The violin evolved with the use of woods that were readily at hand to instrument makers of their day: curly maple for the back, sides and neck, and spruce for the top. Although one can make good instruments from other woods, the time-honored choices continue to be used for most of the finest violins today. Although some contemporary makers are experimenting with other materials, most makers and players define a good violin by how well it conforms to the best of well-established traditions.
When I studied at the State Violin Making School in Mittenwald in the Bavarian Alps, the teachers took us into the hills to the north of town and showed us the maple trees their ancestors had used for violinmaking. Perhaps my teachers intended that I learn to use Bavarian maple, but what I learned instead is that one should use the wood that grows near where one lives and works. As a New Englander, I thus developed an interest in American, and particularly New England, wood, and have dedicated much time and effort to cutting, aging and using local woods.
The maple for the back of this violin is from a log I purchased in 1987 from Cersosimo Lumber here in Brattleboro. This wood is numbered 87-8, which means that it is cut from the eighth log I bought that year. I don’t know just where the tree grew, but I expect it was within 40 miles of my home. It is Red Maple (Acer rubrum), which is lighter (less dense) than Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), more similar to European Maple (Acer pseudoplatanus) and superior as a tone wood for violins.
Violins are traditionally made from curly, or flamed, maple. For reasons not fully understood, about 10% of red maple trees develop the wavy growth pattern we call flame. In selecting logs for my work I look for indications of curl on the surface, but opening a log is always a surprise. This flame is aesthetically pleasing, adding interest and personality to the instrument. While it has some effect on the sound of violin, more highly flamed instruments are not necessarily better.
This back is cut on the quarter, which means that the year rings run straight and vertical. Wood cut in this way will be stiffer and more stable than other grain orientations, and this allows for somewhat lighter construction while still maintaining brightness of tone. This log has a medium width flame (6-10 mm) at about 10 degrees off horizontal. The sides and neck I’ve selected are of maple of a similar appearance, but not from the same log.
Spruce is traditionally used for the top as it has an extremely high stiffness-to-weight ratio. I purchased the wood I am using in 1981 from the Granville Manufacturing Company, a venerable Vermont institution making bowls and clapboards—using much the same equipment since the 19th century. In a nice bit of serendipity, the machinery for quarter cutting the clapboards that dot the hillsides of Vermont is well suited to cut violin tops as well. The tree for this violin would have been felled in either the Adirondacks or northern Maine. Like the back, it is quarter cut and it has even, medium-narrow growth (1-2mm year ring width).
Aging the wood is, of course, critical. I age my wood at least ten years to assure stability, and I am particularly pleased that this violin will be made from wood I have aged for thirty years.
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“The Singing Tree” – a short film by Rolf Parker-Houghton
Click here to view the film.
It features the fantastic fiddling of Ruthie Dornfeld.
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