With the exception of a few changes to the neck length and angle, the fine art of violin making has remained virtually unchanged for over 500 years. In fact, violins look the same now as they did in the 1500's. Some instrument making procedures have been mechanized but most fine violins are almost completely made by hand as they were centuries ago.
Listed and pictured to the left (and as you scroll through the continuing pages) are the steps taken in making an violin by hand.
The violin maker, or luthier, will first decide what characteristics they want in a violin and pick the wood to aid in that goal. Sometimes a tighter grain in the wood will work better for a desired purpose or sound characteristic. Machine-made instruments do not receive this type of individual attention.
The top (spruce) and back (maple), or "plates", are made from two pieces and are what we call "book matched". The selected pieces are split or cut down the middle from one piece, flattened, and then glued together along the edge from the outer most part of the tree. This "center seam" must be a perfect fit and square on its gluing surface. The center seam will act as the center of the instrument and as a reference to all additional work that follows.
After the glue sets, the surface is again flattened and made ready for the shape of the top or back to be transferred.
Before the top or back can be cut out, the supporting corner, upper, and lower blocks and sides (or "ribs") must be made. The blocks and ribs are built over an inside form of plywood that will be removed at a later time. The ribs are made from maple strips that are planed and scraped to a finished thickness of about 1.2 mm thick.
Blocks of spruce or willow are temporarily glued to the form and trimmed to the proper shape to hold the ribs firmly to shape. These blocks will remain in a smaller version when the instrument is completed. The maple strips are bent wet around a hot "bending iron" until they maintain the desired shape. The ribs are then glued to the shaped blocks and flattened in the horizontal plane.
Linings (made from willow or spruce) are thinned, wet, bent, and glued onto the ribs to add additional support.
Once the ribs are finished, they are clamped onto the top and back plate, traced (leaving an added margin for overhang), and the plates are cut. The curve of the plates are then carved inside and out to finished thicknesses from 2.5 to 5 mm--depending on the maker's preference and specific tonal characteristics needed. Areas are left flat on the inside for the gluing surfaces and the "f" holes are cut into the top.
The top plate will also receive a "bassbar" to its inside surface to support the top. The bassbar will enhance the bass frequencies and slow the sound down. The bass bar, "f" holes, and plate thicknesses are done to tonally enhance the sound and are adjusted to the individual instrument being made and the wood that was selected. The plates will also receive "purfling" which is a decorative inlay just inside of the outer edge. The purfling both strengthens the instrument and adds a decorative edge which enhances the instrument's look and sound.
The plywood form is removed and the plates are glued on. The edges are cleaned up and the "body" of the instrument is set aside while the neck is carved.
The neck is also made from maple and is carved from a solid block. The block of maple is first squared up and then the shape is transferred from a pattern to both sides to remain symmetrical. The "scroll" portion is carved by hand with a series of gouges and chisels of different curves and widths.
The scroll is frequently the most artistic portion of the instrument and is a "fingerprint" of the maker and their craftsmanship.
Once fully carved, the neck is fitted with the fingerboard and set into the body. The setting of the neck is a complex process involving many angles and finished measurements.
At this point, the instrument is completely gone over from tip to button, making sure no oils or dirt remain to spoil the look once varnished. The varnish is applied.
Two types of varnish are used on quality instruments, oil or spirit. The difference is speed of drying times and number of coats that can be applied. Typically, the old Italian makers used oil varnishes while the German and modern Italian makers use(d) spirit or alcohol based finishes. Between 5 and 10 coats of varnish are applied with drying time between each coat.
After it dries, the varnish is rubbed out to the desired sheen and the instrument is set up with pegs, tailpiece, bridge, and strings. The soundpost, a small spruce dowel, is fit between the inside of the top and back on the treble side and adjusted for sound. Most handmade instruments will spend some time in the maker's shop for adjustments over a few weeks until they are sent to their new homes.