confiscate’ it and use it on my own violin!That was two years ago and ever since she has been making scrolls for my instruments. I have travelled all over the world and seen many, many scrolls and I have never seen scrolls carved with such grace, balance and flow … it is certainly a great privilege to work together with her on my instruments!
Sharon assists me on a part time basis as she runs High Hopes a tranquil guest house in Greyton, Western Cape.

One begins the scroll with a solid block of wood planing the surfaces square. This is followed by the marking of the template and roughly cutting out the shape.

Then using different shaped gauges one carves away the excess wood, systematically ‘building up’ the volutes of the spiral shape. Being a three dimensional object it requires a keen eye to make sure that there is a unifying tension and an inter-relationship between the different curves.

Once the side view has been cut the surfaces are scraped to smooth out the tool marks and blend the curves into each other.

The fluting down the spine of the scroll is carved and once completed the delicate and almost flower like qualities come to life!

Then the peg box is hollowed out to accommodate the pegs and strings and lastly one adds a chamfer on the edges softening the clinical appearance and defining the outline as it reflects on-coming light.

The video below is best viewed in HD and full screen. For email subscribers the video can be viewed by clicking here: Carving the scroll …

Fitting the Neck

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

One of the few things that has changed in the violin making world in the last 200 years is the way the neck is attached to the the body of the violin. Originally violin necks were nailed onto the top block of the violin on the same horizontal plane and the elevation (angle) was achieved by using a tapered fingerboard.
Gradually from the early 1800’s most violins have had their necks replaced and the new slightly longer necks inserted into the the violin body via a mortise joint. This has accommodated the extra tension from the Baroque pitch of 415 to todays 440 for a concert A.

The neck joint is done by chiseling out the mortise of the top block and filing it level. When fitting the neck one takes into account the elevation (angle), wether it is aligned straight along it axis, how deep it is inset, its length and that it fits snugly against the protruding button of the violin back.

Before gluing the neck it is is roughly shaped with a knife and rasp.
Once it is glued to the body the button of the back is marked out using a compass and the excess wood chiseled away.
The finishing is done using finer files ensuring that all bumps are removed and finally the neck is polished to a silky finish by working through different grades of garnet paper.
Now the woodwork is over and one commences with the lengthy but fascinating finishing process.
I am traditional with all the finishing and varnishing I do, using only materials that were available in the 17th and 18th centuries.

I begin firstly by using a fine scraper to clean up the instrument followed by burnishing the violin with horsetail grass (Equisetum). Horsetail grass is a plant made up of bunches of leafless tubular stems or rushes. The essential element, silicon, is present in large amounts in the horsetail grass and therefore is very similar to a fine sandpaper. The major difference being that when one ‘sands’ the violin with the horsetail grass it does not deaden the reflective qualities of the wood but rather enhances them!

It grows along the river Po and is supposedly the material that the great old Italian master violin makers used to finish their instruments with. My two cats Jessica and Jasmine were fascinated by the long cylindrical tubes and had lots of fun playing with them!

A recent development of the Quartet of Peace is the generous offer of the world renowned string makers Pirastro to sponsor us with strings! We are delighted with this especially as Pirastro make such incredible gut strings which are ideally suited to chamber music being an organic material offering a warm, rich and complex sound.
These last couple of weeks have been rather exciting as I handed over the finished viola to Gareth Lubbe (viola player of the Quartet). See video below.
These videos are best viewed in HD and full screen. For email subscribers the videos can be viewed by clicking the links: Fitting the neck and Sound of the new viola

Varnishing the Viola

Sunday, August 1, 2010

I have taken many hours off regular workshop time to further my research on varnish, realizing that to get close to old Cremonese instruments is only possible using 17th century materials.
This has led me on a wonderful adventure: constructing a primitive distilling plant, making traditional Indian Yellow (collecting urine from cows fed on mango leaves), contacting Kirstenbosh Botanical Gardens about “Weld” and  going into the mountains in search of this plant, stopping on the highway at night to pick an aloe leaf.
There is always great excitement when fellow violin makers get to gather and share their ideas on the holy grail of varnishing – each one believing emphatically that they have discovered the secret to Stradivarius varnish!
What is usually more fascinating than their actual recipes is how they ‘discovered’ the magic formular – conjuring up romantic stories of receiving this recipe from an an elderly violin maker on his death bed, or a crumpled piece of parchment found in the inside cover of an old bible or manuscript!
After all my research I am now using a varnish made entirely from natural materials which is an incredibly simple mixture! Rather hard to believe after viewing my varnish cupboards! I must have a sample of almost every colour, resin or oil that is available on the planet, from the most obscure to odd bits of resin collected from a nearby tree!
I begin by using a wonderful primer which I import from my friend and colleague Koen Padding in Holland – Magister. This is brushed onto the wood and thereafter The instrument is exposed to the sun for several days giving a lovely golden colour.
I then burnish the maple (back and sides) with a cloth that has very little colour varnish on it. This brings out the figure of the wood without destroying the reflective qualities which happens if a stain was used.
This is followed by applying a ‘silica’ powder to fill the pores of the wood which forms almost a mist over the instrument. The wood comes alive once again when applying the clear ground coat as can be seen in the video below.
The actual varnish which I cook myself, is made from Walnut oil and Strasbourg (Silver fir) turpentine, with small amounts of Mastic and Sandarac added for durability and to help with drying.  This process is such a delight to do and for moments one can be transported to 17th century Cremona identifying with the  apothecaries and varnish makers of that time!
Exotic scents of evaporating resin waft through the air, enlivening the neighbourhood. Once the resin has been cooked for several days it is then dissolved in warmed sun thickened walnut oil. It is more common these days to use linseed oil but I have found walnut oil tends to be more flexible and has a much better long term prognosis.

Each instrument has an inscription placed on the back. This has been drawn onto the ground coat with a charcoal pencil before applying the varnish. ‘Freedom’ for Albert Luthuli, ‘Peace’ for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, ‘Reconciliation’ for FW de Klerk and ‘Hope’ for Nelson Mandela.

For colour, I use  madder lakes (made from the madder root plant) which I get from Magister and then tone down these incredibly bright colours by using less color and more dark varnish or alternatively adding a small amounts of indigo lakes. This is all  hand ground into the varnish on a slab of glass.

All of my varnishing is done with my fingers which gives one an incredible control of applying it evenly and thinly. I do some shading of the varnish to give an aesthetically pleasing look contrasting the rich red madder to the golden colour of the primed wood. The fingerprints flow out whilst the varnish is drying.
My varnish has a soft ‘waxy’ appearance, which is not over polished and has a lovely texture – I achieve this by leaving the surface without extensive rubbing down.

The video below is best viewed in HD and full screen. For email subscribers the video can be viewed by clicking here: Varnishing the viola

Quartet comes to life

Monday, November 1, 2010

These last few weeks have been such an exciting time for all of us involved in the Quartet of Peace initiative … suddenly the pieces of wood have come to life, there are faces behind the numerous emails from around the world and our identity as a Quartet of Peace has been established!
It was the usual frantic rush to get the cello ready in time and after working for three days with very little sleep. It was completed at 6.00 pm on the monday exactly one hour before our first rehearsal!Although it is rather stressful working this way it somehow always lends itself to the incredible focused concentration of fitting a bridge and soundpost which I really love doing … those micro millimeter adjustments of fitting a soundpost which I do almost entirely by feel as one very gently flexes the back and front apart, intuitively establishing the best position.

The Italian name for the soundpost is ‘anima’ which means ‘the soul’ and this is certainly true!  The soundpost is a small spruce dowel inside the instrument under the treble end of the bridge, spanning the space between the top and back plates and held in place by friction.
Quite incredible how such an small piece of wood is the most important part of the violin!

The first rehearsal and the coming together of instruments for the first time was on monday the 11th of October at Suzanne and Peter Marten’s house. David Juritz had literally just flown in from London a couple of hours before and Gareth Lubbe from Germany made up this inaugural group of musicians. There was such excitement in the air and for me hearing those first few notes played as an ensemble was such a moving experience and the fulfillment of a long held vision and dream!

A couple days later there was a rehearsal at the Hout Bay Music Project which was three hours long giving the children there an opportunity of experiencing what goes into string quartet playing. One of the highlights of the rehearsal was having the kids clapping, keeping the time for some incredibly difficult interwoven rhythms.
We were all amazed at the sense joy that the musicians shared when playing together and that really came through at the concerts.
We do have some exciting news in that there will be three additional musicians joining the group; two of them are young black South Africans from Soweto. I will elaborate more in my next blog which will also be about the concerts with some video footage … but for now the video below is of the first few rehearsals – please forgive me for the shaky footage … after hardly having any sleep for about two weeks whilst getting everything ready, I was not quite myself during these recordings!
The video below is best viewed in HD and full screen. For email subscribers the video can viewed by clicking here: Quartet comes to life

Inaugural Gala Concert

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Our inaugural concert in Stellenbosch was such a wonderful evening and a night I will remember for many years to come.
There was a lovely atmosphere which included the children from the Hout Bay Music Project performing in the foyer of the hall. Those beautiful voices resonating to the accompaniment of strings.
We were honoured to have such fine musicians perform at this inaugural concert; David Juritz – Leader of the London Mozart Players, Suzanne Martens – Leader of the Amici Quartet, Gareth Lubbe – Principal viola of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, Germany and Peter Martens – cellist of the Amici Quartet.
It was a full house and one of the most interesting aspects was that a large portion of the audience were there more for their affinities to what the Quartet of Peace represents than for the music. It was wonderful to chat to a lot of them after the concert and hear how much they enjoyed hearing the instruments and that string quartet music will now be a gendre that they will listen too!
At the end of the main concert there were solo tributes to each Nobel Laureate in turn. The violins being accompanied by Jane Theron on harp.
The lights were dimmed and it was so moving, not only the heart warming music but to be reminded of how far we have come as a country!
Last week on the 17th, November there was a concert in Leipzig played in the famous St. Thomas Church were J. S. Bach is buried.
The musicians said it was an inspiring experience playing Art of the Fugue with the great Master in earshot!
Our other exciting news is that we have three new musicians that have joined the group. Samson Diamond, Xandi van Dijk and Abel Selacoe. Their profiles are on our web site
We are thrilled to have them on board and so looking forward to hear them play together!
Below is a video of the Stellenbosch concert. I have included a few excerpts and not the entire works. I do not have footage of the entire concert including the first solo tribute to Chief Albert Luthuli so have included the sound recording of that tribute with visuals of the making of the instruments.
The video below is best viewed in HD and full screen. For email subscribers the video can viewed by clicking here: Inaugural Gala Concert