Unusual timbers used in violin construction.

September 7, 2012 at 06:09 PM · What unusual types of timbers have you come across in violin construction other than the standard maple, spruce and ebony ? Did you get to play the instrument and what did it sound like ?

Replies (32)

September 7, 2012 at 06:24 PM · I've seen pearwood and poplar wood backs on violins.

September 7, 2012 at 11:50 PM · I met a "fiddle" maker in my youth that made all the visible parts of a violin out of Cherry Wood. It was actually a playable instrument that, while not great, it did prove that other non traditional woods will work to a certain extent. It was bright and rather responsive even though the top was made from slab cut Cherry. He also made a mandolin of his own design entirely out of Hedge Wood that was incredibly heavy but produces good volume and tone.

This fellow has been dead for many years but his inspiration to think out side the box continues to inspire me.

September 8, 2012 at 12:37 AM · My first violin (returning to violin from viola) was made from gun stocks. I'm not sure why the luthier (self-trained, but not a hopeless craftsman!) chose gun stocks, but there it was.

I had a viola with a one-piece swirly-grained pear-wood back. It was awesome.

September 8, 2012 at 01:49 AM · Stradivari used poplar (pioppo), willow (salice), local maple (oppio). There is a del Gesù violin which back was made of birch.

September 8, 2012 at 07:55 AM · If I had money to burn, I'd get me a custom job with koa. Probably for the back, they make all koa ukuleles that sound quite nice, but I'd love to hear any other opinions of what a koa fiddle might sound like. There is an invasive species here in Hawaii called Australian Red Cedar whose wood is pretty resonant that I'd be curious to hear. Does anyone have a non- pernambuco or non-carbon-fiber bow? I've always wondered how, with all the tree species there are, that there really isn't anything else that's suitable for bows. I realize that I haven't answered the question, but alternative woods for fiddles is a subject I'm really interested in, so I'm just trying to keep the conservation going. Cheers!

September 8, 2012 at 09:09 AM · I am surprised that Koa has not already been used to make a violin. It seems like a good choice with proven use in guitars. It looks fantastic too.

September 8, 2012 at 10:32 AM · Most makers will have a preference towards light wood, both in weight and colour.

Classical players are very conservative about their instruments so most makers will prefer using traditional materials otherwise players will from upon the "different" instrument.

But if you make violins for fiddlers, popular musicians, etc. then you have much more liberty,

September 8, 2012 at 11:09 AM · Rachel, one of my bows is in snakewood, stick and frog. It is a copy of a 1750s French bow, so has elements of the Baroque in its construction and design. Early Transitional, perhaps? It is about 2" shorter than a modern bow and is light and responsive. In fact, it is my favorite bow for almost all my playing, certainly from Baroque up to the end of the Classical period and perhaps into early Romantic. I'd hesitate to use it for some later music, though, in particular Mahler 5 which I've got coming up next month.

I bought it about 18 months ago from a local violin dealer after spending an afternoon trying out a box of bows in his shop. £370.

[Edit added 9/9/2012] Hendrick's post of 9/9/2012 reminded me to mention that my snakewood bow is also a little stiffer than any of my other bows.

September 8, 2012 at 09:46 PM · I have seen and heard Cedar top violins, not great but not bad either. Darker color. I have also seen one with an Ash back. Hardanger fiddles are sometimes made with Black Alder backs. Makes the sound mellower and softer I guess.

September 8, 2012 at 10:17 PM · I played a viola recently with what I believe was a poplar back, and some other wood for the top whose name is escaping me right now. It had a nice, if very dark tone. It was also very pretty, a much darker color than I've seen before.

September 8, 2012 at 10:41 PM · Koa violin pic: http://www.flickr.com/photos/davesayscheese/278468058/

September 8, 2012 at 10:53 PM · I've made a few American Tulip (called "poplar") violas, and they were fine, but a bit soft, tonally. Black willow is crisper, and Italian river willow (what you see in Guarneri cellos, for instance) more so, again.

Cedar tops haven't done well for me, and not for the several English makers who used them 100 years ago either--a bit thin and harsh tonally for all of us. I used to say that they worked well on small violins, until I had to replace a broken cedar top (cedar is very weak) on a 3/4 I had made, used spruce for the replacement, and improved the violin quite a bit.

The real risk with unusual woods is that it puts you into the category of non-serious, folky, fiddle maker. OK, if that's what you want to be, but don't look for much support from serious classical musicians and shops.

September 8, 2012 at 11:34 PM · I have come across 2 violins with cedar tops, and I agree with Michael: thin and harsh. A mahogany-topped fiddle was truly horrid, but I'm sure the dismal workmanship had something to do with it.

September 9, 2012 at 12:50 AM · I used hemlock for the tops of several of my early fiddles and at least one later one, and dogwood for a few fingerboards. Both worked fine, but good hemlock is hard to find and difficult to work so I've used only spruce lately. I have some redwood that looks interesting, but I haven't heard good things about it so I probably won't try it. Nothing but maple (European, sugar, black, red and silver) for backs.

September 9, 2012 at 03:14 AM · Trevor, I guess we are a little off topic, but indeed bows can be made from a number of different kinds of wood other than pernambuco ( or it's cheaper version brazilwood).

A cellist here loves his snakewood bow also. Apparently it is a just a bit stiffer than most pernambuco.

Amarette wood has been widely used in the past by a number of makers including D. Pecatte and T. Dodd. These bows tend to be a little lower in price than the pernambuco equivalents.

Bernard Walke is an archetier in Ottawa and very interested in alternatives for pernambuco. Particularly from a conservation point of view: he was a biologist before he became a bow maker many years ago.

Bernard makes great bows; I have a pernambuco as well as a wamara wood bow from him and the latter bow works particularly well for my son's violin. He has tried a number of other kinds of wood as well including greenwood. He has sold quite a few wamara bows now, they perform very well.

September 9, 2012 at 03:19 PM · I came across a violin made entirely of spruce,with a pleasant, sweet sound.

My "luthier" (Bernard Sabatier) has made a complete quartet on a two-cornered Gasparo pattern: The first violin has a maple back, the second, a poplar back, (for a less "forward" tone?)

September 10, 2012 at 02:59 PM · I have a 7/8 violin that is bird's eye maple, it's very pretty with a bright orange varnish. Unfortunately it is not a very good-sounding violin. I even had the top graduated to try and get better tone but it's just kind of muted.

A local maker did a cello with the back made of Lombardy Poplar. It looks wonderful but I haven't heard the instrument yet. I think the wood was from upper Michigan but I'm not sure.

September 10, 2012 at 07:23 PM · How about fungus?

http://www.geekosystem.com/fungus-stradivarius/

September 15, 2012 at 07:06 PM · I just arrived home from picking up three bows to try out. While the forms were filled out I looked at (but did not touch) some 16.5" violas.

For some reason my mind went Ironwood.

Well maybe knot.

September 11, 2016 at 01:48 AM · I played a cherry violin recently made by a guy who just started violin making and it sounds absolutely wonderfull in my opinion just as good as a typical spruce maple

September 11, 2016 at 02:11 AM · @Alex Do you know why he chose cherry? Did the violin have an incredible physical appearance because of it?

September 11, 2016 at 02:22 AM · I recall reading about a player here with a violin made from some sort of Australian hardwood eucalypt. IIR. she said it sounded good but was heavy. My teacher's first spouse was a violin maker and constructed one from Magnolia tree. It looked gorgeous, and sounded / played pretty well - esp considering that the maker was not a hugely experienced craftsman when it was constructed.

September 11, 2016 at 06:43 AM · My luthier Bernard Sabatier (Paris) made one of his 2-cornered (symmetrical) violas in poplar (belly and back): a huge success despite its 15" body. In fact it was sold before I could try it. Slower vibrations to compensate for the short body.

September 11, 2016 at 05:07 PM · For chello backs willow wasn't that unusual; Alexander Schütz from Linz made one 7/8 chello for his wife who is a pro player in a well known symphony orchestra, and it seems so be quite a fine one (though I'm no expert in chellos, but it's beautiful looking and I love it's sound).

http://www.geigenbau-schuetz.at/en/MeisterwerkstattDetailEN/EN2015-Cello

Martin Schleske "frames" the tops of his soloist class instruments with acacia (in one piece). I guess there's no need to loose any words about the quality of his instruments, for he's regarded as one of the most remarkable violin guys (thanks to David Burgess for that term! :-) ) of our time...

http://www.schleske.de/geigenbau/galerie/besonderheiten.html

September 13, 2016 at 02:33 PM · Back and sides are one thing, but the question is whether anyone has been successful using anything other than spruce for the top.

Finnannza supposedly used (or uses) American Red Cedar for the top, which may explain why his instruments aren't that hot anymore. Some pianos used mahogany soundboards in the past, but that may have not worked in the long run (I think they're all spruce now for the same reasons as the violin).

September 13, 2016 at 02:47 PM · My first full-sized violin was made of mangeao for the back and sides by a NZ violin maker (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Litsea_calicaris). Hard to remember exactly the sound as it was made in 1967, but I think it was a usable violin.

September 13, 2016 at 03:56 PM · The problem is that it takes a lot of time to learn violin making, then making a violin requires a lot of work, since the best thing is using the traditional and best materials.

Players, on the other hand, are very conservative about the violin looks and will frown upon everthing that looks "different".

September 13, 2016 at 09:25 PM · So Luis, is there anything that works as well for the top besides spruce that you know of?

September 13, 2016 at 09:57 PM · I don't know about violins but cedar top for cello can sound marvelous. I believe it tends to be more vulnerable to cracks.

Within the spruce family or even within the same spruce species there can be substantial differences in density etc. European spruce is different from Sitka but not necessarily better.

When it comes to the back and ribs there is a greater variety of woods being used through the ages.

Maple is most common but beech and poplar has been used by A. Stradivari and others. Pearwood and other species as well.

September 15, 2016 at 12:27 AM · Hi Scott Cole. I've always used spruce for my tops, as did the classic Italians. I've seen just one instrument, I think by Gasparo da Salò, in the Ashmoleum Museum in Oxford (The Hill Collection) that had a top made of Cedar of Lebanon.

Consistency in sound is very important for makers, and difficult to get. So makers will use wood that they know well, and will not risk.

September 15, 2016 at 10:28 AM · I tried a bow made of bamboo: terribly heavy.

September 15, 2016 at 12:46 PM · I've used two bamboo bows (Lawrence Cocker) off and on and both were well within normal weights: 58 gm for violin and 68 gm for viola. I still use them occasionally though I find them a bit stiff, but certainly not too heavy. They were a real boon for students looking for affordable bows before the days of carbon fibre (1960's) and were beautifully crafted.

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