Do luthiers hold secrets from each other?

March 25, 2011 at 04:45 PM ·

I was wondering if contemporary violin makers have secrets.  I assume that all modern makers learn their art by either going to a school or serving as an apprentice.  Everything they learn comes from a long tradition and I imagine whatever there is to know is available to all that are talented, persistent, resourceful, and inquisitive.  The makers that rise to the top and win the awards are perhaps the most talented or accomplished.  What I am trying to find out is does Zygmuntowicz  know something that Alf, Borman, or Burgess does not know?  Can they all make instruments that are comparable; or do differences occur because of differences in taste of philosophy?  Do makers have secret recipes that distinguish the sound of their violin from others?

Replies (38)

March 25, 2011 at 04:48 PM ·

I've heard a nice story to the contrary. There's a gang of luthiers that get together on a regular basis & swap info, techniques & tips.... lots of comraderie between them. I think David B. can attest to that.

March 25, 2011 at 06:02 PM ·

I can't wait for David to weigh in. But meanwhile, from articles and books I've read, it seems that now-a-days there is an environment of much greater opennes and sharing of ideas and techniques among luthiers. Nevertheless, as Paganini said "every man has his secrets". In violin making, this seems to be especially true when it comes to exact varnish recipies and antiquing techniques. They will share up to a point, then, 'OK till there!'

No two makers will usually make violins exactly alike. I think that even top-notch copy-ists will leave a trace of their handwriting somewhere. The same with players. Some players may clearly show a lot of influence from say, Heifetz. But it will never be 100%. I heard that once some Dorothy Delay students asked her how Pinchas Zuckerman gets his wonderful tone. 'Oh', she said, 'you just do this and that'. Anybody ever hear an exact Zuckerman clone? Once Joseph Silverstein in a master class, demonstrated how Heifetz made his famous portamento. He didn't sound like Heifetz, though. He did sound like really good Silverstein! I think it's similar with making. There are so many variables involved.

March 25, 2011 at 06:42 PM ·

I don't think the biggest magic of a violin is in the finish, or the method. I think it is in the technique. Two makers can be working with the same knowledge and information, however they will feel slightly different about all the myriad small decisions for making the violin (should I plane this part more? When does this surface fit well enough for me to stop shaping it?).

I really think it would be interesting to have a camera watch an entire violin from start to finish, and then identify how many 'decisions' were made. I would bet it is in the millions.

March 25, 2011 at 06:47 PM ·

Some do, some don't.

Like any other art or craft that needs particular skills, some practitioners are generous with their knowledge, others keep things to themselves.

Some even send people on wild goose chases...

I should add, though, that even if you are privy to another's "secret", it doesn't mean you will be able to put it into practice in the same way, or even have any success with it.



March 25, 2011 at 07:38 PM ·

"Do luthiers hold secrets from each other?"

Can't say, because it's a secret. LOL

Just kidding. I'll say more later, but right now I need to replace a broken supercharger belt while the temperature is above freezing and I still have daylight. (drove home last night with no water pump, no charging system, and no power steering)

March 25, 2011 at 08:00 PM ·

3 people got hold of David B's secret varnish recipe.  All 3 are either dead or missing :-)

March 25, 2011 at 09:10 PM ·

3 people got hold of David B's secret varnish recipe.  All 3 are either dead or missing :-)

None of them had got it to work...

; )

March 25, 2011 at 09:41 PM ·

Yes, most luthiers have at least a few secrets which they won't share. But it's much more open than it used to be. One example: When I started working at the Weisshaar shop, the fabled and mysterious "1704 varnish recipe" (supposedly from Stradivari) was not shared, unless and until an employee proved worthy. Later, Weisshaar included it in his restoration book, which is available to anyone.

Another example is the "post-graduate" type courses, such as the Violin Society of America/Oberlin College workshops. These vary as to entry requirements, but if someone can get in, it's a reasonably well validated next step, and a huge source of information and sharing compared to what was available 20 years ago.

Even with these courses, there's still some secrecy. I'm on the teacher hiring end, and I sometimes get responses like, "I can't teach, because I've promised my employees that they will get exclusive information which I won't share with others".  I also get, "Dave, I'll teach, but there are a few things which I'll need to hold back on". Quite reasonable, if you consider that some people have made huge sacrifices and financial investments to know what they know, and that violin making is a competitive marketplace, which on the "high end", only supports perhaps 40 people on our planet who don't have other sources of income.

If I might regress for a moment, a three or four year education in a violin making school is a good start, but it's far from preparing a maker for success, with rare exceptions. Today, the proven path seems to be: Go through violin making school; after that, work in a major shop for dirt wages to have exposure to the great instruments, and the great restorers.

I haven't asked Sam about his varnish, and he hasn't asked me about mine. My guess is that neither of us is terribly interested in what the other is doing in that regard, because we each have something which puts across what we want to express, and which we're fairly comfortable with. Wouldn't it be a little boring if every violin came down to the same formula, or every musical performance was the same?

Beyond varnish? Sam hired a former employee of mine for a short time. And I'm always interested in what Sam has to say.

On the sound shootout front, there are a number of makers who seem to have a pattern of doing better than others. We semi-routinely put various instruments (including some mega-buck instruments) up on stage, and attempt to evaluate the results. Among Strads, and maybe a half dozen contemporary makers, there doesn't seem to be a clear and consistent winner.

Also, some private information exchanges take place between makers who admire each others work, which go something along the lines of, "I'll show you mine if you show me yours, as long as we both agree that that's as far as it goes". 

March 25, 2011 at 10:22 PM ·

In Italy there are many many well kept secrets ("segreti"), no maker's Congress, no magazine, etc. On the other hand, In the USA and England there is much more exchange of ideas, thanks good, that's good for everybody.

March 26, 2011 at 06:11 PM ·

Not a bad idea, and easily implementable, even though it may feel a little like the Thirty Year Rule controlling publication of the minutes of the UK Cabinet at Number 10. (Frustrating for historians in that specific example, but it's likely that an element of avoiding embarrassment comes into the equation somewhere.)


March 26, 2011 at 11:46 PM ·

Most of us take notes about our instruments, my notes are rudimentary:  arching heights in the 5 points of the "quinte di curvatura", weight of the top prior and after glueing the bass bar, weight of the back, tap tones, weight of the rib cage, thicknesses and that's it. But these notes are allways interpreted according to the wood we are working, and they can be useless for other makers.

Violin making is a bit like cooking: the same recipe will produce very different cakes depending on the cook.


March 27, 2011 at 03:59 AM ·

If Paganini's secret is to play without a chinrest, I don't think it'll work for everybody (or simply anybody?).

March 27, 2011 at 01:25 PM ·

The thing about secrets is that when one finally lets them out, one discovers a) some Italian violin maker stole it about 350 years ago, and b) it's not as good as one thought it was. No matter how closely held the secret, it's almost certain that someone, somewhere already knows it.

In the span of my working career, there have been two very powerful and positive influences working to dispel the myths about violin making. One was the work of Hutchins, Schelleng and a small group of researchers in the 1960s who eventually became the Catgut Acoustical Society. The CAS has presently merged as an independent forum with the Violin Society of America (VSA for those outside the profession). The impact of their work has led directly to things like the Oberlin Acoustics Workshop. It has created an openness and a willingness to exchange information that seems to have never happened before in the history of our craft. It really has been the rising tide that has lifted all boats.

The other thing that happened was the publication of S. F. Sacconi's book in the 1970s. It was called "The 'Secrets' of Stradivari." Sacconi, who is revered as one of the great violin makers, restorers, and teachers of the late 20th century, put the word "secrets" in quotes because he didn't believe that there was anything secretive about the methods and materials of the Cremonese masters. He was the first of the giants in the inner circle to come out and put this in writing, and though I can't speak for others, the tone of that book completely changed the way I looked at the craft.

Secrets are not good for the profession as a whole. In the end they actually make matters worse. Anyone who has been around the craft as long as I have can remember where this led us, which was into the darkness of lore, myth, and speculation that prevailed for almost two centuries. The result of the work on both the scientific and craft side of the profession has thrown a lot of light on the subject and helped to level the field. It's good for us in the profession, and it's good for the musician as well.


March 27, 2011 at 09:10 PM ·

 All the knowledge or secrets in the world will still not explain a Menuhin or a Stradivari. Talent is a gift bestowed on the chosen few. Genius on a tiny fraction of those.

March 27, 2011 at 11:34 PM ·

I`ve been told that there are researchers/luthiers that do not want their findings to become common knowledge as they are concerned the violin factories in China and Eastern Europe will just use that information to cranck out hundreds of better sounding cheap violins that flood the market and make it harder for luthiers to compete.

March 28, 2011 at 12:08 AM ·

Great post, encompassing many issues, Mr. Spear.

March 28, 2011 at 01:20 AM ·




March 28, 2011 at 02:59 AM ·

Re Sacconi - I know that in The "Secrets" of Stradivari he put "secrets" in quotation marks. And as someone else said "his secret was that he could do it". Indeed, secrets don't substitute for talent. I don't see how he could have hidden any secrets from his sons and assistants, Francesco and Ombono, even if he wanted to. It stands to reason that the old man must have carved less and supervised more as he rounded 90 - or long before. Yet he must have lent a little magic to the proceedings up to the end. For on their own, the sons did not rise to the level of their dad, after the former's passing. He still may have had some secrets that stayed in the shop. The classic Cremona makers may have all gotten their basic varnish ingredients from the same apothocary (as is I think is now believed) but just what each one did with them could have varied meaningfully.

Again, I believe that there are parallels in playing. Paganini used to say "every man has his secrets". And Heifetz liked to say "that's for me to know and for you to find out". (I understand though, that Heifetz liked to use that hackneyed phrase whenever he felt the least bit intruded upon about anything.) Paganini claimed to have devised a time-saving secret to practicing, which he assiduously refused to publish. Indeed, in his lifetime, he only published the caprices. Again, the best varnishing or practicing techniques won't substitute for talent. But talent can be aided and focused in different ways.

I think that we are perfectly entitled to harbor a few professional secrets. I have my own technical practice regimen that has been quite helpful to me, and I have to say that I'm still not in a big hurry to share it. I've only revealed it in its entirety so far to one friend. But she's "only" a bass player, and curiously seems to have disappeared. Hmmm... ;-)

March 28, 2011 at 02:23 PM ·

Roland-- Few things bother me more than seeing a bright and talented person in my craft struggling to succeed while carrying the extra burden of ignorance. I think that the sharing of knowledge and information actually levels the field in the sense that everyone gets the same information and everyone gets the same tools. The magic occurs when an individual uses them with such a degree of skill that he rises above the rest. As Maria Muldauer is famously quoted as saying, "Anyone can be trained to be a good singer, but to be a great singer, you have to have the pipes."

Hendrik-- Let me argue that it is precisely because inexpensive imported violins are available that string playing remains strong all over the world. The Chinese are only the latest in this end of the business. The French, Germans, and Czechs were there before them. I really believe that we are living in a golden age of violin making because of the reasons I mentioned in my previous post and because there is a huge market base that creates a demand for handmade violins.

David-- Why, thank your very much, Sir!

March 28, 2011 at 03:23 PM ·

yup, the Oberlin event was the one I was referring to.

March 28, 2011 at 04:09 PM ·

However, I'll say that I have mixed feelings when it comes to "raising the bar". We have more and better stuff (including better violins), higher levels of performance,  better technology, and a better standard of living than at any time in human history. Has it really made us any happier, or has the availability of these things simply caused us to revise our standards, so that we can  no longer be happy with what was once perfectly adequate, or even remarkable? Is raising the bar always of benefit, or can it leave us chasing our tails?

A friend of mine who is in his 60's dropped by a couple of days ago, and he's moving to Ohio next week to take a job as a motor vehicle driver for the Amish. I know, it's kind of an awkward thing to get your mind around... that they don't own or drive cars or trucks, but can hire people to do it for them. :-)

He'll be leaving his comfortable home to live in a tent, with a nearby outhouse. It's still pretty  cold in northern Ohio. Perhaps he'll eventually rent a room. He has really come to admire those people over the years, and is pretty excited about it.

So if you see a van full of Amish people going down the freeway, wave to the driver. It might be Roger. ;-)

March 28, 2011 at 04:27 PM ·


I agree wholeheartedly. My favorite get-away is my favorite because my closest neighbors are fur-bearing (not counting the insects). I have to generate my own power, or do without. Entertainment is walking to the creek with the puppies and the grandson.

One thought I have about all our conveniences; everything we own ALSO OWNS US.
We accept small to moderate changes in what we do or can do to accommodate the conveniences; we need to maintain and manage them (ever run around looking for a wi-fi hot spot? Ever feel the dismay of letting your phone battery run down?).
Soon, with enough conveniences, we spend more effort keeping them up than maintaining ourselves.
That is one thing music gives to me; although I am not very good, it gives me something I do purely for myself (and the puppies and grandkids, but they are there for me, too).

March 28, 2011 at 04:31 PM ·

I don't know whether anyone can confirm this story, but I was told that many years ago when the LSO was the first European orchestra to tour China, the players did a photo call for their hosts and all their instruments from the leader's downwards were photographed in some detail by the surrounding Chinese photographers.  John Georgiadis, the LSO's leader at the time, said a few years later he didn't think it was a coincidence that replicas of his and other colleagues' instruments started coming out of China a year or so after that tour. 

March 28, 2011 at 04:34 PM ·

Copy in appearance only!

March 28, 2011 at 04:56 PM ·

Yes of course, that goes without saying!

Those instruments were presumably the first trickle of the flood, and it wouldn't have been difficult for China to acquire some good instruments, analyze them thoroughly, and take it from there. Chinese craftsmanship has always been pretty good by any standards.

March 28, 2011 at 04:57 PM ·

Great post, encompassing many issues, Mr. Burgess. :-)

I once heard an economist say that if that beginning tomorrow everyone in the world could earn $500,000.00 per year, then tomorrow a wage of $500,000.00 per year instantly would become the new poverty level. It is an interesting thought, and the idea that we only end up chasing our tails has a lot of merit. (Actually, our entire economic system rests on this premise.)

However, in the world of art and culture, we have the happy circumstance that the old does not necessarily crowd out the new. There are probably more people in the world today playing gambas than there were during the entire Baroque era. And if the end of secrets and the willingness to share knowledge might possibly mean that we will reach a level where it is impossible to make a violin any better, at least physically, in the arts we still enjoy our individual tastes and preferences.

The ancient Greeks had the right idea about reaching perfection. On this planet, it ain't gonna happen.

March 29, 2011 at 02:43 AM ·

 Robert, I can see your point. Personally I own  a very nice inexpensive Chinese violin that is built according to good acoustic principles. Would be hypocritical of me to object to that market. And I agree that today's violin students are very lucky that they can get a nice sounding and responsive instrument for relative little money. No doubt that has boosted the number of students as well as their level of play.

On the other hand I am not a luthier. It must be pretty difficult to make a living as a luthier in today's economic situation (maybe except for those that are best known?). It is understandable that some might feel threatened by the numerous workshops, particularly the higher end. Personally I really have no opinion as to  whether it is a good thing or not for luthiers to keep secrets to themselves. But the discussions among luthiers is immensely interesting and I hope to continue to learn from them.

March 31, 2011 at 12:21 AM ·

Even if makers are not keeping secrets on purpose, everyone has their own ears, their own hands and their own taste.  Why then would the results they produce be the same?  I am sure that if Messrs.  Burgess and Zygmuntowicz were given adjacent wedges from the same trees, and asked to make identical copies of a famous instrument, the results would a) not really look like the original, b) not sound like the original and c) not sound like each other, either. 

If you look at the journals of the Violin Society of America, what's startling is not secrets, but how much information is disseminated and shared.  Makers today have more data available to them than anyone in history. 

March 31, 2011 at 02:45 AM ·

Frederick - I agree with your first paragraph, and I think I hit this idea a glancing blow in my own way, earlier. As to the 2nd paragraph, to a large extent, yes - but then it sometimes hits a wall. And again, it usually is a varnish wall - that wonderful icing to the violin cake.* I too, have been an avid reader of the VSA Journal for a number of years now. I've got a long shelf full of them. I've been trying in vain to find one in particular that had an article I recall to prove my point. But I do seem to remember one article (- for you non-VSA people, most of the articles are transcriptions of live meeetings, lectures, etc. -) in which a prominant American maker gave a talk mainly about antiquing. (I want to say Joesph Curtain, or Greg Alf, or maybe Sam Z. but I could be way off the mark.) Anyway, at one point a questioner catches him kind of flubbing over a step or two and says something to the effect 'it sounds like you don't want to reveal every step in your process, and that's OK - but just say so.' And the maker then admitted that it was true.

But here I can quote chapter and verse from The Violin Maker - the story of Sam Z's making a violin to order for Eugene Drucker. Chapter 11, p.169 begins with a great pull quote from Sam Z: "For violin makers, varnish is like sex or money: a defining characteristic of one's personality that is nobody else's business" [I love that!] Later in that chapter, p.180, Sam talks about his own former guide, René Morel : "Morel would talk about the best character of a ground and what it would do. He had cooked up what he considered a perfect 'sauce'. And there the sharing stopped. Morel refused to tell Sam exactly what was in it." A little later "I [the author, John Marchese] asked what was in the [Sam's own] sauce. And in keeping with Morel's tradtion - what by now was a centuries-old tradtion - Sam refused to tell me." A little later, "It's just one of those things...a good magician never tells all of his tricks."

*Of course it's not necessarily only or always varnish that is the subject of secrecy. There was an interesting article in the Strad re German maker, Peter Greiner, who has done a lot of acoustical research along with a physicist, analysing the sound of great old instruments, and trying to replicate that by means of plate tuning etc. He's in no hurry to share his findings. He does stress, though that it's a combination of many factors that lead to a good sound; there is no one magic bullet. I just found this video

March 31, 2011 at 11:37 AM ·

What we are talking about applies to any business. If there are important details of a process, or materials, or parts thereof, that are inherently incapable of being protected by the usual intellectual property procedures, or if the proprietor does not want that protection (which is time-limited) then secrecy becomes the only possibility. In the case of a sole practitioner this usually works very well, but if the secret leaks, and if it cannot otherwise be protected, then it enters the public domain.

In the case of a varnish it is presumably not just the ingredients, which in principle could be determined by chemical analysis, but the way and conditions in which they are prepared, mixed and applied. Just like an artist preparing his paints. Or cooking.

March 31, 2011 at 03:06 PM ·

Raphael, I got a chuckle out of that.

One time, during a question and answer period following a VSA presentation, one questioner asked specifics about my varnish. I responded by saying, "Next question, please". It got a good laugh from the audience.

Another time, at one of our VSA/Oberlin workshops, a former Morel employee (I think it was Sam) asked Morel once again about his secret sauce.  The answer was the same as the previous time. ;-)

Rene Morel has been pretty amazing with what he will share though. We lined up a number of Cleveland and Detroit Symphony players to come into the workshop, so he could demonstrate sound adjustments. We even recorded the sessions, and played the adjustment progressions back in various repeating loops, partly to assure ourselves that the improvements could be perceived independently from Rene's personality and French accent.  Rene was fine with all of that.

March 31, 2011 at 05:12 PM ·

Yes, it seems to be widely recognized that Morel has long been one of the best adjusters and restorers in the business. But still, ze French accent helps, n'est-ce pas?

March 31, 2011 at 08:51 PM ·

 As previous posters suggest, Lutherie is a in any other business those who have useful information that is not already in the public domain are unlikely to always be inclined to share it.  Information that is not of much value or is already common currency is the most commonly shared.

On the other hand I have a few luthier friends who I have no secrets from....this has not resulted in us having similar work or being able to  replicate each others results...

Maybe this is analagous to musicians?

The classical format demands we all try to replicate the same classical form but in the end we never can and what is revealed is our difference and personality.



March 31, 2011 at 09:03 PM ·

I used to speak much more...   now I try to hold my tongue a bit...

March 31, 2011 at 11:27 PM ·

Sometimes there's more to it than simply believing someone knows more than he wants to tell. First of all, no one is obligated to answer a question simply because someone asks it. Another situation in which it is actually wise to be circumspect occurs when someone (for this example let's say it's me) makes an instrument that sounds unusually good, has nice varnish, or whatever. Then let's say I make the foolish mistake of letting out that I tried something a little different. Right away everyone else wants to know what I did, but I don't want to answer because one example does not prove the hypothesis. If what I share with my colleagues turns out over time to be really wrong, I will have egg on my face for years to come. Everyone in this profession has a long memory. :-)

April 1, 2011 at 01:15 AM ·

There's a little blurb in the latest Strings Mag. that addresses this very issue. Luthier Tom Wilder has edited a three-volume compendium with 150 articles submitted by makers of violins and bows. Volume 1 consists of general topics. Two and three are state-of-the-art repair manuals for violins and bows. Cost is $1,395!

April 4, 2011 at 01:20 AM ·

$1,395 doesn't surprise me; it's about par for similar high-end reference works in many professions. The New Grove and  the complete OED aren't exactly cheap, for that matter! (but both can be easily referenced by the public in any decent library, or on-line for a fee). However, in the case of Tom Wilder's 3-volume compendium the quoted price will have the consequence (presumably unintended – ahem!) of keeping away the amateur enthusiast who is almost invariably sadly lacking in basic knowledge and training and is likely to do more harm than good if let loose with such material at his finger-tips. 

April 5, 2011 at 02:56 AM ·

The above came from a thread on a different site, having to do with the copying of instruments and seeing how it seems to be quite relevant here, I thought I'd pass it on.

Copying anything from the hand of another is a nearly impossible task.  You almost need become the other person, in every respect, to manage it well.  Heck, consider an object as seemingly mundane as a simple signature.  Here you have a rather basic article, and yet how difficult it can be to pull off a copy, convincingly well.  And then think of a violin!!!  No, it is nothing short of a miracle some makers come as close as they do.

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