About ten years ago a wood dealer came to my workshop to sell me tone woods. I bought several pieces, but while I was doing this I noticed several sets of bass wood in his vehicle. Now normally I would not have given them a second glance, but they were so special that I got him to remove them and place them in the sun for me to examine them more closely. In the back of my head I think I was thinking about one piece cello backs. They were Bosnian maple and totally spectacular. I had never seen such fine grown double bass wood. They had matching ribs and head blocks. The flame was very similar to several Cremonese instruments, including the flat backed 1690’s cello that is pictured in the ‘Antonio Stradivari in Japan’ book and several Amati instruments including Hieronymus II. The Flame was fine, but well defined. I fell in love with it and bought several sets, along with the beautiful matching belly wood that he also had for sale. Don’t ask me why.
Sometimes it is just fate.
Two years on from this momentous purchase, a purchase that did not impress my long suffering wife Claudia, I received an e-mail from Rene Zaal. Rene was one of three younger Dutch students at the Newark school when I was in my final year. This group included Koen Padding the varnish guru. The e-mail contained a picture of a sound-hole As it came up on the screen my immediate thoughts were that it must be an Amati family cello, but I quickly realized that it was a bass sound-hole.
I called Rene and asked him about the rest of the instrument. He told me that the back and ribs were made from Chestnut wood, and that most people had expressed the opinion that the back and ribs did not belong, and that the head was also a replacement. He sent me pictures of the back and within hours I had checked my records, where I found two examples of cellos by Hieronymus II with identical back and rib wood, right down to the patina. (I later found a third example). A few days later I was making the four hour drive to Rene’s workshop in Holland. When I arrived I found that, for a bass the condition was exceptionally good and once again I fell in love.
To cut a long story short we decided to make a copy using the wood that I had previously bought. We took outlines rubbings and measurements of the body, but there remained the problem of the head. The head was a mess. However, in my cellar I had a beautiful plaster cast of a brothers Amati cello. We decided that we could use this as a basis for our bass.
The thing about Amati family instruments is that they are all remarkably similar in concept and they often used interchangeable designs. One example is the brothers Amati viola that was owned by Harry Danks. This instrument has violin sound-holes It would also seem that the Amati family simply reduced or enlarged designs as required. It is almost as if they had access to photocopy machines capable of enlarging and reducing sound-hole outlines. In fact they were probably using pantographs, an ancient and ingenious mechanical device for enlarging and reducing drawings. (See photos of violin and cello casts.)
Because I have little knowledge of bass’s I took my plaster cast to Rene’s workshop to check what size we should make the head. As anyone that has made an Amati head copy, or repaired an Amati head will know, they are probably the most aesthetically beautiful heads of all. They do however have one drawback. The elegant slender taper of the peg-box results in an exceptionally narrow peg-box, making it very difficult to gain access to the two end pegs. (Violin A and D). Stradivari corrected this by making the back of his peg-boxes slightly wider and allowing the first turn to become rapidly narrower after the A peg. Not as elegant, but certainly more practical.
The scroll on this bass had been grafted onto a wide and somewhat ugly, although undoubtedly more user-friendly peg-box However, when I took a closer look at this head, although drastically altered by the highly invasive grafting process, the swing of the scroll itself was consistent with the plaster cast of the Hieronymus Amati cello head. So much so, that I believe that although altered almost beyond recognition, the scroll could also be the rather sad remains of an original Amati scroll.
Whether original or not, simply enlarging the Amati cello head would not have been an option. The peg-box would simply have been too narrow. This meant re-designing the head with a wider box while trying to retain the elegant flow of an Amati peg-box into the first turn. This picture of the plaster cast shows how narrow the inside of the peg-box becomes at the A peg end. Also clearly visible is the way in which the central spine between the two flutings stops under the throat allowing the two flutes to merge into one larger one. This feature is typical of Andrea Amati and the Brothers. It does not seem to have been a feature of Nicola Amati or his son Hieronymus II. Because our bass is inspired by the Amati tradition and is not a direct copy, we decided to keep this rather elegant feature on our head.