The Appalachian Gitfiddle is a very popular “Hybrid” between a violin and a stick dulcimer or cigar box guitar. It is built using an old violin body. This article will go through the process of how they are made.
First step is to source a suitable donor violin. I find mine usually in yard sales, flea markets or on Ebay. You want to find one that is generally unplayable and in need of repair, since you will have to disassemble it in the process and remove some major parts. I prefer to find older antique instruments as the hide glue that holds them together is usually already starting to crystallize and come apart, thus making disassembly even easier.
Next is to inventory all of the hardware you will want to incorporate into the conversion, such as pickups, wiring harness, control knobs, etc… Set them aside until later. I like to plan ahead and work the plan. If you are missing any components you want to order them now instead of finding out later that you are missing parts. This can cause delays in completing the project so plan ahead.
Next, you will want to remove all the accessories such as strings, tailpiece, tuning pegs, etc. Get down to the basic instrument.
Now comes the fun part. To do the conversion, you will need to remove the back of the instrument and then the neck. The best tools for the job are a heat gun and thin painters knife.
Starting at the heel of the neck, apply heat to the wood. Do it gradually, and let the wood heat up slowly. You do not want to scorch the wood or the finish, but you do want to break the glue bond. Using the knife, insert the blade into the glue joint and slowly start separating the wood at the seam. Bear in mind that there is a neck block and a tail block that will take longer to separate than the sides will. Slowly work your way around the instrument. Once you have removed the back, you can apply heat to the inside in order to remove the neck.
Once you have completed the disassembly of the instrument, do an inspection of the work, looking for problem areas that need to be addressed in the rebuild phase.
The Gitfiddle build process is similar to building a cigar box guitar, so the next step should look rather familiar to those who are into that hobby. On a violin, the opening for the neck block has a taper. I like to clean that up a bit to being more of a square so that I can mount a cigar box guitar style neck to the violin body.
I found that during the removal of the neck block, that the sides had come loose from the top. So while I’m working on the neck I went ahead and secured the sides. If you don’t do this early enough, the break will continue to grow until you are having to remount the entire side.
Now comes the time to measure the neck. This build is going to be 23 inch (585 mm) VSL, so I start with locating where the bridge will go and measure to the neck joint. For violin bodies, the “sweet spot” acoustically is located between the F-holes where the center barbs are pointing.
From these measurements, I know that the distance from the nut to the neck joint is going to be 15 inches. I measure and mark one of my standard neck blanks, and glue on enough wood to form the heel.
Here is a good time to talk about how I make my neck blanks. Typically it is a 3 piece laminated neck, with the two outer laminates book matched. This provides added rigidity to the neck, and why I don’t often require a truss rod. Wood tends to warp along the grain pattern, and if you book match the grain, the neck will naturally warp against itself greatly reducing the chance that the neck will bow. The two book matched sides, capped off with a fretboard forms a stable triangle beam.
Now I will address the neck itself. First I drill a 3/4 inch pocket into the heel, at the point where I wish to mount the neck, and cut a length of hardwood dowel to fit. This will serve as a firm biscuit joint for attaching the neck. (note: I know some of you may want to do it a little differently, but this method gives me the best results). The benefit of this method is that I can accurately adjust the neck angle easily before I mount the back plate.
Next I layout and cut the neck profile on the band saw, and then glue on the wings of the headstock.
Once that dries overnight, I will shape the headstock, and carve the neck profile with my draw knife and rasp.
Next, I cut a notch into the heel, above the dowel hole so that the neck fits snugly to the instrument. The notch gives clearance for the rim around the top plate. Note that I’ve raised the neck height to match the arch top height and not the side. This is where many run into issues with these builds not having clearance for the fretboard to extend over the top of the instrument.
Next step is to plug the hole in the tail, and re-drill it for a wood screw to anchor the dowel.
Now it is time to mount the neck to the body. I use a steel support post as a straight edge to keep the neck aligned to the body while the glue in the dowel joint dries.
Once removed from the clamps and straight edge, I check it for alignment and add glue to the sides where they overlap the heel and to the dowel end and tail block to further secure the neck.
I prep the back plate for mounting by cleaning off all the old glue and smoothing the edges.
I then turn my attention to the heel, and shape it to match up to the back plate.
Then I mark and drill the tuner holes using my C.B.Gitty template.
Now I can move to the Fretboard itself. My method of making fretboards in detail is a subject for future blogs, but here is the highlights; I take a cherry wood blank, I mark the neck taper, I go to the StewMac website and print off a 23 inch fret position sheet. Once I have the fret slots cut in, I test fit the fretboard, then I install the MOP inlays and “Juice” the wood with my vinegar & steel wool mixture. Once that dries I finish the wood with Lemon Oil before hammering in the frets.
Once the frets are mounted, I glue and clamp the fretboard to the neck. I can now know where to measure and cut the neck pocket for the humbucker pickup (specified by the client).
After all of this is done, we have to install the pickup and wiring harness before we can seal up the back. Now that we have the fretboard in place, we can position the neck humbucker.
First thing I notice is that the mounting bracket requires modification due to the arch top curvature of the violin body. So I first, mark the cut with a pencil, then I use a handy gauge to measure the shape of the curve and then make 2 side for the pickup bracket and glue them into place.
Next I test fit the bracket box, and then add the two end caps, give it some walnut stain, and screw it into place.
Next step is to start installing the wiring harness. First I mount the humbucker into the modified bracket. Make sure that the adjustment screws have clearance, and will work adequately.
After that, go to the inside, drill and mount the volume and tone potentiometers.
Before we mount the Output Jack, we need to do some further modifications. The output jack over the life of the instrument will take a lot of abuse, so before we drill a hole into the thin violin side veneer, we really should reinforce the area. The best wood to do that with is the discard from cutting the humbucker pocket. It is already curved, and will more than double the thickness of the side veneer. Measure, cut, glue, then drill once dry.
Now that the side wall has been reinforced, I can mount the output jack, knowing that it will not easily break out from repeated use. Once the jack is in place, address any wiring slack and have it secured out of the way.
Finally before we close up the back of the instrument, we need to run a BRIDGE GROUND.
It is a simple ground wire that will run from the String Course to the ground of the wiring harness. For instruments that have floating blade bridges, I choose to ground the strings at the metal tailpiece. It is crucial to have your strings grounded with magnetic pickup systems, because moving metal parts (ie; steel strings) inside a magnetic field creates an electrical current. This is the reason you need to have some way of conducting that current to ground safely. If you touch the strings with your fingers and hear a loud buzzing coming from your amp, it’s because the strings do not have an adequate ground, and they are using YOU for a ground.
Take a scrap length of wire (this case a green wire), solder one end to the grounding point on the volume potentiometer, and run the other end out the instrument, close to the bridge or tailpiece location. This end will be attached later to the bridge or tailpiece.
After you BENCH TEST the harness to ensure everything is in working order, you can now glue the back plate into place.
From this point it is just a matter of touching up the finish, and doing the final assembly & setup.
The Appalachian Gitfiddle build is now nearing completion. It has received three coats of clear shellac, wet sanding between coats with 1000 grit to smooth out the irregularities, and a final two coats of Gloss Acrylic Lacquer. Now it’s time to do the hardware assembly. The next step is to ensure a positive ground by soldering the loose end of the bridge ground to the tailpiece. Soldering it in place guarantees a good contact point to ground the strings.
After that, I line up the tailpiece with the neck, and I screw it into place using a strap button and two brass screws.
The rest of the hardware; Heel strap button, tuners, control knobs, string trees, strings and floating bridge all get mounted.
Tune it up, and make the set up adjustments and the Instrument is complete and ready to enjoy.
Any Questions, Comments, or Suggestions for Future Projects can be placed in the comments section of my Facebook page.
“Music is all around us, all you have to do is listen” – August Rush