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Jonathan Hai

Violin Maker's Wife: Inserting the instruments' necks – backwards….

October 4, 2012 at 10:06 PM

Post No. 23

Remember how in my last post, two weeks ago, I wrote about the instruments tanning in the special UV closet? Well, by now they are all nice and tan (lucky them – no sticky sun lotion, no sand in their hair, no worries about skin cancer …. just an air-conditioned studio with their very-own UV closet!). All four are ready for the final phase of construction – inserting the necks into the bodies.
But wait – first the neck of each instrument needs to be created – that is sculptured from a new piece of maple wood, taken from the very same huge, old maple tree from which the sides and backs of the four instruments were created. That same maple tree that tickled my romantic glands and got me to start writing this blog to begin with…
Unfortunately, Yonatan was so immersed in preparing the neck of the cello, that he forgot to photograph the process for me, and by the time I realized this nearly-unforgivable sin, the neck of the cello was all but finished, the fingerboard already glued and ready to be inserted into the body. But – not to worry! As with all the other phases before, we have three more instruments to go, and three more times that this process will repeat itself. So what I'll do, if you don’t mind (and even if you do, actually), is to describe the process backwards, starting from the insertion process, and next time going back to show how the neck and fingerboard were created. OK?
So first, here is a picture of the cello neck already prepared, with the necks of the three smaller instruments following it like little ducklings after their mother :) You can see how the smaller necks were only cut in rough form the block of maple wood.

DSC_0089 (2)

Apparently, inserting the neck into the body of the instrument –a process which as always has a much better name in Italian: "incastro" (with accent on the "ca") – may seem like a technical step. However, it's actually one of the more decisive factors that influence the sound of the complete instrument. Way back when Stradivari and other 17th century builders built their violins, they used to connect the neck with nails to the instrument, in a way that created a very wide, almost flat angle between the neck and the body. Gradually, as the violin progressed and modernized, this changed: the neck now connects to the body via a combination of physics and glue (more below) and the angle has become sharper. In fact, as Yonatan explained it to me, numerous variables must be considered by the violin maker when implementing the "incastro" so as to make sure that, when the strings are placed along the neck and on the bridge of the instrument, the right balance will be struck. What balance? You may ask, as I did. Well, it's a balance between the quality of the sound and the volume of the sound; between a "muddy", impotent sound, and a sound that's too tightly wound, lacking harmony and warmth, and-so-on-and-so-forth…

Wow. So now that we got all our history straight, we can follow the process by which the neck was inserted into the body. As with other processes before (such as when the two parts of the soundboard were glued together) the neck must fit exactly, perfectly, into the body. So again, Yonatan tried to fit it, then shaved off another miniscule layer of wood, tried again, checked if the fit is really perfect, and shaved off yet another sliver - - until it was really, absolutely, uncompromisingly perfect. The neck's part that must enter the body is trapezoid shaped, becoming narrower towards the end (left hand side in this picture), but also trapezoid shaped in its other dimension – wider towards the instrument and becoming narrower on the outside. Like so:

DSC_0094 (2)

Get it??? It's what carpenters call "dove-tail", or more simply put – it looks like a wedge.

Apparently, this "double trapezoid" shape creates a very tight, perfect and strong fit, so that once it's glued into place, the shape itself helps keep the neck in place.

Alas, that's not all there is too it. Now enters the variable of the angle of the neck and fingerboard vis-à-vis the bridge. To make sure the angle is right, and also that the fingerboard is exactly straight and doesn’t tilt to one direction, Yonatan connected the bridge to the cello with rubber bands, just to keep it in place, and then positioned the neck in exactly the right angle, right tilt, right height, right distance…. You get my point: this is a very difficult phase that again relies heavily on the eye and intuition of the violin maker.

Finally, here they are: neck and bridge perfectly aligned with each other, the neck can finally be glued into place – incastro completed.

DSC_0099 (2)

What will happen in the next couple of weeks is that as soon as one instrument is finished, Yonatan will begin to varnish it, while working in parallel to finish the incastro on the next instrument and so forth.

Hopefully next week I can show you the process by which the rough neck of the viola becomes the beautiful, curvy spiral (or chiocciola, meaning "snail") that to me is one of the most fascinating, impressive and, yes, mysterious steps in the violin making process.

Till then – have a great weekend!

From Paul Deck
Posted on October 5, 2012 at 4:05 PM
Again I just have to say that I enjoy looking at your photographs so much. Your images fold together the practical mechanics of the craft with the aesthetic beauty of the instruments in a way that is very moving.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 5, 2012 at 7:42 PM
I like the necklings!
From Donald Hurd
Posted on October 8, 2012 at 12:35 AM
Hi, everyone! I seem to recall the possible option of having the neck inserted not completely straight as a possible wolf eliminator. This was discussed at a Violin Society of America meeting. Does anyone have more information about this? When my violin was taken apart for some upgrades to very old crack repairs, the neck was raised slightly, and not replaced perfectly straight for that reason. (I'm still living with the wolf!) Don H. in Cincinnati

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