Violin Making 101: A blog about the history of violin making, with touches on the different kinds of wood

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An inside look at the violin making world

The violin – a musical instrument popular since medieval times. The classical instrument as we know it today was first developed around the 16th century in Italy and improved during the 17th and 18th centuries, some experiments and studies helped luthiers through the year to get to the perfect shape.

The first true violins were manufactured by Andrea Amati in Cremona, Italy, in the 15th century. And one very impressive fact is that from that time to now little has changed, which means the instrument has been almost perfect for centuries!

What leads us to the question, how is a violin made? In those 400 years, some changes have been made to the instrument’s design, as well as the choice of materials used to make the instrument. But today, we will cover some of those topics and give a background of what violin making really is.

From the process of making to the selection of different types of wood

The violin is commonly believed to have come from the Indian instrument known as the Ravanhatha, which was introduced to Italy by Arab traders during the early 11th century. The violin life actually starts from the wood. Once decided the model, the tone, and what the musician wants, it’s time for the luthier to select the wood that will have the properties needed for the new instrument. 

In handmade violins there might be some variation from model to model, each one has to follow exact measurements or the result will be different from what was planned.

The wood used for the bottom and top plates must be well-dried before it is cut into instrument sound boxes. And to do that, it is crucial to have a dry block of wood from at least ten years of drying. The thickness of the plates makes a difference in how sounds are produced, so this is an important step during the making of these musical instruments.

Beyond just making good violins, to create a truly great instrument, it’s important to not only be beautiful, but it must perform its assigned task well.

The Violin Wood, the unique and special touch of the instrument

A piece of tonewood, sealed and stacked for a decade, can reveal ugly knots and sap pockets when the violin maker finally takes it down to see it up. When searching for wood, a good fiddle maker can estimate which pieces of wood will make a better instrument by judging the wood’s tonal potential without using a spectrometer.

Fine violins are made from a variety of hardwoods including Maple, Spruce, Ebony, Boxwood, Willow, Poplar and Rosewood. Old-growth trees from high-altitude lands are used by violin makers because they tend to be harder, stronger and denser. In the winter, trees are cut down and dried by chopping billets and storing them in a cool place for many years. This process eliminates moisture from the wood and compacts the cell structure.

The back, ribs, neck, bridge and scroll are made from Maple or Poplar. The use of lighter Yugoslavian Maple over American Maple is preferred in the violin making process because it allows for greater flexibility when bending the instrument to achieve an optimal sound. Maple logs grown for lumber are often given the “flame” effect by the ripple-pattern growths.

Spruce, being a soft tonewood but also strong, makes the top of the violin as well as the bass bar and sound posts. When strings vibrate sound waves into the body of the violin, optimal acoustics depend on quality. Visually, spruce has fine vertical grains that appear on the front of the violin. Spruce or Willow is also best for the internal blocks and lining. Fingerboards, tailpieces, endpins and tuning pegs need to be made out of dense hardwood, commonly ebony. Ebony is the strongest of all hardwoods, and its black coloring is desirable on violins.

Violin Making is pure art! As mentioned in the National Geographic article, the violin’s versatility and expressiveness have helped it become the most popular instrument in the world.

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