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Violin Woods: What Can Be Used?

Instruments: Lots of wood questions!

From Emil Albanese
Posted November 13, 2007 at 02:43 AM

The question of which wood to use in order to craft a quality instrument is an interesting one. Typically, the two woods most commonly used are maple and spruce. I was wondering the following:

1. Are there any other woods that are used which produce wonderful tones?

2. If so, and we are talking about the wood of the back plate, what does one do with regards to the ribs. Are they too made with the same wood as the back or is maple used thus having an instrument made with three distinct woods?

3. Has anyone ever made an instrument with or played an instrument made from willow (the back, not necessary the lining or blocks)? What is the effect? Sycamore?

4. What other woods can be used for the top plate?

5. Do flames have anything to do with sound or just look and price?

6. What characteristics wood-wise does a maker look for in a bridge?

7. Does the soundpost have to be of maple. If I were to cut a dowel of similar size and place it, would the sound be effected dramatically?

8. Is kiln-dried ever acceptable for making a master grade instrument?

Sorry for so many questions packed in one but I am trying to avoid having to ask them separately since they are all related to my overall inquiry.

Thank you for your input.

Emil

From Ian Burkard
Posted on November 13, 2007 at 03:44 AM
My suggestion is to try whatever you want; use commonsense. There are no steadfast rules, other than using good, stable, aged wood.
From T Carlsen
Posted on November 13, 2007 at 05:48 AM
This discussion is an extension of a previous discussion under the title "Questions about fittings."

I mentioned that the high standard seems to be quality, resonant spruce for the top, preferably with narrow, thin pinstriping, and highly figured (flamed) maple from maple trees grown high in the mountains (Bosnia is a standard mentioned) for the sides and back.

Yet the logic for this is not entirely clear. A book I read said that the figuring (flaming) is mainly for appearance but that appearance is an integral, personal aspect of owning a violin. It also said that figuring played an important role in the cellular bracing of the wood and the sound production, but it did not elaborate why.

I will simply note that the best Strads and del Gesu violins use the resonant spruce/highly figured maple wood combinations as described, so that tells you something.

But what is the proof that this is best? Other woods have been used for violins, including willow and beech.

Also, as mentioned, proper aging of the wood seems important, as does the formula of the varnish and the planing thicknesses of the wood.

I also once read that the bridge changes the sound pattern, changing the sound wave at certain notes. The fact that old Maple has long been the accepted norm must be a defacto superior choice, but why?

Maybe this is best asked at the library of Congress.

From Andres Sender
Posted on November 13, 2007 at 05:00 AM
Maple and spruce are used because they were the best choices available to the makers who developed and perfected the violin, and no one has found alternatives which the violin market deemed superior in sound and appearance.

The violin was designed to make best use of the characteristics of these woods. People trying to make great violins use the material that violins were designed for so that they have a better chance of success.

Violins have been made from all sorts of materials: walnut, poplar, redwood, douglas fir, myrtle, pear, cedar, rosewood, plastic, carbon-fiber. The market still seems to prefer the traditional materials except in specific contexts.

The question would only be "best asked at the Library of Congress" if you happened to meet a violin expert there. There is a great deal of violin-related misinformation in books, which is sadly perpetuated by the unwary.

From T Carlsen
Posted on November 13, 2007 at 05:49 AM
What I meant is that Emil is asking an advanced question about different variables that would probably take research and time to answer for each variable, and therefore is probably in a book somewhere.

But if someone else can answer his question, then please do so. The more details the better.

An example of a useful book is that, quite a bit of research has been made into just the subject of sound qualities of different kind of bowing. Bowing near the bridge, bowing near the fingerboard, bowing hard, bowing fast, etc. create different kind of tones and should be used for different applications. Robert Gerle wrote a great book on expressive bowing.

I have read other books that generally talk about the sound qualities of different manufacturing variables, although they usually refer to more extensive works. I also once scanned a book on just Strads that was way too detailed and made my eyes glaze over.

From David Burgess
Posted on November 13, 2007 at 12:16 PM
Good answers, Andres.

Spruce is used on the soundboards of most acoustic instruments, from pianos and harps to guitars. It has a good strength to weight ratio (was used extensively in early aircraft), so that may be a factor.

Can a spruce soundpost be replaced with another material?
Yes, and as long as the material properties aren't vastly different, the change in sound isn't huge. For instance, I've been able to get almost the same sound as a spruce soundpost with a smaller diameter beechwood dowel.
I once made a cello soundpost out of carbon fiber, taking care to keep the weight the same as a normal soundpost, and could detect no sound difference on that particular cello. Some difference would exist, of course. It just didn't seem to matter much in the range we value as listeners.

Don't the carbon fiber instruments use a normal wooden soundpost?

From Barry Dudley
Posted on November 13, 2007 at 04:02 PM
Traditional violinist will, Typically, not play a violin not made from Maple but that doesn't mean that excellent instruments can not be bade from other tonewoods. In the day when Stad and del Gesu were making sawdust I am not sure how available wonderful tone woods that are commonly used in guitars. I have had very good success with violins made from 'Tropical" hardwood. A concert violinist would never play it because it is not traditional, but Jazz, Celtic and Bluegrass,Newgrass players will gladly accept some non-traditional wood for the backs and sides. There was a very enlightening article in last month's "Strings" magazine about selecting your violin for a Symphony audition and the way the concertmaster more or less has a say in the violins that are played by the musicians.

The soundboard or belly of the violin is almost always spruce. As David said the strength/weight ratio is so good and it is a very responsive wood from a vibration standpoint, so it makes a good medium to transmit the sound without adding weight.

From Shawn Smith
Posted on November 13, 2007 at 08:26 PM
Maple back and sides, spruce top.
From Don Dulmage
Posted on January 22, 2009 at 07:42 PM

I found this discussion most interesting. I am merely an amatuer player who enjoys the instrument and have no hope of ever being great but  have built a few violins from different woods.Can you use different woods and get the same sound as the classic instruments? I now dont think so. Can you use different woods and get a pleasing sound and playable instrument? yes. Definately BUT, it might not be pleasing to those who prefer a violin made by the masters. I became obsessed almost with making instuments by hand as pioneer Canadian families would have in the 1600 1700 1nd 1800s. There would have been no Bosnian maple or Tyrolean Sruce or Pine but just whatever grew on the farm. And yet despite that some of those old instrments are pretty good. Woods I have tried, Pine and hard maple with birch sides. Ok but too quiet for public playing. A bit tinnie in sound and very heavy in weight. BC red cedar and red cherry with mahogany sides. Good sound but not likely to endure for several decades since BC red cedar is almost too soft. Ontario Red Cedar (which I am told is really some kind of junipher) and black cherry back . Very mellow and sweet. A bit heavy in wieght but my favourite. It is hard though to find a good clear piece of this finely grained wood. I also built a similar one with a poplar back just to see what happens. It works well and has a strong voice but it is not pleasing to listen to so it has become a wall flower. I built one from local Ontario spruce and soft maple . It is a 3/4 body but full length (longer neck) It is a very rich violin with many overtones and has decent voice but is more suited to fooling around or fiddling that serious playing. it is very light and likes a very light bow but it is very resonate. It would be my second favourite and I have been asked by a more experienced semi pro player to sell it although my violins are not for sale. They are only for fun. I built some experimental deals too just to see what would happen. I have learned I believe that a violin wants a evergreen top and a deciduous bottom if you want " music" from it and not just noise. That is the most important requirment wood wise.   After that it is personal taste and the tradional woods and violins are the target sound or goal because they probably are the best.  Still I drag my red ont cedar one everwhere and people seem to enjoy it.

just a few comments for a ol amatuer player with a sharp jacknife.

Don

From Robert Spear
Posted on January 23, 2009 at 02:37 PM

There are many kinds of wood that can be used successfully for instruments, especially for the back. My teacher made violas from all kinds of woods because she knew how to get the best out of each piece. I remember in particular a viola with the most beautiful pearwood back I have ever seen. It sounded terrific. Makers have also used birch and beech, as these are similar to maple. All fruitwoods can be used as well, providing you can find them in a suitable size.

For the top, it's better to stay with spruce. There's a reason it has come to be preferred as the sounding board wood for everything from pianos to harps. That said, I once heard a violin with an oak top that didn't sound bad! Be careful with wood terminology. What the Italians called "willow" was probably not the willows we'd think of. The Brits call maple "Sycamore," spruce is often called "pine," and pine is often called "deal." Lots of opportunities for confusion here.

--R.J. (Bob) Spear

P.S. A big "no" to commercially kiln-dried wood.

From David Allen
Posted on January 26, 2009 at 01:07 AM

Check out this balsa violin:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvyZjGb5hvo

From David Burgess
Posted on January 26, 2009 at 03:01 AM

David, that video is of our buddy, Doug Martin.

The instruments he has come up with may not replace the traditional violin anytime soon, but he's been a big force in pushing the boundaries of what we know, and what we thought we knew.

From bill platt
Posted on January 26, 2009 at 04:43 PM

The difference between guitars and violins is that in the former, variety of design approach and sound quality is encouraged, whereaas with fiddles almost everyone wants a "Stradivarius."

Of course you can use other woods. Why spruce, and why maple:

1. Spruce is a good soundboard because it has a high stiffness to weight ratio (not strength to weight ratio) and a low damping coefficient. Try an oak soundboard and you get a very different result.

2. Maple is used for the back because it is dense and stable, again with low damping.

Some Cedars are clost to spruce in characteristic, as are some firs, especially Douglas Fir (what the English used to call "Oregon Pine"

You can get some idea of how sound is affected by looking at guitars and ukuleles. Guitars are usueally either Spruce top with Back of Rosewood, or Maple, or Mahogany. Somtimes other woods.

Also look at instruments from around the world: look at Afghan Rebabs, with Pearwood bodies. Look at Charangos, with bodies of Yellow Wood "Naranjillo". Or even all-cedar. www.charangos.com.ar

It is definitely an intertesting question!

From Don Dulmage
Posted on January 27, 2009 at 03:41 AM

http://seniordragster.bravehost.com/Projects.html

Here is a good sample of my violin experiments. Remember now this is something I do just for fun. I make no pretence at anything execpt i find it interesting. so go easy on me. I'm tender. These are made mostly with a coping saw and a jack knife (Swiss Army Knife) and often a piece of glasss for scraping. Lately I have used a band saw for cutting the rough shapes. A couple I have actually cut down the tree that it s made of as well. It is a very therapuedic hobby for me. Soothing. It is most exciting when they are born and you hear them sing for the first time. They are almost unsure at the first strokes of the bow but within an hour of playing their voice becomes defined. They arent really finished until about a year fo playing and then they setlle in to who they are and what they sound like. It is this , this amost human ,babe like, quality that I think keeps me fascinated with this instrument and hobby.

Don

From David Beck
Posted on November 22, 2010 at 07:27 AM

I looked up this interesting old thread because a maker I know emailed me photos of 5 raw maple samples because I expressed an interest in getting another violin from him. A discussion had arisen because the last fiddle I bought from him has a rather wide-grained maple, wider that you tend to see on photos of Stradivari violins, and I thought to have the next fiddle "different". Note that of course grain is not the same as flame.

Many Gagliano instruments are made from a very wide-grained maple, and I was surprised to see that the back of the "Kreisler" Guarneri is quite wide-grained. I am wondering if there exists any simple relationship between width of grain and hardness of the maple. If so, it might go towards explaining why some Guarneris and Gagliani have comparatively thick backs, sometimes approaching 6 mm in the center, I am told. "Slab cut" maple tends to be softer, too, I understand.

Together with 2 examples of Bosnian stuff my maker friend included in his sample some Transylvanian maple, which he said is tougher. It's not yet clear whether this is from Transylvania County, USA, or the Count Dracula place. Writing as an ex-player and enthusiast who does not make I thought this looked decidedly odd, yet I think I have seen Guadagnini fiddles made of similar material. 

Since the time of Pressenda,it would appear that Italian makers have enjoyed a love-affair with wide-grained maple. Does this result in a richer, or more "mellow" sound than would be the result from a closer grain ? Maybe some brilliancy of sound is sacrificed ? It seems that it became traditional to make "Guarneri" copies with a wider grain of maple than would be selected for a Strad copy, and slab-cut timber features on many a facsimile "del Gesù".

Is "Red Pine" a form of spruce? The certificate on a violin I have specifies this. 

Flamed timber does look nice, but I suspect that maple wood can be tough enough even when quite plain-looking. Correct me, folks !

From Roland Garrison
Posted on November 22, 2010 at 08:00 AM

I haven't made any violins, but I have spent a couple decades working with wood in the trades (making cabinets, furniture, and as a finish carpenter).

Different woods have significantly different characteristics. I cannot imagine some of them being used to create a resonant sound. Some are oily, some waxy, some brittle, some are extremely soft and almost malleable.

Here's an interesting read: Differences in wood density.
http://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/weigt-wood-d_821.html

From LUIS CLAUDIO MANFIO
Posted on November 22, 2010 at 10:28 AM

Provided that the wood is reasonable and "traditional", sound is up to the maker. Give a lobster to a bad cook and he will spoil it. Give simple ingredients to a good cook and he will cook a marvelous dish.

Wood that would be considered unsuitable today was widely used by Italian classical makers, including wood with knots (Stradivari "Tullaye"), run out,  wood that was attacked by woodworm, birch (there is a del Gesù violin which back was made of Birch), plain looking wood, unseasoned wood (del Gesù),  maple with mineral deposits, tops made with mismatched halves (again  del Gesù), tops with filled resin sacks (Stradivari's "Messiah"),  etc. In spite of the wood "defects" these are good sounding instruments.

But these are old violins, and players will forgive  everthing about them! Musicians are conservative so that makers in general will not risk.

I recently made a viola with some knots in the back,  now in the Gewandhaus Leipzig Orchestra:

www.manfio.com

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on November 22, 2010 at 11:12 AM

@Andres Sender "Violins have been made from all sorts of materials..."
I understand Heifetz used an aluminum violin in his youth, but it wasn't the mainstay of his career; and on YouTube I've seen a glass violin being played (can't remember who the violinist was), and that didn't sound too unattractive.

From Peter Charles
Posted on November 22, 2010 at 04:40 PM

Judging by the sounds from a lot of contemporary players these days I think their instruments must be made from plastic.

From David Beck
Posted on November 22, 2010 at 06:11 PM

I googled. It seems "abete rosso Italiano" on my certificate is the same as Picea abies, or spruce. So I found the answer to my question ! I had thought it to be the same as "red pine" which is apparently native to North America, but it's apparently not. 

Luis is surely right in suggesting that a good maker will adjust to the wood. Making fiddles on auto-pilot cannot be an entirely brilliant idea. Last time I bought a fiddle i didn't realise it had pretty wood for the back until I'd decided to buy it ! Food for thought. However, it seems that some alternative timbers for the back, such as pear or beech, are quite simply not as good for producing a soloist brilliancy.

 

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on November 22, 2010 at 06:35 PM

The rare sapient pearwood might be worth trying, though. I would expect some interesting side effects.

From elise stanley
Posted on November 22, 2010 at 08:40 PM

The top plate of my John Newton violin is Norwegian fir - from a demonlition site construction beam...

But what about maple - there are many species - can all be used for violins?  Are they made even from sugar maple (hmmm... is that what Gil Shaham plays :) ).

From Joel Jacklich
Posted on November 22, 2010 at 09:01 PM

For types of wood used, besides the traditional maple, I know of violins with sides and backs of willow, ash, oak (made from a 100+-year-old city water tower), and loblolly pine (made from the wood of a 100+-year-old barn).  For tops, besides the traditional spruce, I know of fir, cedar, and heard of one made of balsam(!!!), although I am surprised that it would hold the tension and actually play--although the Havilland aircraft of WWII was made of balsa wood..

From LUIS CLAUDIO MANFIO
Posted on November 22, 2010 at 11:48 PM

Yes, the literal translation of  "abete rosso" is "red spruce", the bark of the tree being red, hence its name. 

www.manfio.com 

From Lyle Reedy
Posted on November 23, 2010 at 01:20 AM
@David Beck: I have made several fiddles from Transylvanian maple. That is, Transylvania County, USA, because I live here. Red maple cut by a friend. I've also used hemlock, sometimes called "spruce pine," for tops. Sounds about like spruce but much harder to work so I switched.
From David Beck
Posted on November 23, 2010 at 06:27 AM

 @Luis, not knowing Italian I thought at first that "Abete Rosso" translated as "Red Pine", but Google corrected me !

I read that Poplar wood was Popular - for 'cellos !

Still no answer to my query:- if I see a fiddle with a wide-grained maple back, does that mean that the wood's very soft ? Offered such violin for sale, It's not polite for me to test the timber with my Swiss army knife .......

However, as written above, I do know to "listen with my ears" rather than rely on my eyes. It's interesting for me, however, to try to predict the sound of a fiddle that's not been made yet - it's rather like gambling on the horses.

Could it be that a handsome piece of close-grained maple such as that seen on the 1715 Stradivari in the Cremona museum is as difficult to find now as it was then ?

From LUIS CLAUDIO MANFIO
Posted on November 23, 2010 at 10:50 AM

It is hard to predict wood's properties just by looking at it, it may be misleading.

It is hard also to associate a particular sound result with the wood we used. We keep detailed notes about the instruments we make and sometimes we have an unexpected result we can't link to the wood or to something we have done differently.

We are allways compensating different wood properties with weight, flexibility, tap tones, archings, edge thicknesses, etc. 

www.manfio.com 

From David Burgess
Posted on November 23, 2010 at 11:39 AM

"Still no answer to my query:- if I see a fiddle with a wide-grained maple back, does that mean that the wood's very soft ?"

Not necessarily. I've had wide-grained pieces which were much harder than narrow-grained pieces. It's also possible for wide-grained tops to be stiffer than narrow-grained tops.

With either wood, a harder or stiffer piece isn't necessarily a virtue.

From Richard Watson
Posted on November 24, 2010 at 07:01 PM

 David Beck, is poplar wood popular for celli which play Popper?

From Tamas Guminar
Posted on November 25, 2010 at 01:05 PM

 Hi! I use classical tonewoods for my violins. The maple comes from Bosnia, and spruce from north Italy, specially from Trentino. It's traditional line. People like sound of the old Italian violins, and Stradivari and Guarneri used same quality woods. modern makers search different materials (Rumanian, French, Slovak), but always return to resource. They are the bests.

www.guminarviolin.hu

From Tamas Guminar
Posted on November 25, 2010 at 01:16 PM

 

From David Beck
Posted on November 25, 2010 at 03:21 PM

 @ Richard Watson :- For the proper performance of Popper with a back made of popular Poplar strip off the Bach first.


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