We caught up with Houston-based violin maker Dorian Barnes in the process of making one of the violins for Mercury Baroque. Here's how he does it:
Barnes begins with the sides of the violin, referred to as the ribs. After shaping them around a hot bending iron, minor adjustments are made until it fits the mold perfectly.
The ribs are then dry clamped into the mold to cool and keep their shape. The outward-curving sections of the body, called the bouts, are glued in. Although the upper bouts don’t need to meet because they will join with the neck, the lower bouts have to be cut so they meet perfectly.
The neck and scroll profile is cut and carved out for a more refined and decorative finish.
Once all the additional linings are bent, they are wet, bent again and glued. Using modified clothes pins, Barnes ensures all the parts are held in place.
Using the mold, the wood grain, direction and shape are chosen. An outline of the ribcage is traced but not directly. To allow for the additional overhang, a washer is used for consistency and accuracy.
The outlines are then cut out with a bandsaw, where the instrument starts taking shape, though deceivingly. There is a lot more work ahead.
“This is when the real sweating begins,” Barnes explains. The most intensive physical labour is rough carving the back, which was the justification of old masters, like Antonio Stradivari, for having many apprentices.
To make things easier, Barnes’ ingenuity led him to create a special tool using a chair leg for a handle and an oak dowel for control, like a steering wheel.
"I butt it against my shoulder and put my whole body weight into each controlled cut," he says.
After rough carving the back with an arched sole plane and toothed blade, a channel around the perimeter is cut with a gouge.
Compared to the back, the top is a lot easier. “It carves like butter compared to the bottom,” he explains. Barnes prefers to get the harder one out of the way first.
Using a special attachment, the top purfling channel is cut and then cleaned with a fine pointed knife. Purfling is a delicate inlay of different colored woods, placed inside this channel.
Using a drill press, a depth stop is placed to a safe 5.5 mm to rough drill out the top and the back pieces, checking the thickness periodically and being careful not to cut too deep on the outside edges.
Finger planes are used to remove excess wood and smooth out the insides.
Once the inside is scraped smooth, a special tool is used to cut the eyes of the ff holes. Using a scroll saw, they are rough cut.
Barnes prefers the speed of the oscillating saw as it is applies less stress on the top when completing the cut, minimizing the chances of cracking.
They are then finished with a sharp knife.
The ribs are then removed from the collapsible mold. Once the mold screws, the top and bottom slide in followed by the sides.
Since the blocks are glued into the mold, splitting them can damage the rib cage, but in this case, they release beautifully and perfectly.
After the blocks are shaped with a chisel, the inside of the the rib cage is cleaned with water. Then, the top is ready to be glued on.
To avoid the "Jack 'O Lantern" effect of a new violin, Barnes uses chicory due to its golden color with slight red overtones. The water base also does not soak through the ribs.
Before being able to glue the back, Barnes takes a little detour to work on the neck set. The instrument is clamped for the glue to dry completely.
The instrument is aged by oxidizing the wood, replicating the effect of many months in the sun. Then, a first coat of linseed oil is polished onto all surfaces.
After allowing the instrument to dry in a UV light box for two days, a second and third coat of linseed oil is applied.
Varnish is applied using a padding or print method. Using a dense prosthetic foam pad, the varnish evens out as it is tapped with the pad. The technique allows for even coating, picking varnish in heavy areas and distributing it where there is not enough.
Four coats of varnish later, it is antiqued using ink and acrylic paints.
To create small speckles, small heated rocks are sprinkled onto the varnish. As the rocks melt into it, they are brushed off to create small chips in the finish
Designer dirt is placed in places where hundreds of years of build would occur.
Once the pegs are fit, they are cut to size and finished.
The finished violin, ready for performance.
Click here to see a video of Dorian Barnes in action.