The heft and feel of a well-worn handle,
The sight of shavings that curl from a blade;
The logs in the wood pile, the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house;
The smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves;
The crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs.
Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be
Without wood.

Everard Hinrichs, quoted by Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood


Friday, March 1, 2013

Great Designs in Wood (39) - The Violin

We've all experienced that special a concert hall, or a musical, or movie, when a series of notes, played on a single instrument, captures your senses and thrills your soul. That instrument, the violin, sings out in a voice that no human can ever equal. All are familiar with the violin. But few, if any, ever think of the construction of the instrument, and how critical it is to the feeling we experience in those moments.

You've all heard of the famous Stradivarius violins. You might not be surprised that many, many folks have devoted much of their life's work to trying to recreate the perfect sound that violin purists insist emanates only from a Stradivarius. But they all have failed to find the perfect combination of wood, varnish, design, and intangibles that make these violins so special. Spike Carlsen has a great section on the pursuit of Stradivarius sound in his book A Splintered History of Wood that you must read for a historical perspective and wonderful detail on the scientific secrets of the wood. (For instance, the trees harvested for violins in the 17th century grew during the Little Ice Age of that time, which reached a climatic minimum in 1650...meaning they grew very slowly and in consequence, were very dense and tight-grained.)

You might however, be surprised that the wood used in Stradivarius' violins is the same wood, by species, from which almost all the best violins are made. They are:
  • Spruce for the top, or soundboard; the bass bar, soundpost, and blocks and lining
  • Maple for the neck, sides, and back
  • Ebony for the fingerboard and pegs
  • Ebony for the frog of the bow (which grasps the bow hair)
  • Ipe (pronounced "ee-pay", Tabebuia spp.), snakewood (Brosimum guianensis) or pernambuco (Caesalpinia echinata) for the finest bows (the bows of Stradivarius' time were probably made of walnut or other dense European hardwood).
For an excellent, more detailed summary of these woods and their role in the violin, check out this great website. These preferred woods demonstrate how the unique properties of different species are one of the miracles of the biological world. Change any of the species, and you impair the sound quality. And even with the same species, each violin has its own unique sound depending on each step of the intricate process of crafting a fine violin, including the selection and treatment of each individual piece of wood. The video below is an enlightening peek into to the art and science of violin construction by a master luthier.

And the performance of the violin is now no longer constrained to the classical presentation of concert halls. A wonderful new "hip hop violinist" named Lindsey Stirling, who introduced herself to the world in 2010 on "America's Got Talent", failed to win or sign a music contract, but pursued her dream by starting her own YouTube channel, has garnered more than 240 million views of her videos online. She's now performing around the world, and her crowds continue to grow.

That's got to be good for the violin industry, and for the many great companies that supply sustainable quantities of the fine woods used. Future generations of violinists, all Going Wood.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating to watch the making of a violin. Thanks.