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The Woodworker Sessions Series is about South Africans sharing our craft and learning from each other. Our techniques, shortcuts, mistakes and triumphs all combine to grow our common passion - working with wood. I am always looking for interesting, intriguing and dedicated workers of wood to interview. If you are, or you know of a woodworker who fits the above bill, I would love to hear from you. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org. You are also more than welcome to comment on The Woodworker Sessions in the comments section.
Peter Ritchie at the Workbench
In the calming surrounds of the Mbona Private Nature Reserve in the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands, Peter Ritchie is one of a rare breed of woodworkers who has truly found his niche, building exquisite violins.
What a Wonderful Setting for a Workshop!
Tobias: How, why and when did you become interested in woodworking?
Peter: I developed the interest from my father– (he bought a Nestor combination machine – what a dog, as each function required a belt change!). Nevertheless it was on that basis that at the age of 12, I became interested in woodworking.
On flunking out of varsity, I joined a construction company. The founder (and my mentor) of this company, insisted that I should spend time on each trade and study concurrently; this allowed me to achieve an NTC 7 qualification. Working with wood and building concrete boxing furthered my interest in working wood.
Once I qualified and started earning some money, I was able to begin buying tools –and I still have most of them today. They are all hand tools, and they are now over 50 years old.
A good experience for me was my stint in the company’s joinery shop where I was exposed to making solid wood doors, frames, moulded skirtings, picture and bump rails, and wooden laboratory work benches, amongst many other things.
Once married, with children on the way, domesticity required that I should start doing some home joinery, a practice that I continued to this day; for example, my son’s wedding present of a “Shaker” dining room table, a music stool for one of my daughters, and a jewellery chest of drawers for my wife’s passion of collecting jewellery. There are many other pieces, far too many to mention!
Sometime in my early thirties, a chance encounter with classical music pointed me down a very different path. I became interested in violin music, and the beautiful female form of the instrument. I resolved then, that one day I would build a violin.
A long interval ensued with little or no woodworking of a serious nature, during which I read widely on the subject of lutherie and realised that a violin made badly, is really not worth the effort. I did however, discover that building a classical guitar could be rewarding, as they are a little more forgiving.
So, armed with Campiano and Natelson’s excellent book on guitar making, I launched into a branch of lutherie. A long while later, an exceptionally pleasing classical guitar emerged. (My guitar teacher is anxious to buy it!)
For years I have been subscribed to the British magazine – “The Strad” – a monthly magazine to do with bow stringed instruments, - Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass.
About 4 years ago I was paging through the “Strad” , and came across an advert for a Violin Making Summer School in Cambridge (UK) (Cambridge Violin Makers). An email to them confirmed that I possessed sufficient skills to start, and “bingo”, I was finally able to set about what I really wanted to do. I have since been to Cambridge for 3 consecutive years, - two weeks at a time. As I sit here now, some 4 years later, I am able to make a reasonable amateur violin.
Full time Luthiers undergo a 4 year Degree Course, before they are able to call themselves Luthiers.
It is a fascinating pastime that requires total concentration. A book that I have just finished reading has a very apt comment on the subject – “As a Luthier progresses, he cares more and more about less and less”. By the way, if you are a “Hand Tool Junkie”, this book is for you!
Tobias: Which aspects of your craft do you find most enjoyable, and which the least enjoyable.
Peter: Being an insatiable tool junkie, I really enjoy searching junk shops for old British made edge tools, revamping them (making new handles) and bringing them up to sharp and useable tools. A natural consequence of this is carving violin parts with gouges – a violin is pretty much totally carved – shaped belly and and back, finger boards and scroll, all to minute levels of precision.
Peter's Selection of Specialist Hand Planes
An added joy, for me, is design, and “reading around the subject”. The violin, as we know it today, was finalised around 1550 AD, so there is an immense amount of historical information to take in .
My least enjoyable discipline is probably the varnishing of the instrument. However it is all enjoyable – only varnishing a little less so!
Tobias: Which are your favourite hand tools.?
Peter: My favourite hand tools are “hand tools”! Any good quality hand tool, sharpened to perfection is a joy to use and the right tool for a particular job is very important to me.
Probably my most favourites are Lie-Nielsen and Veritas Planes and of course my miniature Thumb Planes and Finger Planes, Pfeil Gouges, re-born Marples Chisels and my Violin Knives that I have made from Festool jigsaw blades with Kiaat handles.
Various Vises are of course very important, together with custom made jigs for all sorts of tools and my home made special purpose knives. None of these would be of any use without two workbenches, both I have made from 9" x 3" Oregon Pine beams and they both weigh a ton!
Tobias: Which are your favourite power tools and stationary machines?
Peter: At “Cambridge Violin Makers” you learn quickly that to make a bowed string instrument, you do not need a single power tool!
However, my favourite power tools are:
Also as a matter of interest, I have collected the following over the years:
Also possibly of interest to fellow woodworkers, I use a Veritas Jointer Plane mounted in the inverted position, to joint belly and back centre joints of the violins, these joints have to be 100% accurate!
Tobias: Which machines, power tools or hand tools could you not do without?
Peter: If push came to shove, my current thinking would allow me to dump all my power tools! I would however, be hard pressed to go without my drill press, Laguna SUV Bandsaw, UV Light Box for varnish curing, Tormek sharpening system, diamond plates, Japanese whetstones, and my electric bending iron.
Tobias: Do you have a dedicated space for your woodwork, what size is the floor area, and how much time do you spend working wood per week?
Peter: I do have a beautiful dedicated space, half of which is given over to instrument building, known as an “Atelier” - 16 square metres in extent.
The other half , but contiguous with the Atelier, is my studio where I keep my books, magazines, and a roll top desk made for me by my father. I also use it for playing the Classical Guitar. In total, I have 40 square metres. I keep my power tools, except for bandsaws and drill press, in a big double garage.
(Note the Emmert Patternmaker's Vise on the right)
When I retired, my wife and I built our dream house, and I was able to build my workshop spaces from scratch, so I have big south facing windows behind my workbenches, and high north lights behind me.
I spend a fair amount of my time in my workshop, but there is no definite pattern.
Tobias: What was the first piece you ever made, what is your favourite piece and what is the next piece you would like to build?
Peter: The first piece I ever made?... I really can’t remember! My favourite pieces are definitely my wife’s jewellery chest of drawers, Shaker dining room table, my classical guitar, and my first violin.
The next piece that I will make will be a three quarter size violin for my grand daughter, who is now nearly 2 years old, so I had better get on with it!!
Tobias: Which are your favourite timbers to work with & which timbers do you tend to avoid?
Peter: Most definitely Maple and Spruce for instrument making. I also use Pin Oak and Australian Blackwood, felled on the estate, Indian Rosewood, Swamp Cedar, Kiaat and Jatoba.
The timbers that I avoid:
Tobias: What is your standard finishing process?
Peter: German oil and spirit varnish for violins and home made oil varnish (50% boiled linseed oil, 50% genuine artist’s turpentine, plus 2 – 3 mm pure lavender oil. I also use a few Woodoc products as well as Rustin's Danish Oil.
Tobias: If you could add another discipline of woodworking to your arsenal, what would it be?
Peter: I would like to hone my violin making skills, as well as add skills in musical instrument repair and bowed instrument setup.