Modern day craftsman still follow a tried and tested methodology pioneered by Antonio Stradivari to handcraft violins.
With most things in life, you get what you pay for and the same is true for musical instruments. Take the staple of most orchestras - the violin. These can be purchased for under £100 from most music stores, but top musicians will pay considerably more for handcrafted, custom-made instruments.Since the late 17th Century, when Antonio Stradivari began making violins, there has been controversy about whether higher priced, custom-made instruments have superior sound. Today, a Stradivarius violin is worth millions of dollars. A 1721 violin dubbed the Lady Blunt sold at auction for $15.9m this year.
The ‘Messiah’ violin made by Stradivarius in Cremona, Italy in 1716 is considered by many to be the consummate violin. The craftsmanship is exquisite and the spruce and maple are outstanding.
The Messiah violin remained unused in the Stradivarius workshop until the death of Antonius in 1737. Still never played, the violin was sold by Antonius’s son Paolo to Count Cozio di Salabue in 1775. Luigi Tarisio purchased the Messiah Stradivarius violin from Count Cozio in 1827 and Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume of Paris purchased the violin and the rest of Tarisio’s collection upon Tarisio’s death in 1854. Eventually, the Messiah Stradivarius made its way to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, where it remains unplayed to this day.
Mystique aside, the tonal quality of these instruments has never been proven scientifically. In a test carried out in 2009, British violinist Matthew Trusler played his 1711 Stradivarius alongside four modern violins made by Swiss craftsman Michael Rhonheimer. Half of the audience selected one of the Swiss instruments as sounding the best, with only 39 of 180 people opting for the Stradivarius. Despite that, the majority of world-class soloists still play a Stradivarius.
One of the best-selling violins on the market is the practical and reliable Primavera 4/4, which sells for around £80. It is a mass-produced violin and manufactured on a very strict budget. The wood that is used is not so well seasoned or such good quality, and most of the carving is done by machine.
The cheapest violins are made of inferior woods, often barely seasoned, and are mostly machine made. The finger board and pegs are made of a hardwood, which has been dyed black or ebonised. This hardwood is not as durable as ebony and is much more difficult to fit the pegs as the softer wood wears more quickly and swells or shrinks as the moisture in the atmosphere changes. Some days the pegs will stick on, other days they will slip.
A handmade instrument will take much longer to make. The wood will be carefully selected from better-seasoned stock and the carving will be done by hand. As it is being carved, the top and bottom plates will be adjusted and tuned by the craftsman, often called the Luthier, to meet a set of acoustic standards as well as physical dimensions.
Violin-making is very much an art and so much of the final sound is dependent on the skill of the luthier and his choice of wood.
That all comes with a hefty price tag. A handcrafted instrument can cost as much as £15,000. Alan Ward, owner of High Wycombe-based Alan Ward Violins, has been plying his trade since 1984. He summarises the difference between mass-produced and handcrafted instruments as a vast attention to detail. “We work in microns in wood - a quite difficult material to use in an object that is mostly curved,” he explains. “The varnish, which is transparent and coloured, cannot be sprayed, as deep areas like turns around the scroll miss colour depth or thickness, which appears like a negative photo. In truth, these crevices would naturally have an increase in darkness of varnish, which looks right.
“The varnish we use is like honey and is applied with a brush and tamping with the palm and fingers of the hand. About five coats will produce the finest quality result.”
Making a master
At Ward’s workshop, almost all the work is carried out with traditional tools: planes, gouges and chisels; as well as specialist violin-making tools: wood reamers (pegs), and peg shapers (for the shafts), thumb planes, small, thin, flexible steel oval sharp finishing scrapers, dial callipers to monitor thickness, and violin-maker’s knives in various sizes.
The use of machines is limited to a bandsaw to cut outlines of the fronts, backs and profiles of scrolls, and an arbotech (a three-toothed blade in an angle-grinder).
Ward explains that the production process is similar to other stringed instruments. In all cases, the back, ribs and neck/scroll are made of best quality maple or sycamore, and the front, or belly, is made of spruce pine.
First, a form is made to the body shape required using half-inch plywood and templates to build the ribs onto. The ribs - the 1.1mm thick sides - are bent around a hot ‘bending-iron’ to shape, and are then glued to six pre-shaped blocks already attached to the form at the four corners and one at each end of the body for the neck joint and endpin.
Hide glue, or rabbit-skin for newer instruments, is used as it is the palest colour and is ‘reversible’ or water soluble. This is the only glue used due to its longevity.
The back and front are quarter-sawn and previously centre-jointed with gossamer thin shavings in microns over the whole length. They are then glued and flattened to create the surface that the ribs will be glued to later. The rib-structure centre-aligned is placed on and drawn around, allowing a small overhang of about 2.5mm, and the outline sawn out on a band-saw or by hand.
The outer arching of the back and the front plate is carved to shape, and the edges filed square to size.
The purfling - two strips of pear wood dyed black, sandwiching a white poplar layer - is glued to a channel cut to half the depth of the edge thickness. The entire curved arching surface is scraped with thin sharp flexible metal scrapers to finish.
The plates are turned over for hollowing in a clamping jig device called a ‘danger-board’. The plates that are held at each end will flex during the hollowing process. The front is mostly uniform and the back is thicker in the centre, graduating thinner to the end areas and edges. Each plate is tap-tested for purity of ringing tone and pitch.
The ‘f’ hole positions are marked-out and cut using a fret-saw and a thin violin maker’s knife. The bass-bar position is determined and chalk-fitted to the curved inside surface of the belly. The square edges of the plates are rounded and the rib-structure removed from the form. Linings are added to thicken the rib-edges for gluing to the plates before the linings and blocks are trimmed. These three main parts of the body are then glued together. The body is now ready for the neck and scroll to be added.
The scroll and neck are one piece of wood, which is squared to the final width, marked-out with a profile template, and sawn out on a band-saw.
The various widths are marked-out and the sides of the peg-box followed by the nearly three turns of the scroll are removed using many various curved gouges.
A 45° chamber of 1.5mm is put around the sharp edges of the turns, along the peg-box edges, and around the chin. The scroll is then double-fluted.
The tapering fingerboard is prepared and glued to the neck. The width is slightly waisted at the neck-root because the string surface is slightly hollowed longitudinally to allow the string to clear the surface adjacent to the finger placed on the string. The neck matches the fingerboard widths and the neck-root is tapered from front to back to fit into the block at the end of the body.
Finally, the neck and the button at the top of the back are rounded, shaped and chamfered to match the chin or scroll.
“The violin is then ready for burnishing and sealing, followed by about five coats of very expensive coloured transparent oil varnish, with the final coat cultured, finished and left to firm-up for a month,” Ward adds. “All that remains is to fit-up the sound post, bridge, pegs and nuts. The end-pin, which acts as the anchor for the tail-piece and strings, is fitted, along with the saddle, which replaces a small section of the soft belly-edge to carry the tail-gut of the tail-piece at the bottom block. The tail-piece, tail-gut, string adjuster, and strings are finally added.”
It takes around 120 hours to make a violin, 150 hours for a viola and 300 hours for a cello. “The process is basically unchanged,” says Ward. “There have been some minor changes in techniques and new materials, but these don’t interfere with the finished product.”