Questions about fittings

November 5, 2007 at 11:15 PM · Hi,

I am under the influence that different woods have differnt effects on the sound of the instrument. I currently have a 1924 Sderci viola and I recently(5 months ago) had rosewood fittings put on, I personally liked the sound of the rosewood over the boxwood and ebony. The ebony fittings had a more brilliant piercing sound. The boxwood I really know what I didn't like about it all I know is that I didn't like it AT ALL.

The reason why I brought up the subject was I know there are differnt acoustic properties of woods.

Like Da Salo made a amazing 16 1/4 inch viola that but the back was made of willow. I have also heard of several luthiers(including Sderci) making violas and cellos with poplar, ash and oak. I was wondering if anybody could tell me or at least give me a understanding of the different tonal properties of different woods.

Thanks, Blake

Replies (32)

November 6, 2007 at 12:23 AM · Yes.

November 6, 2007 at 12:24 AM · Ian ~ hahaha Thanks! but I was sorta asking if anybody knew the tonal properties of different woods.

Sorry future readers if my question is unclear. LOL

November 6, 2007 at 02:21 AM · Each instrument will react differently to a change in the wood the fittings are made from. Just as the same type of strings will also get varied results. I was curious so did a couple web searches to get a list of how dense violin and bow woods are. Even these can very tree to tree but does give a general idea of differences between species.

Wood density measured as Grams per Cubic Centimeter:

Spruce 0.42

Maple 0.63

Boxwood 0.91

Rosewood 1.05

Ebony 1.20

Pernambuco 1.25

November 6, 2007 at 02:51 AM · I'm not sure how basic or advanced you are thinking... It sounds like you are thinking of more exotic application. None-the-less...

Spruce is highly resonant, which is why it is used for the top. Some say that ideally you want a very narrow pin-striping to the spruce for violins. Some say you want the same for cellos, except that the stripes should become wider apart from center to outside.

The thickness and arching of the top is very important. generally speaking, thin means more resonant, but too thin mean that it will break. The grading of the thinning is important. Arching gives strength to the violin, which is why the center of a water dam projects outward to the oncoming water, directing the pressure to the less-vulnerable side which are braced by the sides of the river. The violin sides are braced by the string ribs.

In general, a flatter arch makes for a louder projection, although we are talking a difference of 3 mm. del gesu violins tend to be more sought after by concert performers because they tend to project more, while a Strad has been said to have a higher arching, which makes for a sweeter sound. (However, this is under dispute due to alterations to old instruments.)

The bridge should be made of old maple. The vibrations of the strings resonate through the bridge to the violin.

This construction is one reason why a violin is a more complex instrument than a guitar, which has a flat top and is not under the same kind of pressure as a violin.

The severe pressure caused by the string tension requires that a stronger wood be used for the ribs and back. Thus, high-quality maple is used, which still resonates but is strong. Ideally you want highly-figured (flamed) maple, which adds to the strength and accoustic properties, although not everyone agrees to what extent.

(Let's just say it's much better than candy-apple pressboard.)

Ideally you want maple that has grown at a high altitude where the trees grow slow and develop excessive density, and thus the figuring.

(As a sidenote, I wonder if the trees in the days of Stradivarious experienced a period of cold, which I had heard about, that could have made the wood different.)

The heavily used fingerboard needs ebony that is not pitted. Look down the fingerboard from the scroll to judge the smoothness and quality. Some ebony is better than others. You want the good stuff.

The purling is usually made with willow and/or maple with ebony. The purling prevents the violin from cracking if it is hit on the side.

As far as fittings go, I do not quite understand that. I think that high quality ebony is theoretically the best, but why do so master instruments have boxwood? It looks nicer, but fittings is something that puzzles me.

Never put your hand into a moving fan blade or into scalding hot water.

November 6, 2007 at 02:31 AM · or on Junko...

November 6, 2007 at 03:46 AM · Commonsense seems to make it painfully obvious which woods are good for what and why, based solely on density.

Lighter airier woods are best at conducting sound; however the grain must be fairly tight, for strength.

Dense woods are often ideal for areas that are constantly in use (but do not produce as much sound), and again, tight grain is still ideal for even surface wear.

Perhaps Blake wants comparisons of materials that would be used for the same purpose (i.e. “these woods can be used to make a top, but this kind is best because of this”). Most people here, including myself, are not qualified to give a factual direct response.

November 6, 2007 at 04:01 AM · Ian,

there's a lot more to it than just density.

November 6, 2007 at 09:38 PM · Well, T Carlsen that was really helpful, but really I sorta was more curious on the sound properties of different woods like Poplar, Willow, Oak, etc..

Ian ~~ I agree that every thing is not completely dependent on density

November 6, 2007 at 10:01 PM · Allan and Blake (and everyone else, for that matter):

Aside from density, could fiber length also be a factor?

This would seem to make sense, in that longer wood fibers could theoretically pass on more vibrations farther than short fibers.

Just my thoughts :-)

What other wood properties come into play?

November 6, 2007 at 10:36 PM · Well, let's see. The sound properties of these woods would be as follows:

Balsawood: Snap!

Pine: Crack!

Ash: Snap!

Willow: Creek!

Rubberwood: Boing!

Dogwood: Woof, woof!

November 6, 2007 at 11:00 PM · . . . . . . . . . .

The Willow Gasparo da Salo I was talking about has an AMAZING sound(a violist in the ASO has it). Da Salo also made several violas out of poplar and ash

November 7, 2007 at 02:36 AM · Density, like my skull? I must have been in a bad mood last night.

Please, feel free to elaborate Allan. You make violins?

There are so many factors that it gets tiring to think about them all. In the end, I just give up, and try to keep things as basic as possible.

November 7, 2007 at 07:45 AM · Ian,

My apologies.

I realize I didn't give any technical info, but really the answers are so complex as to not belong on this forum.

I do not make violins, though It is a current study of mine. I have a masters degree in acoustical physics, and I buillt guitars for many years, alongside my friend and master luthier Ed Foley.

Anyway, what else besides density? Well:

1 Damping factor is huge. (oil content, etc) -look at Gabon Ebony vs Macassar Ebony for an obvious and pertinent example.

2 Speed (as measured by a luchi meter, etc) -esp important to bow-makers.

3 Spectral distribution of that speed.

4 Phase response throughout the frequency spectrum

How the particular formant structure of a piece interracts with the rest of the violin, vis-a-vis comb filtering and such.

etc etc etc

I could talk on this for hours, but again, it is not something easily discussed on a forum such as this.

-And once these individual parameters are somewhat understood, figuring out how they all combine to create one unified musical instrument is something slightly short of, or perhaps slightly above, magic. Ask David Burgess, a guy who's as in-tune with the modern scientific end of things as anyone, and still searching for many answers, just like the rest of us.

It's incredibly frustrating, but also incredibly intriguing, and darn frickin' cool, too. Onward and upward we go ......

November 7, 2007 at 07:47 AM · I should add:

As regards the original question, specifically about fittings. I HIGHLY recommend you talk to Eric Meyer. He is a master fittings luthier (is that a term?) and a very smart fellow. I have had several good conversations with him, and once I find my "lifetime" violins, he will be making my fittings. He understands this stuff as much as anyone I know, and I highly recommend you see what he has to say. (he posts here once in a while, though he is most humble and refrains from anything even remotely resembly self-promotion)

Eric, now that I've given you a window, please feel free to respond with your thoughts. -esp about mountain Mahogany and Pernambuco.

November 8, 2007 at 11:06 PM · Allan,

I currently have pernambuco fittings on my violin. I'm not sure of all the science behind it but when the parts arrived by mail you could hear the difference. The pegs came in a small zip lock bag and when I gave them a little shake to see them all better it sounded like there was a wind-chime in there rather than violin parts. After getting them installed the luthier put the ebony pegs back in the same bag and when I gave them a little shake they just sounded like wooden pegs.

There was also a noticable difference in the weight between chin rests with the pernambuco being much heavier. Not sure if that's even worth two cents...

November 9, 2007 at 04:40 AM · About my previous joke entry about woods, I do want to mention that spruce, used for the top, is a pine wood. What seems to verify its superiority as the wood for the resonant top is the fact that the the molecular structure is that of a bundle of long, hollow tubes that resonate across the grain. As I previously mentioned, straight and close-together grain stripes seem to be best for the spruce top, although there are good violins that do not have that.

About the back, Bosnia maple is often cited as superior, although other hardwoods can be used. It must be a hardwood. A two-piece back is stronger than a one-piece back, although one-piece has the potential to make an richly warm tone.

Willow, poplar and beech tend to give a mellower sound.

November 9, 2007 at 08:53 PM · Although not really qualified to comment on much concerning the violin (I'm an adult beginner), I can add a few things about wood (I'm a professor of Silviculture at the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences).

Anyway, Spruce (Genus Picea) is not a pine (Genus Pinus). Both are indeed conifers (Subdivision Gynmosperm) as opposed to being a hardwood (Subdivision Angiosperm). The main difference in wood anatomy between the two groups is the lack of vessel elements in the conifers...both contain tracheids. Both groups also contain rays, although this type of cell is much more prominent in some species than others. Rays are the cells responsible for the flame pattern in quarter-sawn maple.

With regard to wood density...a real can of worms. Suffice it to say that this can be greatly affected by cultural practices, but is also affected by species differences, precipitation, altitude, and hormone production (usually a function of season) within an individual tree. This is not an exhaustive list by any means. Regardless, foresters can and do breed for wood density traits and can affect them in many ways. There is nothing magical about the properties of various wood species, but to suggest that they have changed markedly (or even minimally) over several hundred years within a species would be surprising (bordering on impossible).

November 10, 2007 at 02:45 AM · Recently I saw a violin/viola/cello with 'Bird's-eye Maple'. Gorgeous!!!! I'm curious to hear one some day. Also I saw a Romanian made violin with Quilt Maple. The only other violin with with a wood out of the norm was a Baroque violin with a bird's-eye maple finger board. I wondered if I could order such a finger board for a contemporay violin and thought maybe not since Baroque violins used gut strings without a metal wrap jacket and Classical violins do, perhaps why ebony or rose wood was used after the Baroque era even to our day?

November 10, 2007 at 02:33 PM · Blake, I think it might be more related to how the viola responds with more or less weight at the peg end or tailpiece than the individual acoustic properties of those woods.

Sound doesn't really resonate from the pegs, but they do have an effect on how the instrument vibrates as a whole.

November 10, 2007 at 04:01 PM · Enlightening thread. Thanks, T Carlsen (and others) for your eloquent and educational reply.

November 10, 2007 at 04:50 PM · To Edward, thank you for explaining that spruce is not a pine. I should have used the generic term "evergreen."

Question: What is the difference between picea abies, picea excelsa and picea alba, which are the preferred choices for the spruce top?

November 10, 2007 at 06:54 PM · Hi Blake;

Truth is, like most details concerning instruments, I don't think the wood used for fittings is a "stand alone" issue. In my experience, some instruments do better with heavier tailpieces, some lighter... but the results may be dependent on the rest of the setup (post, bridge, fingerboard thickness, etc.). Changing one or more of these components may yield a very different result once you've gone to all that trouble to put on expensive fittings... and then there is the quality of the wood used for the fittings (not all boxwood is created equal; ebony rosewood, snakewood or pernambuco for that matter.)

The string spacing at the fret of the tailpiece can have as much, or more, of an effect on the sound than density. Design of the fittings (width, lenth, thickness) may effect the weight as much as, or more than, the material used.

To be honest, when I'm setting up an instrument in my shop, unless there is a specific issue that I feel needs to be addressed, I pick fittings I think are complementary to the instrument and go from there.

If you have specific issues, you can experiment by adding weight to your present tailpiece (to see if more weight actually improves things), adjusting the tailgut length, and even by removing weight from the underside of the tailpiece (to find out if less weight improves things) before deciding on the fittings of choice.

I'd suggest you consult with the luthier you trust to maintain and repair your instrument... Discuss your wishes, desires and tastes... I honestly doubt you'll be able to gain much useful or meaningful information concerning the effect of fittings on your viola any other way.

Concerning woods used for making (especially) violas and 'celli. One problem with comparing the classic makers to the more modern ones is that (especially) the poplar I've seen used in the 17th and 18th century instruments is very different than the wood I've seen available and/or used in the 20th and 21st century instruments. Many of the contemporary makers who make instruments with alternate wood for the back have resorted to willow rather than use the poplar that is presently available. Those using poplar often select the Po Valley type (which is often figured), but it doesn't look or "feel" like the "old stuff" seen in some Ruggeris or Guarneris. I don't know where that particular poplar grew, or if there is any left growing at this point.

One other comment:

"The purling is usually made with willow and/or maple with ebony. The purling prevents the violin from cracking if it is hit on the side."

Purfling material, like lining or block material, depends on the maker/school of making. Many classic Cremonese makers used poplar and dyed pear, some Dutch, Flemish, French (and even an Italian or two) makers used whalebone. Some makers used beech and dyed "paper", some used beech and various dyed woods, others used maple and ebony, some purfled the top but often not the back (simply scribing lines on the back), some occasionally scribed both the top and the back, etc., etc., etc.

November 10, 2007 at 06:30 PM · Yes, I forgot about pear in purling.

Let me ask you about the relationship between highly figured wood and sound.

November 10, 2007 at 08:16 PM · "Let me ask you about the relationship between highly figured wood and sound."

Within reason, I'm not sure the figure (or lack of it) in the wood iteslf makes all that much difference in sound... I know very good sounding instruments by various fine makers that employed rather plain, or rather fancy, wood.

November 11, 2007 at 02:32 AM · I was thinking that you want fitting that do not resonate. Therefore, wouldn't ebony be the best choice of wood? Ideally, you want strong fittings that will not let energy from the strings get lost into the fittings.

The strings, when bowed, create vibrations that make the bridge rock, making the violin resonate -- or more specifically the soundbox, the body of the violin. As I think about this, I assume that you want the tailpiece and pegs to be non-resonating so that as little energy as possible is lost into the fittings.

This is actually made more complex by the fact that the vibrations from the soundbox affect the tailpaice, the neck and to a small extent the pegs. But this is probably overthinking this.

I would assume that the worst fittings are those that resonate much, dampening the energy from the strings, and potentially breaking under the high tension of the strings.

But I could be wrong. I'm sure a violin scholar has written about this somewhere.

November 13, 2007 at 04:24 PM · I hesitate to do a half-mast job of responding to this question of fittings and their relation to sound production but the subject matter calls for a book and not a few paragraphs. I find that most of my thoughts on this have been framed by those luthiers who have responded to my own work in terms of woods and weights and measurements. It's tempered by my own observations while working on them and my thirty odd years in the business.

I like the reference to wind chimes and pernambuco. Morgan Anderson gave me a bunch of reject and broken bow sticks to use in my fireplace for kindling. I thought of making them into wind chimes like they do with bamboo. They really do make a bell like sound. Now if you believe that the most innert material is the best for a tailpiece then obviously this wood (pardon) not be your choice. By all accounts pernambuco will brighten and amplify the sound of an instrument. The problem here is that all other factors of set up must be equal to make this statement and they never are, so we can only make some tentastive generalizations. I just sent two tailpieces to a customer in Spain which were polar opposites to see what he would think. One was mountain mahogany and since it had a black pin knot in the top that I couldnt get out,and I tried, it was very very light (10 grams). The other was an ammorette (unfigured snakewood) that was on the heavy side (14+grams). Now I can only deduce the results of this experiment through the feedback of the player and the personality of both he and his instrument to learn anything. What it takes, I think is doing this sort of thing many times and paying attention to the generalizations. This is the only way to make up for the lack of scientific rigor and the inherant subjectiveness. In this case he thought the light one was more responsive and the other was darker with more color.

Tom Croen has been after me for years to make a series of tailpieces that were identical in all but one feature of weight,length,shape and material to compare on a single instrument. Great idea but I've never had the chunk of time away from my orders (I'm not the fastest craftsman you ever dealt with). I did send several tailpieces to Pamela Anderson who wrote a study for the Catgut Accoustical Journal a few years back.

Some observations:

People like rosewood mostly because it has lots of resin in the pegs which almost acts like peg dope. I find that the wood varies greatly in it's density (many sub species) and is actually quite light and compresses easily. I haven't generalized on the sound.

Ebony is the heaviest except for blackwood (also a rosewood family member with resin but very dense). Both of these can help to get rid of wolfs (or is it wolves?) probably because of their density. I like the look of blackwood, it's sexier.

In terms of pegs and their function, mountain mahogany is the perfect wood. That is, it doesn't go out of round, shaves like a dream and doesn't need staining like boxwood. Also what passes for boxwood these days, at least in the larger productions, isn't what it used to be. Many of the problems that people have with peg slipage could be cured with well fit pegs of this wood.

I am suprised how well the pernambuco pegs seem to work as I mostly made them to match the tailpieces that people orderred for the sound boost. All modesty aside I've been making pernambuco fittings for fifteen years(originaly at the request of Tom Croen). I think Bois de Harmony was experimenting with them at the same time. Now you can't swing a cat without seeing them sold. Be carefull though, the stuff is very brittle and can crack if it's not the right thickness or cut. I'm not sure of this but I'd get a pernambuco end pin to match to maximize the effect. I don't think it's as heavy a wood as people seem to think-- some of it sinks, some doesn't. And I'll bet the stuff that sinks is used for bows not tailpieces.

I was experimenting with spectra as a tail gut material ten years back but was too lazy to carry it through to completion. I got the idea because of the complaints of bicycle riders that the spokes made from kevlar (similar stuff) were too loud on the road. Norm Pickering told me they experimented with it as a string making material but decided it broke too easily when it bent around the peg hole. I wasn't going to braid it though like the Tail Cord or use a knot to fix the length.

Whew, that was too much typing for a two finger guy.

Oh, by the way, all of this is general obsevations. As they say results may vary, and don't try this at home. At least more folk admit that fittings can augment the sound than would do so when I started. Don't resent the complexity of the subject matter. As they said in that movie about baseball "if it was easy, anybody could do it."

November 13, 2007 at 07:54 PM · Eric,

Great reply and thanks for sharing your experiences. If talking in general terms I will be brave enough to chime in. I do have the matching pernambuco end pin and chinrest and would agree with your comments on the ability to brighten and amplify. I would also add clarify and refine too.

In general comparing the ebony fittings I had to pernambuco I noticed three areas of change. when plucking an open string the reverb has a longer sustain. There is an expanded color capability. most suprising was the enrichment of over tones. Originally I had swapped a used set of Passiones from another violin as they cost so much. When I finally replaced them with new ones, for the first day or so the overtones on the G string were so strong if tuning up very lightly the tuner would alternate between G and an E overtone. This subsided once the string stretched just a bit.

Overall I would say the pernambuco would not make alot of change to the sound quality of a violin but would augment what the instrument already has to offer. So if your like the tonal colors of your instrument and want more of it or are looking for a little more projection pernambuco may be what your looking for. Once again your results may vary.

November 13, 2007 at 08:53 PM · Cris, could we say that the tuner was "yodeling"? (grin)

November 13, 2007 at 09:12 PM · David, You could say that and it was amusing. At first I wasn't sure if I was seeing things and only under the lightest bow pressure. Play an open G string see G on the meter then E. Stop the bow trying again G then E like some sort of science experiment.

November 14, 2007 at 03:29 AM · Cris, you wrote:

"So if your like the tonal colors of your instrument and want more of it .... pernambuco may be what your looking for."

I'm not looking for a fight, but one needs to be very careful with descriptive words when dealing with such an arcane subject. The only way to keep one's current tonal color (or colors, I guess) is to make the violin LOUDER. Make any other change, and the color has changed. Pernambuco may add some harmonics, or perhaps lessen some damping or whatever (both theoretically possible) but neither equates to maintaining the original color, and that's exactly why Pernambuco fittings aren't going to work for every instrument.

I would not be surprised, though, if Pernambuco gave increased amplitude response, or HF boost, since Eric has been told this more than once.

Perhaps Pernambuco even some kind of improved transient response (again, is that REALLY what we want) in which case one COULD say that the color doesn't change, but you would get that change without the other tonal changes, so...

-but this all hurts my poor brain too much. Should sound travel through the neck & tailpiece, then combine with the main body of the fiddle in a mess of comb-filtered frenzy, or should sound only travel down through the bridge, giving more definition but less complexity? My head, my head .......

One can take, as an example, the trick of putting carbon-fiber rods in an acoustic guitar neck. this is something I have much experience with, including before-after recordings of many such operations. There is no doubt that the resulting, stiffer neck increases sustain and harmonics. In some cases even HF response itself. I am a HUGE fan of this sound in guitars, yet many guitarist dislike this sound. - And there you go.

The only thing harder than figuring out how to make a violin sound/ respond the way you want, is figuring out what you want in the first place.

OK, where'd I put my blender? I'm gonna make me a big batch of margaritas before my head explodes...

November 14, 2007 at 04:24 AM · Allan,

Not looking to disagree with anybody. One of the reasons I read more than I post. The main reasons I changed fittings was the pernabuco with gold trim looked so darn nice and matched my varnish wonderfully. I was very happy with the sound of my instrument and was hoping that pernamubco would also have the least impact on it's quality. I would really credit it all to dumb luck that it worked at all. I also figured I could put the old fittings back on if it turned out for the worse. The trick is trying to post comments on something so sublte and hard to put into word without stepping on any toes in the process. Not sure if that's possible either. Once you post something one is just begging for someone else to say otherwise.

November 14, 2007 at 05:33 AM · Yup.

Happens to me constantly!

The only true recourse is a large blender full of margaritas.

Or prunes.

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