It seems there has been a trend to more spruce tops and less maple ??

December 26, 2019, 5:29 PM · I'm just wondering about it as a trend I seem to have noticed the past six years I've been playing and looking at violins. (I didn't much look at them for a few years in between) but now it seems I'm seeing more violins out there with spruce tops- and more with quite large grain.

In classical guitars, spruce has made gains on cedar, though most players still prefer cedar. What's been happening in the violin world? I wonder sometimes if I was seeing false marketing claims, although when I bought my first decent student level violin- it was advertised as a maple top, and it still appears so to me now, while the ads for the same violin these days say the top is spruce now-

Has spruce been traditionally used much, or are things changing?

Replies (45)

Edited: December 26, 2019, 9:48 PM · They just corrected the ad when they learned they were wrong.
Edited: December 26, 2019, 7:30 PM · There hasn't been any recent change. The combination of spruce top and maple back is traditional and has been the most common for hundreds of years. If you have a violin with a maple top, that would be unusual.
Edited: December 26, 2019, 7:37 PM · The one I have is a bit under stain and clearcoat, but I can't see any grain- I'm surprised at this news-

Then what about grain size in the spruce- has that trended under mass production? is it true that small grain wood is more dense and harder than large grain spruce?

December 27, 2019, 9:20 AM · I have never encountered a violin with a maple top. I have seen one of mahogany and one of cedar, and they both sounded horrid.

Spruce properties don't depend much, if at all, on grain spacing. It is all aesthetics and economics. A moderate grain spacing is usually most desirable... not too wide, but not so close that it's nearly invisible. Normally the most desirable looking wood will cost more, so for cheaper instruments you'll often get excessively wide or variable grain spacing. But again, nothing about the spruce appearance alone will determine whether it's good or bad.

Edited: December 27, 2019, 9:45 AM · Tight-grained spruce can sometimes be harder and more dense than wide-grained spruce, but there are so many exceptions that I wouldn't rely on it.

I've seen violins made from coconut shells; violins with skin tops like a banjo; violins and violas made from balsa; one viola with the ff holes cut into the maple back, rather than in the spruce top. But I too cannot recall a violin or viola with a maple top.

While I have no doubt that it has been tried, really bad violins tend to be put in the trash, or used as firewood. So we are lacking examples of the more spectacular failures over the roughly 400 years of experimentation.

December 27, 2019, 2:40 PM · A lot of experimenting was done during the first two centuries of violin making, from Amati, da Salo, to Stradivarius and Guarneri del Gesu. We don't have the data for the failures, but we have the final idealized models, and when we depart from those measurements and materials we don't get an improvement. What is especially amazing to me is that an instrument that was designed to play Corselli, tuned to Ab, with all gut strings, is also able to play the Tchaikovsky concerto, after being seriously modified about ~1800.
Edited: December 28, 2019, 11:00 AM · I DID hear a vinyl made using an all-maple violin, but this was a Thomastik violin
December 28, 2019, 1:20 PM · So Nancy is absolutely right. The number of newly made maple top instruments has drastically decreased - since the days of Dr. Franz Thomastik from 1 to 0, what would make 100%! (Can't remember if this took place in the 1920ies or 30ies...?)
December 28, 2019, 2:05 PM · The point Nuuska M?

I think Andrew Victor made it in the first reply, thamk you..

Edited: December 28, 2019, 3:07 PM · Nancy, the point is that your original question may be less uninformed than it might occur to most readers at first sight.

In a quick online research I found this article about the relationship between Rudolf Steiner and music. It's written in a weird language, but it contains a photo of a Thomastik violin. Hope the link works... › ...PDF Rudolf Steiner und die Musik - Goetheanum Dokumentation

I remember an article which was more specific about the instruments including the esoteric / cosmological background of the chosen materials / woods, but can't find it at the moment. Unfortunately again in that same weird language...

December 28, 2019, 3:06 PM · Okay. Doesn't work. But Google finds it if you copy / paste it.
December 28, 2019, 3:11 PM · Nuuska, I think that "weird language" is German?? Never thought of German as a weird language; what characteristics designate a language as "weird"?!
Edited: December 28, 2019, 3:25 PM · That it's pronunciation is obviously not easy to learn for most people. Especially from a musical point of view, many languages seem more melodic. And what's really weird is what hundred and more ears of linguistic overregulation have done to it, even in the last few years. But I'm heavily biased, since I'm talking about one of the two languages I grew up with, and my main language since I was born.
December 28, 2019, 3:29 PM ·

Some more antroposophic music theory and history if you fancy. Please don't kick my butt, I don't know how to make this clickable...

December 28, 2019, 3:37 PM · And here you can find a detailed picture of the bridge region, as well as a technical sketch of how it was supposed to work. And Nancy, I haven't seen one in person yet, and I'm nothing close to an expert at all, but I cannot see how this should have ever worked without some drops of glue...

December 28, 2019, 3:44 PM · ... for those not speaking German...
The idea was that every kind of tree would attract different "planetary forces" towards the earth, so the wood he chose represented these. What Mr. Thomastik once suggested as suitable for a string quartet was: 1st violin maple, 2nd violin cherry, viola birch, cello ash. But he also experimented with other species.
December 28, 2019, 4:20 PM · A friend of mine had a violin with spruce top and back.
It had a soft, sweet, balanced tone.
December 28, 2019, 4:52 PM · I've read enough references saying violins are sometimes made with maple tops that I have no doubt they are still being made, but I have not seen one myself and every reference I've read over the last 16 years suggests that they are unusual.
December 28, 2019, 6:07 PM · Nuuska M, Thomastik violins, made of the same wood throughout (but never spruce throughout), carried on being made by Rudolf Steiner devotees right up into the 1990s, please see my post above. Dieter showed me a photo of a then young man who was making them. I even toyed at the time with the idea of buying, for use in church, a 5-stringed crwth (most sound was produced by the two "S"-shaped bass bars, so the shapes of the plates weren't so determinative) - a sort of crwth pomposa, perhaps?
December 29, 2019, 7:25 AM · John, interesting - I really didn't know about that! I thought they were abandoned and forgotten much earlier. Never too late to learn something new...

I once met an old (18th century) violin from Tyrol which was said to have a top made out of fir, and it wasn't "too bad".

In cellos and violas it's much more common to deviate from maple to other woods, like willow, poplar or elm, but the top typically is spruce.

December 29, 2019, 5:10 PM · My luthier has used poplar instead of maple for the back of a 15" viola: the backs vibrations are then slower.

I have read of cedar replacing spruce for the top plate.

Edited: December 31, 2019, 3:14 PM · Nuuska and Adrian are correct about poplar. Stradivari used poplar for the backs of a number of his violas and cellos. One of my classmates from Yale plays on a Stradivari viola with a poplar back. Maple and spruce have been traditionally the most pleasant sounding woods for violins.
December 29, 2019, 5:58 PM · I knew a professional violinist who'd had a violin made from Osage orange wood. The maker claimed it ruined a set of tools, but the violin sounded well.
December 30, 2019, 6:49 AM · I've seen and played fiddles with tops made from yellow pine. They were decent.
December 30, 2019, 3:10 PM · Adrian, would a "slower" vibrating back have a predictably different effect on the sound? E.g. more smooth and warm, on the cost of projection?
December 30, 2019, 4:40 PM · Nuuska, I imagine it would resonate at lower frequencies than a corresponding maple back, although perhaps less loudly, and with slower attack?
December 30, 2019, 5:04 PM · Poplar is generally a lower density wood than maple, but with similar stiffness... somewhat midway between maple and spruce. I have never used it on an instrument, but I would guess that how it sounds depends on what the maker does with it. Another guess: if it is made lighter than a maple back, that might favor the middle frequencies and weaken the highs, for a warmer sound.
December 30, 2019, 11:07 PM · That sounds like good for viola... I came across several contemporary makers who use it from time to time - but only "online" never had the chance to play one. At least in the german speaking part of the continent it doesn't seem to be very common.
December 31, 2019, 6:49 AM · One of my violas is, at best guess by two luthiers so far, a World War I-era German instrument that somehow fetched up in Sverdlovsk, RU somewhere along the line. I've been tempted to contact the former owner and find out what (if anything) he knows about its history … but the relevant point here is that the one-piece back appears to be of poplar. The instrument is just shy of 16" on the back, and has relatively low/narrow ribs. Sometimes I could wish it were a little louder, but its tone in general is deeper and warmer than I would have expected given its dimensions.
January 1, 2020, 12:09 PM · I've seen instruments with maple (traditional), poplar, ash, willow, walnut, and even oak. The idea of having a hardwood back is that, theoretically, the hard wood vibrates at a faster rate (for the higher notes transferred to its vibrating surface by the sound post; and that a spruce top (or other soft wood) vibrates more easily with a slow vibration (the low notes spread across the top by the bass bar).
January 1, 2020, 12:57 PM · Spruce has one of the highest strength-to-weight ratios among woods, and seems to have found high favor for soundboards (tops) on everything from pianos to harps to violins.

Banjos haven't been conquered yet. LOL

January 1, 2020, 3:53 PM · ...and spruce was the preferred structural component of aircraft when they were made of wood.
Hence, the "Spruce Goose."
January 1, 2020, 11:29 PM · I believe to remember that spruce has the longest fibres and therefore the best elasticity, which helps in its duty as an acoustic "membrane". But others will know better.
January 1, 2020, 11:41 PM · Banjos are Loud.
January 2, 2020, 12:23 PM · Not sure, are banjos considered musical instruments? Or rather something like a wash rumpel, that CAN optionally be used for musical purposes? And if so, what might have been its original determination...?
January 2, 2020, 12:47 PM · Nuuska, I am currently too sober to adequately explore thoughts such as these. ;-)
January 2, 2020, 1:35 PM · Just a quick technical note: "vibrate slower" in the sense used in this thread is nonsense.

For example: a spruce top vibrating at 440 cycles per second, and a maple top vibrating at 440 cycles per second are both vibrating at the same rate.

Properties like density, damping, stiffness and geometry will alter how loudly a top will vibrate given the same level of input. In that sense, the maximum "meters per second" the top will deflect while it vibrate at the FIXED rate of 440 cycles per second can be different.

For two different materials, one can play with the geometry, within reason, to get one material to be as loud as the other. So you cannot make an assumption about "speed" of the vibration, where speed ~ deflection of the top while vibrating at the same frequency, based just on material selection.

The difference in the speed of sound in different woods can be significant, but citing it is a red herring. The transient response of the violin is so rapid and short that sound speed is mostly irrelevant.

But sound speed has a non-trivial relationship with density and stiffness, and these have a major affect on the sustained tone of a violin. So sound speed can be used as a convenient way to see if the wood has the density and/or stiffness that is desirable for that type of wood.

January 2, 2020, 11:51 PM · Carmen, althouh I agree with your argument, it can be applied only in a very very narrow range. Or otherwise why should it be that difficult even to make a spruce top that acts alike another spruce top?
Edited: January 3, 2020, 7:02 AM · "...why should it be that difficult even to make a spruce top that acts alike another spruce top?"

Well it isn't, IF both sheets of spruce have the same density, the same stiffness, the same internal damping, they both are made with the same thickness pattern, height and shape of the arching, and each are placed on ribs and a back that also conform to all of the above.

There are several nationally and internationally known makers on this forum. Perhaps they can chime in with the struggles on getting consistent results among their creations. I'd wager a few of them have developed methods for selecting, prepping and working the wood and assembling the instrument, and are loathe to vary from those methods even a little.

January 3, 2020, 7:41 AM · My deceased friend Dan Foster was making a poplar cello when I last saw him. I don't know whether he finished it. Dan was an experienced maker with a few awards to his credit. He wouldn't have tried something like that if he didn't think it would produce a good-sounding, well-playing instrument. The top was still spruce of course.
January 3, 2020, 9:15 AM · Personally, I'd probably pick smaller grained spruce over larger grain- but then the final varnish or clearcoat makes a lot of difference too. I think larger grain wood is generally softer somehow, and more prone to split along the grain.
Edited: January 3, 2020, 10:18 AM · Nancy, some of my better sounding fiddles have come from rather wide-grained spruce.

And there is little or no evidence that makers like Stradivari used a surface clearcoat. That has more to do with modern automotive finishes, than what was used on valuable and historic fiddles.

Edited: January 3, 2020, 10:38 AM · "Well it isn't, IF both sheets of spruce have the same density, the same stiffness, the same internal damping..." - So we could agree that with slightly different samples of spruce of slightly different properties the calculations ation would be different? And that these two pieces of spruce would still match much closer than any piece of spruce would with any piece of hardwood (e.g. maple)? Because that's what it was about, and I don't believe it's "nonsense". You can't make everything out of anything just by changing the measurements.

We do not know exactly which technical measures (specific weight / density, speed of sound transduction, longitudinal stiffness, lateral elasticity and maybe a few more) will be responsible for changes in an instruments characteristics, given the measures and all would be the same. It's mostly about experience and a "feeling for the wood". Without the result (an individually well working fiddle ) in hand it's hard to tell between right or wrong, and even for an experienced luthier many things cannot be generalized.

January 3, 2020, 10:40 AM · Not two identical pieces of wood out there, my luthier uses to say. Even neighbouring pieces from the same stem...
January 3, 2020, 11:53 AM · I would think that in order to get the same amplitude of vibration from a maple top as from a spruce top the maple would have to be so thin that it would not be strong enough.

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