The Materials of Violins 1.

Obviously, the quality of materials has great importance in violin making.  This is the case for all fine arts and actually for almost all works of human hands; why would it be different in the case of violins? Only the best materials are good enough for violins. However, what is best for the sound of a violin?

Its sound is very important, so its form and the beauty are not always of primary importance. In the case of violins, we work with tonewood, so it violincan easily happen that an unremarkable piece of wood with slight imperfections is better than one that looks nicer and more perfect. The occasional use of less beautiful and less perfect materials can be detected even in case of some masterpieces of Stradivari that have excellent sound. For example, significant imperfections can be found on the tracts next to the tailpiece of the lower part of the top of the great “Alard” violin. We are entitled by the end result to state that these imperfections did not compromise the quality of its sound. According to Hill, the famous ‘Piatti’ cello has a maple back that looks smooth with small and weak flaming, in spite of this; it can produce a deep tone.  We could live without the different torsions (‘twists’) in the wooden structure on its top, which are the results of the humps running next to these spaces. In his early and also in his late active years, Stradivari used local maple types, which were characterized by small, dense flames. His famous, large flaming wood had an eastern origin. Naturally, it was much more expensive. This level of quality can hardly be found among older Italian violin makers, like the Amaties, who preferred cutting the back wood towards the rib (Schwarte) anyway. Generally, it cannot be stated that the most beautiful violins with wide-waving backs would surpass others; as some of the works of Stradivari also have less attractive backs, however, they have first class sounding. If, after these, we focused exclusively on the quality of their sounds, we would not judge a good tonewood, especially maple, simply on the basis of its external beauty. In this case, their final judgment will always be based on practice. If a violin has been built with excellent sound quality, it can surely be concluded whether good or really good wood was used as its tonewood.

The same conclusion may not always be drawn in the opposite direction. In case of a bad sound result, the faults of the violin should mainly be searched in its way of manufacturing. In this sense, a tonewood can be good or bad as well. If the way of building is also important for having a favorable result – primarily the right way of elaborating wood thickness, thus creating a side-tone with the required characteristics -, the material will form the most important basis for creating these proportions. Thus, I consider a material with a good sound as a favorable precondition for achieving complete success; the same way as I also regard the use of good, elastic wood and not rigid varnishing evident. Should it be different in other fields of arts? Should not the best and the most durable paints be selected by a painter, as well as their proper mixture to guarantee the greatest possible success for his artworks? Would not his artworks be seriously hazarded by some of their colors being changed by time or cracked after their application? Did not Christian wood sculptors in the Middle Ages have to use the best materials for their works in order to preserve them in impeccable state until recently? You can find more information about violins and violin building on the Cremonae portal of stringed instruments.

James Cowel, October 24, 2016. 


– Adolf Heinrich König: „A Viola da gamba
– Franz Farga: Violins and violin players
– Josef & Reiner Hammerl: Erzeugung feinster Geigenlacke

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