Construction: Working the Wood

Making a violaThere is an old saying, “To make a violin, take the wood and carve away all that is not the violin.” Though this vastly oversimplifies the process, it is nevertheless essentially what we violinmakers do. Skills we need to do that “carving away…” include use and sharpening of knives, chisels, gouges, handplanes, fingerplanes and scrapers. Skill in wood carving, some artistic, visual aptitude, and good hearing are required. The experience of playing is very helpful.

scrollAfter selecting the wood, I begin the process by making the scroll. Then the rib assembly takes shape which makes up the sides of the violin and is built around a form. Bending the ribs [sides] made of highly figured maple is challenging, as the wood wants to remain straight or break across the flames rather than bend. Adding little reinforcing strips called linings gives the structure a little more strength and stability.

From the outline of the rib assembly, I trace the shape of the top and back onto prepared maple and spruce. The bulk of the work on an instrument is taken up with the back and top as every bit of them affects the tonal outcome. The two halves of a two-piece back or top must be joined, sawn to the outline, and the archings developed by use of a gouge. After the outline is complete and the purfling inlaid, the final shape of the arching is fingerplaned and scraped to a smooth surface, free of any irregular undulations.

ArchingIt is in shaping the arching that a violinmaker’s skills part ways with nearly any other wood worker or sculptor. Other disciplines require a bit of this skill but within the trade of violinmaking, this beautiful shaping is sculpting of great delicacy taken to a high art. It is precisely when the violinmaker refines the final shape of the arching that the foundation for the voice of the instrument is laid.

After the outside arching surfaces are finished, I begin removing wood from the inside of the back and top archings. For this work I use a gouge, fingerplanes and scrapers. Throughout the process of removing wood and shaping the inside arches, the weight, flexibility, and tap tones are closely monitored. As I near the final dimensions, I employ numerous different methods to check for bendiness and clarity of tap tones, etc. Additionally, careful measurements are maintained and ultimately recorded in a file that I keep for each instrument.

making the archingThe F-holes are cut into the top [first with a fine saw, then with a long pointed knife] and the bassbar is fitted and glued. Meanwhile, the back is permanently attached to the rib assembly and the inner form is removed. With the form out of the way, the top is glued to the back and ribs and suddenly the loose pieces become unified into a light and resonant box.

To add to the workshop drama, the finished scroll is fitted and glued into the body, thus creating an instrument. The final neck shaping to the fingerboard and the violin or cello is finished “in the white”. The wood work is complete.

Varnishing the Instrument

varnishing a celloOne of the great thrills for a violinmaker is to apply the varnish. The thrill includes occasional terror as the process can easily become very troublesome. While varnish is intended to make the instrument look beautiful, it can often make a violinmaker scowl. The medium of oil varnish can be utterly unpredictable. Despite the tension, this adds to the excitement and remains my favorite task.

I use oil varnish, some of which I make myself and some of which I buy from some specialist suppliers. My objective is to use ingredients that are as close to historically authentic as is possible. The great Cremonese and Venetian varnishes of the 17th and 18th century demonstrate such beauty and longevity, that every luthier does well to emulate them.

The varnish is applied in the time-honored manner with a brush. Depending upon several factors, the varnish can be finished in three to four coats or it can take as many as eight. Each coat must dry in the sun to bask in the ultra-violet rays that dry the oils in the varnish.

Varnish is intended to make beautiful wood look even better. My primary objective when varnishing is to strive for the most beautiful result I can possibly achieve. I religiously avoid any quick-fix attempts to artificially age the wood as such methods could damage the long term acoustical health and potential life of the instrument.

Fit-up and Acoustical Adjustment

After the varnish has dried sufficiently for me to safely handle the instrument without damaging the finish, I install the fittings: the fingerboard, nut, saddle, pegs, soundpost, bridge, and tailpiece.

stringsAnd then the fun begins, as the instrument gives forth its first sounds. In the first two or three days, as the strings apply tension, a certain stretching and settling occurs, which causes the instrument to sound as if it has a bad cold. Within just a few days, the sound begins to clear and strengthen. During this time, adjustments may be made to the soundpost to enhance the response and tone.

The adjustment aspect of the finished instrument can become somewhat involved and can require a certain amount of patience. Sometimes an instrument will be shy to reveal its true strengths so they must be pursued and discovered.

Adjustment approaches include making changes in soundpost location, bridge height/thickness/location, string gauge, string height over the fingerboard, angle of the strings over the bridge, weight of the fittings, and tuning the after-length below the bridge.

When the instrument has reached the stage of sounding very strong and clear, the response is fast, and the tone is even across all registers properly representing its full potential of depth and brilliance, then my work as a violinmaker is concluded.

At this point, the violin, viola, cello, or bass is ready to venture out of my workshop and into the world to make music in the hands of its new owner.