How Violin Makers Create the Instruments | Part 1: Choosing and Shaping the Wood
With a nearly 500-year history, the modern violin is -- with a few key exceptions -- strikingly similar to those historical models. Throughout the centuries, the violin maker has been hailed as an unequaled craftsman, responsible for the sound, feel, and look of one of the world’s most expressive instruments.
It All Starts with the Right Wood
Choosing, aging, and working with the proper wood are essential in violin making. When selecting -- often personally -- materials from wood dealers that specialize in wood for instruments, the luthier is looking for several qualities. First, the wood should be aged at least five years.
“As wood dries, it becomes a better vibrating material,” explains John Dailey, luthier and head of Johnson String’s workshop. “It becomes more brittle, but much more resonant and responsive. The older the wood is to start, the better it is [for creating a violin].”
And that’s just the beginning. “Makers perform a ‘density’ test,” Daily continues. They’re looking for the “least weight for most strength; a hard but light wood” is best. Using a combination of listening, experience, and mathematics, the luthier will measure the volume of the wood, weigh it, and determine the “pitch” of the vibration (the speed of the sound through the wood).
The Maker Picks Which Type of Violin to Create
Violin makers can follow more than one path. Should they copy an existing model (like an Amati or a Stradivarius), or -- using geometry -- design their own model? In making these determinations, each luthier is considering what type of instrument to create. Should it be warm? Powerful? What should the final result look, feel, and sound like?
Science and Beauty: Creating the Body of the Violin
In the beginning, the sides of the violin, called the ribs, are shaped by bending them around and gluing them to a mold called a rib garland: a block cut in the shape of the inside of the violin.
Tracing the shape of the ribs, the violin maker will roughly cut the back and top (called plates), then use gouges to remove wood, leaving each plate arched into a bell shape. This is called carving. “A good luthier can tell the sound of the instrument just based on the arches,” Dailey says, “by flexing, weighing, and ‘listening’ to the plates.”
Finer tools, like finger planes, are used to further refine the arches. The luthier adds purfling (patterned inlays around the edges) which serves two purposes: besides being decorative, it enhances the strength of the violin.
After this, the craftsman will carve the f holes. Drawing the shapes based on geometry (including placement in relation to the bridge), the luthier drills a hole, uses a bow saw to cut it, and refines the edge of each f hole painstakingly.