Our star this week on the The Woodworker Sessions is Tania van der Walt from Pretoria. Coming across Tania and her amazing woodwork on a Facebook group a little while ago, I immediately knew I had to interview this remarkably talented and unique lady!
Tobias: How, why and when did you become interested in woodworking?
Tania: My grandfather and my dad owned a furniture factory. When I was small, I always loved playing in the factory and adored the smell of the wood. I didn’t really do any woodworking until I started building violins, I’m actually a project accountant by profession.
Like all good stories, this one started in a bar at around 2am in the morning! My brother was playing in a band called Bad Habits and after the show I ended up sitting at the bar chatting with Johan, the lead singer.
Full size violin that I repaired, there wasn’t a lot wrong with this one, it needed a new bridge, the tailpiece needed new gut, the chin-rest had broken off, the fingerboard was out of alignment and the rest was just a superficial touch-up of the shellac finishing, polishing and a new bow.
As we were talking, I mentioned that I had been avidly following an old acquaintance on Facebook who was busy building his own bass guitar and how I would love to build my own electric violin. I play piano and violin, but I only had a very cheap Chinese acoustic violin at the time. Johan told me that he also builds guitars and if I wanted to build my own violin, I was welcome to work in his workshop and he would guide me through the process.
This is the first Electric Violin that I built
I don’t think he thought I would seriously take him up on his offer and I arranged with him then and there that I would come to his workshop every Wednesday afternoon.
Johan was a brilliant teacher and made me do everything the hard way before showing me easier ways and also explaining to me why the hard way is better until you know what you are doing.
It took me 8 months to build my first violin, working only on Wednesday afternoons. When I was done, I posted photo’s on Facebook and one of my colleagues saw the post. He asked me if I would build him two violins, one for him and one for his little girl. I asked him how long they have been playing violin and he said that they didn’t actually play yet, but that they were going to learn to play. I advised him to first buy his daughter a cheap learning violin, but he was adamant that he wanted me to build the two violins.
The Fairy Electric Violin
Still working in Johan’s workshop at that point, it took me another 8 months to build these violins. I had lots of fun with the fairy violin. Just a note that carving maple with cheap woodcarving chisels is very difficult!
By this time however, I had started buying some woodworking equipment and working a bit on my porch and in my garage at home. With nothing to do after the two violins, I sourced a bunch of pallets and started building a patio-set for myself. Amongst the pallets I found a very nice piece of Saligna and put it aside.
After the patio set was done I again found myself bored with nothing to do and decided a 5 string violin/viola combo would be nice to play, so I took the Saligna and started building. When it was done, I again posted pictures on Facebook. A friend of a friend contacted me and asked if he could buy it for his music store and if I could build another two instruments for his store. And that is pretty much how I got started.
I’ve always been handy with any DIY and fixing instruments. I get a lot of requests from people to restore acoustic instruments or fix something that has broken like a guitar neck that pulled loose because they put steel strings on an instrument designed for nylon strings. or someone inherited grandad’s old violin and wished to have it restored. I know a lot of musicians and the word spreads and I always have a very soft place in my heart for an old neglected instrument.
Tobias: What aspects of your craft do you find most enjoyable and least enjoyable?
Tania: I love the whole process. I’m good with measuring and the precise angles required for a violin appeal to me.
Designing is definitely one of my favourite parts, and with electric violins you can be a lot more creative than with traditional acoustic violins. I think the ultimate enjoyable aspect is playing it for the first time when you set it up at the end and you get a beautiful looking and sounding instrument. I always find it very hard letting go of a violin once I’ve built it.
Machine Heads, Potentiometers and other Hardware
I don’t enjoy sanding much. Finishing is very important on an instrument as it has to be durable, hardworking and beautiful. I sand the final finish (I mostly use 2K) down to 5000 grit, then use rubbing compound and finally, I polish with Silvo.
It takes a lot of sanding and you can’t use electric sanders, so it is all done by hand. If I’m ever out of work, I think I can probably get a job at a panel beater!
I really don't enjoy installing and soldering the electronic components after the finishing has been done. I’m always super scared that I will accidentally burn the violin and have to refinish it.
De-Oiled Bone blanks ready for shaping
The worst is the initial processing and cutting of the bone blanks and shaping the bone parts which are used for the nuts. This is a stinky horrible job. You have to get a nice big bone from the butcher, boil it for hours, and then it takes weeks of chemical treatment until it is completely de-oiled. Then you have to cut it into blanks and finally plane, sand and fit it. The dust is terrible. Luckily you get a lot of blanks out of one bone. so you don’t have to go through the process too often!
If you fix and restore acoustic instruments, the luthier's hide glue also sometimes smells bad. I use an old coffee maker’s heating pad to keep the glue warm as I’m working. One should never ever use normal wood glue on an acoustic instrument.
This ¾ violin was badly damaged, in 5 pieces and had no Fingerboard
Acoustic instruments are sensitive to changes in humidity as the wood is raw on the inside of the instrument. I always advise people to put some moisture absorbing sachets in their instrument cases to try and control ambient moisture. If the edges come loose due to pressure , it is an easy fix and not a serious problem, as hide glue is completely reversible.
Tobias: What are your favourite hand tools?
Tania: I can't say that I have favourite hand tools. Some of my essentials are good measuring tools, especially my trusty Croxley school mathematical set for all those precise angles. Squares, various size hand planes, chisels, very strong small screwdrivers with good grip and a variety of improvised sanding blocks are an essential part of my arsenal.
When restoring acoustic violins, violas, cellos & double basses, you require specialised lutherie tools to measure and position the soundposts, as well as plenty of clamps and a pile of good old fashioned elastic used for trousers. Violins are all about angles and curves that make clamping extremely difficult, so this is where good pieces of strong elastic are essential.
Tobias: What are your favourite power tools and stationary machines?
Tania: I have an old Emco Star multifunctional woodworking machine which is probably my favourite. I predominantly use the bandsaw, thicknesser and planer and beltsander on the machine. A close second is my drill press.
I also have a Powerplus rotary tool, that is much like the Dremel and is incredibly diverse in it's usefulness. II source a wide variety of bits for it online from Toolcraft. This little machine does everything from sanding inside little holes to carving & cutting, trimming machine head screws shorter, and for polishing in hard to reach places. It's a real winner! My trim router works hard, and I have recently built my normal plunge router into a router table. enabling me to speed up certain processes work using templates.
Finally, my compressor and spray gun (always invest in a good one) are essential to my work. I have an electric spray gun as well, but this tool is more suited to spraying water based paints and general DIY applications.
Tobias: What machines, power tools or hand tools could you not do without?
Tania: That is an easy question, definitely my Emco Star multifunctional woodworking machine.
I also could not do without a drill, and not necessarily even a drill press. The old hand powered ones that looks like an eggbeater work well, I built my first violin using a eggbeater drill, as I was too scared to use my electric drill on the machine head holes!
I definitely cannot do without all my measuring equipment, chisels and my jewellers fret saw.
The rest of my tools and jigs all just make job easier and faster and I also go through plenty of sandpaper.
Tobias: Do you use a dedicated space for your craft, what floor area do you have and how much time do you manage to spend on woodworking per week?
Tania: Originally when I started building at home, I did not have a dedicated work area, so I worked on my porch and in the garage. I lived in a complex at the time, so very soon I had trouble with the caretaker about the noise.
Recently I’ve started converting the garden flat behind my new house into a workshop. It is about 50 square metres and has a large sliding door and lots of windows for natural light and ventilation. I’m planning on putting an extractor fan in the bedroom part for spraying and I have big plans to develop the workshop. I don’t have any problems with the neighbours, as two of my neighbours also have workshops and the other sounds like he’s butchering game or something over the weekends!
Currently, I don’t get to spend a lot of time in my workshop, as I have a plenty of repairs and maintenance to do on the house which is taking up far too much of my time. My workshop is very convenient for doing up the house as well. I reckon that I spend about 20 hours per week in my workshop. I have Wednesday afternoons off, so that is one dedicated time period that I ring fence for my woodworking and I’ll often work a bit over weekends and occasionally in the evenings.
Tobias: What was the first piece you ever made, what is your favourite piece and what is the next piece you wish to build?
Tania: My first was obviously my own violin. I made a plethora of mistakes and learned many valuable lessons. It is still a great sounding instrument and plays really comfortably. Cosmetically however, it is not a violin that I would ever sell.
My favourite is hard to say.
I get very attached to my pieces and it is hard to let go. I would say that the violin that I built for my colleague is probably the one I liked the most when it was finished. The colour and the shape was just right. That violin was the one that I really, really wanted to keep.
I have plenty of left over pink Yugoslavian Beech wood from the dining room table that I built a while ago and I want to use this timber to build a cello for myself (not that I can play the cello, but how hard can it be?). Currently I am building two child size violins and a stick-bass, so it is probably going to be a quite a while before I get around to building my own cello.
Tobias: What are your favourite timbers to work with & what timbers do you avoid?
Tania: Most of my wood is chosen for specific qualities for the purpose of instrument building. Wood is chosen according to acoustics and Janka hardness.
For the body you need a medium Janka hardness type of wood, like maple (not soft curly maple) which is only good for inlays and too soft for a full body, birdseye is however fine, (just very expensive), kiaat, mahogany and some species of beech.
For the instrument's fingerboard you need a high Janka wood hardness to take years of punishment. Traditionally, mostly the Ebonys' and African Blackwood were employed, but they are now rare and extremely expensive. Zambezi Redwood (Rhodesian Teak) and Ironwood are also excellent for fingerboards.
Tobias: What is your standard finishing process for your pieces?
Tania: On the electric violins, I have always use 2K car paint as it gives a good hard and fine finish. Most acoustic instruments are finished with shellac, and I’d like to use it at some stage on my electric instruments. Achieving the right colour of the shellac for restoration work is sometimes a bit problematic.
Tobias: If you could add another discipline of woodworking to your arsenal, what would it be?
Tania: I really need to learn how to sharpen all of my blade tools really well. I’d love to try woodturning and I have a small lathe that attaches to the Emco Star machine, but I don’t yet have the right chisels and there are plenty of other way more important tools on my wish list! I will get "round" to woodturning at some stage, it just looks like a lot of fun. I’m also busy creating a website which will go live in December.
This Double Bass played shows all over South Africa
I had to fill in a few holes and repair to body which
had pulled loose due to humidity
The Finger Board had pulled out of alignment
and I hand planed it back into "True"
A very happy client tuning his fully restored Double Bass
- Proper Sharpening System
- Woodturning Lathe
- Woodturning Chisels
- Plenty more Calipers!
- More Carving Chisels
- Profile Gauges
- Plenty more Clamps!
- Compound Mitre or Radial Arm Saw
- Dedicated Bandsaw
Thanks so much to Tania for being part of The Woodworker Sessions and for sharing her passion & exemplary talent with woodworking enthusiasts all over Southern Africa.
On a personal note, I can't wait to see and hear Tania's Electric Cello in action!