The violin is the most modern embodiment of stringed musical instruments played with a bow. Like the guitar and other plucked string instruments, bowed instruments date from antiquity. Although its precise origins are not completely understood, it is probable that the violin (and its larger siblings the viola and violoncello) evolved during the mid-16th century in Northern Italy. In addition to perhaps being the maker of the first true violins, Andrea Amati (ca. 1500-1577) was the patriarch of the Cremona school of violin making. During the next 150 years, other members of the Amati family and their followers, who included Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri (1698-1744), brought the violin to its highest level of perfection both as a musical instrument and as a work of art. During the 17th century, violin making spread to all of the other countries of Europe and, in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the rest of the world. Although violins have been and are being turned out in large numbers by factories in Europe and Asia, most fine violins are handmade by individual craftsmen using essentially the same methods employed by classical Italian makers several hundred years ago.
Most of the tools required for violin making are the same as those used for most types of hand woodworking and carving: planes, chisels, gouges, knives, saws, and scrapers. In addition, a few specialized tools are needed. These include a thickness caliper, small curved bottom "thumb" planes, purfling groove cutter, peg hole reamer and matching peg shaver, bending iron, clamps of various types, and patterns. Many violin makers take pride in making some of their own tools. Indeed, one of the keys to success as a violin maker is developing the skills associated with making, using, and maintaining sharp edged tools.
The back, sides (ribs), and neck of the violin are most often made of matching quarter-sawn (cut along the radius of the log) maple. There are many species of maple, growing in different parts of the world, which are suitable. The criteria for selection include the straightness of the grain, the density and the figure of the wood, all of which contribute to the tonal characteristics and visual beauty of the finished instrument. The top of the violin is made of quarter-sawn spruce. The internal parts of the violin—the corner and end blocks and the linings—are usually made of spruce or willow, while purfling can be made of many different woods and/or "fiber" (thick paper or cardboard). The fingerboard is made of ebony, the bridge is maple, and the other fittings (pegs, tailpiece, chin rest) are ebony, rosewood, or boxwood. Rather than making these items from scratch, they are usually purchased in a finished or semi-finished form and customized or installed by the maker.
- 1 The first step in making a violin is to make the sides (ribs) from which the outline of the top and back will be taken. The ribs are constructed on an "inside" mold, which is a wooden form about 15 to 18 mm thick cut to the exact outline of the inside of the violin. Pieces of wood for the corner and end blocks are cut to approximate size and temporarily glued to cutouts on the mold at the proper locations. With the aid of a pattern and using gouges and files, the blocks are trimmed to the final shape of the inside contour of the violin. Slices of maple slightly wider than the height of the ribs, which are about 30 to 32 mm for a violin, are cut and planed to a thickness of 1 mm. Pieces are bent to the shape of the mold and blocks using a heated metal form. After trimming to slightly longer than the final length, the ribs are glued. To hold the ribs in place until the glue dries, countermolds shaped to match the outside contours of the ribs at the corners and ends are used. Pressure is applied by clamps or wrapping with string. Care must be taken to avoid gluing the ribs to the mold, which must be removed in a subsequent step. The ribs are glued in sequence starting with the middle bouts, which must be trimmed to final length at the corners before the upper and lower ribs can be added. The linings, strips of willow or spruce about 2 by 8 mm, are bent to shape using the bending iron, cut to length, and glued to the inside of the ribs. The corners are trimmed to their final shape, and the top and bottom surfaces of the ribs, linings, and blocks are planed and filed to be level at the final height.
Top and back
- 2 The tops of violins are almost always made from a wedge of wood which is cut or split, with the edges of resulting pieces glued together. This joint, for which the pieces must fit with absolute perfection, then becomes the centerline of the top. Maple for the backs of violins is treated the same way to make a two-piece back, however, it is possible to find a piece wide enough to make a one-piece back. Planing the wood to create a perfect center joint is an exacting task. After the pieces have been planed to fit well—as seen by holding the pieces together in front of a light—the edge of one piece is coated with chalk and rubbed against the mating edge. The areas in which chalk is transferred from one piece to the other identify places which must be shaved slightly with the plane to perfect the fit. This chalk fitting procedure is repeated until the fit between the two pieces is perfect, after which they are glued together and clamped. After gluing the center joint, the flat side of the back and top are planed flat. The ribs are placed on this flat side; a tracing around the ribs enlarged by 3 mm establishes the outline of the top or back (a 20 mm square is added at the top of the back for the button). These outlines are cut out using a bow or coping saw; many modern violin makers use a power band or scroll saw.
The outside arching of the top and back are next carved using gouges, thumb planes, and scrapers for the final smoothing. Five transverse and one longitudinal arching guides are consulted frequently as the plates take shape. The arching guides, which are different for the top and back, plus the out-line embodied in the mold, determine the design or model of the instrument. Most modern makers follow or copy the designs of great makers such as Stradivari or Guameri, while some have evolved their own. Next the interior sides of the top and back are carved out. The final thicknesses of the wood has a major influence on the acoustic performance of the finished instrument, and there are many systems in use for arriving at the optimum distribution of thicknesses. In general, most methods involve testing the resonance frequencies of the plates by tapping, flexing, or exciting them with sound, coupled with measurements of the thickness of the plate at many locations using a graduation caliper. Then, depending on the results and on the desired outcome, wood is gradually removed from various locations. Usually, makers seek to establish certain relationships, e.g. octaves, between the various resonances of each plate and between the two plates. Typical thicknesses of a finished back are 4.5 mm at the center decreasing to 2.4 to 2.5 mm in the upper and lower bouts. The thicknesses of the top are more uniform: about 3 mm over-all, and perhaps slightly thicker between the soundholes in the area of the soundpost.
Completing the top
- 3 The outline of the sound holes is transferred to the top, and these are cut out using a sharp knife; some makers use a punch or drill to cut the round holes. The bassbar is made of very straight grained, quarter-cut spruce (much like the top). The area where it fits is outlined on the side of the top, and the rough blank is trimmed to precisely fit the arching. The chalk-fitting method is employed again in this step. The bar is then glued in place and trimmed to its final contour. This again involves testing the resonance of the top, which was altered by the cutting of the sound holes as well as the addition of the bassbar.
Completing the body
- 4 The mold is now removed from the rib assembly by loosening the temporary glue bonds of the blocks to the mold. The top and back are then glued to the ribs. The glue holding the back should be full-strength. Thinner, weaker glue is used for the top; this provides for easy removal if service or adjustment is necessary, and will allow the seams to open in extremes of humidity and temperature rather than produce cracks in the wood itself. The groove for the purfling is marked a precise distance from the edges using a purfling cutter. The groove is deepened with a sharp knife and the wood in the groove removed with a purfling pick. The purfling strips, which can be bought ready or made by the violin maker, are bent to fit the groove using the bending iron. The pieces are then cut to the exact length, mitered to fit the corners, and glued in place. The channels which run over the purfling just inside the edges are cut with a gouge and blended into the arching with gouge, planes, and scrapers. Finally, the edge is rounded using knife, file, and perhaps sandpaper. (This is one of the only places in which sandpaper is used in the construction of a violin. All of the other surfaces should be finished with scrapers, which provides a crisp appearance to the workmanship and best reveals the beauty of the wood.)
- 5 A block of maple matching the back is squared on the sides and top with a plane. Next, the outline of the side view of the neck and scroll is traced on the quarter-cut side of the block. The wood outside the outline is sawed away. Patterns and outlines for the peg box, top surface of the neck, and the scroll are traced. A razor saw is then used to cut away wood around the scroll and neck outlines. Gouges and scrapers are used to finish the carving of the scroll, the details of which are one of the ways in which the violin maker expresses his individuality. The pegbox is excavated using chisels and gouges. The neck is cut to final dimensions using planes, knives, and scrapers. A mortise (cavity) to receive the neck is cut into the upper ribs, block, and top of the violin's body. The cut of the mortise and the root of the neck must be very precise, since the correct height and angle of the neck are critical to achieving a good tonal result. Chalk fitting is again employed. The neck is then glued into the mortise, and the final shaping of the heel of the neck and the button on the back is done.
- 6 There is a great deal of lore associated with the varnishing of violins. It has even been asserted that secret recipes are responsible for the extraordinary tonal characteristics of the old Italian violins. Regard-less of its possible effects on tone, it is certainly true that the varnish does serve other important purposes of beautifying the appearance and protecting the wood from wear, damage, moisture, and dirt. Thus the selection and application of varnish is vitally important. Because there are many types of varnish and working methods, the following rather general outline of finishing is provided:
- The finished violin is hung up to age for a time (in some cases several months or more), and may be exposed to sunlight. This will cause the wood to darken and bring out its figure. Many makers use less time-consuming alternatives.
- A sealer or pore filler is then applied.
- The vamish is applied in several coats. This may include coats of clear vamish followed by additional coats of colored varnish. Vamish is essentially a coating consisting of resins, which may be natural substances (e.g. copal or seedlac) or man-made. Color is imparted to vamishes by adding pigments or dyes. The color of the individual coats may be varied to produce the desired appearance. Following the colored vamish, an additional coat or two of clear vamish may be applied to protect the layers underneath.
- Since old-looking violins are more appealing to many players, some makers "antique" their instruments. The various methods of antiquing are usually trade secrets, and makers pride themselves on their individual results.
- The surface of the fully dried vamish may be rubbed out using some combination of abrasives (pumice, rottenstone, fine emery paper, etc.) and polishes.
- The part of the neck between the heel and the peg box is not varnished. Rather it is stained, sanded very smooth with fine emery paper and "french polished" (an application of shellac, and/or alcohol, and oil).
- 7 The top of the neck is planed flat, and the underside of the ebony fmgerboard is planed to fit and glued in place. The sides and top are finished with planes, scrapers and emery paper to be smooth and to have exactly the correct curvature. Gauges and straightedge are consulted frequently during this process. The ebony nut is cut to size, lightly glued at the top of the fingerboard, dressed to final shape, and grooves filed for the strings. A mortise is cut at the bottom of the violin into which is glued the ebony saddle. The pegs are shaved to the proper taper and diameter. Peg holes are drilled and reamed to match the pegs. Likewise, a hole at the bottom of the ribs is drilled, reamed, and fitted with the end pin.
The bridge and soundpost are the last parts to be fashioned; their fit and position greatly affect the sound and playing qualities of the violin. Starting with a precut blank, the feet of the bridge are cut to fit the arching of the top at the proper position—between the nicks of the soundholes. The top of the bridge is cut to an arch which matches the curvature of the fmgerboard and provides the proper height of the strings. The front side (facing the neck) is planed down to a thickness of about 4.5 mm at the bottom and tapering from the middle to 1.5 mm at the top. Grooves for the strings are cut and filed using a gauge to establish their proper position and spacing. The soundpost transmits the vibrations of the strings to the back of the violin. It is cut from a round piece of straight-grained spruce about 6 mm in diameter. Its length and ends must be cut so that it fits precisely in the proper location inside the violin, about 3 mm behind the treble foot of the bridge. A gauge may be used to measure the approximate length of the sound-post, but the final fit is a trial and error process. The soundpost is inserted and its position adjusted through the soundholes using a special tool. The strings are now fitted into the tailpiece, extended over the bridge and wound on the pegs. Once all four strings are installed, they may be tuned up to pitch and the violin played for the first time. What follows will be a period of adjustment as the violin becomes accustomed to the tension of the strings and their vibration. Numerous adjustments to the position of the soundpost, the bridge, types of strings, and perhaps other factors are usually necessary to optimize the tonal characteristics and playability.
It is likely that fine violins will continue to be handmade in the manner described above. However, there is a long history of experiments with new designs and materials of construction. Recent products of this are violins made of synthetic materials such as plastic. Some of these have solid bodies, while others are of a traditional design using synthetic materials for some parts. There are also electric violins, in which the vibrations of the strings are converted to an electrical signal by a pick-up or microphone, which is then amplified and output to a speaker or computer interface. There are a number of such "high tech" instruments on the market today; they are mainly used to play jazz and popular music. In the realm of classical music, the traditional violin is by far the dominant choice.
Where To Learn More
Hill, William Henry, et al. Antonio Stradivari: His Life and Work 1644-1737. Dover Publications, 1963.
Hill, William Henry, et. al. The Violin-Makers of the Guarneri Family (1626-1762). Holland Press, 1965.
Sacconi, Simone F. The Secrets of Stradivari. Cremona, 1979.
Buchanan, George. Making Stringed Instruments-A Workshop Guide. N. Y. 1990.
—Andrew M. Sherman
Several types of stringed musical instruments, among them the violin, the viola, and cello, cannot be successfully played without a bow, and are therefore referred to as "bowed stringed instruments." Because they are almost always heard while being bowed, the bow is considered an integral part of their tone production, contributing its own individual character and timbre. The use of different bows on the same instrument will produce correspondingly different tonality as a result. Most instrumentalists believe the bow's quality to be as important as the instrument's, and fine bows are therefore manufactured and selected with the utmost care.
The practice of using a bow of some sort to make musical sound is so ancient that its origin can only be surmised. The most likely scenario is that the ancient hunting bow, its string treated with mixtures of wax and resin to hold the strands together, served as either instrument or bow in different contexts. From this primitive origin, the bow went through countless stages of evolution. The latest and most important to us today are the so-called "early" bow and the "modern" bow. All the bows of these types have important things in common: they are tapered sticks of special woods that are permanently bent to an arch, and have a flattened length of horsehair, stretched, under some tension, from end to end of the stick. One end is usually pointed, and the other squared off and usually fitted with a small raised portion to fasten and adjust the hair tension. The pointed end of each is called the "tip," and the raised portion of the other end, the "nut," or later, the "frog." (Experts are unclear as to how the latter name evolved.)
The early bow (sometimes referred to as the "baroque" bow) is based on the oldest and most obvious of designs, and has a curve that bows away from the hair. This type of bow was in common use until some time in the early 19th century, when the modern bow came into use. Although their design made these bows agile and responsive, their delicacy was not suitable for the pressure needed for louder and more forceful playing. As the concert halls and orchestras became larger, the violin family instruments received subtle modifications to suit the demands of the great performers. No modification was possible for the early bow however, and it suffered a swift extinction at the hand of the modern bow. After the modern bow's inception, the early bow became&Amost unheard of until it was revived in the late 1960s by early music enthusiasts seeking to recreate the ambiance of that time period.
The modern bow was a revelation after its introduction in France around the turn of the 19th century. The Tourte family is generally given credit for giving the modern bow its accepted final form, much as Antonio Stradivari contributed to the making of the violin. Modern bow manufacture reached its pinnacle in Paris between the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, and bowmakers came from all over Europe to collaborate with the famous French workshops and share their excellent reputation for bowmaking. The biggest changes in the modern bow involved inverting the curve of the stick into the hair, to give it more tension and resistance; shortening the tip to a squat hatchet-like shape to quicken the flex of the stick; introduction of a screw and eye adjuster for finer adjustment of the hair; and the adoption of Pemarnbuco wood as the standard wood for the stick. Eventual further improvements included adaptation of a ferrule on the frog to hold the hair spread the full width of the frog, at any tension. The makers experimented with many subtle modifications, including building sticks with round or octagonal shafts, using precious metals and materials for the mountings, and incorporating subtle changes in the dimension and curvature of the stick. Today, fine bows are made in much the same, if not exactly the same, manner as they once were by the craftsmen who designed them in France over 150 years ago.
The making of the bow begins with the selection and rough cutting of the correct woods and raw materials. Pemambuco wood is the accepted type of wood from which the stick of the bow is fashioned. Pernambuco wood grows only in the Amazon delta region in a Brazilian state of the same name. Actually there are several sub-species of this wood, many of which are completely extinct, and others which are rapidly nearing extinction. After harvesting, the logs are sawn into planks, and then into "blanks" which are cut into the rough outline resembling the stick and its tip. The ebony for the frog is split from log cross sections into small wedges which resemble the finished outside dimensions. Sheet silver or gold is prepared to the thickness of the various metal fittings, and a round ebony stick or dowel is prepared to make the adjuster barrel. The decorative pearl slide and pearl eyes are fashioned from specially milled sheets of abalone or mother of pearl shell, sawn and filed to rough size and shape.
Roughing the stick
- 1 Roughing the stick refers to the process of carving and planing the stick to its approximate finished dimensions. The squared off blank of Pemnambuco wood is either held across the corner of a bench, or along the length of a special board, and planed by hand with specially designed planes, fashioning the stick into its characteristic octagon shape. Using a direct heat device such as a spirit lamp or gas burner, the stick is heated slowly until it becomes flexible enough to bend. When ready, the stick is bent into an approximate or rough curve. When cooled, the stick is set aside, and the work on the frog begins.
Roughing out the frog
- 2 The frog begins with the fashioning of the metal fittings. Several parts require soldering as well as bending and shaping. The ferrule, much like a half round ring, is a semicircular length of sheet silver soldered to a flat one. The button for the adjuster needs one or two silver rings. The other metal parts include a silver liner, which is shaped to three facets of an octagon on a steel die, to conform to the three facets on which it will contact the stick. If the frog is designed with a back plate, the plate is shaped and bent to the 90 degree angle of the back of the frog where it is to be inlaid.
The ebony wedge is trimmed to length and planed true to its center on all sides with a small razor sharp block plane. The various metal fittings are fit onto the frog in their respective places. Although modern commercial manufacture uses milling machinery to accomplish this part, the best modern builders have no problem doing this work by hand.
The fitting of the metal to the frog begins with drilling a 3-mm hole called the "throat" just under the area where the ferrule is located. The ferrule is fit onto the wider part of the throat with a knife and small chisels until it fits back flush and level. The sides are shaped concave with a gouge. The slot for the pearl slide, with its 20 degree under-cut sides, is next to be shaved out with the chisels. The cavity for the hair, called the hair mortise, is drilled and carved into the frog with a bow drill and chisel. The liner is then fit to the narrow edge of the frog's length using the chisels. The liner conformns to the top three facets of the stick's octagonal shape and is the bearing surface of the frog against the stick. A tapered silver back-plate extending from the back of the pearl slide slot to the center facet of the liner is inlaid to the flat end of the frog. The frog is then shaped using a knife, files, and small scrapers made of thin steel sheet. The decorations, called the eyes, are inlaid into the sides of the frog at this point. Then the ebony dowel for the adjuster button is fashioned separately on a lathe.
Fitting the frog to the stick
- 3 After the frog is done, the next job is to fit it to the roughed out stick. This is done by chalking the liner of the frog and rubbing it against the facets of the stick at the point where the frog makes contact. Through a process of marking the stick in this way and carefully planing, scraping, and filing the marks away, the frog is brought into the proper contact with the three bottom facets. Then holes are drilled in the stick for the screw and eye assembly which attaches the frog to the brass nut at the end of the stick.
Finishing the stick and frog
- 4 The first step here is to fit an ivory plate to the head or tip of the bow. A plate of ivory is prepared with a raised section for the right angle of the "beak" with a thin lamination of ebony veneer all along its inside surface. The ivory is glued to the bottom face of the head.
The shaping of the head is done with a knife and files. This work usually follows an established model and is accomplished with the means of a pattern or template, which is alternately traced and compared with the carving as it progresses. The elegant head models of the classic bows are often very beautiful, and have inspired connoisseurs the world over to collect them. All the great bowmakers imprinted their work with their own personal style, and experts are easily able to recognize most of the important styles, each head being akin to the signature of the maker. Once the head is finished, the mortise for the hair is cut into it, and the finishing of the stick can continue.
The stick must be now brought into final dimension, a process called graduation. The stick tapers from 3.5-5.0 mm just behind the head to 6.5-8.5 mm at the button end. Using a gauge or caliper, the craftsman skillfully planes this transition of thickness into the stick. The whole process must be done while preserving the integrity of a perfect octagon. The octagon's transition into the head is most difficult, and ends with the top three facets converging upwards, the two side facets becoming the side of the head, and the bottom three becoming the back of the head and the chamfers (a thin finish cut, at a 45 degree angle to the sides). All of this work is accomplished with either the plane in the case of the facets, or the knife and file for the detailing of the head. The stick is simply held by hand across a flat board or the corner of the workbench while planing the facets. The head is simply held in the hand while finishing.
If the stick is to be finished round, as many are, the edges of the octagon are planed away after graduation, and the stick is rounded off in this manner to an area about 1.6-2.4 inches (4-6 cm) in front of the frog. The area where one holds the bow is almost always octagonal.
Treating the stick
- 5 The bow usually has no real varnish as such because Pernambuco is inherently dark and oily. But the stick may be subjected to a number of chemical treatments to achieve its characteristic chocolate brown color. Bathing the stick with nitric acid, and then following with a neutralizing exposure to ammonia fumes is the most common color treatment. The bow is given additional sheen and protection by a technique known as "French polishing." This involves the application of a dilute solution of shellac, sometimes mixed with other gums or resins, with a lightly oiled rag held wrapped around the fingers.
The roughing and finishing of bow sticks do not vary in technique from hand making to commercial manufacture. Most violin bows are made completely by hand. Only the speed of production, quality of materials, and diligence in finishing distinguish the difference between the mediocre and the sublime.
Lapping and hairing the bow
- 6 The lapping or winding acts as a grip for the stick and is often called the "grip." It usually covers a 3-inch (7.6 cm) length starting from just in front of the frog and going toward the tip. It consists of some material, usually silver wire, wound in a compact spiral fashion around the stick. Part of the winding nearest the frog is covered with leather to protect the spot where the player's thumb rests.
The hairing of the bow is quite routine, as the hair wears from playing and must be frequently replaced. The horsehair is purchased already selected, drawn, and bundled in uniform lengths. A small amount is separated from this and a small rosined knot is fashioned at one end using very strong thin thread. The knot is made stronger by inserting the end of the hair into the heat of a flame, and expanding the hair behind it. A small wooden plug is carved to fit the mortise in the head, and the hair is turned under and fastened into the head with this plug, which holds the hair spread across the top edge in a neat uniform flat strip. With the frog all the way forward, the hair is measured to length, cut off, and after much combing and arranging, tied in a similar way at the end near the frog. Another wooden plug is fashioned for the mortise of the frog. The ferrule is slid over the hair and after much more combing, the hair is turned over and fastened again with a wooden plug, this time into the frog. The hair is combed again before pushing in the pearl slide, and again after sliding on the ferrule. A wooden wedge is carved to fit the width of the ferrule so as to hold the hair spread in a ribbon-like fashion. After some more combing, the wedge is pushed into the ferrule against the hair and trimmed off with a knife. With the application of some rosin on the hair, for grip, the new bow is ready to play.
Where To Learn More
Henderson, Frank. How to Make a Violin Bow. Murray Publishing Co., 1977.
Retford, William. Bows and Bow Makers. The Strad, 1964.
Roda, Joseph. Bows for Musical Instruments of the Violin Family. W. Lewis, 1959.
vi·o·lin / ˌvīəˈlin/ • n. a stringed musical instrument of treble pitch, played with a horsehair bow. The classical European violin was developed in the 16th century. It has four strings and a body of characteristic rounded shape, narrowed at the middle and with two f-shaped sound holes. DERIVATIVES: vi·o·lin·ist / -ist/ n.vi·o·lin·is·tic / -linˈistik/ adj.
Hence violinist XVII.