The violin is the most modern embodiment of stringed musical instruments
played with a bow. Like the guitar and other plucked string instruments,
bowed instruments date from antiquity. Although its precise origins are
not completely understood, it is probable that the violin (and its larger
siblings the viola and violoncello) evolved during the mid-16th century in
Northern Italy. In addition to perhaps being the maker of the first true
violins, Andrea Amati (ca. 1500-1577) was the patriarch of the Cremona
school of violin making. During the next 150 years, other members of the
Amati family and their followers, who included Antonio Stradivari
(1644-1737) and Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri (1698-1744), brought the
violin to its highest level of perfection both as a musical instrument and
as a work of art. During the 17th century, violin making spread to all of
the other countries of Europe and, in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the
rest of the world. Although violins have been and are being turned out in
large numbers by factories in Europe and Asia, most fine violins are
handmade by individual craftsmen using essentially the same methods
employed by classical Italian makers several hundred years ago.
Most of the tools required for violin making are the same as those used
for most types of hand woodworking and carving: planes, chisels, gouges,
knives, saws, and scrapers. In addition, a few specialized tools are
needed. These include a thickness caliper, small curved bottom
"thumb" planes, purfling groove cutter, peg hole reamer and
matching peg shaver, bending iron, clamps of various types, and patterns.
Many violin makers take pride in making some of their own tools. Indeed,
one of the keys to success as a violin maker is developing the skills
associated with making, using, and maintaining sharp edged tools.
The back, sides (ribs), and neck of the violin are most often made of
matching quarter-sawn (cut along the radius of the log) maple. There are
many species of maple, growing in different parts of the world, which are
suitable. The criteria for selection include the straightness of the
grain, the density and the figure of the wood, all of which contribute to
the tonal characteristics and visual beauty of the finished instrument.
The top of the violin is made of quarter-sawn spruce. The internal parts
of the violin—the corner and end blocks and the linings—are
usually made of spruce or willow, while purfling can be made of many
different woods and/or "fiber" (thick
or cardboard). The fingerboard is made of ebony, the bridge is maple, and
the other fittings (pegs, tailpiece, chin rest) are ebony, rosewood, or
boxwood. Rather than making these items from scratch, they are usually
purchased in a finished or semi-finished form and customized or installed
by the maker.
1 The first step in making a violin is to make the sides (ribs) from
which the outline
of the top and back will be taken. The ribs are constructed on an
"inside" mold, which is a wooden form about 15 to 18 mm
thick cut to the exact outline of the inside of the violin. Pieces of
wood for the corner and end blocks are cut to approximate size and
temporarily glued to cutouts on the mold at the proper locations. With
the aid of a pattern and using gouges and files, the blocks are trimmed
to the final shape of the inside contour of the violin. Slices of maple
slightly wider than the height of the ribs, which are about 30 to 32 mm
for a violin, are cut and planed to a thickness of 1 mm. Pieces are bent
to the shape of the mold and blocks using a heated metal form. After
trimming to slightly longer than the final length, the ribs are glued.
To hold the ribs in
place until the glue dries, countermolds shaped to match the outside
contours of the ribs at the corners and ends are used. Pressure is
applied by clamps or wrapping with string. Care must be taken to avoid
gluing the ribs to the mold, which must be removed in a subsequent step.
The ribs are glued in sequence starting with the middle bouts, which
must be trimmed to final length at the corners before the upper and
lower ribs can be added. The linings, strips of willow or spruce about 2
by 8 mm, are bent to shape using the bending iron, cut to length, and
glued to the inside of the ribs. The corners are trimmed to their final
shape, and the top and bottom surfaces of the ribs, linings, and blocks
are planed and filed to be level at the final height.
Top and back
2 The tops of violins are almost always made from a wedge of wood which
is cut or split, with the edges of resulting pieces glued together. This
joint, for which the pieces must fit with absolute perfection, then
becomes the centerline of the top. Maple for the backs of violins is
treated the same way to make a two-piece back, however, it is possible
to find a piece wide enough to make a one-piece back. Planing the wood
to create a perfect center joint is an exacting task. After the pieces
have been planed to fit well—as seen by holding the pieces
together in front of a light—the edge of one piece is coated with
chalk and rubbed against the mating edge. The areas in which chalk is
transferred from one piece to the other identify places which must be
shaved slightly with the plane to perfect the fit. This chalk fitting
procedure is repeated until the fit between the two pieces is perfect,
after which they are glued together and clamped. After gluing the center
joint, the flat side of the back and top are planed flat. The ribs are
placed on this flat side; a tracing around the ribs enlarged by 3 mm
establishes the outline of the top or back (a 20 mm square is added at
the top of the back for the button). These outlines are cut out using a
bow or coping saw; many modern violin makers use a power band or scroll
The outside arching of the top and back are next carved using gouges,
thumb planes, and scrapers for the final smoothing. Five transverse
and one longitudinal arching guides are consulted frequently as the
plates take shape. The arching guides, which are different for the top
and back, plus the out-line embodied in the mold, determine the design
or model of the instrument. Most modern makers follow or copy the
designs of great makers such as Stradivari or Guameri, while some have
evolved their own. Next the interior sides of the top and back are
carved out. The final thicknesses of the wood has a major influence on
the acoustic performance of the finished instrument, and there are
many systems in use for arriving at the optimum distribution of
thicknesses. In general, most methods involve testing the resonance
frequencies of the plates by tapping, flexing, or exciting them with
sound, coupled with measurements of the thickness of the plate at many
locations using a graduation caliper. Then, depending on the results
and on the desired outcome, wood is gradually removed from various
locations. Usually, makers seek to establish certain relationships,
e.g. octaves, between the various resonances of each plate and between
the two plates. Typical thicknesses of a finished back are 4.5 mm at
the center decreasing to 2.4 to 2.5 mm in the upper and lower bouts.
The thicknesses of the top are more uniform: about 3 mm over-all, and
perhaps slightly thicker between the soundholes in the area of the
Completing the top
3 The outline of the sound holes is transferred to the top, and these
are cut out using a sharp knife; some makers use a punch or drill to cut
the round holes. The bassbar is made of very straight grained,
quarter-cut spruce (much like the top). The area where it fits is
outlined on the side of the top, and the rough blank is trimmed to
precisely fit the arching. The chalk-fitting method is employed again in
this step. The bar is then glued in place and trimmed to its final
contour. This again involves testing the resonance of the top, which was
altered by the cutting of the sound holes as well as the addition of the
Completing the body
4 The mold is now removed from the rib assembly by loosening the
temporary glue bonds of the blocks to the mold. The
top and back are then glued to the ribs. The glue holding the back
should be full-strength. Thinner, weaker glue is used for the top; this
provides for easy removal if service or adjustment is necessary, and
will allow the seams to open in extremes of humidity and temperature
rather than produce cracks in the wood itself. The groove for the
purfling is marked a precise distance from the edges using a purfling
cutter. The groove is deepened with a sharp knife and the wood in the
groove removed with a purfling pick. The purfling strips, which can be
bought ready or made by the violin maker, are bent to fit the groove
using the bending iron. The pieces are then cut to the exact length,
mitered to fit the corners, and glued in place. The channels which run
over the purfling just inside the edges are cut with a gouge and blended
into the arching with gouge, planes, and scrapers. Finally, the edge is
rounded using knife, file, and perhaps sandpaper. (This is one of the
only places in which sandpaper is used in the construction of a violin.
All of the other surfaces should be finished with scrapers, which
provides a crisp appearance to the workmanship and best reveals the
beauty of the wood.)
5 A block of maple matching the back is squared on the sides and top
with a plane. Next, the outline of the side view of the neck and scroll
is traced on the quarter-cut side of the block. The wood outside the
outline is sawed away. Patterns and outlines for the peg box, top
surface of the neck, and the scroll are traced. A razor saw is then used
to cut away wood around the scroll and neck outlines. Gouges and
scrapers are used to finish the carving of the scroll, the details of
which are one of the ways in which the violin maker expresses his
individuality. The pegbox is excavated using chisels and gouges. The
neck is cut to final dimensions using planes, knives, and scrapers. A
mortise (cavity) to receive the neck is cut into the upper ribs, block,
and top of the violin's body. The cut of the mortise and the root
of the neck must be very precise, since the correct height and angle of
the neck are critical to achieving a good tonal result. Chalk fitting is
again employed. The neck is then glued into the mortise, and the final
shaping of the heel of the neck and the button on the back is done.
6 There is a great deal of lore associated with the varnishing of
violins. It has even been asserted that secret recipes are responsible
for the extraordinary tonal characteristics of the old Italian violins.
Regard-less of its possible effects on tone, it is certainly true that
the varnish does serve other important purposes of beautifying the
appearance and protecting the wood from wear, damage, moisture, and
dirt. Thus the selection and application of varnish is vitally
important. Because there are many types of varnish and working methods,
the following rather general outline of finishing is provided:
The finished violin is hung up to age for a time (in some cases
several months or more), and may be exposed to sunlight. This will
cause the wood to darken and bring out its figure. Many makers use
less time-consuming alternatives.
A sealer or pore filler is then applied.
The vamish is applied in several coats. This may include coats of
clear vamish followed by additional coats of colored varnish. Vamish
is essentially a coating consisting of resins, which may be natural
substances (e.g. copal or seedlac) or man-made. Color is imparted to
vamishes by adding pigments or dyes. The color of the individual
coats may be varied to produce the desired appearance. Following the
colored vamish, an additional coat or two of clear vamish may be
applied to protect the layers underneath.
Since old-looking violins are more appealing to many players, some
makers "antique" their instruments. The various
methods of antiquing are usually trade secrets, and makers pride
themselves on their individual results.
The surface of the fully dried vamish may be rubbed out using some
combination of abrasives (pumice, rottenstone, fine emery paper,
etc.) and polishes.
The part of the neck between the heel and the peg box is not
varnished. Rather it is stained, sanded very smooth with fine emery
paper and "french polished" (an application of
shellac, and/or alcohol, and oil).
7 The top of the neck is planed flat, and the underside of the ebony
fmgerboard is planed to fit and glued in place. The sides and top are
finished with planes, scrapers and emery paper to be smooth and to have
exactly the correct curvature. Gauges and straightedge are consulted
frequently during this process. The ebony nut is cut to size, lightly
glued at the top of the fingerboard, dressed to final shape, and grooves
filed for the strings. A mortise is cut at the bottom of the violin into
which is glued the ebony saddle. The pegs are shaved to the proper taper
and diameter. Peg holes are drilled and reamed to match the pegs.
Likewise, a hole at the bottom of the ribs is drilled, reamed, and
fitted with the end pin.
The bridge and soundpost are the last parts to be fashioned; their fit
and position greatly affect the sound and playing qualities of the
violin. Starting with a precut blank, the feet of the bridge are cut
to fit the arching of the top at the proper position—between
the nicks of the soundholes. The top of the bridge is cut to an arch
which matches the curvature of the fmgerboard and provides the proper
height of the strings. The front side (facing the neck) is planed down
to a thickness of about 4.5 mm at the bottom and tapering from the
middle to 1.5 mm at the top. Grooves for the strings are cut and filed
using a gauge to establish their proper position and spacing. The
soundpost transmits the vibrations of the strings to the back of the
violin. It is cut from a round piece of straight-grained spruce about
6 mm in diameter. Its length and ends must be cut so that it fits
precisely in the proper location inside the violin, about 3 mm behind
the treble foot of the bridge. A gauge may be used to measure the
approximate length of the sound-post, but the final fit is a trial and
error process. The soundpost is inserted and its position adjusted
through the soundholes using a special tool. The strings are now
fitted into the tailpiece, extended over the bridge and wound on the
pegs. Once all four strings are installed, they may be tuned up to
pitch and the violin played for the first time. What follows will be a
period of adjustment as the violin becomes accustomed to the tension
of the strings and their vibration. Numerous adjustments to the
position of the soundpost, the bridge, types of strings, and perhaps
other factors are usually necessary to optimize the tonal
characteristics and playability.
It is likely that fine violins will continue to be handmade in the manner
described above. However, there is a long history of experiments with new
designs and materials of construction. Recent products of this are violins
made of synthetic materials such as plastic. Some of these have solid
bodies, while others are of a traditional design using synthetic materials
for some parts. There are also electric violins, in which the vibrations
of the strings are converted to an electrical signal by a pick-up or
microphone, which is then amplified and output to a speaker or computer
interface. There are a number of such "high tech"
instruments on the market today; they are mainly used to play jazz and
popular music. In the realm of classical music, the traditional violin is
by far the dominant choice.
Where To Learn More
Hill, William Henry, et al.
Antonio Stradivari: His Life and Work 1644-1737.
Dover Publications, 1963.
Hill, William Henry, et. al.
The Violin-Makers of the Guarneri Family (1626-1762).
Holland Press, 1965.
Sacconi, Simone F.
The Secrets of Stradivari.
Making Stringed Instruments-A Workshop Guide.
N. Y. 1990.