We’ve been pleased to welcome one of our old ‘favourites’ back in the workshop recently. The instrument is an Amati composite violin with original back and ribs and later front and head which is likely to be the work of John Frederick Lott II.
Amati (1596 – 1684) is one of the most famous of the great Cremonese violin makers. The fourth in the line of Amati violin makers, he is famous for developing the ‘Grand Pattern’, slightly larger than his grandfather and father’s models. John Frederick Lott II (1804 – 1870) is one of the more unusual characters in the history of lutherie. The son of luthier John Frederick Lott I he is known for his very high-quality reproductions of Cremonese violins and lesser known for a career detour early in his life as an elephant trainer in the circus!
This violin first came into Bridgewood and Neitzert eight years ago for a ‘neck conversion’ from a modern pattern back to a baroque neck. The owner had seen a number of neck conversions that owner Gary Bridgewood had executed on violins of a similar pedigree; one by Giovanni Grancino, Milan 1695, a violin from Antonio Gagliano, Naples 1788, from Thomas Urquhart, London c.1660 and one by Matthias Albani 1706. Gary had developed each of these necks in conjunction with their owners and they were therefore all very specifically tailored to their exacting requirements as working concert artists.
Gary went through a similar process with the owner of the Amati composite, working through the styles and requirements of the new neck. Finally, they a decided upon a hybrid approach designed from the Grancino neck and one from a conversion on a violin modern reproduction by David Rubio of Cambridge (1934 – 2000). The style for fingerboard and tailpiece were fairly typical, using veneered plain ebony on top of a core of spruce edged with maple taken from the same block as the wood for the new baroque neck.
Having designed the new neck, the work began on the conversion. The first task was to remove the old neck, a meticulous procedure to ensure that no original material was removed. This is particularly tricky near the old joint between neck and peg box if the joint is not secure. In this case Gary chose to keep an incredibly small amount of wood from the existing neck so that no original material from the peg box would be touched.
Gary scoured his wood stores for the perfect piece for the neck but could not find something that met his exacting standards. ‘I contacted an old friend in Germany who has a good stock of well-seasoned old wood and sent him some close-up photographs so that he could find a piece very close to the original’ explains Gary. Two weeks later he received several possible neck blocks and found one that he knew would be the right match. Gary had made a drawing of the proposed neck in order to decide neck angle and whether there would be any upstand above the belly and to confirm the other tolerances. He concluded that it would be necessary to have a small upstand above the belly because the arching is quite high and this would gain clearance for the fingerboard, although retain its elegance at the same time.
Once the neck was fitted and glued into the peg box Gary continued with fitting the neck onto the body and then the final shaping of the neck, which he describes as one of the most important stages ‘In some ways this for me is the most difficult stage, especially for a baroque neck. The decision as to whether to go straight to what has been agreed based on my other necks or whether to allow a small consideration should the player perhaps prefer a slightly fuller feel’. Gary tells me that he often works in this way, remaining prepared to make small adjustments once the neck and instrument are complete to fine tune and to ensure the original design still stands up in practice. In this case however he was confident that through the extensive initial process of discussions on neck shape that the final shape had been agreed.
Once shaping was near completion, the next phase of the conversion was to attach the fingerboard and finish the shaping. As seen in these pictures, the fingerboard/neck joint is very precise on this conversion and apart from flame in the wood not matching it is very hard to see the joint. Finally, the process of colouring/staining the new wood to match the original wood takes place. Offcuts kept back from the neck wood are tested with a variety of stains and colours until a good match is made at which point re-touching can begin. Gary describes this process, ‘This is often a challenging task to sympathetically colour match the original masters’ conception. In this case I made several attempts on the test blocks to ensure a perfect match and worked every daylight hour available on the final retouch. I’m very pleased with the final result’.
The owner of the instrument was equally pleased and has been bringing the violin back to us for maintenance work over the last eight years. This time it’s been in for a new set of pegs. The original pegs were a beautiful Rosewood with gold caps and although the shafts were no longer viable we wanted to keep the pegs. The new pegs are Peg Heads, which are geared and made in the USA by Chuck Herrin. We sent him the old pegs which he mounted onto his geared shafts and we are now fitting them. It’s a real pleasure to build such a good long relationship with a player and their instrument. It is with great reverence to the original maker that we undertake any repair, conversion and restoration preserving as much original material as absolutely possible and at the same time, enabling a modern player to take advantage of the latest techniques.