COX VIOLINS BLOG

Opus 1000: The Materials

Now that I have chosen a pattern for my thousandth instrument, it’s time to make decisions about materials. As with my choice of pattern for this special instrument, I’m using wood that is typical of my work. I like to use local materials whenever possible, when it makes sense for a particular instrument. I use local wood most of the time, and my models and working methods have evolved around it. I have collected many local woods over the years, and I enjoy the challenge of fitting the wood to my mix of violin and viola models.

So for Opus 1000, I will be using local wood for the body, including maple and spruce, and imported woods for the fingerboard and fittings.

Two carved wooden violin tops and blocks of wood on a workbench

Back Wood

The back wood comes from a log of maple that I purchased and cut in 1988. It came from Cersosimo Lumber Company’s mill here in Brattleboro, Vermont. I went through their log inventory in early March that year and flagged logs that looked like they had the right grain pattern and beautiful flame. Then, as they went through the process of cutting the logs in that batch, they set the flagged ones aside and brought them out here to my shop, where I milled them into violin wood. I hired a neighbor, Geoff Burgess, to be part of the process and do some of the cutting.

So this particular maple has aged 30 years. I aim for maple to be aged for at least ten years, which is maybe twice what is necessary to reach dimensional stability. I used to think that once the wood was stable, there was no advantage to further aging the wood, but my thinking on that has changed. I think there is some structural change in the wood that continues to happen over time and that does help instruments sound better. Certainly, having the instrument played after it is made helps as well, but I now believe it is preferable to use old wood in the construction.

The back wood that I’ve chosen, my log number 88-1, has a stronger flame than I often use for this model, and it is flashier than the original, but it is still similar to it.

Top Wood

The spruce that I chose for this instrument was cut in 1981 and came from the Granville Manufacturing Company in Granville, Vermont, which was owned by Bud Howlett, a family friend. Granville Manufacturing turned bowls out of various Vermont hardwoods, but they also cut clapboards, primarily out of spruce. At that time, they were buying high-quality logs from northern Maine and the Adirondacks, with some being of sufficient quality for instrument making.

So, as with Cersosimo, I went through their log inventory and picked out the logs that seemed promising to me. And they were able to cut the logs to dimensions suited for violins and violas on 19th century equipment that was designed for quarter-cutting clapboards. I started using that wood in 1985, and it has been my mainstay for violin tops ever since.

The spruce that I have from this source falls into two distinct groups, one of which is denser and harder, and another that is a bit lighter and creamier in its texture—less grainy. For Opus 1000, I’m using spruce in the latter category. The harder spruce, if it works out well, gives a real punchy sound, but I’m going for something with this instrument that will have a more nuanced sound.

Ribs & Blocks

In the original instrument, the ribs are made of slightly more regular and nicer maple than the back, so I’ve chosen wood for the ribs that reflects that. The rib wood was also cut from Cersosimo logs in 1988.

As for the internal construction (the blocks and liners), I will use spruce, which is what I normally do with Guarnieri pattern instruments. The spruce gives a little bit of brightness to the sound compared with willow, which is what Stradivari used. I also often use local poplar, particularly with violas, and that tends to have a little less crispness to the sound. Spruce gives it a smoother, more velvety quality.

Fingerboard

For the fingerboard, I’ll use high-quality ebony. I purchased a very fine stash of ebony fingerboard blanks from Brad Taylor back in 1983. I was saving it for top-notch restorations, but then I got to the point of saying, well, gee, I should just start using this! A German manufacturer milled the ebony into a blank with all of the appropriate dimensions. You always want a little more wood rather than a little less, but these are milled very precisely without much extra wood, so they work out very quickly.

Fine ebony is hard and even, with straight growth. With any wood, if there is irregularity in the way the wood grows, it’s likely to move over time, which is not something that you want to have happen with a fingerboard. So the quality of wood here is very important.

Fittings

I’ll most likely set this instrument up with Chinese fittings that I like very much. They are of a wood that looks like boxwood but is a bit harder; it’s not quite as hard as mountain mahogany, but is still a very nice material. This is one of my standard peg materials. I’m not planning to do anything special with the fittings, but I may change my mind.

Scroll

For the scroll, I’ve selected a block that was cut by a colleague of mine, Scott Nehring, sometime before 2000. It is a bit flashier than the Guarnieri original, but it’s consistent with dialing the flame up a couple of notches for this special instrument.

As I look ahead to building Opus 1000 this summer, I expect to work with reference to photos of the original instrument and picking up on related details wherever I can. For me, that makes the process more fun. But I’m not slavish to it. I am not planning to stud this instrument with diamonds or do anything else out of the ordinary. This instrument will represent my own style without any unusual embellishments.