When 18th &19th century luthiers bought wood...

January 31, 2020, 8:55 AM · ... would they buy it in chucks of wood? Would two instruments made within a couple months of each other be made out of the same tree? Was the wood already cut to size for the carving? Was the wood cut in a lumber yard or under the auspicies of the luthier?

Replies (12)

Edited: February 1, 2020, 7:45 PM · The Luthiers on the panel will have a better answer. The "secrets" of the old Italian masters is a fun topic for debate. Some hypotheses: In the 18th century Europe was coming out of the "little ice age"- the 16th and 17th centuries were cold. The trees had been growing in a cold climate for several centuries, with denser wood, closer growth rings. The industrial revolution had not started yet, so there was less air pollution from coal burning.
I have heard that tree-ring analysis showed most of the top plates of Guarneri del Gesu Violins were from the same tree (!?). Or, the cut trees were floated in the Venice lagoon, getting saturated with salt and minerals.
Edited: January 31, 2020, 11:37 AM · I read somewhere that Stradivarius (and other luthiers, presumably) went into the woods and forests and selected the trees they wanted. Best way to do it if you are experienced.

[edit added same date] The wood would then have to be seasoned. My guitar teacher, who was a trained guitar luthier, told me that the best luthiers in Spain would season their wood for many years, perhaps even using wood cut and seasoned by a previous generation or two of their family.

Edited: January 31, 2020, 2:09 PM · Joel you’re absolutely correct about the Italian makers’ wood source being the same sometimes. In fact, last year I had a 1740’s G.B. Guadagnini at my place that I was playing on which according to a top dendrochronology expert, matched the exact same piece of wood that Guarneri del Gesu used to make one of his violins in 1742. Guadagnini learned his craft in Cremona and was mentored by Stradivari, so it’s highly believable he used similar materials on his other instruments as well.
February 1, 2020, 6:16 PM · I think you will find this video featuring violin dendrochronologist Peter Ratcliff very interesting:
February 2, 2020, 6:16 AM · Thanks for posting this video as I found it quite interesting.
February 2, 2020, 8:31 AM · We went on a tour of a luthier shop recently and they said they still go out to forests and pick out trees!
Edited: February 2, 2020, 9:15 AM · I thoroughly enjoyed watching/hearing the video. As a subscriber to the British "violin" magazine "The STRAD" since 1970 I have followed this field since its relationship to wooden instruments was first described.

Also since I have a violin maker friend with whom I was closely associated for about 10 years (prior to 1995), including test-playing his new instruments in the "white" and visiting his shop on a regular basis I have been exposed to some of the ins and outs of modern violin making, including the use of modern electronic instruments for measuring the properties of their raw components and final results. His background as a professional mechanical engineer was a key factor in his understanding of the physics and acoustics of this "second act" of his life. He would tell me of his purchases of wood specifically aged for instrument makers and his measurements of its relevant physical properties. I also purchased 3 instruments from him between 1990 (violin #11) and 2000 (violin # 50). He finished making his 101st instrument last year and has sold all but his first and last.

Twenty years before that I started to visit another violin maker (I bought one of his violins). He would visit Europe every year or so and search for old wood (from furniture or buildings) that could be used for violin making - that was his source. My relationship with him (and his violin-maker son) began around 1970 and lasted more than 20 years.

In 1974 I purchased a violin from England via a classified ad in The STRAD magazine.* In 1990 I finally met the maker, Fernando Solar-Gonzales in his shop during a trip to Madrid. His stories were fascinating, but I only heard the first one from him: I claimed he had purchased a Nunnery ("Abbey") to obtain the main central support from the basement - which had been the spruce main mast of a Spanish galleon - and he had used it to make the tops of all his instruments. I read his second story in The STRAD years later; after the shop started concentrating on bow making - he claimed they had purchased the pernambuco shelving from the old Vuillaume shop in France and were using the wood for making bows. The same issue of the STRAD magazine had an article claiming that Vuillaume had bemoaned the increasing shortage of decent pernambuco wood for top-quality bows. I found humor in that.

*Just as an aside, I was interested in why it took my violin 3 weeks to get to me from England. The answer was clear from the bill of lading that arrived with it. It had taken a week to go from the south of England to customs at Heathrow, 14 hours from customs at Heathrow to customs at LAX, and 2 weeks by truck from LAX to me (150 miles north of there. Ah! this modern world!

Edited: February 2, 2020, 2:31 PM · Kris, while there are many legends and theories, the bottom line is that we don't really know much about how the early makers got their wood.

As lacking as it is in intrigue and romance, the theory which makes the most sense to me is that they purchased it from wood suppliers (like most makers today), and possibly even lumberyards. The reason? It's very difficult to have any idea about the properties of the wood until the tree has been cut down, and better yet, processed into radial wedges or boards.

Cutting down a standing tree in the forest is pretty much a crapshoot, if a maker is very particular about the wood they use. Though standing trees are often cut for violin making wood, it is typically a very small percentage of that wood which ends up being what individual professional makers like, with much of the rest going to violin making factories. The factories cannot make a $400 violin from materials which cost them $600 or more ;-) and they make hundreds of thousands of these inexpensive violins.

I have often gone through huge stacks of wood (even needing to climb up the sides sometimes) to dismantle the pile, to find only a small percentage which I considered to be viable.

I have also felled, cut, split, and debarked and otherwise processed trees myself, and the yield was abysmally low for the time and money invested. But it was a great learning experience!

So I am highly skeptical that prolific makers like Stradivari and Amati went about in the forest, tapping on trees to supposedly assess their tonal potential (one of the legends). Their time would have been more productively spent at the bench.

February 4, 2020, 10:23 AM · David Burgess, what are you looking for when you sort through a pile of wood? What are the physical signs that a piece of wood is viable for violin making? How do you distinguish the wood suitable for a great violin from that suitable for a lesser one? I'm very curious to understand how makers know which wood is worth their time investment, given that so many weeks/months of work have to be put in before any sound is generated from it.
February 4, 2020, 10:29 AM · Luthiers:
I'll be knocking down a raised bed in my back yard. I'm sure it would make a great instrument--let me know if you want it! I'll try to pry the rusty nails out prior to shipping. Non-GMO.
February 5, 2020, 5:53 PM · There’s a fascinating if disjointed movie/documentary called “highly Strung” about very expensive old violins and their owners which includes a few episodes of a luthier in Cremona making a copy of a specific Guadignini cello, with him spending a very long time going through a large wood warehouse till he finds the precise piece he wants that even has a blemish in the right place by coincidence. It also briefly talks to the woodcutters in the mountains, and they demonstrate tapping the cut trunks and you can hear the resonance .
February 6, 2020, 9:19 AM · "It also briefly talks to the woodcutters in the mountains, and they demonstrate tapping the cut trunks and you can hear the resonance."

I highly suspect that this is mostly marketing stuff, targeted at the most romantically vulnerable.

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