I've recently been made aware of a point of controversy in violin making regarding the choice of wood. Assuming very good quality of wood, well cared-for and properly stored, many feel that older is better, and will give the violin more of a head start in maturity of sound, etc. Others feel that as little as 7 years of proper seasoning is quite enough, that more may be less, and great age may actually sap the vigor from the wood, and believe that dendrochronological studies suggest that Strad and del Gesu typically used wood only 5-10 years old.
So, makers, what do you think? is this like a 'shoulder rest issue' of violin making?
Would you buy an expensive violin that was made with wood that was just 2 or 3 years old? And what about if this maker used mismatched halves of spruce for the top? And what about if it was the father or wife of the maker who carved the scroll, and not the maker himself? And if the violin was entirely made by the maker's wife?Well, there are lots of concertists playing such violins, they are known as Guarneri Del Gesù and you can pay some million dollars for them.
I think the sound is produced by the maker, the wood may help a bit.
But I was never able to atribute an exceptionally good (or bad) result in sound due to the "isolated" factor "wood choice", and I think many makers would say the same.
We see many old good Italian instruments that were made with wood that would be considered unsuitable today (wood with knots, runout, with worm tracks, etc) and they sound good.
Following the Italian tradition I had a prejudice against North American wood, but I've been making instruments with slab cut Red Maple and I love it for violas. And Rocca used North American maple, the violin used by Paolo Borciani of the Quartetto Italiano was made with American maple.
What I do today is talking with my wood..... I say: "you are a dead tree now and I'm sorry for that, but I need you to make an instrument. So, do you want to go to the concert room and sing or to stay here taking dust with my rejected instruments?"
I always enjoy looking at your beautiful violas Manfio - and I'm sure I would love listening to them too! So how old roughly is the wood that you usually choose to work with? Or is age not the most important factor when you look for wood?
Thank you for your kind words on my instruments Rosalind! There are some sound samples on my site, and if you visit NYC you can see my instrument with dealers there (Landon, Singer and Segal).
I got most of my wood in 1994 from Rivolta, in Italy, but we makers are buying wood all the time, and sometimes I get old wood for special comissions too.
For tops I'm getting wood now from Simeon Chambers, it is about 60 years old, from trees that died in the forest and remained there for decades, and I love it, this is the spruce I've been using on my violas. My backs are seasoned for 10 years or more, but I used some wood that was "younger" than that (5 years, for instance) with no problems. Vuillaume came to the conclusion that seasoning the wood for 5 years is suffient, I think the Hills mention that in their book.
Wow Luis, it would cost me two legs if I ought to buy wood of 60 years old or even wood cut in 1994 for my violins. Sometime I wonder if the price of the wood reflects its accoustic quality, I think it is mostly based on their "flames" (admitted that the look still is a non negligible fact).
Your limit of 5 years for the back correponds well to what I obtained with my two new violins. In fact I do not have any problem with the violin built with 5 year old cut , but the one with 3 years old cut has it back plate slightly difformed. However, nothing is certain here, because wood is nonhomogeneous and it can vary greatly from one piece to the other. So it might be OK with another back of 3 years old cut.
I agree that the maker defines the sound and the timbre of his/her instruments, but even from the same maker, each instrument still has something different between them, hasn't it? How we can explain this different? is it because of the wood?
In Hill's book about Stradivari published more than 100 years ago, they mentioned 3 facotrs which would lead to good sounding violin: 1. varnish, 2. construction and dimensions, 3 wood; the wood being the least important among the 3. As Manfio mentioned previously, the sound is mainly determined by the violinmaker; the mechanical properties of wood do affect to some extent the tone. A 200 or 300 years old bad violin will never become a concert violin just because of ageing.
Wood is a bio-material. The drastic change in the first few months after the tree is cut down and made into wedge shaped tonewood is losing the free water. Some water which is molecularly bound to the wood may take longer to come out. Thereafter, the chemical change of the wood continues all the time albeit very slowly. Most tonewood harvested in winter should be stable enough to use after 2 to 5 years. Also the conditions of the wood on the surface and in the interior of the wedge are slightly different. When it is carved into a violin plate, it will distort a little even in well aged tonewood. Fortunately, wood is quite resilent; the plate can be clamped on a flat surface or the mould to maintain it's shape before assembly.
The vibration of the violin structure obeys the laws of physics. There is no such thing as "even on 4 strings". In general, there is a relatively quiet region about one octave above open E, and a strong output some where near open A ( a cause of wolf around C to C# on G-string). In good violins, there are 2 regions which have very strong output: (1) around C to C# in the low register of G-string due to air resonance of the cavity of the box; (2) near the end of the fingerboard on E-string. The strong output in this region (B to G) is almost continuous and not just one or two peaks such that all the lower notes have strong partials coming from this region and therefore determine to some extent the timbre and maybe the projection. In my experience, the characteristics of this 2nd region has some thing to do with the property of the wood and/or varnish ( not the colored outer varnish).
For violins made from spruce and maple, I have heard very poor ones of woods claimed to be aged for 5 to 50 years: and vice versa for great violins. Aged wood alone appears not to count for anything sound-wise. The French video found on Youtube confirms Stradivari used rather young woods.
Various luthiers have told me the reason for selecting aged wood is structural integrity: slow dried and aired wood has less chance of splitting and warping during and after crafting the violin. This point makes practical sense to me. Within the spruce/maple combo, my luthier is convinced the hardness of the maple can affect sound for the better, as hard maple can offer a slightly thinner plate if needed for tone, without risk of cracking.
Maple is considered a hard wood, but it has degrees. Rock Maple found in Canada is very, very hard, and thus very diffcult to carve. For this reason, most luthiers prefer a softer maple, which I believe is the European variety.
The choice of wood matters: pine, cedar, balsa, etc all create sound much different from the spruce/maple combination. For example, I heard once a violin with a cedar top plate, which produced a very soft, gentle tone, full of harmonics. Lovely tone, but no volume and no projection.
I believe strongly the tonal qualities and playability of the violin are the result of the genius of the luthier. But I wonder what factors affect the volume of sound. My prof's violin is an old German one, has wood noticeably softer than mine, and produces a very nice tone, but with little volume, and no power on G: overall, sounds muted. Mine is made from very hard woods, and has a more open tone, and huge volume and power on G: it literally overpowers other violins. So is the volume from the wood? Physics would suggest yes.
Raphael, we don't have any good evidence so far that old wood is superior, as long as wood has been stored long enough in the right environment to reach dimensional and moisture stability. You'll get varying vociferous opinions though from that group of whackos know as luthiers. ;-)
I think the notion that very old wood is superior has partly been a result of frustrated attempts to make great sounding new violins. If a maker believes that they have successfully reproduced the dimensions and varnish of good sounding old instruments, but the new ones don't measure up, there's a tendency to think, "Hmm, must be the wood".
The use of very old wood also has an appealing romantic quality. The violin already has an interesting "story" attached to it.
I'm typically using wood which is between 15 and 35 years old right now. It's probably not any better than properly seasoned wood which is about 5 years old, but that's just where I happen to be in my wood inventory.Throughout my career, I've periodically purchased huge quantities of wood (most recently on a trip to Slovakia), just to be safe. A full-time maker can't afford to run out of wood with a known history.
One area where makers can get into trouble is believing wood is as old as the wood seller claims it is. Based on a wood dealers claims, a maker might believe he is using ten year old wood, when it's acutally two years old. When there are problems, the maker might conclude that ten year old wood isn't old enough.
Hans Weisshaar gave me great advice: Ignore what the wood dealer claims, and assume the wood is no older than the date when it came into your posession.
Regarding who was involved in the making of Del Gesu violins, mentioned earlier in the thread:
It's too early to draw any conclusions. Researchers continue to work on things like this. For example, we don't really know where Stradivari came from, or where he trained, despite the widespread belief that he trained in the Amati shop. Records of people working in the Amati shop fail to mention Stradivari. Assumptions have been made because of a similarity in working style between Amati and Stradivari, and there happens to be one (and only one) Strad label mentioning that he was a student of Amati. This may or may not mean something. Labels have been forged and swapped around since the earliest times, when some enterprising person made the amazing discovery that doing so could make them money. :-)
If I remember correctly, some census records have been found in which Guarneri's wife is listed as a "violin maker". We don't know what this means (is it just a mention of her schooling?), but it has certainly led to some speculation.
Seasoning wood is a simple matter of letting it dry out. The free water (between the cells) is usually out within a year. The bound water (within the cells) takes longer. The rule of thumb is "an inch a year" to let the bound water migrate out. A piece for a violin can be worked within three years, but violin makers are cautious, with good reason, and most of us will not knowingly use a piece of spruce that is less than five years old or a piece of maple that is less than seven years old. Cello and bass makers have to think in terms of 12 to 15 years.
But there is more to it than water. The wood also contains other materials, such as sap, resins and fats that do not exit the wood, but simply dry out and harden over time. This is why the best wood is cut in the winter when the tree has drawn all its sap down into the roots.
I have a bunch of wood I bought from a wholesaler who was going out of business in 1990. I have a stash of spruce I cut in the high Uintas of Colorado in 1980, and I have an even older hoard I bought from my teacher in the 1970s. He cut it as a young man in the 1940s, so it is now a little more than 60 years old. All of this wood has made fine instruments, and all of it has similar working characteristics.
I once traded for a couple of spruce boards big enough for basses. I got these in the 1970s from a trusted source who told me the boards were about 100 years old. So now they are nearly 130 years old and are beginning to decompose (I think because they were not properly stored before I got them). I doubt I'll ever use them for an instrument. I also once got a spruce log that had been part of a covered bridge built who knows when, wood which had been part of a barn beam before that. This wood is probably 200 years old and is almost totally unworkable. It's very dry, brittle, and splinters like crazy. It would have a short life, and so would I if I had to work in nothing else all the time. It makes great soundposts, though.
The age of the wood is not a critical factor in violin making, in my opinion. As long as the piece is in good condition at the start, and somewhere between ten and fifty years old, it should work well and have a long life. When my violins hit the century mark, I'll post a message and let you all know how they fared. :-)
So I learned there should be no significant different, if the wood is 10 years or more (but not too old neither).
Definitely I made a mistake when choosing a 3 years old cut wood. Once carved, my backplate wasn't only twisted (an easy fix problem as mentioned Mr. Tseng), it outer shape was deformed slightly on some areas, which can not be corrected. The ribs are also have some undulating, probably because the wood is very well flamed, but too new. A part from these little defaults, the violin built with 3 year old cut wood still sounds good.
Concerning the tap tone vs aging, my luthier told me that he observed some plates having their tap tone increase a lot when they get older, while many other remain unchanged year after year. He noticed that when exposed to the sun ray, the tap tone increases few day then decreases back to its original value. I recall now that Mr Langsather reported in his web site that his tap tone increased under UV effect, but David Burgess observed an inversed result in his test.
Thanks for the responses, folks. I'm always trying to learn more about the instrument, itself. I believe that I came across this subject in one or more VSA Journal issues, but don't recall which.
On a more personal note, I'd been increasingly impressed with a certain well-respected maker, and decided to commission a violin from him. Because it's all a bit delicate, I don't think I'll mention names at this point. The only concern I had was that he said that he uses wood aged at least 7 years. I franky told him that with all due respect that didn't seem like much to me, and that I'd commissioned 2 other violins (-very good ones!-) before from another maker who had used very old wood. This, in part was his reply:
There may be some other reason that your maker prefers this specific wood, perhaps not due to age but its properties. If they’ve made instruments from it in the past (the wood just happens to be older), and had good results, he or she would obviously want to increase the chances of another success by using the same wood.
It seems that everything violin related loves to be shrouded in mystery. The normal amount of time used to allow wood to become stable may always be confused with some mysterious aging technique… and perhaps some exist, and work. But, as far as a waiting game goes, we’d all be dead before wood would be ready to make a good sounding Strad.
"There may be some other reason that your maker prefers this specific wood, perhaps not due to age but its properties. If they’ve made instruments from it in the past (the wood just happens to be older), and had good results, he or she would obviously want to increase the chances of another success by using the same wood."
Yes, I think so. It was probably highly-prized from the start, and used as long as the supply lasted.
Well, since I've opened a makers forum, could i change the subject just for fun, and ask this: what do you find most difficult or onerous about making - technically or physically - and what aspect do you find the most fun or enjoyable?
The one maker I've asked this said that techinically, it is the neck that is the most tricky, that every aspect has to be right or else it's just wrong. I said that it reminded me of intonation in playing. He laughed and said "you're right!" He said that physically, it was the early stages of carving out the back. And he even makes basses! He said that the most enjoyable part for him is the varnishing.
So, anybody else?
Raphael, would you consider opening a new thread on this topic so others will see the question when they browse the site? It's a fun topic and shouldn't get buried inside this thread.
Here in Wyoming, U.S.A. we have Blue Spruce (my Auntie loves the blue needles) and makes a delicious tea. Good for Reumatism. Anyway, I wonder how it would do for a violin top? Any thoughts?
Simeon Chambers sells Colorado Blue Spruce for viola tops. He mentions it is in general too knotty:
I have one of these tops and I want to use it near in the future.
I'm curious as to how a blue spruce top will work out! Too knotty. That could be a blessing in disguise? Rare..... but if it works out, it's rearity may can bring some $ to you Luthiers! How about this for a Blog? LUTHIERS= the modern day Vulcan? Are making string instruments the new equivilant of the ancients mastering fire & steel?
The knotty parts are not sold to luthiers.
I've always wondered when tree fallers are out working in the forest how they know that one tree is good for tone-wood and another is not.
Do they walk up to a tree, pull a small wooden mallet out of their back pocket and give the tree in question a few taps? Hello anybody home... just checking to see if there are any violins in there. Is it the look, smell and feel that can only be detected with a couple of specially trained dogs and years of hands on experience? Hmmm maybe the mystery is more fun.
Tapping on a tree is OK, but it's best to use a bow.
I use to work at a wood mill, Rocky Mountain Forest Products. We got our lumber from the Saw mill 2 miles down the road and wearhuses that aged and curred the wood. When lumber is cut it's graded. No knots, grains, etc., We would seperate it up to six or more diferent grades of would to make mouldings to lattice. The same with tone woods (which we didn't use).
Also- I zigged rather than zagged- My previous post I wrote too knotty to be used, I ought to have said, No Knots, and if rare could be a benefit, blah, blah, blah. Sorry about that!
'Ive always wondered when tree fallers are out working in the forest how they know that one tree is good for tone-wood and another is not.
Wood cutters take a 'core sample' from the trunk to check on ring spacing etc. This is a auger like tool that removes a long plug from the bark to the center of the trunk.
I think a hammer thunk on the trunk may reveal some qualities. Other than that they look for a straight trunk, no lean, no bugs or diseases. etc. There's an element of chance in selecting a tree, some are better than others.
Oded- And you know this because of........ what?
The tool Oded mentioned is shown in the 14th minute of this film:
The young maker speaking Italian is the son of Giobatta Morassi.
Anyone who's done any amount of construction renovation on old houses (or even had to pound a nail into an ancient stud) knows that old wood is not like new wood in any respect. There's much more to it than just the water going out. For instance, it can take many years for the resins in the wood to fully dry, harden, and then crosslink. I think it would be naive to think this doesn't have tonal results.
I have a very small amount of data in this regard, from when I worked at the WH Lee shop: an old maker from Germany gave the shop 12 sets of wood from his grandfather's shop--wood roughly 80+ years old at that time. The wood was divided between the two best makers in the shop, and each made a couple of violins from it. Immediately after they were finished, the maker with more status exercised his "rights" and gracelessly seized the remaining wood for himself. All of the resulting violins were definitely different, having the character of an older instrument, but not an 80 year old instrument, just one that had been in use for a few years.
"Anyone who's done any amount of construction renovation on old houses (or even had to pound a nail into an ancient stud) knows that old wood is not like new wood in any respect."
For this to have meaning, I think one would need to know that the old and new wood were of precisely the same species, and grown under the same conditions. Colder northern states like Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin were once big logging areas. Newer construction grade wood is more likely to come from the South, like Alabama, Georgia or Arkansas, or from the Pacific Northwest.
This is such an interesting thread - lots of food for thought.
I remember visiting a friend who has a thing about antique furniture and she was showing me her various "treasures" that she'd bought at estate sales and auctions. One item was THE most gorgeous Jacobean (early 1600s) table with a wonderfully flamed thick maple top. Of course my first thought was: "That would make an amazing violin back...!" When you tapped the wood, it had a real resonance to it.
Have any of our makers on here purposely bought particularly old antique furniture to dismantle and reuse the wood in their violin making? I think if I was a luthier that would definitely be something I'd want to try.
I know several makers who have used wood from old furniture for fiddles (including one who used a shelf from an old public phone booth), but I have never done it myself. Furniture makers tend to use commercially cut and kiln-dried wood, and often the species that work well for them are too dense, heavy, and hard to make the best violin. In relatively modern times, say the past century or so, summer logging has become common. Summer-cut wood is full of sap and resins that are very attractive to insects, so this is also a concern with wood that is of unknown origin. I have seen some beautiful wood in furniture, but in general the wood selected out for making musical instruments is the best of all-- as we luthiers learn when we pay for it!
Have any of our makers on here purposely bought particularly old antique furniture to dismantle and reuse the wood in their violin making? I think if I was a luthier that would definitely be something I'd want to try.
Panormo is said to have used maple from an old billiards table, found in Dublin. Vuillaume was reputed to have travelled miles to see wood he had heard about. But to put the matter to the test, I heard that there's a family of makers in Florence who have some VERY ancient wood (certified) they will use on your behalf - at a price of course. Maybe someone will get 2, olde versus new, & report ! I think I'm not supposed to say on violinist.com who these makers are, but it shouldn't be too difficult to find out ! They also entice buyers with photos of their ancestor felling a tree.
A violin maker I knew had stacks of old-looking wood in the workshop, inscribed in pencil with inscriptions such as "good tone". When I commented, he told me wryly that he expected to sell it.
Found an online European tonewood seller that has an interesting web site with a number of photos of tonewood production.
The reason the phase of the moon is important during cutting, is so that the wood-cutters aren't attacked by werewolves. :-)
I have had a very interesting correspondence with Mr Langsather, which I reproduce here for everyone's benefit:
Yes you have my permission. My 'tap tone project' seems to be coming to its
conclusion phase. After several more rounds to testing and refinement, including
hiring a professional violist to play all 8 violins in the study group, and then analyzing the
best performing instruments, looking for common traits, and then adjusting to the indicated best frequency
groupings, gives these currently indicated settings:
Suggested tap tone arrangement for violin, full sized: by David Langsather January, 2014:
* 161HZ for the under the scroll tap tone.
* 176HZ: for each of these:
-the under the neck tap, all along its length
-the top plate, center tap point; draw lines between the four corners to discover tap spot, just a gentle tap
-the tap tap of the nut, all across the same tap tone.
-the fingerboard top surface all over.
-the string bar of the tailpiece, all across.
-the top downward tap of the saddle, even across the raised surface.
-the end pin, tapped downward at the outer ring.
-the bass bar, all along its length
* 198HZ; for each of these:
-the back plate center tap
-the bridge, downward tap on top surface, even all across.
-the tailpiece, downward tap in the waist area, even all across.
* The ideal frequency of sound holes is unknown. suggest you stay with exact copy of famous violin maker for dimensions.
The violin bow should have a downward tap tone all along its length to match the bridge and back plate (198HZ). Also
the tap tone along the direction of the bow hair toward each supporting end (the tip in one direction and frog in the other),
should also match the stick tap tone along its length.
This is the apparent results of my fifteen years or so, relating to tap tones of the various violin parts, in a quest to
understand ideal arrangements, if they existed; with an aim to making better new instruments, and adjusting existing
instruments to better playing condition.
Salem, Oregon USA
From: "John Rokos"
Sent: Thursday, January 2, 2014 2:16:17 AM
Subject: RE: I've just stumbled upon your website
Thank you so much for your reply. May I have your permission to reproduce this correspondence on violinist.com?
With best wishes for a Happy New Year,
Date: Tue, 29 Oct 2013 07:20:39 -0400
Subject: Re: I've just stumbled upon your website
Based on my research and experience and from what I have read over the years;
I would suggest the plate frequencies should be 0.7 of a whole musical tone separated (usually with the back plate the higher). the fraction works out to be 1.0843.
The actual frequency seem to be important also:
see my page: http://www.violinresearch.com/violin_071.htm
Of these, I would suggest the 149 HZ top plate and 161 HZ back plate frequency to be excellent. (I am currently exploring the 160/177 HZ paring). The others, I have eliminated as good choices by experimentation. This frequency is heard as the gentle tap on the exact center of the center bout of the instrument.
There are numerous acoustical interactions on the instrument, any one or combination of, that can sharply diminish the performance of an individual instrument. So many factors must be in harmony for a good sound at it is very surprising (see other articles on this topic).
Good quality wood, of proper weight and graduation is also important. I would suggest you see my research on "Rub Tone" wood selection as an important guide to wood selection for the various parts of an instrument.
As to effects of wood and water immersion, I plan to test this out myself as I have some maple wood that was submerged in cold water for 100 years; to be used in a future instrument.
From: "John Rokos"
Sent: Monday, October 28, 2013 3:42:57 PM
Subject: I've just stumbled upon your website
Some years ago I read in the New Scientist about the desirable pitch difference between front and back plates, and what I have just seen on your website (I was googling for some information on this in response to a post on violinist.com - which website I think is crying out for your participation) confirms my memory of what I read. I also heard from a luthier in my country (UK) that before the base bar is fixed to the front plate, the pitches of the two should match.
I also read, I think also in the New Scientist, that when the dying Guadagnini was asked for the secret of the old Cremona masters he said "Use old wood", but I cannot find confirmation of this on the internet. Have you heard this? The article went on to say that this may have been a cruel joke on Guadagnini's part, because they had probably used wood that had crossed the sea from Turkey and had had the pectin removed by the salt spray on the way, and that may have contributed more to the quality of their violins. But I'm wondering whether he might not have meant "Use wood from old trees" and been misinterpreted. What do you think?
David 'Dale' Langsather
3425 Fairhaven Avenue N.E.
Salem, Oregon 97301
(503) 364- 8685 firstname.lastname@example.org www.hbrepair.com www.violinresearch.com
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April 1, 2009 at 09:10 PM ·
(Related to my post in Old vs New Violins)
First of all, I'm not a maker but Imho, yes there is different.
At the starting point, when buying top quality tone wood, the older cut is always more expensive, their stock price is continuously increased year per year. Because the violin will open more quickly with seasoned wood, due to older cut wood is normally less dampened. The design is also more stable, acoustically as mechanically. With newly cut wood, the tap tone may change in time, and the plate may difform a bit, if you are unlucky.
Highly flamed top quality tone wood is very expensive. I knew that when going with my luthier for buying wood. I couldn't afford for having seasoned wood, then I bought top quality tone wood but newly cut (2003 and 2005).
Although my luthier took care to carve and let the wood dry under sun rays for another year more, the violin built with 2005 wood still has it back plate difformed a bit, (but still acceptable for me).
Concerning the top plate, my luthier suggested me to use split wood, and at least 10 years old.
I recall that Mr. Denis Cormier, a well-known and respectfull luthier in Montreal, once told me (in 1996) that he paid up to $800 CDN just for his well flamed violin back, and he had to fly to Europe for selecting the wood himself.
This is said, one shouldn't expected much on the wood quality when paying an entire violin kit including case for ...100$.
I've heard that quality wood should be light but strong, which allows to obtain light & thin plate at correct tap tone, and at the same time can support the stress caused by the string and playing force. But when selecting a wood piece, it is difficult to know if the wood is light or heavy, because their volumes aren't equal. For the same reason, one can not knock the piece for hearing their ringing tone. Some makers may try to bit the wood to feel their resistance, is it true?
Makers please give us more on your the tone wood preferred characteristic :-)
my two cents