robyn sullivan violins

hand-made violins, violas, and cellos

Making Stuff


In the past few months I’ve been caught up learning more of the ins and outs of repair.  I’ve struggled with doing a cello neck set ‘my bosses way’, I’ve learned how to flatten twisted necks and fingerboards (see photo above: heating and flattening of a viola neck), and I’m well on my way to mastering how to straighten warped bridges.  I do enjoy doing most of these things (I was ready to smash or burn that cello a few times though) most of the time.  But this week I’ve been able to return to my real love, making instruments.

My boss has been out of town for the past week taking his son’s boy scout troop camping.  Because he’s gone we’ve ‘closed’ the shop and I’ve been left to my own devices.  I dug into my small wood collection at home and pulled out some maple I’ve been sitting on since graduating college in 2004 and a spruce plate I bought more recently.  I already have a few molds and templates and I decided to go with an Amati model violin.


At the moment as you can see in the picture, I’m working on the rib assembly.  It’s so much fun.  Though there have already been bumps in the road just getting to this early stage.  I have a 2 tier bending iron (big on the bottom for cello and a detachable smaller part that goes on top for violin).  Unfortunately I have been unable to locate the violin part to this iron.  I’m lucky enough to know another violin maker in the area ( and she is letting me borrow hers.  I’m sure the missing piece to my bending iron will show up as soon as I don’t need to bend any more ribs or linings.

I have been fully enjoying starting this violin.  I love being able to put on my headphones, listen to my podcasts, and just, go.  I know all of the steps, I know how to work with all of the wood and all of my tools, and I know exactly where my strengths and weaknesses lie.

Going too fast is my main weakness.  I just get so excited and wrapped up in what I’m doing and then I start thinking about the next step before I fully finish the step I’m on.  I know this trait is one I’m going to have to wrestle with my entire life.  Working with my boss has helped me a lot with this.  He has really made me slow down and has maintained very high expectations of myself and my work.  I can already see how this has effected the construction of my current violin.  My tool skills are the best they’ve ever been, and they should only continue to get better.  My eye is a lot more discriminating.  And my definition of what ‘flat and square’ is has gotten way more strict since working at Classical Strings.

While I’m making this violin I’ve finally gotten around to finishing up my last instrument.  At the Chicago School of Violin Making you make a violin or viola in 6 weeks as the main part of your graduation exam.  Because you only have 6 weeks the instrument is left ‘in the white’ or without varnish.  I made a viola and it has remained ‘in the white’ since I graduated going on 15 months ago.  Within the past few weeks I dug out the lists of varnish recipes, chose one and went about gathering the materials.  It’s a bit tough, your average hardware store (even specialty ones) don’t have propolis, elemi, or seedlac lying around.  Most of them don’t even have the right type of denatured alcohol.

Lucky for me there is a specialty wood finishing supplier that operates in Milwaukee, but I still have to mail order what I need even though they’re only 6 miles away from where I work.  The alcohol was the easiest to find, I decided that I wanted to use straight grain alcohol instead of denatured alcohol.  Since there aren’t any additives in grain alcohol like there are in denatured alcohol you can get a cleaner looking varnish.  Both my boss and husband said that I would have a hard time finding straight grain alcohol.  I didn’t think so, we live right near UWM.  Liquor stores near colleges and universities almost always have it, jungle juice parties and your average frat party don’t exist without grain alcohol.  Wouldn’t you know the first liquor store I call up tells me they have two kinds of grain alcohol, Everclear and another cheaper brand.

So currently my viola is hanging up and has been prepped for varnish.  I put a ‘fake tan’ on the wood with watercolor and then a sealing coat of propolis.  I just need the special glass containers to show up so I can mix the actual varnish and get going.

I will be posting pictures of both the violin and viola as the progress!

06252010_001(random photo of knife handles I’ve recently made, raw and finished purple heart on the left, raw and finished rosewood on the right)

1 Comment

    There’s a liquor store right near us that has Everclear. It’s pretty easy to find. (Why doesn’t Steve know that?)

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