1. What kinds of wood do you use? (back to top)
Violin family instruments are almost always made out of spruce for the top and maple for the back, sides, and neck. The fingerboard is generally ebony (yes the wood really is black without any staining), and the pegs, tailpiece, and chin rest are usually ebony, rosewood, or boxwood.
Spruce is used for the sound board of just about every stringed instrument, as it has the ideal strength to weight ratio and modulus of elasticity. The grains in spruce, which is a softwood, are alternately very hard and very soft. When oriented properly the hard grains act as I-beams supporting the light structure of the soft grains.
A brief aside here; softwoods are not necessarily soft, and hardwoods are not necessarily hard, though often this is the case. Softwoods are gymnosperms (mostly evergreens) and hardwoods are angiosperms (mostly deciduous trees). Balsa wood, which is very soft and light, is a hardwood. Hardwoods are generally uniform in texture whereas softwoods have an alternating pattern of very hard and very soft grains.
The maple back of a violin could be replaced with many different hardwoods, but they would give different sounds as they do on guitars. Since almost everyone is looking for that classical Italian sound, we almost always use maple. The one common exception is poplar, which is sometimes used on cello backs and, less often, on viola backs. Poplar is softer than maple and thus gives a darker tone to the instrument. Unfortunately, poplar is rather ugly.
There is spruce and maple available from around the world, but most of the wood I use is cut in the United States and Canada, primarily in the Northwest and Northeast US. Wood from Russia, Bosnia, and various European countries is highly prized, costs about five times what American wood does, and can be very high quality. Nevertheless, I find the best American wood to be very fine, and some even argue that it is superior to European wood.
The fittings are another story. Various rainforest hardwoods are used because they are hard and tough and therefore last well. This is especially true for the fingerboard, which must hold up to the constant wear of vibrating metal strings pressed against it. The fittings other than the fingerboard are sometimes of a wide variety of woods, since their hardness is not as critical, and their appearance is paramount.
I have been looking for a domestic replacement for these rainforest woods for a number of years. The hardest native wood that grows in New England is eastern hophornbeam. I cut one a few years back and have been experimenting with it since. It is a fine wood for most fittings, certainly, but while it is good, it does not hold up quite as well as ebony for the fingerboard. In addition, it is light in color and many classical musicians object to this. Nevertheless I prefer using it to cutting rainforest wood, and thus it can be seen on my Art Nouveau violin as well as on Russell McCumber's violin.
2. How long does it take to build a violin?(back to top)
For a violin, the woodworking, plus varnish application, plus setup takes about 160 hours (1 1/2 months). The finished instrument takes somewhat longer as there can be considerable drying time for the varnish, depending on it's formulation. The woodworking for a cello is more along the lines of two months or so.
3. Tell me about the varnish. (back to top)
Varnishing is perhaps the most challenging part of building a violin. The varnish must be transparent and of the correct index of refraction to allow light to penetrate the wood and make it sparkle. In addition, it must add considerable color to the wood without being splotchy or uneven, and must retain just the right amount of hardness and flexibility so as to enhance the tone of the instrument.
The tone is most definitely affected by the varnish, but those who claim that it is the key element are greatly oversimplifying matters. It is tantamount to saying that the performance of an automobile is determined by the transmission. It plays an important part, yes, but without a good engine, tires, suspension, chassis, etc. it's rather a lame duck.
Similarly, the varnish plays a key role in the very complex interactions that result in a pleasing sound. Perhaps surprisingly, its requirements for good tone are rather simple. Its application to the wood affects the way the wood vibrates. To reinforce the desirable frequencies of sound, and to mute the undesirable frequencies, the varnish must have the correct flexibility and damping. Both are directly related to how hard or soft the varnish is, as well as how brittle or fluid it is. To achieve great sound, the varnish must have the correct mix of fluidity and hardness. Through trial and error this can be, and has been, achieved in many different formulations by different makers.
Varnishes for violins are usually either oil or spirit based. Oil varnishes are generally a mixture of linseed oil and one or more resins, either cooked together or simply blended with turpentine. Spirit varnishes are a mixture of shellac and one or more resins blended with alcohol. Both types of varnish are quite venerable, though Stradivari seems to have used an oil varnish, and makers in the 1800's seem to have moved toward spirit varnishes.
While both varnishes are good, each has it's advantages. Oil varnishes are easier to apply evenly with a brush, require fewer coats, and are to some degree self-leveling. With spirit varnishes it's easier to maintain transparency while adding light-fast colorants, and each coat dries much faster. Spirit varnishes can be devilishly hard to apply evenly with a brush, but this problem is obviated with modern spray equipment.
To really achieve a beautiful transparent look, with good depth and a warm glow, one must combine several different varnish elements. To give but one example, here are the steps I often follow in varnishing my instruments:
4. What's all this about Stradivari and his secrets? (back to top)
Antonio Stradivari lived in Cremona, Italy from 1644-1737.(On his violin labels he Latinized his name, as was popular at the time, to Stradivarius -- "of Stradivari"). Across the street was another famous maker who's instruments are even more prized for their tone than Stradivari's, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu. Interestingly, during Strad's lifetime his instruments were not the most favored, nor were Guarneri's, but rather a German maker, Jacob Stainer, was considered the best.
To understand why, we must consider the instrument the way it was then. Strings were made of plain gut, few performers were what people today would consider virtuosos, and performance venues were often very small by modern standards.
As a result, musicians were not looking for powerful, piercing, dark, quick responding instruments. They needed instruments that had a mellow, sweet, gentle sound to offset the nasal, thin sound that strings of the time produced, and volume did not much matter. Stainer's instruments have a very high, sharply defined arch to the top, and this tends to make sweet sounding instruments. Strad's instruments were absolutely beautifully made -- he was a superb craftsman -- but if you listen to one set up in the Baroque style you may find it lacking.
In the mid to late 1800's all this changed. Paganini introduced a virtuosity of playing to the genre that had not been heard before. Steel strings and metal wrapped gut strings were introduced, and concert halls expanded in size. To accommodate Paganini and other virtuosos, the necks were removed and replaced with thinner necks projecting higher off the belly of the instrument. Fingerboards were also thinned and lengthened. The bass bar was removed and replaced with a longer and higher bar. The soundpost was replaced with one of greater diameter. The bridge was removed and replaced with one of a new design which removed the harsh nasal tones and smoothed out the sound. On top of it all, many repairs were carried out on aging instruments, and often their bellies were re-thicknessed.
After all these modifications were carried out it was discovered that Stradivari's instruments sounded great! Now, who's responsible for the tone and playability of a Strad -- Stradivari or modern repairpeople?
I believe that the best craftspeople today are at least as good as Stradivari was. In fact, I think the current state of competitiveness has raised the craft well above what it ever was before. In addition we have better tools, improved lighting, much improved communication between living makers, and 400 years of experience to look back on and learn from.
There have been a few double blind sound tests of modern versus old Italian instruments, and they generally show the best of each period to be equal in quality. In addition they usually find more modern instruments near the top of the list than old instruments. The readers of Strings magazine agree; of those surveyed, 71% found the craftsmanship of modern instruments to be superior or equal to old instruments, and 58% found the sound quality of modern instruments to be superior or equal to vintage instruments.
5. What is the purfling for? (back to top)
The purfling, first of all, is an inlay. It usually appears as two black lines running around the edges of the top and back. It is actually a black, a white, and a black strip sandwiched together and glued into a 2 mm deep channel cut in either the top or back. Sometimes the strips are laminated together before installation, and sometimes they are installed as three loose strips. The strips can be either of wood or a composite fiber material.
To install the purfling, a violin maker first cuts a groove 2 mm deep and exactly the width of the purfling. He or she then bends the strips, using heat and water, to the proper curve. Next the maker cuts miters for the joints at the corners, and then the strips are glued into place using hide glue.
Purfling serves two purposes. The obvious one is that it dresses up the instrument aesthetically. Less obvious is that it presents a barrier to the propagation of cracks from the edge into the center of the instrument. A crack will generally follow the grain lengthwise. However, if a crack starts at the edge (this is most often the case) it will often stop when it hits the purfling.
There are two problems associated with purfling, however. On the back of a violin, the wood of the back extends upward in a small tongue over the heel of the neck. This tongue is called the button, and the heel of the neck is actually glued to it. If you look at a violin from the side, you can see that the leverage of the strings is such that they are trying to pull the button apart from the rest of the back. In fact the button is a critical element in resisting the pull of the strings.
Now think about the purfling. Its groove is 2 mm deep in a part of the back that may be only 3 mm thick. This groove cuts right across where the button attaches to the top. Very often cracks will form at the sides of the button, then follow the purfling across, and then, presto, the button breaks off.
Reattaching a button is an expensive repair, and it happens all too often. To combat this problem violin makers have tried various things, ranging from simply omitting the purfling from the button area, to morticing the purfling in a very shallow groove near the button. My own solution is to move the purfling in a curve away from the edge on that part of the back. I have started doing the same at the bottom of the back for visual symmetry.
On the top the purfling presents a different problem. In Stradivari's time the neck was placed on top of the ribs (the pieces of wood that form the sides) and nailed in place from the inside of the instrument's body. Also, the saddle (the piece of ebony that the tail gut travels over to hold the tailpiece) was made in such a way that it did not cut through the purfling. Thus the purfling was left intact, and it ran all the way around the top.
During the 1800's this changed. The neck was modified to improve playability and was morticed into the top and top block to make the connection more solid. This resulted in the neck cutting through the purfling. Also the saddle was modified so that it now cuts through the purfling.
This leaves two points at the sides of the neck, and two more at the sides of the saddle, where cracks can slip by the purfling. In addition, the grain in the neck and in the saddle is oriented differently from the grain in the top. This means that as the wood of the top shrinks with dry air in the winter, the saddle and neck do not shrink along the same dimension, but end up wedging the top apart, causing cracks. These cracks propagate themselves into the top heading straight for the bass bar and soundpost, the two most structurally important parts of the top. Once again, repair of these problems can be very costly.
To try to cure this problem, I have used the same approach I use on the back. Namely, I curve the purfling in, away from the edge, such that it makes a continuous barrier around the entire top. This should allow the purfling to stop cracks which start at the saddle or neck from propagating further. Cracks which are limited to the area outside the purfling are a much more trivial matter to glue back together.
6. What are octave strings? (back to top)
Octave strings are strings that are designed to be put on a violin or viola, but that are tuned one octave lower than usual for that instrument. This makes a viola equivalent to a cello, and a violin one fifth up from that.
There are two manufacturers, that I know of, making them. Thomastik makes a steel rope core version, and Super-Sensitive makes a perlon core version. I think the steel give a bit more punch, but the perlon are less expensive and come in a wider range (a C for five string violin).
You won't get much volume acoustically from them, but it's enough for a living-room situation, and, of course, if you amplify your instrument the sky's the limit. It's a bit counter-intuitive, but you generally want to put them on an instrument that's bright, not dark, as those high overtones will reinforce and focus the nearly non-existent deep notes.
For more info on octave strings see Darol Anger's web page. He's the octave violin guru (he calls it a baritone violin, though, which I do think is a nice sounding name). To purchase octave strings I recommend JustStrings.com.
7. What is a T-nut? (back to top)
The nut is the piece of wood (usually ebony) that the strings ride over at the pegbox end of the fingerboard.
On a cello the pegbox must be made quite wide to accommodate the thick strings, and this results in it having squared off corners that project beyond the width of the neck. These corners are not comfortable for a musician's hand to rest against, and they prevent a player from sliding his or her hand back to play in 1/2 position.
Sometimes a viola may be made with a cello-style pegbox, and this causes the same problem for the violist.
To alleviate this problem many makers (including myself) fit a nut that is T-shaped rather than straight across. The bottom of the "T" extends a few millimeters down the neck, so the fingerboard really begins a bit further away from the pegbox. This in turn moves the player's hand further down the neck, away from those sharp corners.
8. A few words about tailpieces and fine tuners. (back to top)
Many musicians, especially cellists and other players who use steel strings, like to have fine tuners on the tailpiece. Properly fit pegs should be easy to use for gut or perlon strings, but steel strings are more sensitive to slight changes in tension. Also, humidity changes can cause all sorts of havoc with friction pegs.
Generally a fine tuner is placed on the tailpiece for the E string of a violin, the A of a viola, and the A and D of a cello. If you use the sort of fine tuner that projects out from the end of the tailpiece it can cause several problems. First, sometimes this sort of tuner will hit the top of the instrument and mar it. Second, it shortens the distance from the bridge to where the string is affixed to the tailpiece. This can have an adverse effect on the sound. Ideally this distance (called afterlength) should be 1/6 of the string length in front of the bridge, to provide the proper overtones. Third, especially if you use more than one, the fine tuners add enough weight to the tailpiece to deaden some harmonics.
If you want to have fine tuners I have several recommendations. First, if you're only in need of one or two tuners, use the "Hill" style that don't project beyond or below the tailpiece. Next, if you want four tuners, use a tailpiece with built in tuners. There are several on the market; choose one that maintains a light weight (but not too light...). The nicest are wood with carbon graphite tuners. This maintains the aesthetic and acoustic qualities of wood while maintaining the proper afterlength and weight. I install one made by Les Bois d'Harmonie on my cellos.
Finally, there is another, new, option. There are pegs that look and fit like regular pegs, yet which have an internal planetary gear mechanism such that each turn of the peg head results in only a small movement of the peg shaft. This is an elegant solution. I have tried these pegs, and they do seem to work well, though there are still a few manufacturing problems that need addressing. The taper of the shaft is not quite right to allow easy installation, and, as far as I can determine, they are only available with plastic heads. Once the taper is addressed and the heads are available in different woods and styles I would certainly recommend them. Unfortunately, the current design requires the shaft to be glued into the instrument with polyurethane glue. As this glue is very difficult to remove it would not be appropriate to use these pegs on a valuable instrument. Hopefully they can be modified so as to allow installation with reversible materials. Here're two links you can look at: http://www.knilling.com/index.htm and http://www.pegheds.com/.
9. What's the difference between a violin and a fiddle? (back to top)
The short answer: nothing. The long answer: the instrument itself is generally the same, but there are a few violin-like instruments that are always referred to as fiddles. The most common would be the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle which has numerous sympathetic strings running under the fingerboard. Generally, various non-standard homemade violins are referred to as fiddles, but the term fiddle also gets used by some even when referring to a Stradivari violin.
As far as the music goes, the distinction is a bit clearer. Usually if you're playing classical music you're a violinist. If you're playing folk music of any variety you're a fiddler, but if you're playing jazz it could go either way....
Most classical violinists will use gut or synthetic strings. Folk fiddlers tend toward steel strings, though many will also use synthetic. Jazz players, as always, cover the whole spectrum.
Finally, many players of music other than classical prefer to have slightly less curve in the top of the bridge. This facilitates playing double and triple stops.
10. What are your prices? (back to top)
Prices for each instrument in the gallery section are given at the end of each description.
My straight new instruments are priced as follows: violin $5,100, viola $5,800, cello $14,500, and bass $18,000 - $24,000. If you want antiquing or other special/custom features I can give you a price after we talk specifics.
Electric instruments are generally less expensive. If you want a very simple solid-body electric it could be as low as $1,800. Acoustic-electrics would be closer to the prices for traditional instruments. I can also make an instrument to your own specifications, including any particular design, carvings, decorations, and electronics you may want.
In addition to making, I do repair and restoration work. Prices for repairs are very hard to give before looking at your instrument. However, for simple standard procedures, here are a few examples:
New Bridge - Vn $50, Va $55, Clo $90, Ba $120 / $160 w/aluminum adjusters
New Soundpost - Vn/Va $35, Clo $45, Ba $55
Bow Rehair - $40
Please contact me if your instrument needs a repair, and we can schedule an appointment. Thanks.
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