Setting the neck of a viola da gamba made without a form


If you are starting here you've missed the first page of this story.

The centerline of the neck needs to be pretty durn close to the centerline of the body of the viol, and the neck needs to be set at the right angle. You can do it the hard way, or the easy way. Nothing wrong with either, but I prefer the easy way. This might be it. Might not. Try it and see - you can't really tell until you've done it once or twice.

The trick here is that the neck is glued to the garland (the assembly of sides and blocks) before the back or belly is attached. Then when the back is added the neck can be shifted around a bit to fine tune the angles. Then when the top is glued on there is another chance to adjust the projection (the angle of the neck to the body, and thus the bridge height) Then when the fingerboard is glued on there is another chance to tweak things. If it's all done with reasonable care the result will be just right- but there is no one point where everything has to be spot on. At each step you get a chance to improve the focus of what you did at the previous step. Nice.



First, cut a mortise in the top block.

Then, cut a tenon on the neck. Some old makers apparently didn't worry so much about the fit of the tenon. A bit loose at the top or bottom, whatever.

I haven't quite got to the point where I work that freely. Something to strive for, perhaps. For now, I make the tenon fit nicely into the mortise.


  Glue the neck to the garland. At this point the dimension to watch is from the top of the block to the top surface of the neck. If you don't get this right now there is a second chance, by tinkering with the fingerboard and neck thicknesses, but... there isn't a whole lot of room to maneuver there, so it's best to get it right now. Fortunately, it's pretty hard to get it wrong.

The logical thing to do would be to use zinc platted sheet metal screws. For sure, if Richard Meares could have walked down to the hardware store and bought a handful of these for next to nothing he would have, and he would have been pleased as punch to use them in his viols. He couldn't. He could go to the blacksmith and buy nails. I haven't got a local blacksmith shop, I do have an Ace hardware. Nice screws for $.06 each. So what do I do? Forge my own nails. Go figure.

I drill pilot holes first. Don't want the nails to split the block. One nail would suffice, but what the heck, nails are cheap, as long as I'm making one I may as well do two.


The heal of the neck and the block are trimmed. The wood here is end grain, and will soak up glue like a sponge. It should be well sized with glue-- hide glue, of course. Paint some thin glue on, let it soak in, add more, keep it up until the wood stops drinking the stuff up. I scrape any excess off before it dries hard- I want the surface sealed, I don't want a build up on the surface. The wet glue swells the wood. If you glue the back on while the block is wet it will shrink, and that's not good for the joint. Not good at all. Let it dry. Do the other blocks the same way. Then glue the back to the garland, just up to the bend line. I trace the gamba's outline onto the back- with no form you have to pay some attention to the alignment of the sides and back. You may notice that I'm mixing terms- sometimes it's a viol, sometimes a viola da gamba, sometimes a gamba. I usually refer to these instruments as viols. But search engines seem to recognize the term viola da gamba. So, I'm a name dropper. There are worse sins, I suppose. Viola da gamba. Index that!


I left out some details- quite a few actually. Such as shaping the inside of the corner blocks, and gluing in the back brace. Unfortunatly, even though these steps aren't described, they do have to be done. Good luck.

Now the back is glued to the garland, but only as far as the bend line. So the neck flops around like crazy. You can move it up and down, side to side. Put it wherever you want to. And that's just the thing to do. First, you want it lined up with the center line of the body. I clamp a straight edge on the neck centerline, then to the bottom block- along its centerline. Now the neck is lined up side to side, all that remains is to get it stuck in the right position up and down.




If you've read this far you might have noticed that there hasn't been much mention of measurement. That's not because I've left that stuff out- it's because I haven't been doing it. This is an exception. I actually look at the drawing, and pay attention to the dimensions. Not something I make a habit of, but here it seems useful. Hard to see the drawing in the photo, if the picture was sharper you would see a very simple gauge, just two sticks, sitting on the drawing. One stick bridges across the top and bottom blocks, touching the front surface of the neck joint. The other is lined up with the neck/fingerboard joint. I clamp the two together, then recheck the gauge against the drawing. Kinda nice to get this right. No need to be obsessive about it- there is another chance for adjustment when the top is glued on, and then another when the fingerboard is fitted, but an extra 30 seconds of attention here is a good investment. Viva la gamba! So I'm gonna get indexed with the Mexican revolution???

Now the gauge is used to set the neck angle. (Remember the straight edge that lined up the centerlines? It's still there, hidden behind the gauge.) Get everything in line, more or less, finish gluing the back on, and you've got a neck set in line with the body, and at the right angle. It's pretty rigid in the side to side plane, but can still be move up and down pretty dramatically. When the top is glued the neck angle and projection are finalized, almost. Slight adjustments can still be made when the fingerboard is fitted.

Viols! Viols!