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Jonathan Hai

Violin Maker's Wife: Purfling Part II

April 22, 2012 at 12:36 PM

Post No. 10
By now all the canals have been cut around the four instruments, and now comes the really tricky part: the “filetto” needs to be inlayed. First, it must be cut to exactly fit the corners. How exact? Well, the end of each strip is cut not straight but a little diagonally, and at every corner, two pieces must meet so very exactly that they form a perfect triangle: each tiny black strip (one-third of the wooden strip, remember?) has to meet its mate in the adjacent strip, while the while strip in the middle must meet its mate, and thus – if this mastery is done right, (sort of “a perfect kiss”), it appears that a single piece was used throughout the process.


I remember the first few times Yonatan and his classmates had to do this back at the Stradivari School in Cremona, it took them many many trials and errors to get all these “exactlies” just so… Now, many instruments later, it is almost routine, but still – the way the purfling is done defines the final contour of each instrument and the way the filetto pieces fit together at the corners is one of the best indications of a violin maker’s technical ability, attention to minute details and personalized style. Yonatan, for example, likes to use thin strips and to keep the ends of the corners long so that a piece of the filetto continues beyond the corner, like an ornament.

Why go through all this trouble you may be asking yourself? That is, what’s the use of all this filetto-contour? Well, as is often the case with violins (and violin makers) the answer is complex – it is a combination of a technical function as the filetto helps strengthen the resistance of the instrument’s front and back against cracks that might form along the wood fibers; and sheer aesthetical function, beautifying the instrument. This constant interplay between functionality and aesthetics is one of Yonatan’s favorite aspects of violin making.

Anyway – when all the instruments have been inlayed with purfling front and back, a new phase begins, called “fluting”. Here a chisel is used to carve a shallow canal that cuts through both the instrument wood and the purfling, until finally it really looks like the black lining was drawn rather than inlayed. You’ll see next week that this canal is the first step in carving the external arching of the instrument.

As is my habit once in a while, just to keep him on his toes :), I made a surprise visit to Yonatan’s workshop today, to see how he was doing …or actually how “my quartet” (becoming possessive here…) is doing. I found him hard at work carving the fluting on the cello. Here you can see how it’s done.


…and here you can see all four instruments with the purfling finished. Yonatan attached the cello back to the mold with special clamps. For a moment I thought he had glued it already (and without telling me, can you imagine the audacity?), but he calmed me down saying that he only fixed it in place because if you leave such a large, arched piece of wood lying around it is bound to bend out of shape (literally, that is) due to humidity and temperature changes.

We have less than six months remaining… and while a significant portion of the work is already complete, there’s still a long way to go.

Stay with us!

Posted on April 24, 2012 at 1:09 AM
Yes, purfling is quite a precise work and tells a lot about the skills of the maker.

I think you will like to read these descriptions of purfling in some violins, I think contemporary makers would frown upon something like this:

Violin 1: the purfling, disrupted by the deep figure, is delightfully crinky... Ocacasional wild knife cuts stray outside the purfling slot and the varnish has sunk into the gaps in the purfling, which is a little loose in the channel. In most of the corners, the innermost point within the mitre has chipped away during the excavation of the channel.

Violin 2: The purfling is haphazard, the corner mitres quickly made, and knive strokes still clearly visible from the initial marking of the channel. Within the channel, the purfling itself is frequently buckled, althouhg the black and white strips remain glued together... ... some effort was made to create an extended mitre in the corners, in the style of Stradivari, but all the corners vary considerably in the lenght and direction of the point. Again, the purfling channel follows the uneven knive cut of the edge, and is far from smooth in it's course.

Violin 3: The purfling in this violin is certainly the coarsest encountered so far. The channel varies considerably in width, and the purflings are by turn constricted or free to wander from side do side within it. The purfling in the lower bouts meets in the usual sloping scarf joint on the centre seam, but the downward knive stroke wich formed it has scarred deeply into the back. In the corners, the purfling naturally takes the shortest route between two points of the oversized channel and runs in straight lines, forming the short mitres virtually as a right angle.

Violin 4 - The purfling is rather narrow, squeezed into a tightly cut slot with barely enough room for the black strips. Nevertheless, the slot meanders slightly around the edge, and the purfling is generally distorted, the tight curves in the corners are formed by a series of cracks, the sloping joint to the left of pin in the lower bout is hopelessly awry, and the knife cut still scars the surface of the back.

Violin 5 - Here and there gaps have been filled with slips of maple, and the purfling corners do not always meet cleanly, but the impression is of unusal precision.

Violin 6 - The purfling is not inlaid smoothly, but follows the knife-cut facets of the edge closely. It fits snugly into its channel, with no sign of any filler, although there are several unconcealed gaps where the purflings do not quite meet in the corner mitres.

Violin 7 - The purfling is somewhat forced into a narrow channel and in some places the black strip disappears entirely.

Violin 8 - The purfling stands a little proud of its channel and is unusually wide. Even so, the slot has generally been cut wider than the pufling, and much filler has been used around the bouts.

Violin 9 - The pufling is extremely shaky. Huge deflections appear in the lower bouts of the back, and the two strands of pufling have been forced too tightly into a butt join sligtly to the left of the pin, causing dramatic buckling. The purfling itself seems to have been cut from two different directions at this poind and does not quite meet, wich must have added considerably to the difficulty of inserting and joining the purfling. The resulting gaps are pugged with filler paste. The black strips have generally faded to grey, and disappear entirely at various points in the middle and upper bouts of the back on the bass side.

Violin 10 - The slot for the purfling is frantically cut. The knife slashed roughly along its intended route, leaving marks wich career over the finished edge. The mitres are only approximately formed; the large gaps were sometimes quickly filled with paste or simply left open. The purfling pursues a hesitant course, stopping short of the end of the corner, and meandering across the wide channel. The black stris are unevenly stained. They are quite brown under the varnish and grey were exposed, but in other paces apper to have aborbed some of the filler, and remain a very deep black.

The above descriptions are by Roger Hargrave and they refer to the following violins made by Giuseppe Guarneri Del Gesù:

1 - Joachim, 1737;
2 Ysaye 1740;
3 - Heifetz 1740;
4 - Vieuxtemps, 1741;
5 - Lord Wilton, 1742;
6 - Cannon, 1743;
7 - Carrodus, 1743;
8 - Sauret, 1743;
9 - Doyen, 1744;
10 - Ole Bull, 1744.

From Benedict Gomez
Posted on April 24, 2012 at 5:14 PM
I've commonly heard the later del Gesù works are often sloppy. Is this sloppiness solely attributable to purfling or did he cut other corners (no pun intended)?
Posted on April 24, 2012 at 10:51 PM
It is in other parts of the instruments too. But that with instruments of the last period, during his first and middle period he produced instruments that were almost as neat as Stradivari's work.

But the archings, f hole position, etc. are allways good, of course...

From John Cadd
Posted on April 25, 2012 at 12:16 PM
The third photo from the top is courting disaster because the outer edge , which must be preserved , is being cut in the wrong direction. The edge could easily split off if you do it that way .That edge needs the cutting tool working the other way . The inner surface will be reduced any way so don`t risk the edge like that . Treat the wood outside the purfling separately from the wood inside the purfling . Two different grain directions are presented to the edge of the gouge if you cut both sides of the purfling at the same time . You might get away with it but don`t put it in a photo . This is what they call a heads up for beginners.

From John Cadd
Posted on April 29, 2012 at 11:49 AM
Snick . Oh look, now there`s a bit hole in the edge.

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