1930s Viola da Terra

I've worked on a number of viola da terras. They're all folksy-as-heck in build and I'm never sure whether to fix them up for "modern playing tastes" or not. This one looks like it was built in the '30s but has a 1986 repair label in its soundholes. I imagine that's when it received a plywood back, too.

My work was just what was necessary to get it playing. I leveled and dressed the bar frets to start and then I had to figure-out a way to get the bridge height just a hair off the top so that it'd play with 1/16" action at the 12th fret. I'd already ruled-out doing a neck reset as the instrument is cheap and it has a Spanish heel. That's a bit of work!

The owner wanted to use this like a small 12-string guitar, too, so the string path (split for 5-course anchoring at the bridge) had to be monkeyed-about, too. It's got a relatively short scale at 21 1/8" but because of the light build, these sound great as "mini-12s" with a normal 12-string light string set at 46w-10. The body size is around a "Martin size 2" guitar with a 12" lower bout and 3 1/4" depth.

The open-book, slotted headstock is pretty neat but I'm fairly certain that it was modified to this state later. This probably had wooden pegs to begin-with. A 1/4" addition was put on the back of the headstock and then the slots seem to have been cut at that point. The tuners are 1920s/1930s-vintage so that probably places the relative date of manufacture in that timeframe.

The fretboard is some sort of rosewood analogue and the dots are pearl.

The top seems to be some sort of flatsawn softwood. This is typical for Spanish and Portuguese  folk instruments.

While the strings are usually anchored at the bridge and then run-over a mandolin-style floating bridge, I had to get the strings really close to the top of the instrument.

This above pic is from when I was working on it.

I modified my screw-saddle technique used on the 8-string Oscar Schmidt tiple and did it, in this case, with tiny, cut-off threaded rod which I slotted at the top to accept strings. These are installed at compensated points and the action is height-adjustable via rotating them. I had to get the strings so-dang-close to the top that there's a back-pressure bar behind these "saddles" to get better tension on them.

I know all of this seems crazy -- and it is -- but it seemed like a better idea than opening-up a replacement back which, like the bridge, appears to have been installed with epoxy. Grrrrrr. It's all not ideal in the least but action-wise it plays just about as good as you can expect and is easily-useful for strummy playing-styles. Single-note work's a bit trickier if you're trying to avoid scritch-scratch noises.

The mounting screws a d parts of the old tuners are replacements not from me.


Phil Fabiano said...

looks great Jake, simply genius idea

Antonio Gomes said...

i have viola da terra but my bridge came un done andI i am searching for a replacement part. Would you happen to know or be able to recommend / point me in the right direction for this?

Jake Wildwood said...

Sorry, Antonio, you'll have to make one from scratch.