Are violins made with bird's eye maple considered less desirable/inferior to flamed maple violins?

September 4, 2016 at 04:41 PM · I am trying a violin that has a back made with bird's eye maple. The violin looks very beautiful and sounds amazing. The violin is made by a maker that has won numerous VSA awards. However, I have heard/read that the resell on violins made with bird's eye maple is not that great and are considered less desirable and inferior to flamed maple violins. Does anyone have any experience or advice they can share about this?

Replies (41)

September 4, 2016 at 05:14 PM · Not from a bird's eye view!

September 4, 2016 at 07:20 PM · Charles,

I have a violin with a bird's eye maple back made in 1968 by Leo Aschauer, a well known German luthier. I can't tell you much about resale value because I would not consider selling it. It has a wonderful, full tone, and sounds like a much more expensive violin than the price I paid. The only financial advice I can offer is that if resale values are lower, then initial price should also be lower.

Think about whether this violin is "a keeper" or beginner quality that you will someday outgrow.

September 4, 2016 at 07:51 PM · I just got a violin made out of bird's eye maple by Hiroshi Iizuka. It's beautiful both to look at and to listen to. I have no idea about resale value (I'm not looking to sell it!), but I'd be surprised if it would sell for less than other Iizuka violins.

September 4, 2016 at 08:17 PM · No one chooses a decent violin by its looks. (That would presumably all include all violins by anyone good enough to win multiple VSA awards.)

I think the words "highly flamed" are sometimes used as if they imply higher quality from companies that make student instruments.

September 4, 2016 at 09:01 PM · If anything, I think it might be MORE valuable. Birds eye maple is not that common so for that reason, there could be a premium on instruments made with birds eye. I have heard that it does not affect the sound; it is strictly an aesthetic thing. I'm pretty sure that's what Bill Weaver told me when I saw a gorgeous Laura Vigato made with birds eye maple. A customer brought one in for service when I was at the shop a few months ago.

September 4, 2016 at 09:13 PM · Lots of Birdseye back violins from China onEbay.

September 4, 2016 at 10:00 PM · That does bring up a question I've wondered about: Can the 'beauty' of the wood be an indication of sound quality?

Are "highly flamed" tonewoods more likely to yield a better-sounding instruments than plain tonewoods, or is it completely random?

September 4, 2016 at 11:25 PM ·

September 4, 2016 at 11:29 PM ·

September 4, 2016 at 11:30 PM · From what I've heard, birdseye maple is harder to carve than flamed maple(the eyes want to pop out while you're carving), and flamed maple is harder to carve than plain maple. Perhaps that accounts for the price differences, I hardly imagine there are tonal advantages to one or the other, top sounding tone wood could be any flame or pattern or non pattern, depends on cut of the wood, the tree and how it was dried, I would assume.

September 4, 2016 at 11:49 PM · Birdseye maple is slab cut, while flamed (aka curly) maple is usually quartersawn. Quartersawn wood is more dimensionally stable with changes in humidity. A general rule is that slab cut wood moves twice as much as quartersawn for a given humidity change. That's something worth considering.

September 5, 2016 at 12:21 AM · I heard that birds-eye is just fine stability-wise unless your sound post lands on top of an eye.

I have a 7/8 birds-eye violin (back, ribs, and scroll are all birds-eye) and the varnish is beautiful -- very orange! I would like to sell it, but unfortunately it just does not sound very good, and a highly respected luthier told me it's kind of hopeless in terms of improving it. He said it's too heavy -- over-constructed.

September 5, 2016 at 12:37 AM · Plus repairing a crack on the back that reaches one or two eyes would border with impossible.

Ask yourself: how many Stradivarius and Guarnieri violins are full of bird's eyes?


There you have it.

September 5, 2016 at 04:23 AM · A story I read years ago had it that violin makers (in Venice? Naples?) liked Birdseye maple because it was cheaper: useless to shipbuilders and oar-makers and therefore easy to sort through and buy at a discount. I don't know if scholars believe that today.

Hermann Janzen uses the stuff for one-piece backs in his petite Guarneri models. The one I tried sounded magnificent-- the best one in his case, actually.

[EDIT-- I was actually remembering curly-backed or quilted maple and attached the wrong name to it. Or perhaps they are all birds of a feather?]

September 5, 2016 at 04:24 AM · I find it hard to believe that slab-cut wood moves twice as much as quarter-sawn wood in humidity changes and I'm wondering where this idea came from. Two of my favorite violins in my collection (neither of which is Birdseye) have slab-cut backs - and are as stable as any of my other violins.

I've also heard that Birdseye, as well as highly-flamed quarter-sawn wood - is harder to cut and work with - even more so for the scroll. I once had an inexpensive Chinese violin with a Birdseye back. That, together with a deep orange/red varnish made it look quite striking but it sounded mediocre. (I've had other Chinese violins that were very nice and I've recorded with them.) I haven't seen this wood in finer violins but if the OP's violin was made by a maker who has won a number of VSA prizes, this maker obviously knows what he's doing. What's his name?

As far as a relationship between beautiful wood and beautiful tone goes, one problem is that beauty - both visual and aural - is in the eye and ear of the beholder. Perhaps we can agree on what is highly-flamed vs less highly-flamed and even plain. There are violins of both kinds that are and are not good-sounding, so various factors must go into what constitutes good tone wood.

I've heard makers say that the top plate (belly) is the main determinant of the violin's tone, though the back and even ribs play a part as well. My understanding is that all other things being equal - if they ever are - a violin with a slab-cut back will tend to sound darker and sweeter. This is borne out in my collection.

September 5, 2016 at 04:45 AM · Raphael,

See "Understanding Wood," by R. Bruce Hoadley, chapter 6, "Water and Wood," and chapter 7, "Coping With Dimensional Changes In Wood." Chapter 6 specifically has a chart on page 117 detailing tangential vs. radial shrinkage in a long list of wood species.

Also see "Manual of Guitar Technology," by Franz Jahnel, which has pages of charts detailing, among other things, tangential vs. radial wood movement in an even longer list of wood species.

September 5, 2016 at 11:46 AM · I found a review of Hoadly online and it seems like the following is relevant to our discussion:

"Chapter 6 considers the hugely important subject of wood and water. As we should all know already, moisture content affects the dimensions of the lumber we use. Hoadley compares free water vs. bound water in the wood's cell walls, reviews the concept of equilibrium moisture content (EMC), compares the moisture content of green wood in heart and sapwood in different species, and the shrinkage of various species in a table on page 117, along with an important discussion of how to estimate shrinkage. The chapter concludes with a review of different types of uneven shrinkage, or warping.

Chapter 7 addresses alternatives for coping with dimensional changes in wood. These include preshrinking, using mechanical restraints such as banding and chemical treatments. The most important consideration, though, is design. Hoadley goes on to the subject of monitoring relative humidity in the shop and home and the use of moisture meters. A useful addition shows how the woodworker can easily make a "moisture widget" to monitor the dimensional changes in a particular species that is being used in a current project.

How wood is dried affects its quality; that is the subject of Chapter 8. A helpful figure shows how wood dries from the outside in and how poor drying can lead to defects. He discusses commercial kilns and how they are constructed and operate and how the woodworker can dry his or her own wood. A table on page 156 compares estimated drying times for different species."

This review does not go into detail about wood species nor the degree of difference of moisture absorbtion between quarter-cut and slab-cut maple. (Probably the book does.) But one of the sentences above seems most important: "How wood dries affects its quality". I know that good makers are careful to dry their wood properly and say that this, more than the intrinsic age of the wood, is the important thing. So probably, once it's properly dried and treated, slab-cut maple should present no significant problem or else highly competent makers wouldn't use it. And again, two of my best violins are contemporary, made in 2010 and 2011 respectively, and show no more effect of humidity than the others.

September 5, 2016 at 01:17 PM · Birds-eye maple is generally slab cut, because cutting it this way highlight the birds-eye figure in the wood.

The amount wood expands and contracts with moisture changes will vary, depending on which way the grain runs. Slab-cut wood will change in width about twice as much as quarter-cut wood will, as the humidity changes, and older instruments with slab-cut backs typically have more damage from cracks than those made with quarter-cut wood. Primarily for that reason, I have never made an instrument with a slab-cut back (or top or ribs). My feeling is that making an instrument which is expected to survive for generations is already challenging enough, without that extra measure of dimensional instability thrown in.

September 5, 2016 at 06:59 PM · Bird's eye maple was in vogue for a while at the turn of the 19th century in mass produced instruments. Maggini copies especially, often had backs made of this material. Fashion moved away from bird's eye but it seems to be having a minor renaissance now. I would say it is less desirable and less valuable, as fewer people like the look. Personally I prefer figured maple.

Cheers Carlo

September 5, 2016 at 08:35 PM · So David, even with well-seasoned properly dried wood, pre-soaked in some mineral solution, dried again and given a good ground and good varnishing, a slab-cut back is going to be twice as reactive to humidity change as quarter-cut maple?

Of course I have no way to measure this but as a player I have found no discernable differences of sound and response to humidity changes between and among my violins and that have slab and quarter cut backs. Also some Strads and del Gesus are slab-cut

September 5, 2016 at 09:03 PM · Raphael, I can't comment on every possible soaking solution, since I haven't tried every one. Thoroughly soaking wood in an acrylic solution might be expected to reduce dimensional variations, at the cost of increased weight. Making violins from plywood might be expected to accomplish that as well, but the fiddle trade doesn't have a very good history of making good-sounding instruments from plywood.

I haven't yet heard of "plastic impregnated" woods becoming popular with violin makers. Or plywood. They seem to be more open to various forms of "pre-rot", along with thermal degradation, or accelerated aging.

Soaking in other solutions, such as some kinds of salts, would be expected to increase the moisture instability, over that of plain wood. Plain-ol' natural wood is pretty amazing stuff.

September 5, 2016 at 09:16 PM · From a woodworking perspective, one big piece of wood is probabilistically more likely to have problems such as cracks or warping, compared to a piece made of multiple pieces glued together. But that doesn't mean that it will develop any such problems! It just has a higher likelihood.

I don't know about it being twice as reactive to humidity in the case of violins, though. Bear with me, I'm putting this idea together through conjecture, but in the case of a violin, with a one-piece back we say it's twice as reactive to humidity, but wouldn't a two-piece back be just as reactive, considering you're butting-up together two pieces that will each add up their own 1x to that reactiveness (1x + 1x = 2x)?

If you had to compare a single slab cut piece against a single quartersawn piece then yes the slab would be twice as reactive, but one slab compared against two quartersawn to me seems like they would react the same as far as humidity expansion goes, since by putting them together you have effectively turned them into a slab.

Or I could be completely wrong. Someone correct me if they know something I don't. :)

September 5, 2016 at 10:20 PM · I assume that differences in expansion rate has to do with the topography of the wood and also ring age distribution and placement.

See my comment under:

Depending on the area from which the slab cut was taken, the distribution between younger and older rings is placed along the vertical axis of the plate.

I expect to be corrected by our experts.

September 5, 2016 at 11:04 PM · @Lydia. People do choose violins, at least initially, by looks. Talk to any dealer about the fantastic sounding, but ugly violin, that has languished in the shop whilst beautiful looking, but sonically inferior, violins fly out the door.

Cheers Carlo

September 5, 2016 at 11:23 PM · Fox, the difference in the expansion and contraction rate between slab-cut and quarter-cut wood has to do with the grain direction (they are at approximately right angles to each other when viewed from the end), not the number of pieces the back is composed of.

September 6, 2016 at 12:23 AM · As already mentioned here, most violin backs are quarter-sawn and all birdseye is slab. Slab cut wood is generally a bit softer and less stable, but it can be compensated with thicker graduations, that's what I have been doing in my violas for years.

I like to compare violin making and cooking. A good cook will know how to choose his ingredients and make the better from them. The same for violin makers.

Some makers will develop a good "recipe" for sound with birdeye maple, as Santo Seraphim, a very good Venetian maker. Not to mention del Gesù's "Terminator" violin with a beech wood back, dated 1744, that sounds darn good.

Better judging by playing it, listen with your ears, and not with your eyes.

September 6, 2016 at 01:48 AM · "I'll be back!"

September 6, 2016 at 02:36 AM · So Luis-- we're supposed to trust the maker? Are you allowed to say that on the internet?

September 6, 2016 at 10:17 AM · Hi Stephen Symchych! Unless you make your own instrument, you will have to trust in a maker, a living or a dead maker.

Society is based in trust, our instruments, and most important, even our lives are in the hands of doctors, nurses, jet pilots, etc.

September 6, 2016 at 10:25 AM ·

September 6, 2016 at 11:59 AM · I thought I read here and there (can't remember exactly where, off-hand) that Strad did some kind of pre-soaking of his wood in borax or something like that, based on trace minerals found in the wood. Since there are no living witnesses from his shop (unless THEY were pre-soaked with some pretty special ingredients!) I suppose that there must be a lot of educated speculation involved. Of course I wouldn't advocate plywood or plastic!

September 6, 2016 at 12:55 PM · "And the maker in the OP has won awards for his/her work, so they ought to be pretty darn good at what they do."

I suppose you could file that one under "N".

September 6, 2016 at 01:20 PM · Stephen,

I would say.... trust the maker, but trust your ears more. No awards are a guarantee that a particular new instrument is maker's best or average. Even the best makers have variance in their output, although supposedly smaller than the poor ones.

Prestige might be there, but trust is re-earned with every new customer.


September 6, 2016 at 01:58 PM · Yes Rocky, but most of the instruments produced by Italian classic makers were bought only based in Signor Stradivari, Guarneri or Amati fame and prestige, without a prior test, since they were commissioned and delivered away from Cremona.

90% (or more) of all Italian art we know were commissioned.

September 6, 2016 at 02:26 PM ·

September 6, 2016 at 05:05 PM · I'm sure lots of people love it, but it does resemble something that has caught a nasty disease ...

September 6, 2016 at 06:04 PM · I love it Peter! Is that your violin Craig?

September 6, 2016 at 06:04 PM · I love it Peter! Is that your violin Craig?

September 6, 2016 at 06:07 PM · No, just a screen grab to liven up the discussion.

September 6, 2016 at 09:25 PM · Thanks for clarifying things about the wood.

I almost bought a birdseye maple violin once, the sound was nice, but I admit I passed on it because of aesthetics: The patterns in the wood looked to me like the ghostly faces of tormented souls!

September 6, 2016 at 09:33 PM · My best violin is very interesting to look at as it has beautiful curly maple and birdseye pattern as well, two for the price of one.

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