For a long time I've wanted to try my hand at the fiddle, but never wanted to invest the cash in a quality instrument just for the sake of dicking around on it. That's what makes cigar box lutherie so appealing; you can build a one-off instrument limited only by your imagination (and occasionally the laws of physics), spend significantly less dough, and pick up some skills in the process.
So, the decision to build a cigar box fiddle was a no-brainer. The decision to build a cigar box Hardanger fiddle -- a Norwegian variation on the violin with four playing strings and four sympathetic (drone) understrings -- came after seeing one in Irving Sloane's long-out-of-print instructional guide Making Musical Instruments. Four extra strings? Folksy woodcarving on the scroll? A tailpiece that looks more like a fishing lure? Count me in!
After three months of on-again/off-again woodworking, piecemeal research, suspect calculations and a few minor disasters, I finally, proudly, present to you my Cigar Box Hardanger Fiddle No. 001.
Click images to see larger versions.
The core of any great cigar box instrument is the box itself. I chose a flamboyant Graycliff cigar box featuring a deep blue finish and shiny gold lettering.
I used a Dremel with a router bit to cut out the Gibson-style F-holes. In the process, I was disappointed to discover that my Graycliff box was not solid wood after all, but a cheap fiberboard composite with wood veneers. Still, it seemed sturdy enough, so I marched onward. Notice the F-holes are only partially cut out, so it looks like the lettering and gold stars are floating on top of them. I used acrylic paint to simulate binding around the F-holes.
The traditional Hardanger fiddle scroll is boldly carved in the shape of a dragon. I tamed mine down just a titch, opting instead to carve my scroll in the shape of my loyal Chihuahua-Beagle mutt.
The neck and scroll were carved from a laminated block of hardware store variety Red Oak, using a coping saw, 1/4" chisel, needle files, and a Dremel with some engraving bits. The pegbox was carved out with 1/4" and 1/2" chisels. The pegs were made from scratch. I cut the rough peg shapes out of 3/4" Oak on a scroll saw, used a mallet and chisel to split each of those into two workable peg blanks, then fashioned a homemade peg shaver using a Pine block, a T-handle reamer, a wood screw and a razor blade. Several hours of twisting (and several blisters) later, I had shaved down a dozen or so decent pegs. I contoured the peg heads with files and selected the best candidates out of the bunch. The peg holes were started with an electric drill and reamed with the same T-handle reamer to match the taper of the pegs. I quickly learned that there is good reason to use a proper violin peg shaver and reamer; the hardware store reamer tapers much too drastically from one end to the other. Between a couple of my peg holes, only about 1/8" of wood remains! That ain't good.
The neck and scroll were sprayed with non-waxy shellac (tinted with Amber and Cherry liquid stains), painted with acrylic paints, and then finished with clear gloss Nitrocellulose lacquer. The pegs were sprayed with a mix of Cherry, Amber and Dark Green liquid stains diluted in Denatured Alcohol, then the peg heads were finished with clear gloss Nitrocellulose lacquer.
One of the most fascinating features of the Hardanger fiddle is the inclusion of four to five sympathetic strings -- strings that are not directly played, but resonate when the playing strings are bowed, lending the Hardanger fiddle a fuller, more haunting sound than the standard violin. Cooler still is the fact that these drone strings actually run beneath the fingerboard, in a hollowed-out channel!
Of course, this necessitates a second, smaller nut to be placed at the top of the neck, just behind the regular nut.
These nuts were cut from white bone (guitar) nut blanks using a coping saw with a fine-toothed (i.e. metal- or plastic-cutting) blade, shaped with large files and needle files, slotted with my first set of proper nut-slotting files and polished with 3M flexible polishing papers. You can see the horizontal glue line in the lower nut where I superglued two bone blanks together to make one deep nut. Gotta improvise!
I carved my first bridge from scratch, using the same Bloodwood stock that I used for the fingerboard and tailpiece. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that the Bloodwood I bought had not been properly quarter-sawn, as advertised, and the first time I tried to string up the fiddle, the bridge folded in half. Feeling just slightly devastated, I turned to eBay, bought a Spruce violin bridge blank for US $3.00, modified it to fit my needs and stained it to match the original Bloodwood bridge.
Notice the inclusion of a tiny bone saddle, glued into the hole in the bridge, to carry the four sympathetic strings. Also notice the extra Bloodwood inlay just below said saddle. This was not intentional, but rather a necessary modification. You see, I may have angled the neck of my fiddle just a bit too far back. In order to allow the four sympathetic strings running under the fingerboard to clear the cigar box at the neck joint, I had to raise the placement of this saddle a good 3/8" above its normal position, which meant routing out my original saddle-hole and patching it with scrap wood. Thus, the resulting Frankenstein's monster of a bridge.
I love the tailpiece of the Hardanger fiddle. If there's one surefire way to knock the violin off of its hoity-toity pedestal and bring it down to the level of the common folk, just stick some fish hooks in the tailpiece and call it a day.
Okay, they're not really fish hooks, but they are just made from run-of-the-mill steel wire. I bought a coil of it at the hardware store, but you can get the same (or maybe stronger) stuff by dissecting a wire clothes hanger.
The tailgut boasts similar steel-wire construction, rather than using the typical nylon tailgut on the modern violin. The tailgut wraps around the end pin, which I fashioned out of one of my spare tuning pegs. There is a wood block glued inside the cigar box which allowed me to ream a sturdy, tapered hole for the end pin. I also made a contoured saddle for the tailgut -- in order to prevent it from chafing the cigar box -- out of a piece of bone nut scrap.
Here you can see the tailpiece, bridge and channeled fingerboard working together in perfect harmony.
So, there you have it. A cigar box Hardanger fiddle. I should also mention that I stuck a homemade piezo pickup inside the box, but it's no longer working, so something went wrong between the time I closed the box to glue on the fingerboard and the time I strung it up.
I have a sneaking suspicion that my end pin protruded too far into the box and pulled a wire loose. Kind of a drag, but this little box projects so well, I don't imagine it would require amplification in most situations. And I'm not about to crack this thing open anytime soon. It does what it's supposed to do, which is more than I can say for some of my previous builds.
The happy amateur fiddler/luthier at play.