John Dancer Violins
22191 Dayton Way
Damascus, Virginia 24236
First of all, it's not done yet. This photo was taken this morning, with the third coat of finish. When it's completed, the final photos will be on the "Criddles" page of this website
Over the years,, I've been able to make some instruments that my customers have been pleased to own. Sometimes though, it is difficult to understand what someone will purchase, but I think I'm onto a pattern. Years ago, I made an opossum violin, and it sold. Then a year or so later, I made another opossum violin and it sold. Three years ago, I made an opossum violin and it sold. The opossum violin I'm still working on has sold (Thank you, Jim B.). I think I'll make another opossum violin. I think I will make a lot of opossum violins. Stay tuned.
I have in my possession some sassafras lumber, some of which is quarter sawn. I think I will be making some mandolins and guitars with it. If you like, I can make you a set: a violin, mandolin, and guitar. You would be unique. Let me know.
This is going kinda way back to my teen years, when my best friend, Mark, and I would spend time at his grandpa's house. His grandpa, Owen Kunkel, was a home builder who constructed some of the finer homes in Medford, OR, until becoming disabled from a heart attack. Owen encouraged my interest in architecture, and he had a reputation for perfection. Depending I guess on your own disposition, you either approve of or find overbearing a perfectionist sensibility, and therefore may or may not demand perfect knot-free boards precisely cut and fitted with no tool or brush marks and built to last for decades or dare I dream centuries workmanship. Those are the questions one asks of himself when putting steel to wood.
Fast forward a few years, and Owen's daughter asks if I would like to have some of his woodworking items. I received several things, but what I use most are some carving gouges, especially when violin or mandolin making. I also use his rafter square frequently. I see Owen's kind and encouraging face often when I work.
In my previous post I mentioned the recent death of a friend of mine. His name is Bill Neely, and I met him when I first moved to Damascus in 2006. We had several things in common, such as we were both auto mechanics turned instrument makers. I sought his guidance when I decided to make my first guitar, and though I won't say that he taught me guitar making, he certainly helped demystify the process. After that, we began sharing ideas and resources, and showing and demonstrating our latest works. Sadly, due to health reasons, Bill had to cease his work last year. He asked me if I wanted to buy some of his equipment, and I did. Upon receipt of some machines, tone woods, instrument parts, and many specialty hand tools, I found what once was a fine gouge, that Bill, after an obvious unsuccessful attempt of modification for his own purposes resulting in a bent and broken edge, set aside in a repository of other hardware anomalies. I also had it set aside in similar company, until this week, when I determined it would suite the purpose, with a little forging into a shape close to a fish hook, of a gouge that would allow me to make "heart shape" violin tuning pegs. Although I have many of Bill's old tools, this will be a special one for me to remember him by.
Bill died last week, after succumbing to injuries suffered in a car accident. I will miss a friend and kindred spirit.
Before I continue with posts concerning instrument making, I am going to give thanks to some people who have been "instrumental" to my work. With the passing of a good friend of mine this week, I feel the need to record my gratitude to ones who have helped me along.
The first post I write is not about the friend mentioned above however, but instead is of my wife of 27 years, Kelly. Way back when I was growing weary of the automotive repair business (enjoyed the work but not the business), Kelly allowed me to pursue my woodworking endeavors, which over the years resulted in two major moves, massive tool purchases, and "other less than certain ways of earning a living", as my answering machine messages so accurately states. She has been my sounding board, cheerleader, critic, and support in so many ways, and I am so thankful for her in my life. There is a joke: What is the difference between an amateur and a professional luthier? An amateur luthier has a day job, and a professional luthier has a spouse with a day job. While this may apply to several vocations, it certainly applies to me, and I shall not forget it.
I love you, Kelly. Thank you for all you do for me.
Your loving husband, John.
I've completed all of the construction of "Opossum in a Pear Tree" since my last post, and I'll be finishing up the accessories in the next day or so. After being satisfied with the possum head, I then attached the neck to the rib/top assembly. Next I carved the back and then glued it to the rib/top/neck assembly, thus completing the violin body. After rasping and sanding the back's overhang, I then dug out the purfling groove, installed the purfling, and then completed the channeling and final smoothing of the back. Final sanding was next, and then the staining. So far I am pleased with everything. The fingerboard and nut, tail piece, and chinrest are all done, leaving only tuning pegs, tail pin and bridge to be completed, and I must say the pear wood is a pleasure to carve. I hope you like the sneak peak,
I've been working the last couple of days on the violin neck, and especially the possum head. There are many challenges in carving a possum head on a violin neck, more so than other animals, at least for me, so let me describe some of the process.
Because this is wood, the details can be varied depending on my carving ability and the desired appearance. I usually smooth-sand the head instead of trying to simulate hair, and I try for an otherwise realistic look to the head, instead of a caricature.
After rough cutting the neck, I do a preliminary hollowing out of the peg box, especially where the D and A pegs insert. This can help to avoid damaging the head after it is carved, and allows for easier final hollowing later.
Next I carve the head, which sounds easier than it is. First of all, because of it's hair, when you look at a possum it appears that it has no neck and that the head just grows out of the shoulders. So, interpretation, proportion, and imagination are required to transition from the peg box of the violin neck into the head, so the look is satisfactory. After carving the long nose, eye recesses, and brow, I then carve the lower mouth and then the nose, which is kind of a gnarly looking thing, sorta like a combination of a pig and a horse nose, only much smaller. The ears can be challenge, because it never fails that no matter how accurate I make them, some critics will say they're not right, and yet when pressed they can neither describe, draw or carve them themselves. Anyway, what I do now is carve a set of ears and attach them to the head, instead of carving them from the block. This way, I don't need extra wood on the neck blank, the ears can be more realistic, they are stronger because I make them from dogwood and attach them cross-grained , and if they're not good enough I can easily try again.
Anyway, I've been polling friends and neighbors asking them what the animal is that I'm carving, and so far only my highly intelligent son has said "possum" right off. Of course, as yet it has not been detailed with color, but some responses suggest that folks need to get off their iphones and computers and go look at some wildlife.
It's me again, John Dancer, and I thought it would be of interest to someone if I were to journal the process of building whatever it is I happen to be building at the time, so that one could gain...um...valuable insights of my philosophy and methods. In other words, these posts will reveal some of the "how and why" of my work. Again, I thank you for visiting, and wish you well in your quest for...um... knowledge.