Introduction: The Birth of a Volute

These photos show you how a volute is carved out of a raw piece of wood. This is the kind of scrolls made for all instruments of the violin family (a viola scroll in the case of this one). Maple is used, most of the time, but I made it out of peartree. Obviously if you want to make a scroll for a real instrument you will have to put more work and detail to it, but that shows you the basic idea of the birth of volute.

Let's make it clear, this instructable does not pretend to be a professional guide : there would be much more to say, and probably so much that most readers would give up all too soon. All I want here is give you a little taste of what it is to carve a volute, especially if you're stranger to the subject (no offence there : I might be the first one to get lost if this was new to me). If you find you develop a passion on that matter and want to learn more about it, I'll be delighted to answer any question, and you will discover as you go further that there's already a whole great range of high quality information sources, violin making books, videos and courses. For now, I'll try to share with you the feeling of excitment that fills me while sensing the magic and beauty of such a complexe form's coming yet simply and naturally out of a piece of wood, like a flower blossoming out among the grass.

While a few violin makers design their own instruments, most of them copy, or at least reinterpret, instruments that were made by famous luthiers of a long tradition started in Italy in the 16th century.

As you see on the template used I have redesigned the lower part of the scroll pattern (the original curve is the longer one, the new one being shorter and lower), but for the rest, it follows the drawing of a viola known today as the "Conte Vitale" and made in 1676 by Andrea Guarneri.

If you are building a whole instrument, please be aware that scrolls, although they may all look the same to the unused eye, actually vary in size, curves and proportions. The scroll made with this particular design won't look good with every other body. That being said, if you are making an instrument, you've probably bought or got a full set of plans related to a particular model, anyway, with parts that match with each other. If you only want to carve a volute because it's fun, then you can either find a plan, or use the photo of my paper templates, which you can re-scale on your computer so that it matches the measurements written on the notes (all measurements in millimeters).

Step 1: The Tools and the Templates You Will Need.

Here is a photo of all the tools I
used... From left to right and from top to bottom : a japanese saw, a carving knife, a small japanese saw, a chisel, a straight edge, a set square, two rulers, one of which is flexible, a low-angle jackplane, a low-angle apron plane, a marking gauge, a set of dividers, a scriber, a thickness calliper, a precision protractor, a pencil, three different flat files, a half-round one, a round needle-file, a narrow chisel, six carving gouges of different sizes and curves, and two incannel gouges. As you see, even if a good bandsaw will save you some time, you can make a volute without any machine at all.

Step 2: Choosing the Wood and Preparing It.

First you need a piece of well seasoned hardwood :
maple is the traditional choice, but you can also go for limewood or fruitwood, which give a nice feeling when it comes to carving.

The grain of your wood will have to be as straight as possible, and as parallel as possible to the front surface, on all four sides : if you do that, the medullary rays will run verticallly on the end sides. This is what you want and it is very important for the strength of the scroll as it will prevent it from cracking in the future, especially if you’re intending to complete the head and use it for a real music instrument, where the strings exert a good deal of tension on the walls of the pegbox and on the neck.

Once you have chosen your piece of wood, you want to cut it and plane it to a final measurement of 12 inches length (if you're not plannning to use it for an instrument, 7 inches will be enough), 45,5mm width and 65mm height. When planing, do it so that the front and side faces are perfectly flat (check using a straight edge with lowlight behind), being careful so the width is even all along, and so the sides are perfectly square to the front (check with lowlight and set square).

Using a marking gauge, mark the center line on the front face.

Step 3: Reproducing the Scroll and Volute Pattern Onto the Block of Wood.

Our block is ready : it's time to transfer the paper drawing onto it. Put your paper template onto one side of the wood, such as to get its top line perfectly line up with the front edge of the wood. Hold it firmly in position and, using a scriber or any sharp pin, prick dots on the outlines and through the paper in order to have these marked onto the wood (you can see my dots on the picture).

Now you want to repeat the same process on the other side of your block. Beforehand, and because you want to have both sides exactly on the same axis, you should draw a straight reference line on the first side and extend it to the other faces of the block, using a set square or a precision protractor to make sure the line crosses each face at 90°. A convenient position for this line is where a straight vertical segment is already drawn on the template : if you do it correctly and if your block was cut and planed perfectly square and even, all the four reference lines on your block will be connected to each other, and be superposed to the one on your template.

You can now confidently apply the template to the other sideface of your block (reverse the paper) : as previously, line up the top line of the paper and the front line of the wood together... the only difference being that you also want its reference line to superimpose that of the wooden block. Once you've achieved this, prick on the line as before. If you wish, you can then link the dots on the wood together, with a pencil, for a better visualisation of the scroll and volute.

Step 4: Sawing Out the Shape of the Scroll.

You're ready for sawing around the outline of the scroll. Use either a coping saw and directly follow roughly the lines, or a crosscut saw to make multiple straight and vertical cuts that nearly meet the lines on both sides. I've used the latter way, and it makes it very easy to then chip the waste away with a chisel and an incannel gouge. In any case you want to keep control on both sides and make sure you don't get inside the lines. Once you've done this, it's time to get your chisel and gouges out, and cut the surplus of wood that stands outside the outlines. Get as close to the lines as possible, though being carefully not to tresspass the outlines, and checking with a set square that your work remains as flat and square to both sides as possible. Still keeping all that in mind, now that you've gone as far and neatly as you could with chisel and gouges, you can smooth it all with flat files and round files.

Step 5: Marking the Width and Cutting the Pegbox and First Turn of the Volute.

Your outline is ready, nice and even, and follows the lines given by the original pattern.

At present, you can mark the centerline again with a marking gauge all around the scroll. Draw what is called the pegbox onto the front face and the back face, using the template and measurements provided, and our reference line. Now, I have focused this instructable on the shaping and carving of a volute, and of course if you only want to make a volute and are not too concerned about the rest of the scroll, then the shape and sizes of the pegbox do not really matter, so you can design it at will. Just keep in mind, however, that reducing the width of the pegbox will help you a lot when it comes to carving the volute.

As we've done many straight sawcuts on the front and back faces to link the lines of both sides, we do the same on the sides of the pegbox, so the lines on front and back faces become the edges of the pegbox. As previously, chisel the excess away, until you get a neat surface and meet the drawn lines.

Based on the centerline, mark the required head width at point "c" (14mm), as well as at point "d". Using a flexible ruler (a piece of paper will do) and a pencil, extend the backside outlines of the pegbox to meet the two "c" points". Do the same between the two "c" points and the two "d" points to get the width of the first turn of the volute.

As the picture shows, on each side face of the scroll, do a series of straight cuts (about seven, each side) changing direction from one to the next as you follow the first turn of the volute. Each cut must pass very near the line of the second turn of the volute, and go only as deep down as to almost reach the pencil line at each side but not quite. You can then chisel the wood waste on both sides, once again and until the surface is neat and squarish to the sides of the volute, and the width of the first turn coincides with your pencil lines.

When this is done, with a narrow chisel or with gouges that have the right curves for the second turn, cut the wood that stands out of the second turn's line. Blend the whole with a file. It helps a lot to look at your volute from different angles and point of views, to see if both sides are symetric, if the cuts are square, and if it looks harmonious. Although measuring is extremely important, it is as important not to rely only on rulers and callipers, and to accept that sometimes, as I was taught, "what looks right is right". It is also very good to look at many photographs of violin volutes to understand better how the different turns connect to each other, and also to note what you like to see happening on volutes and what you don't want to reproduce.

Step 6: Connecting the First Turn to the Second Turn and to the Eye.

You mark the width at points "b" and repeat the previous procedure, extending the lines, this time from points "d" to "b" and from points "b" to the eyes of the volute. Cut away the excess of wood as before, clean everything up following the lines. It's starting to look very much like a volute.

It's the right time to play with things a little bit and make it look more symetric if it doesn't. Once you're happy with the look of it, you smooth the edge of the volute by creating a chamfer with a file at an angle of about 45°. It has to be very even all around and can be about 1,5mm wide. The chamfer profides a great occasion to correct a few things and dissimulate small irregularities, if you take care to use it at your advantage and make a few compromises : making the chamfer a tiny bit bigger here and narrower there, might hide the mistake made here. If it is not always enough to correct the measurements, playing with it can make the whole thing look right and harmonious... And in that matter, that is what counts !

Next step in undercutting the volute, in order to give it depth and elegance. Take the scroll and look at its side : with gouges and starting right inside the chamfer, you carve radially some wood out, going deeper down as you go towards the center. At times you will need to cut downwards to clear the bottom of the vertical walls. There's no hard rule as to how deep your undercutting should be, other than the fact that it generally becomes deeper near the eye than near the pegbox : unless you are making a strict copy or want to stay true to the style of the master you're taking inspiration from, it's up to you to decide what looks best to you.

Cut as neatly as possible : you can now either clean the whole volute cautiously with a sharp (fine sandpaper will do) or consider it as finished.

Step 7: Some Photos of What a Completely Finished, Varnished and Setup Scroll Looks Like.

For an instrument you would still have to hollow the pegbox, drill and ream the pegholes, and carve a fluting around the volute and at the back of the pegbox.

The photos here show a cello volute and a violin volute I made years ago : these are not part of the present project but I thought it would be a good idea to add them, just so you can understand what I mean with "fluting", and see what a complete scroll looks like when it is finished.

Hopefully my explanations were not too unclear, and if it helped you to understand and appreciate the process of carving a volute, I'll be delighted... Even more so if you start making one after that. Thanks for reading ! :)

Sculpting Challenge

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Sculpting Challenge