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. Instrument making
procedures have been mechanized but most fine violins are
almost completely made by hand as they were centuries ago. The following description briefly explains the
basic process of making a violin by hand. Click on
thumbnail picture to download larger picture.
The violin maker will first decide what characteristics
they want in a violin and pick the wood to aid in that
goal. Sometimes a tighter grain will work better for a
particular purpose. Machine made instruments do not experience 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 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 seam will act as
the center of the instrument and as a reference to all
additional work that follows.
After the glue sets up, 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 sides (ribs) must be made. The 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 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 in 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 strips are then glued to
the shaped blocks and flattened in the horizontal
Once the ribs are
finished, they are clamped onto the top and back plate and
traced. The plates are then cut out with an added margin for
the overhang. 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
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
"bass bar" to its inside surface that supports
the top which enhances the bass frequencies and slows 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. This inlay both strengthens
the instrument and adds a decorative edge which enhances
the instrument's look and sound.
The plywood form is removed
from the ribs 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 or "scroll"
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. Many of the more commercial
quality of instruments import pre-made necks to save time
and to reduce the craft ability that is needed. 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 toe, making sure no oils or
dirt remain to spoil the look once varnished. The
varnish is applied. Two type 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
are applied while waiting for drying times between each.
After the varnish dries it is rubbed out to the desired
sheen and the instrument is set up with a fingerboard, pegs,
tailpiece, bridge, and strings. The sound post, 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.