This instrument has been sold.
a bass

This page shows steps along the road to making my first doublebass. This instrument was started in 2000, and was intended for completion by summer of 2001. This did not happen, in part because I needed to earn money for rent and food and had received only enough money for materials from the bassist commissioning it. Another factor was my own somewhat irrational hope that the work could be done so quickly. Many hundreds of hours went into it, and in the meantime there were bills to pay...

So the project languished, parts being advanced now and then over the years. My friends at Toby Cycleworks made me an excellent stainless steel bolt with brass fittings to allow smooth adjustment of the neck with an allen wrench. I've used the extremely hard and waxy wood 'lignum vitae' for the bearing surfaces, making it quite easy to change string heights in a couple of seconds. I was able to put finishing touches on the bass in the late spring of 2011. Thanks to the curved neck heel being cut on a radius from the nut, there is no pitch change between radically different heights. It seems the several innovative elements went unnoticed by the judging panel at the ISB competiton, who seemed primarily interested in large, broad-shouldered basses along rather traditional lines. So it goes. I've put up some pictures of as many basses as I could grab on stage, and a few others from around the building on this page.

Below these images of the finished instrument begin a series dating back to its beginnings. The result has been worth the trouble, as I find the sound very even and satisfying. Tested in the Orpheum Theatre there seemed more than adequate carrying power for the back of that large hall. The bass has found a new home in Portland, Oregon, as of March 2012.

finished bass back finished bass belly

finished bass bass-side finished bass treble-side

neck joint from side

neck joint with bolt in place end of neck heel with brass nut and low 
friction insert

David G. Brown playing my bass

This bass was designed for a rather small woman, not the rather tall David Brown shown playing it here. She was performing in both orchestral settings and as a soloist, and she wished to have an instrument which would fill her needs in both roles.The strong turn of the ribs at the upper end is the most obvious accommodation for a smaller player. Leaning in to reach the end of the fingerboard, or just to get the bow down near the bridge, the heel of the neck and upper back don't get in the way of the chest. Many other luthiers have sought to reduce the difficulty of playing past the upper ribs. Many bassists have suffered back and shoulder problems in straining to get around too-large or poorly designed instruments. Most solutions I've encountered seem well intentioned, but executed less than effectively, with the measurements relevant to the player remaining more or less within the normal, difficult range.

There are a number of unusual features in this bass besides the shoulders. The back join to the ribs is probably the next most noteworthy. I've sought to provide a bigger sounding bass than the small size would normally permit, and a lot of that effort was designed into the 3cm deep end-to-end concavity of the back before I began shaping its outline or arching. The gluing surface is actually 3cm concave, putting about half the strength needed in the longitudinal arch before even adding an arch, and thus freeing me to us a much shallower, more actively vibrating cross-arch on the back. The result is something of a flat-back/arched-back hybrid.

Another element which is somewhat unusual is the extreme rise of the belly arch in the area of the C bouts. Again this is coming from the small size of the instrument, coupled to the need for excellent bow clearance in the long C bouts. This steep rise culminates in a relatively flat, just barely arched area between the f-holes, something which the Cremonese masters of the early 1700's established as being much better suited for generating larger volume and better projection. This arch is in quite stark contrast with that of the back. Some feel that this is a clash, from a design perspective, and I certainly see a lot of instruments, not just basses, with uniform arching between back and belly. Frankly this is of no interest to me, as my goals with this instrument were acoustical in nature with beauty arising as it might out of that. The back and the belly have radically different functions in amplifying and reflecting vibration. Giving these each their appropriate forms allows for a smaller instrument than average with more than adequate volume and richness of tone. From a similar perspective the scroll's narrowness might also be better understood; as the neck is removable, form follows function, with the neck needing to fit into a case alongside the bass for the most compact design possible. A pragmatic, functional approach continues with the leather bumpers, saturated with several coatings of shellac and smoothed, which provide an injury-free way to lay the bass down on any reasonably flat surface. The bass and neck and parts fit into a case the size of a small bicycle box. Add wheels and it can walk through a city - I know, having done so in San Francisco. Loads onto buses as well - did that here in Vancouver and in San Francisco. Total weight of the bass and the trunk is less than 60 pounds.

(From this part of the page the text dates from previous months and years, so please forgive the erratic tenses and other errors related to time.)

In designing this bass a balance was sought between volume and playability. A further problem has presented itself in recent times - airlines have place more stringent limits on both size and weight for luggage. Over the years I have repaired much of the damage wrought by airline baggage handlers, this in spite of very expensive and well designed bass trunks. The new rules have inspired lighter-than-ever trunk design, with less room for padding. Nice for carrying, not so great for preventing damage. Several luthiers have already responded, inventing ways of removing the neck of a bass and packing it alongside the body in a more compact trunk. Other luthiers, starting I think with Jim Ham, have introduced easily adjustable necks. The combination of these two advents has inspired me to incorporate both into this instrument.

Ribs on their mould Closeup of rib corner

Below is some early carving on the back. This is a rather deeply flamed piece of 'big leaf' maple from the Courtenay area on Vancouver Island. Difficult to carve and smooth but when so much time goes into the instrument such beautiful material is worthwhile.

carving bass back carving bass back

Recent photographs of the back, taken in June of 2006. Smoothing of the inside is almost finished, so gluing to the ribs is not far off now. Another picture of the finished inner surface will appear here before that happens, a little later in the month. Then work on the belly will start. That's a piece from an ancient sitka spruce which supported a logging bridge near Tofino for 25 years of rumbling, loaded trucks.

bass back on white wall

bass back inside roughly thicknessed, awaiting tuning

Getting close to tuned. Just a bit of smoothing and tinkering left to be done inside the back.

bass back inside almost done

And now (June 12, 2006) the inside of the back is done. As many luthiers do even with violins I cleat the centre join, using thin spruce pieces, set with the grain at 45 degrees to the main. This angle allows for seasonal expansion and contraction across the grain without the glue coming loose. Most repair cleats should follow a similar principle, keeping the added mass very light and allowing movement - buzzing from larger cleats coming loose is all too common. The darker appearance of the wood is a thin wash of shellac which helps keep the surface cleaner over the years without interfering with the normal changes in moisture content.

bass back inside done

The ribs now removed from the mould, the corner and end blocks shaped and linings trimmed, back is glued to the ribs... and the outside smoothed and lightly protected with shellac. Next to go in are the upper rib linings, again made of very fine grained yellow cedar, a wood I find excellent for linings and blocks. The button, at the top of the back, will not take its final shape until after the neck heel is glued in place. A few pictures of the finished back/rib assembly:

back finished before purfling

back finished before purfling

upper left corner finished before purfling

Most adjustable neck designs (if not all) cause the nut to rise or fall relative to the bridge, increasing or reducing pressure on the bridge. The design I've developed almost eliminates this by moving the neck heel along a radius from the nut. Of course fingerboards are dressed over time, nuts lowered, new boards and nuts put on eventually... and this means that one cannot truly isolate 100% of nut movement relative to the bridge. So what I've done is to take a point about midway in the nut's life, allowing that a tiny shift up or down will happen when adjusting between extremely high and low action.

Adjustment of the neck will be easy at full pitch, and re-tuning should be minimal, making it possible to adjust the action on stage. This introduces new possibilities to the artist, allowing change on a whim. Or the string height may stay as one prefers for years, adjusting slightly in compensation should the fingerboard need dressing or the climate change

As with some other designs, this neck mechanism will also allow removal for safer flights in a trunk only a little larger than the body. With a capo to keep the strings on the fingerboard and a simple padded clamp to maintain the soundpost's position (or preferably removing the post for travel, as many baggage handlers are evil, destructive creatures), string tension may be taken down, then one bolt removed from the neck heel to allow the neck to be placed alongside the body in a separate compartment, along with bridge and tailpiece. Setup shouldn't take more than a few minutes, probably half a minute with practice and a string winder. I'll be posting a drawing of this mechanism once finalised, and show the actual mechanism once it's made.

Belly begins

At last I've got a break from repairs. The Bohemian bass I've been restoring is now assembled, though I need yet to build a new neck for it and graft on the scroll. There's been a little time to work on my own bass, and here's the result. I've removed more than half the spruce from the belly blank, cutting it almost to the final shape and carving the arching to about 1/4" thicker than it'll be when done. The inside is also roughly scooped out, to even out stresses while carving. I've found in the past that left flat, the inside plane can warp somewhat before it's carved, regardless of how many years the wood has been cured.

outside of belly roughly carved outside of belly, smoothed, before f-holes

As is plain in these pictures, this sitka spruce has a rather pronounced flame in the grain. That is already making the work interesting, as the tools want to bite into the waves in the grain where with a plainer spruce they cut almost effortlessly smooth surfaces. Carving and scraping this wood smooth will be a challenge.

For those wondering about the extra-long cut out in the upper belly and the hole just beneath - that's part of my removable/adjustable neck mechanism. Some pictures will appear before much longer, showing how that looks in the upper block. For now, know that the hole is lined with a tapered 'bearing' of lignum vitae, something echoed in the upmost back, and all through the upper block to guide the main part of the adjustment mechanism. This is a tremendously tough wood often used for high-wear tasks, such as guiding the blades of large-scale bandsaw mills, or in the 19th century as linings for steamship propeller shafts. In addition to being very durable, this wood is more waxy than most and is thus self-lubricating. Typically those steamship shaft bearings lasted as long as the boats.

inside of belly roughly carved... with my son Haru watching me work

My boy Haru sometimes watches me work... though at just about 8 months old he doesn't have a lot of patience for luthiery. If you look behind the C bout - the belly here being carved out on the inside - he's the little face in the distance.

Now for the f-holes. Here's an uneven set of pictures of the process of cutting those; I don't use any tools besides a knife - the traditional sort, this one from Switzerland. One needs a very, very sharp blade for this, as spruce would rather split and flake off than cut with anything less. These pictures are all from the inside of the belly. Some makers mark from the outside. My preference is for the Italian method; marking from the inside then carving through to the outer surface.

f-holes being carved

f-holes being carved
f-holes being carved
f-holes being carved

And the almost-finished f-holes, this time from the outside - some fussy work left to be done, when it's quiet and I can focus well, but the basic shape is about right:

f-holes almost done

... and done

f-hole done

inside belly with bar in place

Here's the belly with bassbar fitted and tuned, ready to assemble with the rest of the body. That's now done. This week I'll be trimming the edges to final profile, cutting in the inlay (purfling), trimming that and the edge groove to a gentle hollow, then it's time to get busy finishing the neck.

The body was completed 'in the white' in mid-September. This past summer was a very full one for my workshop, and of course my son is running all over the place now and needs a lot of attention. So the bass has taken even longer, but the end is within sight. The neck carving is well underway. Here's a picture of the bass with a sealing coat of shellac. The only inlay on the bass is the belly purfling, done more for reasons of acoustics than ornament (I'm not a huge inlay fan), and is made of two layers of wenge wood sandwiching a thicker layer of yellow cedar. The hole in the upper belly will have a bushing glued into it once the varnishing is finished, through which will pass the axle which holds the neck in place and allows adjustment of string height.

body finished in the white

Too many repairs... and of course my original work takes a back seat, when musicians have music to make but their instruments are broken. And it's been an awkward fall and early winter, so, much to do for me. Still, there has been the odd bit of time for carving. Here is the bass scroll, with the basic outlines established and needing a lot of smoothing before I move on to varnishing.

body finished in the white

It's likely there will be something rather closer to finished posted here within the next couple of weeks. After that, I'll have to figure out where in the house my toddler son won't get at the bass while varnish is drying. The neck hardware, which will facilitate both removal of the neck for travel, and adjustments of string height, will soon be ready... or so the machinist tells me.

It has been a very long while since this page has seen any updates, but here at last are a few more pictures. I've got a wheelbarrow load of excuses (read that as 'solid, justifiable reasons!) for taking over a decade to get this bass this close to finished... if anyone wants to talk about it. Frankly I'm happy just to say it'll be done next month and leave it at that. So, the scroll, bass in the white, and finally a shot of the last coat of varnish on the body, drying:

carving the scroll

scroll detail

side of scroll on bench

bass ready for varnishing

last coat of varnish on
I'm trying for a deadline now, hoping to get this bass down to the ISB convention in the first week of June. Six weeks from now. Varnish is about hard enough for fitting up, but I've a bunch of repairs in the house needing to be done soon, ebony and strings and case making materials to be bought (when I can afford them), and travel plans to be made if that's to happen. I might be able to update this page before that...

June 4th - about to head for the train station, with crossed fingers that Amtrak won't give me trouble about the bass trunk and US Customs will be civil with me as well later this morning. The bass has been played quite a lot this past week by players from a number of schools of performance, and the sound and ease of use have been most enthusiastically received. It's going to be a busy three days of talking with players, then Haru and I head back to Vancouver to be here in time to repair a bass which has a plane to catch... no way around that, so the ISB convention will have to carry on without us. I will post more pictures of my bass here after we return, and perhaps start another page with some thoughts about the convention and a few pictures as well. For now here's one taken in the front yard Friday evening, and for more pictures of my bass and also of basses made by Oregon luthier Seth Kimmel, have a look at some pictures taken last Saturday by Laurence Mollerup here.

Finished bass with bamboo