Luthiers: have you ever experimented with violin materials?

Edited: June 26, 2019, 11:14 AM · To cool things down for some people and to establish a nice conversation, I'd like to know if luthiers, I mostly expect veteran luthiers, have ever started to experiment really drastically about violin materials.
In example, making the top and bottom from ebony, compensating the differences by making it thinner or thicker, and you know...

Violins have not changed pretty much anything in 300 years, but one very easy "tempting" thing to do is to use other materials you have around. Easy because you follow the same path, adapting of course to the differences you find.

I for example imagine a black violin made of ebony, how would it sound and behave. Can you even varnish ebony like you varnish maple or spruce?

Where the idea of using spruce and maple comes from?

Since violin making seems a really, really hard task to accomplish, I guess a lot of you will say that it's not even worth it to experiment with such radical ideas. But I don't know, so much time making a repairing violins can make you do these kind of things.

Replies (31)

June 26, 2019, 12:03 PM · Most everything has been tried. I've seen fiddles of US origin made from many different native woods. Saw fiddles with a rosewood back/sides, koa back/sides, pernambuco back/sides. Of course we have experimented. It seems that by the time Strad came along, Maple and Spruce were fairly standard already. Larger instruments are made from a greater variety of woods, pear, fruitwoods, poplar, willow, walnut-and I have seen Italian violins from the 19c or before made from all of these woods. del Gesu used Beech on at least one instrument.

Curtain has made a viola of CF laminated with wood veneer so that 300 years of tradition can be subverted by the appearance of a wood shell.

Bows of alternative materials won't be accepted writ large until there is no usable Pernambuco left over.

We all make experimental instruments. Perhaps not as radical as you might expect, but our experiments aren't seen by the public unless they are both cool and work well. Look at things that Guy Rabut has done. Look up Nathaniel Rowan.

Bob Benedetto,a famous arch top guitar maker who has also made violins, once told me that the more a guitar looks like a guitar, in the traditional sense, the easier it is to sell. Something non-traditional has to sound and play much better than traditional-think David Rivinus' viola-in order to make it in the market.

The CNC might make experimentation more doable. If one could do experiments that didn't involve so much time and energy, in a physical sense, I might take it on.

As for the ebony: A piece of ebony big enough to make a top would be the first challenge. It would probably end up being a 4 piece top/back. Then, the task of carving a plate from something like ebony is not one that I would willingly take on. Finishing ebony is no different than any other wood-you could varnish it just the same as maple.

Essentially, for a professional maker, all of the R&D was done and codified by about 1700. Most people copy old things. In painting, learning to copy was a pathway to learn the skills needed to create your own art. Most never get past the copy. The personal model is the ultimate expression of the maker. Some work, some don't, and many look, to the players, no different from the older instruments that they think are better.

Edited: June 26, 2019, 12:42 PM · A luthier in my area who died a couple of years ago, Daniel Foster, showed me a cello he was making out of Lombardy poplar. It looked beautiful. I never got to see the finished product, though, and in fact I'm not sure he completed it.

In addition to whatever sound qualities it may have, maple has the decided advantage of durability over softer woods. Hickory and ash are very hard too, but in my (limited) personal experience, which does not and will never include violin-making, they are much harder to work.

Edited: June 26, 2019, 1:42 PM · "Where the idea of using spruce and maple comes from?"

Largely, it comes from the level of player approval and validation. Many other things have been tried, with mixed outcomes, most of them way less than stellar.

Spruce is still favored for "soundboards" whether on fiddles, mandolins, guitars, pianos, or harps. A major exception being banjos. :-)

Edited: June 26, 2019, 3:17 PM · You might check out the newest material being used for bowed string instruments i.e., CARBON FIBER. Some good things have been said and published about these instruments. Those who are making and studying them have done a lot of study of the vibration and acoustic properties of the materials they design and use. The properties of alternative woods suitable for use would also have to have similar properties. These properties can be measured without making an entire instrument from them.

Check out the Lucchi meter and related literature and go from there:

Edited: June 26, 2019, 4:03 PM · Yeah, I knew about CF violins and bows, indeed I knew about CF violins before CF bows. I once went to a Brazilian music clinic for violins and there I tried one CF violin, although I don't remember the sensation or sound, it was years ago. Specially in violins, I don't find CF violin appealing at all, and let's be honest, we get very influenced by the looks, in all aspects of life, including music, may be the most. It's really hard to say "NO!" to an instrument you find amusing, may be as hard as saying "YES!" to an instrument you find kind of dead, ugly, irrelevant in appearance.

I was focusing more in a traditional innovation, that is, not going crazy, more or less do the same but with different woods, fair enough. I was thinking about a black violin made of ebony, it's really gorgeous in my mind, hahahaha. I've seen that ebony trees are smaller than Spruce or Maple, but many times, tops and bottoms are not one piece, but 2 pieces glued in the middle.

Isn't it something that comes to your mind?
I mean, I know, why do you innovate, you would ask. To change things. An "organic" wooden black violin would shock anyone just by its looks, and it would still be a "traditional" violin: all wood, hand made, carved, glued... Imagine all the shades of black, I don't even know if flamed ebony is a thing. It would be like tinting spruce or maple black, but in a more natural way, and actually changing something else, not just the aesthetics.
I'm actually quite shocked I haven't found not even one in YouTube. Should I start my own brand of violins?

June 27, 2019, 12:56 AM · Ebony is going to sound SO bad if you make a violin out of it.
Edited: June 27, 2019, 1:35 AM · @Andrew, I tested the Lucchi meter extensively with laminate components of my case manufacture, and came to the conclusion that more than stiffness it was indicating density. Basically, of two strips of wood of identical length, width, and thickness, one would give a higher Lucchi reading if it was heavier but not necessarily stiffer.

But then of course laminate is minimum three pieces of wood glued together, so perhaps the Lucchi meter is not attuned to this medium.

Edited: June 27, 2019, 8:09 AM · David Burgess wrote: "Spruce is still favored for "soundboards" whether on fiddles, mandolins, guitars, pianos, or harps."

And there's a very good physical/acoustic reason for that. Not even carbon fiber can match the relevant plate vibration properties of spruce, unless you resort to exotic (difficult, expensive) lamination processes with extremely thin skins and ultra low-density core. Spruce is quite an amazing material.

But even spruce can be tweaked with heat processing to get even more extreme properties, which I have been doing for more than a decade now. While it isn't a magic bullet for a fabulous instrument, I feel it can give some acoustic advantages. But the maker still has to make it into a good instrument. Like a turbocharger, it won't turn a Yugo into a car that a professional driver would like.

My experimentations have mostly been limited to spruce, and testing the range of properties and their effects, although I have used firewood from Walmart to see how bad "bad wood" would be. It wasn't as horrid as you might think, but not very good, either.

I wouldn't bother with ebony, ironwood, or lead for a soundboard, even for experiments. The physics just doesn't lead in that direction. For backs, there might be a little more room for variations... but unless someone throws money at me to make something different, I'll stick with traditional maple.

Edited: June 27, 2019, 9:40 AM · Why ebony wouldn't work for top or bottom?
It's denser than maple and surely spruce, but one could simply reduce the thickness to see what happens. Although, of course, as Don Noon said, money would be a motivation to do it. If I were rich, I would ask for an all-ebony violin, hahahaha. I guess it would be harder to carve as well, at least compared to maple or spruce. Simply imagine all wooden black violin, with a black scroll, wow. I guess the luthier would need to be really creative with the oil/varnish, so it doesn't look dull and monotone. The good news is that no one ever has done a violin like that, AFAIK. Imagina that after all the beauty, it really sounds bad. That would be really sad and depressing.

Oh, yeah, wow, I didn't expect that, I just checked and ebony is twice or even more, as dense as spruce or maple. It's 1'1-1'3 vs 0'4-0'7.

Edited: June 27, 2019, 11:44 AM · This one has got to be on the list!
(glass violin)
June 27, 2019, 10:38 AM · My luthier in Paris made a 15" version of his two cornered Lyra Viola, using poplar instead of maple. It was sold almost immediately so I couldn't try it, but the softer wood was to vibrate more slowly and get more depth out of a small viola.
June 27, 2019, 11:24 AM · I've see Cedar used for the top. I would imagine not the easiest material to work with as it easily splits. Don't know how it sounds.
June 27, 2019, 11:28 AM · Aluminum violin:

June 27, 2019, 11:42 AM · Sounds like an aluminum violin, too. I know that guy -- I'll have to ask him how it handled :-D
Edited: June 27, 2019, 11:52 AM · Wasn't there a story that Heifetz played an aluminum violin in a concert or two in his youth?

Getting back to the glass violin, I've seen one on display in a glass manufacturer's museum in Waterford, Ireland. Supposed to be playable, but not as pretty as the one in the video.

June 27, 2019, 2:55 PM · Oh, wow, is that really glass?
Like in a glass of water?

Imagine it just shatters all over you due to some temperature changes. It's cool but for a museum or as a piece of art, not as a violin. It sounds weak and unpleasant.
Did you know glass can be 4 to up to 16 times denser than maple?
In other words, a regular violin made of glass should weight from 2Kg up to 8Kg, depending on the glass used. Dare not to use a SR with one of those, hahahaha.

About the aluminium, looks like a toy, and the sound is like tuna cans with strings. Yeah, I'm pretty sure, if you experiment, better go with wood and similar.

By the way, when and how luthiers started to use CF? I mean, who thought about it, and why?

Looks like a really random material. It's used in vehicles, so I understand a bike company starts to use it, then a car company, then a motorcycle... but luthiers? Where's the connection?

Do you guys really think an ebony violin would sound as upsetting as that glass or aluminium violins?
Well, I'm sure one could compose something thinking about those particular instruments and create something beautiful, but for a regular violin repertoire, I can't picture it. May be irish/bluegrass for the aluminium one?

June 27, 2019, 3:31 PM · Balsa wood violin: 2009, American Journal of Physics:

also a later STRAD magazine article.

Might be a stiffness/density relationship - ya think?

Edited: June 27, 2019, 3:49 PM · Balsa???
I actually thought about it at the first place, but that wood is so, so soft and light, excessively easy to break and work with, it's what architects use to model cities, and also what RC planes are made with. I didn't even ask because I rejected it myself, hahahaha.

Balsa is like 3 or 4 times lighter than maple, much less dense. Do you know of violins made of balsa?


Pretty amazing, designed with a viol in mind. It's a violy.

Edited: June 27, 2019, 5:13 PM · Paul N. wrote:
I actually thought about it at the first place, but that wood is so, so soft and light, excessively easy to break and work with, it's what architects use to model cities, and also what RC planes are made with. I didn't even ask because I rejected it myself, hahahaha."

Yes, balsa. One of Doug Martin's balsa fiddles:

Some of his fiddles have actually done quite well in blind listener testing.

I have also run across a couple of violins which had the body made from a coconut shell.

Maybe not absolutely everything has already been tried, but it's hard to think of anything which hasn't, for one who follows stuff like that, including all the bizarre patents which were supposed to revolutionize the violinmaking world.

June 27, 2019, 4:37 PM · Wow, that balsa violin actually sounds pretty damn decent!
June 27, 2019, 5:26 PM · But, would you call that a "violin"?
June 27, 2019, 6:34 PM · Paul N, today there are some extremely tough types of glass around which are shatter-proof under almost all circumstances, so that is one problem we don't need to worry about.

The glass violin I saw in that Waterford museum would have been made before the advent of today's super-strong "gorilla" glass, so I'd guess it would have to be treated with due respect.
June 27, 2019, 6:50 PM · The instruments I regard as great have consistently been made of spruce and maple. I don't see much point in trying to recreate that greatness using much else. That said, instruments I regard as awful have also been made of spruce and maple!
To quote a bad example, "It's not about the bike".
July 1, 2019, 4:33 PM · Learning how to make a violin is tough... the learning curve towards good sound and playability is slow... when a maker gets there, he will have in mind what kind of spruce and maple he wants to replicate the good results he got in previous instruments. Risking with different material (even different maple or spruce, that can vary a lot in density, for instance) is not a good idea for most of us.
But if I receive a commission for making an all Ebony viola, as soon as the deposit is made I will start it!
July 1, 2019, 5:00 PM · ^ A non-refundable deposit!
July 1, 2019, 5:21 PM · Hahahaha, well, may be in the future I will try it, if I ever get into violin making, which right now seems a seriously impossible task to accomplish all by myself.

Anyways, can you guess what would make the process more difficult?
Is it simply that ebony is way more dense and would be much more tough to work with, to carve it?

Why you said only a viola? You wouldn't do it with a violin?

July 1, 2019, 5:49 PM · Many in the Irish Traveller community were skilled in working with tin, and they produced some tin fiddles like this one:

July 1, 2019, 8:20 PM · Paul, I just make violas, I am a viola maker.
July 2, 2019, 8:40 AM · Ebony would certainly be a pain to carve, due to the density and strength.

Acoustically, you could make a violin with normal structural vibration modes that should sound like a violin... but weigh a ton and have no power. Or you could make a violin with normal weight.. but sound more like a viola and have no power.

There's a very good reason spruce shows up on soundboards for nearly everything.

July 3, 2019, 2:00 PM · I seem to remember a plastic violin made by or called a Macafieri. Does that ring a bell with anyone else?
July 3, 2019, 2:03 PM · Also I remember apocryphal stories about throwing aluminum double basses into the lake at Interlochen to watch them float.

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