Copying a Bass Viol Bridge – Interview With Gary Bridgewood

 I recently completed a bass viol bridge which is a copy of one from the Kessler collection – Richard Meares c.1660 bass viol now housed in the Royal College of Music.  Here’s an interview with me about the process;

Copying a bass viol bridge – an interview with Gary Bridgewood

Bass Viol

Background

I’m the lucky owner of a bass viol that Dietrich Kessler made for me in 1983; it’s a copy of the Richard Meares instrument of c1660 in the Kessler Collection, now housed in the Museum of the Royal College of Music. Fate decreed that I ordered the viol from Dietrich at just the right moment: he had restored the original Richard Meares viol soon after acquiring it in 1980, and during the process made the important discovery that the front (and by implication the bellies of other viols of that period) was made from strips of wood which had been bent , rather than being “digged out of the Plank” , so he utilised this method when making my viol. Most modern viol makers now construct the front of their instruments in the same way.

In 1983 my viol was fitted with a standard bridge. I first saw the Meares instrument in 2010 when I attended the RCM 4th International Festival of Viols; it featured a very impressive black bridge with decorative white inserts, which wasn’t of a standard shape. During the festival we learned, in a presentation by John Topham, that when the Meares was sold on to Dietrich the previous owner retained the bridge as a souvenir.  Jenny Nex, curator of the Museum at the RCM, explained to me that a drawing of the original Meares bridge had since been acquired and using this a replica bridge had been made.

I was captivated by the appearance of the replica bridge: the black wood, set off by the white decorations, seemed to enhance the appearance of the entire instrument. There were some problems with my existing bridge anyway, so after thinking about it for two years I contacted Gary Bridgwood for his opinion about replacing it with a copy of the one now on the Meares. He liked the idea of making a copy bridge, which make my Kessler instrument historically complete, and he did the work recently whilst I was visiting the UK. Apart from being a great success both aesthetically and acoustically, I was fascinated to learn about the process of constructing the bridge and would like to share this.

Questions and Answers

 Bass Viol
The interviewer: David Wilson is an amateur viol player who lives in Thailand.
The Interviewee: Gary Bridgewood of Bridgewood & Neitzert.

D.W:  Aesthetically the new bridge enhances the appearance of the Kessler viol in the same way as does the replica bridge on the Meares, but I can’t quite explain why.

Gary Bridgewood:  There’s something about the aesthetic of the black and white contrast on the bridge that enhances the strong orange colour in the varnish and naturally complements the overall decoration of the instrument, such as the purfling and the fleur-de-lys motif on the belly.

D.W.  During the planning you asked if I was happy for your trainee to be involved in this project and I was happy for him to do so. What was his role?

G.B.   I should clarify that I had my assistant Joe visit Jenny Lex at the RCM and make drawings and measurements.  He constructed the bridge under my close instruction and I finished all adjustments and optimised sound.

D.W.  After Joe had made the measurements and drawings, you contacted me and explained that the ‘arms and legs’ on both right and left of the bridge,
which should curve towards each other but not actually meet, were fused on
the replica bridge, which might result in a muted sound, and maybe the
original bridge had collapsed. To give optimal sound this would need to be
corrected. Why might this have happened?

G.B.   It is possible that by the time the drawing of the original bridge
and the copy now in the RCM was made the arms, which may have had quite a
close gap, may have somewhat collapsed leading to their apparent joining
with the lower half of the bridge.  An inexperienced eye may have
misinterpreted this.  It is not uncommon for bridges to collapse although
more common for them to bend through not being corrected regularly after
tuning.  Bass viol bridges tend more towards this as they can, if set to
their optimum, be quite thin in parts.

D.W.  Jenny Nex suggested to me that, for the drawing of the original Meares
bridge that the RCM acquired, a rubbing of the original bridge was made
resulting in slight extra width compared with taking detailed measurements;
this would be most apparent where parts of the bridge curve towards each
other.

G.B.   I believe this is what happened.  We re-designed your bridge to be a
perfect match for your bass.  Ultimately it’s got to work and function well
both sonically and for the player. We ensured that string spacing and bridge
curve matched the existing fingerboard on the Kessler viol. Within the
design of the replica bridge on the Meares, we obtained as nearly as
possible a clear perpendicular string line that passed through an opening or
a hole carved within the bridge. With your bridge I would say that a
compromise in what could be described as best design practice had to be made
but doesn’t exactly conform due to being a copy of another design. I believe
the bridge that we made is functioning at its optimum, but it doesn’t
conform exactly to what we were copying.  I have within what I feel are
acceptable limits pushed the design towards something better.

Bass Viol Bridge
D.W.  You carved the bridge from a block of maple that you’d had for at
least 25 years. Why did you use this particular piece of wood, and how did
you know it would bring out a good sound from the instrument?

G.B.   I’ve got reasonable stock of some fantastic old tone wood for
bridges.  I tend to save these for the most interesting work and felt this
project to be ideal.  The wood is light and strong yet flexible. The cut is
perfect quarter sawn, giving stability in form and size, and it has nice
medullary.

D.W.   What did you use for the black stain?

G.B.   I used a natural pigment from Kremer in Germany called furnace black
soluble in water.

D.W.   For the decorative white inserts, you had no luck sourcing
commercially available pips that you would have been happy to use. What are
the common problems with commercially available pips?

G.B.   In the most part, they’re synthetic and it’s difficult to obtain
custom sizes. I wanted to make as aesthetically pleasing pips as I could, so
resorted to making them on my lathe, using mammoth ivory – the best match
for the ivory decorations on the pegs of the Kessler viol.

D.W.   I’ve read that mammoth ivory first arrived in England (from Siberia)
in 1611, and that in the nineteenth century it was widely used for piano
keys. For how long has mammoth ivory been used in the viol trade?

G.B.    As far as I am aware it’s just since 1990 when CITES   introduced an
ivory ban.

bridge-close-1

D.W.   Can you tell me about the process of optimizing the sound?

G.B.    I am always rather conservative when adjusting for sound, proceeding
stepwise if I have the time, which I just about did. I will initially fit
the bridge thick, let it settle on the instrument under tension for 24
hours.  I play before and after and then make decisions in which direction
to cut or thin the bridge.  If I have an existing bridge I also pop this
back on several times in between to compare.  In reality with your bridge I
would say that it was off and on probably 8-9 times with perhaps 3 or 4
rather more critical adjustments being made.  There is always a point that
is reached where you have to decide if you go further will you waste all
your efforts as the bridge suffers and the sound is potentially worse than
before.  (This has by the way never happened to me as in the rare occasions
I always make a new bridge).  In some ways this is the most interesting and
most challenging aspect of the process, which I hugely enjoy.  The process
for your instrument happened over 10 days.

D.W.   You clearly enjoyed doing this work and set aside a significant
amount of time from a busy schedule in order to do it. What was special for
you about it? What were the problems, constraints and frustrations?

G.B.    What was interesting was the challenge to work within the
constraints of an existing design and attempt to improve on it. There were
no particular frustrations as I’m very used to doing this type of work both
on gambas and violins, violas etc.  If anything is frustrating it’s running
out of time knowing you could achieve more – happily not the case this time.

Acknowledgements

I am most grateful to Gary Bridgwood for devoting his time and experience to this project, and for involving me in the process. I also extend my thanks to Jenny Nex and staff at the RCM Museum for their invaluable help and interest.

David Wilson is an amateur viol player who lives in Thailand.

The photographs: Copy bridge made by Gary Bridgwood for Bass Viol No.220, after Richard Meares, by Dietrich Kessler. Photo by Gary Bridgwood.

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