The Timeless Art of Violin Making; A Brief History
The violin has fascinated both makers and players for more than four centuries. Surprisingly, it has had very few changes in its design during this time period. You may have heard the name Stradivari or Stradivarius (in Latin), but history acknowledges Andrea Amati as the first violin maker. He was from Cremona Italy (c.1500–1577). Amati’s workmanship set the standard in violin making for future generations. Three generations in the Amati family followed him in this trade, which would take us to the year 1740. As with most trades during this time period, the sons of the family would continue in the father’s trade. Noble families and royal courts during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries commissioned the making of these instruments. Thus the occupation, craft, and art of violin making were born. There were many great Cremonese makers, such as Stradivari, Guarneri, Stainer, and Bergonzi, who for brevity’s sake will have to go unmentioned. Countless contemporary makers also produce instruments that provide superior sound.
The violin has a very wide range, from clear and bright to rich and powerful. Some have been known to say that it reflects the range of the human voice with its colorful tones. With this range ability, the violin can be used by skillful hands to bring a person into the very presence of God.
The violin does not have its beginnings with a musician, but rather with its maker. One whose skillful hands create a violin is called a luthier. A luthier is a person who makes and repairs stringed instruments. Although a violin may seem like an assembly of wooden parts that are simple to put together, it is actually a complicated acoustical instrument. This challenges the maker to stay within a certain framework of parameters to achieve great sound while maintaining comfort and functionality for the musician. It would take a book or two to describe a complete step-by-step guide about the process of making a violin. With this article, I hope to pique your interest in this lost art of violin making and demonstrate the value of a handcrafted instrument versus a mass-produced instrument.
The Making of a Violin
Although small exceptions exist, the wood traditionally used to make a violin is maple for the back, ribs, and scroll; the top is made of spruce. Good violins are made with “seasoned” wood that has had time to naturally dry for many years. I like to use wood that has been seasoned for a minimum of fifteen years.
Making a violin requires a variety of tools. Most of them are common hand tools, such as handsaws, planes, files, chisels, and gouges. A few custom tools also are needed, such as a bending iron to bend the ribs, a purfling channel cutter to inlay the purfling, soundpost setters, peghole reamers, and calipers that measure the front and back plates and will ensure proper thickness, just to name a few.
Hide glue is another item commonly found in a violin maker’s shop and is the only acceptable glue for violin making. Its name suggests its origin; it is made from proteins found in animal hide, connective tissues, or bones. Dehydrated granules are warmed in water to make a consistency to that of honey, although you wouldn’t want to mistake it for honey. (My children never liked the smell of it.) Hide glue is used because it allows the maker to have a remarkably strong bond that can also be carefully removed when a repair is needed. Regular wood glue would never be acceptable, because in many cases wood glue becomes stronger than the wood itself, which would create a whole new set of problems.
Let’s Get Started
First we must decide what model or pattern we will follow. In this case, a Stradivarius model will provide the blueprint we need to begin the construction. Using the Stradivarius pattern, I cut out a mould to guide me in this process. Then I form the ribs using a bending iron and water; this procedure creates steam to penetrate the wood and to create flexibility in the wood fibers, which enables the wood to conform to the outline of the mould. Once the bending has taken place, I have a completed “garland of ribs” that is glued to blocks on the mould. I use this new outline of ribs to trace its outside form onto the front and back of the selected wood of the violin.
Now I begin to cut out the wood, following the outside pattern for the back and front. Then I carve the outside, or convex arch, using guides with precise measurements for our model. The tools used in this process begin with larger gouges, then get smaller and finer. Finally, I use planes and sharp scrapers, which will give the outside a smooth finish.
Next I inlay the purfling into the top and bottom of the violin, a detail in violin making that often goes unnoticed by many. The purfling is a small sandwich of three strips of wood, usually one white piece of wood sandwiched by two black pieces. This small wood is bent to the shape of the violin and inserted around the violin in a channel cut approximately 3mm from the edge. Although this feature adds some aesthetic properties, it also has exceptional functionality, as it helps prevent and stop cracks in the surface of the violin. On many factory-made violins, a shortcut to the detailed and time-consuming process is taken by painting the purfling lines onto the instrument. This is one way you can distinguish between a quality handcrafted violin and an inferior factory model.
One of the most important steps in the violin-making process is ensuring that the plates of the top and back of the violin are cut to a precise thickness. It is a step that really can make or break the sound of a violin. In factories and workshops in which instruments are mass produced or on violins whose makers lack skill or experience, the result is an inferior-sounding violin, viola, or cello. With this step, the maker will pay painstaking attention to the thickness of the wood to develop the right density, flexibility, and then sound of the violin, even before it is assembled. In the last twenty to thirty years, a significant amount of research and scientific study has been carried out about how to effectively predict the outcome of a great-sounding violin, based on plate thickness. New apparatuses to aid the violin maker have been designed as well.
To add a bit of character, this is the point where I enjoy adding a favorite Scripture verse or inscription of the musician’s choice to the inside of the violin before it is glued together. In one of my violins I artistically burned on the surface of the wood a portion of the old hymn titled “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” because I used the beautifully figured birdseye maple to create that particular violin. This small artistic addition mostly goes unnoticed, unless the musician points it out to others. The words can be seen by looking inside the violin through the sound holes or f-holes of the instrument.
Now it’s time to carve out the scroll of the violin. It has been said that the scroll is the hallmark of a maker. If regal, it is the coronation of the violin; if mean, it’s a reproach.
As with the rest of the violin, I start with a pattern that is traced onto a block of beautifully figured maple. I then proceed to carve and shape the final scroll, just before preparing it to fit to the violin body.
Now the outer color and finish of the violin must be chosen. There is a bit of mystique in the varnish-making process, because many violin makers are hesitant to give away their “secret recipes.” A variety of methods may be used to varnish a violin, but I prefer to use the Old Italian Cremonese process; it results in beautiful, clear finishes that will not dampen the sound but rather will enhance it. I use an oil varnish recipe that calls for ingredients such as egg whites, pine resin, amber, seedlac, linseed oil, and lavender oil, as well as natural pigments for color. The hesitancy to share the perfect recipe is due to a lack of information about the exact proportions used by the old Cremonese makers. Some makers and scientists today tout that they have discovered it, although it’s not without argument.
Thick lacquer is sprayed on factory-made, student-model violins. The lacquer is like that of a guitar, and it dampens the sound by reducing the vibration within the instrument. But our special recipe avoids that dilemma! Our varnish ingredients are all applied by hand or with a brush in micro layers so as not to inhibit any vibration.
At this point, we have reached a major milestone. The last coat of varnish has been applied, and the anticipation of soon hearing the violin builds. The drying time can take weeks or months, depending on humidity, temperature, and the type of varnish used.
When the varnish dries, I determine the type of surface finish the new violin will have: glossy, matte, or a finish ranked between those two types. This decision is determined by the customer or according to maker preference. With one violin, I used natural finishing earth powders such as pumice stone, rotten stone, and tripoli to bring the violin to a lustrous finish.
The Final Setup
Finally we reach the much-anticipated moment of setting up the violin. When the drying stage has been completed, it’s time to initiate the “setup,” which is a critical step within the production of a fine violin. Properly executed setup makes the playability of a violin much easier—or more difficult, if executed incorrectly. The setup also alters the sound of the instrument. During this step, many factors must be carefully considered, including the height and thickness of the bridge, the position of the soundpost, and the position of the tailpiece.
All of these precise measurements and careful considerations require keen attention to the instrument and to a player’s preference. In violin making, the required attention to detail, where every millimeter counts, you learn the character traits of patience and problem solving. I learn it too often.
Now it’s time for me to hand it over to my daughter, who plays rather well, to see if it passes the test. More importantly, now it’s time to begin using the new instrument to play music that will honor our Lord. After all, it’s all in vain if we are not doing it for Him.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, not much has changed with violin making in the past four centuries. Following this introduction to the process and the materials used to make each instrument, I hope it’s now a little easier to appreciate the craftsmanship required to take a portion of a tree and then, by hand, cut, bend, and carve it. The result is a handcrafted tool made of wood, an instrument that can be used by a skilled musician, seemingly easily, to create beautiful melodies.
It’s my prayer that your music will honor and glorify the Master Artist who crafted you!
“Praise him with stringed instruments.” (Psalm 150:4)
Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Winter 2010-11.
Used with permission. Visit them at theoldschoolhouse.com and view a sample copy of the magazine.