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Plywood violins

Instruments: I have a few questions about plywood violins. They used to be sold around the country a year ago made in China.

From Theodor Taimla
Posted January 7, 2011 at 08:59 PM

Violins that are out of plywood -- can you consider them as junk?
As I understand the wood is what makes the sound resonate. So basically a plywood violin will not resonate much and would be unplayable in a room with bad acoustics, right?

Is it a practical method to test the violin in poor acoustics in order to find out if the material the violin is made out of is plywood? Or is naturally every violin pretty awful to play in bad/no acoustics?

Why is spruce the main material the violin is made out of? What differs it from plywood?

Thank you very much!
I hope you will share your knowledge with me :)

Cheers,
Theo
 

From Lyle Reedy
Posted on January 8, 2011 at 01:03 AM

Yes, plywood violins are pretty much junk, in my experience. So are many solid wood violins. You can tell a plywood instrument by looking at the edges of top and back.

Spruce is what TOPS are made of, because it works. Backs, ribs and necks are maple. Plywood is two or more layers glued together which may not even be the same kind of wood and may not have the grain of all layers running the same way. Lower priced cellos and basses are often plywood for cost reasons.

IMHO the best place to test instruments is outdoors, with virtually no influence from the surroundings.

From Theodor Taimla
Posted on January 8, 2011 at 01:41 AM

Thank you for your input!

But... how are the acoustics outside?
Should I consider it as bad acoustics or no acoustics?
I wonder if it will even echo a bit :O

Theo
 

From Roland Garrison
Posted on January 8, 2011 at 06:28 AM

A plywood violin has at least two major things going wrong with it.

The first is the interleaved layers of wood and glue. The two are so dissimilar they cannot carry sound in the same manner. When the sound changes medium from a wood to a brittle glue, the wave frequency is limited to the span of the wave that can live in one or the other mediums; because of that, the only waves that are carried are higher, shorter frequency waves. The deeper timber (bad pun) and lower harmonics are truncated and cut off.

The second is that plywood is not wood that is chosen for the density and grain; plywood is made with alternating layers of grain going in different directions. If it did not, it would be significantly flexible along one axis, and useless for instruments. There is some plywood with parallel grain used for some furniture and woodworking, and it can be coiled, wrapped, etc. Because of the grain pattern, the wood that does carry any sound is carrying it in a confused manner, and not generating significant harmonics, and is more often chaotic

There are other things going on, but these two alone are significant. Most of the good sound you get from the plywood violins are from the strings, and possibly the bridge, but not being brought forth from the body of the violin.

Or at least that is my concept; I do not build violins, so anyone that does probably has more information on the subject.

 

On the note of playing outside, I think my main violin sounds MUCH better when I play outside, in the woods or by a river. Then, it may simply be the accompaniment...

From Julian Stokes
Posted on January 8, 2011 at 07:47 AM

I think it is fair to say that anything made out of plywood is not a violin.

From bill platt
Posted on January 8, 2011 at 01:18 PM

Hi Roland,

I,m not so sure all of your descriptions are accurate.

From elise stanley
Posted on January 8, 2011 at 01:34 PM

Julian - OMG: violin philosophy!  When is a violin not a violin?

Now you might say when its made of plywood.  But someone else might say when it is made of any woods OTHER than spruce/maple; when it costs less than $100K (excluding mine);when it sounds like a violin (which excludes a rather famous Stradivari permanently in a museum) etc etc...

Perhaps its safest to say its a violin if someone thinks its a violin.  And leave it at that.  You might find that someone LIKES the sounds of a plywood violin (I mean cigar boxes were popular sound boxes once....)

From Julian Stokes
Posted on January 8, 2011 at 01:42 PM

Elise: It's OK - I'm usually more equivocal. I thought I'd start 2011 off a bit more dogmatic. For a change.

From Liz Moore
Posted on January 8, 2011 at 03:06 PM

Interesting question! Just to throw some confusion into the mix:

If the even parallel grain of the wood is important then shouldn't instruments made of Birdseye maple be inferior?

If plywood is so terrible how come the Yamaha c-40 (plywood) classical guitar is such a respected beginner guitar and accomplished players hold on to theirs as a "beater" guitar with a surprisingly good sound. Is it more a matter of care in construction vs. materials?

I recently saw a video on Youtube of someone playing a PLASTIC Macafferi (sp?) violin.(Macafferi was best known for making very collectable, plastic non-toy guitars) I was shocked at how good it sounded.

 

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on January 8, 2011 at 05:43 PM

Liz, one huge difference between guitars and violins is that both the belly and back of a guitar are usually flat, which is what plywood does best.  Since plywood can't be carved the way spruce and maple can be, the plywood would have to be bent or formed somehow to create the arching.  Again, with the grain of each ply running perpindicular to the last, it would take lots of adhesive to hold the plate together, significantly decreasing the ability of the top to move and vibrate.

There are some cellos and basses out there with carved bellies and plywood ribs and backs which aren't too bad.  Makes sense, since these parts are usually maple, which is much, much stiffer than spruce.

From Roland Garrison
Posted on January 9, 2011 at 04:30 AM

The question of birdseye maple is valid. My perception (not based on any science or first hand experience) is that the birdseye maple is maple that has full grain, mixed with some shorter grain, and with some burl-type grain which is significantly shortened.

This would affect it, however it does have some longer grain, and more important, it does have grain integrity from the face to the back side, as opposed to being layers of veneer.

I have not heard a birdseye maple violin played, so my opinion of the sound does not matter as a resource of merit, so take this lightly. My opinion is it would be more difficult to make a good sounding instrument from it, but not impossible. Making a good sounding violin from plywood would be impossible.

From bill platt
Posted on January 9, 2011 at 05:59 AM

Roland, just curious: do you believe it is possible to make a good sounding violin out of carbon fiber?

From David Burgess
Posted on January 9, 2011 at 11:50 AM

I've never run across a good-sounding plywood violin. Not that I think it can't be done, but I suspect that prioritizing for sound hasn't been the main consideration. Instead, the goal was an instrument which was cheap to make, and tough enough to survive a grade school environment. Pressing multiple thin veneers into a curved shape in a mold is a common and inexpensive production procedure, compared to carving the shape from a solid piece of wood. It's still widely used for making wooden instrument case shells. If the grain of the veneers isn't all in the same direction, it can also offer superior resistance to cracking, compared to a carved top.

One reason that carved spruce works well for tops is that the properties are very different along the grain, versus across the grain. This seems to be essential for good sound on a violin. I don't see a reason why similar properties couldn't be achieved with plywood, with the right woods and idealized grain orientation, but it might be at the sacrifice of some of the stability and crack resistance. My guess is that producing a quality sounding, wood laminate violin just hasn't been considered worth taking on, particularly when one has the option of starting with the more consistent properties of synthetics. Products and techniques for varying the properties of resin/fiber composites on different axis have been available and widely known for a long time.

There are many other potential advantages, compared to plywood, but that's enough for now.

From TONG NGIAM
Posted on January 9, 2011 at 01:58 PM

What I have to say may be unrelated to the theme of this thread.

Recently I came across a Chinese- made violin whose bottom looks exactly like plywood and not the usual maple flame. The seller explained that the bottom piece is not plywood but actually carved maple. However, instead of cutting the wood at the conventional angle, it was cut at 90 degree to it.  As there is some wastage in the use of wood ,  the price asked for the violin was $ 1000 - not the usual price of a genuine plywood violin.

The violin has a somewhat euphonic but metallic tone, which I would describe as having a tenor voice.  It may be good for solo but not orchestral use.

I would like readers to comment if they had experience with violins of such unusual design.

 

 

From bill platt
Posted on January 9, 2011 at 05:16 PM

A lot of the discussion above is full of imagination and imaginary facts of well-meaning but inexpert people.

"plywood" is not all created equal. I am quite certain that it would be possible to build a very very good sounding violin with laminated top and back. Of course it would be a laminate specifically engineered. It wouldn't be a sheet of door-skin.

As David said, the primary reason we don't hear good laminated violins is probably that there hasn't been any effort made to build good-sounding laminated ones.

Violins are small. "Hand-carving" really isn't a big deal--because there is very little of it.  And most of the carving except the last touch-up can be done entirely by machine! You may not realize it, but this is how most archtop guitars are made. Even the best builders do it--for the heavy lifting. Then they spend a bit of time with a thumb plane and scrapers to take the final thousandths off as they tap-tune the plates.

Low to mid-priced Guitars are built with laminates and they sound very very good for the price. The expensive ones are not laminated. Except electric guitars, where in many cases laminates are preferred--even at a high price point. And in guitars, there are tops made of pressed "solid" wood that has no cross-plies, and others which are built with cross-plies. The labels can even be misleading. "Spruce Top" does not mean "not plywood" it simply means spruce...

Now for basses, and even 'cellos to an extent, the incentive to using veneers is obviously much greater. It is a physical problem. Where do you find big enough trees with wide quarter-sawn planks? If you can use either sliced, or as a second option peeled, veneers, then the tree size is not a huge factor any longer and the material can be more consistent, higher quality, and less expensive. The cost of good wood, and the time to do final hand-planing after CNC shaping becomes even more expensive than the cost of tooling up to do the laminated approach.

The laminated approach is a production approach. It wouldn't really be of any value to the custom builder of violins. Even for larger instruments such as guitars, though there are some laminated custom guitars out there, it makes less sense in custom than production.

One really important fact that is the Elephant in the room: wood is a terrible material for building a resonant body. Terrible. Brass is a lot better :-)

From Theodor Taimla
Posted on January 10, 2011 at 12:17 AM

Thank you for your input everyone!

@Roland

Everything you said makes sense!
I should test my violin outside as well then!
I'm curious how it will sound :O

@Julian

I tend to think that everything that
looks like a violin IS a violin :)
(Although the quality does differ)

@Elise

Hahaha!
Your post sounds like this to me:
"The famous stradivarius in the museum is made out of something other than spruce and maple and doesn't sound like a violin"

Is that true? Also, if I understand correctly, your violin is very expensive yet uses a different kind of wood?

@Lisa - That is interesting :O
I just got smarter!

@Bill

You brought up some interesting facts.
So a plywood violin can sound good as well but there is simply
no need to resort to plywood as building material for violins due to the size..
-----------------------------------------------

So here's the thing --
This will probably anwser/reply a lot of the posts here.

I just happen to own a plywood violin (confirmed by a luthier).
Here's a small story behind the changes the violin has undergone:

Once when I was half as experienced, I popped my E string. So since I had the lesson next day,
I bought a gold label E and I loved it (like everyone do as far as I heard). The previous one was probably a dominant string. So I stopped avoiding the E string :P

After playing for a few month's in frustration and ambiguous mood-swings violin has been putting up, I named it "Caprice". Seems like a suitable name :)
I soon after realized that my fingers were hurting the same way they did when I was learning the guitar (high tension steel strings), so I visited a luthier and he lowered the strings (quite a lot) and made a smoother transition into the pegbox. Boy, the violin was as easy to play as ever.

Then finally I took up the free offer by John Schneider. I believe he probably made a post about his custom bridges half a year ago or so. The violin sounded a lot more open, full of energy and even somewhat louder! I did realize there was a "subtle" change back then but I truly realized what kind of horrific sounded violin I was playing when I tried my old bridge back on. It was EXACTLY like when YOU catch a flu and try to talk (alternatively, hold your nose closed). It sounded as plain and..as dull as ever. I suppose I did not hear the difference as a beginner.
------------

Well, right now the violin sounds as good as every violin I have come across (including my teachers violin). <<BUT~~!!> ONLY in good acoustics. If it echo's a bit or the room isn't filled with carpets, the violin sounds decent. The better acoustics the more "stradivarish" it sounds!
And is the truth. Perhaps the thing is that the bridge and the strings do all the work here and with decent acoustics (to compensate the badly vibrant plywood), you will tell no difference.

So eh,  the point is that I ENJOY playing on the plywood violin I have. Even the feel of the violin is of an expensive violin (no limitations). I'm an advancing beginner so I still don't virtually know what should be the quality of let's say 5th position and up on the E string but as far as my progress goes, I have no need to concern myself with those positions anyway.

The violin is great, but only until the acoustics are bad or even non-existent. That is when it is unbearable to play. I played in a train to moscow (small cabins), that was hell. Small rooms full of objects are also absolutely horrible.

Anyway, the quality of the violin is great given decent acoustics but worse than a 1/4 size VSO with guitar strings in bad acoustics. The exception is when I go to another country with the violin, it immediately rejects the climate change and catches a flu until I get back to my own country. < Interesting fact? (Stayed in the country for 4 days)
-----------------------------

Oh and right... The major sound change was actually due to the bridge. I don't know why but I can't LIVE without that bridge on my current violin. I'm guessing it does a good job amplifying the frequencies (that were dulled thanks to Plywood) making it sound like a good violin. But the bridge is not enough if the acoustics are not there to carry the sound.

Thank you everyone for the replies and the input,
it's just great, I learned a lot!

I suppose it's a lesson to us all that there are other building materials
that work well with the violin (given quality materials).

ps: I'm still thinking if I should try to make a violin out of brass!! :D

Cheers,
Theo
 

From Roland Garrison
Posted on January 10, 2011 at 03:22 AM

@Bill,

Yes, I do think that it is possible to make a good sounding violin out of carbon fiber. Although the carbon fiber is a layered process, the materials in the layers have characteristics much closer to each other than a brittle glue and a piiable wood. This will allow the sounds to carry through a bit more. Additionally, adding Kevlar can change some of the sound characteristics, but in a controlled fashion.

I have played a couple carbon fiber violins made by Stuart Rochon, and they did have resonance in the instrument. The sound produced was definitely a sound produced by the instrument, rather than just vibrating strings. I rather liked the sound, with some caveats. Some day, when my budget is more flexible than it is now, I may purchase one.

From bill platt
Posted on January 10, 2011 at 04:01 AM

Hi Roland,

OK. But this leaves me puzzled. I don't see how you can see a carbon-epoxy composite as somehow more ideal or matched --with or without kevlar--than wood and (fill in which glue you like here).

Carbon fibers have a stiffness of 30 MSI and up. Epoxy has a stiffness of 0.3 MSI. Kevlar (there are a number of types) has a stiffness  is between 10 and 16 millions of PSI (10 MSI).

Wood has a stiffness between 1 and 2 MSI. It is a composite of cellulose and lignin, a natural resin. Both the lignin and the cellulose are viscoelastic, though brittle compared to mild steel or unoriented nylon. Wood has a closer "match" of properties--though it is still an order of magnitude difference in stiffness between the lignin and the fibers. It isn't 2 orders of magnitude like the carbon.

If you make plywood, you don't have to use a "brittle glue" however the "brittle" ones are quite likely to be superior acoustically. The rubbery glues dampen vibration. They also run away from the load in time. This is why hide glue is better than titebond II for building instruments and chairs.

So far, I haven;t seen a carbon fiber violin made with hide glue. Nor have I seen one made with a non viscoelastic resin. Perhaps somebody could try a carbon-carbon (that is a carbeurized epoxy matrix)  violin. It would probably sound like brass :-D

 

BTW Stuart is the only carbon violin builder that I have yet run across who actually seems to think clearly and deeply about the properties of the laminate, the properties of a good wooden fiddle, and then make it work correctly (and I don't go looking for them so he might not be alone) .

From Roland Garrison
Posted on January 10, 2011 at 05:37 AM

@Bill,

That is why I identified myself as providing my thoughts without having the data to back it up.... it's easier to accept where I may be wrong.
I hear a CF violin contributing to the sound, and I first accept that fact, and base my assumptions on that fact.
For a plywood violin, the only ones I have heard have sounded poor and feeble, and most of the sound comes from the strings, rather than the violin body. Based on that, I assumed the plywood was actively muting the sound produced.

That said, if the violin sounds good, no amount of explanation will make it sound bad tomorrow. If it doesn't, same thing.


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