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Category Archives: violin making

Talking of Stradivari cellos (see previous post), I heard Julian Lloyd Webber play the Barjansky cello in a concert at the Theatre Royal, Winchester a couple of years ago. It was an unusual programme because apart from the music, which was wonderful, it included a question and answer session.

I asked Lloyd Webber why he didn’t sell his Strad and play one by a modern British maker. That would have two beneficial consequences, I suggested. First, it would help talented young cellists to understand that they could make good music even if they didn’t have a famous Cremonese instrument to play. Second, it would be a huge encouragement to modern violin and cello makers.

He responded to this potentially annoying question in a gracious way. He conceded that I had a point, but explained that he had been playing this particular cello for many years and that it had become so much a part of him as a musician that he couldn’t imagine being without it.

It was easy to see the force of that argument, but I didn’t want to let him off so lightly. So I followed up by asking whether, if he were to play the Barjansky and a modern cello behind a curtain, listeners would be able to tell the difference. While Lloyd Webber thought about this, the audience answered for him. ‘Oh yes,’ several people called out before he had a chance to speak.

I found this response both annoying and depressing. Annoying because it’s impossible to believe that any of the audience who seemed so certain about the superiority of the Strad had ever tested their belief in the sort of experiment that I outlined. And depressing because it reminded me of the difficulty that modern makers have in obtaining recognition of the quality of their instruments.

To challenge people’s assumptions about what makes a stringed instrument sound good, I made this trapezoidal fiddle. As you can see from the photographs, it bears little resemblance to the great instruments made in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, it’s a copy of an experimental violin invented by the french physicist Félix Savart around 1820. Heron Allen mentions it in Violin-Making: as it was and is. Rather more usefully, there’s a fairly recent book about its construction by Ronald Roberts (Making a simple Violin and Viola ISBN 0 7153 6964 4) which contains plans and a full set of measurements.

 

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Several violin players have been amused and interested enough to try it out and have been surprised by how well it sounds. I’ve been meaning to make a decent recording of it being played so that others can judge, but never quite got around to it. However, the other day I took it to my friend Tim Richards, who is a bowmaker in Market Lavington. Tim says that he hardly plays these days, but I persuaded him to try it out in his workshop. As he did so, I switched on my Edirol recorder and captured a few snippets. Beyond normalising the levels, I’ve hardly done any editing and you’ll have to put up with some background noise and a bit of conversation.

 

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Now I’m not claiming for a moment that the sound made by this Savart violin is the equal of a fine traditional instrument, although I’ve heard many ‘proper’ violins that sound far worse. Nor am I saying that violin makers are wasting their time by paying so much attention to plate thicknessing, plate tuning and arching, although the fact that a flat-topped box-fiddle produces such a violin-like sound does make one wonder whether these things are as important as generally thought. What I am suggesting is that, before offering the opinion that old is better than new or that violins made by Stradivari or Guarneri sound better than those made today, it might be a good idea to ask ourselves if there’s any evidence to justify this view or whether we’re simply repeating a hoary old myth.

Of course reliable evidence is hard to come by. This page on Wikipedia mentions some of the attempts to evaluate the sound quality of different violins, although many are flawed in their experimental design. If you’d like to try for yourself, click here to compare a brief passage from the Tchaikovsky violin concerto played on Stradivari violin with the same passage played on a modern instrument. But don’t congratulate yourself too heartily if you get it right; tossing a coin would give the correct result 50% of the time.

In a recent and much better experiment, experienced players were asked to compare several different violins, including 2 made by Stradivari, 1 by Guarneri del Gesu and 3 by modern makers. The players wore welder’s goggles and tested the instruments in a darkened room so that they couldn’t be influenced by the visual appearance of the violins that they were playing. There’s a detailed account of the methods and results in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, available here. If you don’t have the stamina to wade through a scientific paper, here’s how the investigators summarised their findings:

We asked 21 experienced violinists to compare violins by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu with high-quality new instruments. The resulting preferences were based on the violinists’ individual experiences of playing the instruments under double-blind conditions in a room with relatively dry acoustics. We found that (i) the most-preferred violin was new; (ii) the least-preferred was by Stradivari; (iii) there was scant correlation between an instrument’s age and monetary value and its perceived quality; and (iv) most players seemed unable to tell whether their most-preferred instrument was new or old.

They go on to say, “These results present a striking challenge to conventional wisdom”. I couldn’t agree more.

 

Click on thumbnails below for larger images.

The British Violin Making Association held its annual Maker’s day on 3rd March in the Old Sessions House in Clerkenwell, London.

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It was noisy, crowded and hugely enjoyable. I only managed to take a few photographs, but I hope they’ll give a flavour of the day.

 

Andreas Pahler (in the maroon apron), who founded Alpentonholz, brought some fine tonewood to sell.

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More than 40 makers of violins, violas, cellos, viols and bows were showing their work.

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Christopher Jones, who plays in the Gildas Quartet, tries out a violin – one of mine, as it happens.

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Stephen Thompson displayed four beautiful violin and cello bows.

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Emma Alter, violist and bowmaker, plays a pochette made by Mike Lavelle, with one of her own baroque bows.

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Click on a thumbnail for larger views.

A couple of years ago, Wouter Hilhorst, an architect and luthier from Rotterdam, showed me some violin-making planes that he had carved from oak and boxwood. There are a few photographs of them here. Some of these planes were in the Japanese tradition, others miniature versions of western planes, but all had been made from a single block of wood.

I had made several small planes for instrument-making too, but I’d always used the Krenov sandwich technique, which I’ve written about at length before. (See here and here. A few days ago, I tried Wouter’s method using a small block of lignum vitae, which I reckoned would have the right properties of hardness and self-lubrication.

This is what I managed to come up with. The coin, £1 sterling, 22.5mm (≈7/8 inches) in diameter, is there to give an idea of scale; the long shavings prove that plane actually works.

The blade is a Japanese blade from Dictum, a generous gift from Wouter, and the wedge was fashioned out of a scrap of Rio rosewood.

This photograph of it with a No 4 smoother gives a sense of its diminutive size.

 
 

Click on a thumbnail to see larger images

In his book Violin Restoration (ISBN 0-9621861-0-4), Hans Weisshaar has a photograph of a self-adjusting jig that will hold violin bridges while they’re being planed. I was rather taken by the simplicity and ingenuity of the idea and I thought that I’d make one to see if it worked any better than the very basic holder, shown below, that I use at the moment.

The clever part about Weisshaar’s jig is that one side is free to rotate which means that it can adjust itself to fit bridges of different geometry, holding them all equally tightly. It’s easier to show how it works with a few photographs than it is to describe it.

Extra holes allow the swivelling side to be mounted closer to the fixed side to accommodate three-quarter and half size bridges.

A small block glued to the bottom helps to hold the jig against the edge of the bench or in a vice.

Although the device works well, it’s probably not going to be much use anyone except a violin maker. Still, I thought that the idea of using a freely moving arm or jaw to grasp pieces of wood when the sides aren’t parallel had wider applicability. You might be able to use a scaled up version for planing tapers on table legs, for example. And the accessory jaw for holding tapered shapes in a vice that’s shown on the Tools and Jigs page of this site (scroll down to the second item) draws on the same principle.

 
 
 

Larger versions of these photographs are available by clicking on the thumbnails below.

Violins are difficult to photograph but, thanks to Michael Darnton’s book on violin making, I’ve recently got better at it. As far as I know, the book isn’t published (or even finished) yet, but some chapters are available on-line. There’s one on violin photography which, amongst other good advice, mentions the ingenious technique of using a glass jar or tumbler to stand the instrument on while it’s being photographed. This is less precarious than it seems and has the great advantage of holding the violin vertically upright in a way that’s nearly invisible.

 

 

Previously, I’d used this stand, which is fine for displaying instruments but much less good than the glass method when it comes to photographing them.

 

 

Here are a couple of shots of a recent violin. They’re still not very good – the lighting is uneven, shadows are visible on the backdrop and the camera is positioned a little too high – but they’re a substantial improvement on anything I managed before.

 

 

The violin is based on an instrument made by Carlo Bergonzi in 1736 but I’ve made it three-quarter size for a violinist who, following an injury to her shoulder, can no longer play a full size fiddle comfortably.

 

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