Wood, Knife, & Sound

Notes from the workshop of Jedidjah de Vries.

Posts Tagged ‘craft’

Faith & Uncertainty

Monday, May 11th, 2020

I remember the first time I had to fit a bass bar. I was certain it was impossible. It took me multiple days and a lot of coaching from my teacher. Now it’s just a morning of concentration from start to finish. When you are first making violins technical tasks—such as fitting two surfaces together or even sharpening your tools—seem by far the most difficult. But eventually you get the hang of them. That doesn’t mean they are actually easy, just that they are a specific kind of hard that takes a certain kind of learning and practice to get better at. Different parts of violin making are hard in different ways. But for all of them learning and practice help face the challenge; there is no magic or innate skill here. And I think all craftworkers would agree that it’s always a continuous process that doesn’t really end.

These days, I would say one of the most difficult steps of making a violin for me is carving the arching of the top and back…specifically: deciding when to stop. In fact, it might be the single most difficult step in making a violin.

The challenge stems from there not being a clear right or wrong answer. For example, when carving a bridge either the feet fit or they don’t. The arching, however, is a complex three-dimensional shape with a range of plausible answers. Creating those shapes is less about hitting a set goal and more like trying to embody an abstract concept.

That means I don’t have a single ideal arching that I’m trying to duplicate. It’s inherently tricky to see, take-in, and hold in one’s mind the whole complex shape at once. It’s possible to take measurements in a few spots here and there, or to compare some select segments to a template. But that kind of approach that will only ever get you so far. And because it all flows together, changes and corrections in one area necessarily affect the shape in its entirety. Any deviation, even a small one, from your ideal platonic model would require a whole series of adjustments to make everything fit and flow together again so as to end up with a coherent whole.

So instead of a static model of the goal I have a bunch of ideas about how I think the arching should work. All those ideas end up interacting both with each other and with the specific outline, wood, and other details and factors in front of me. To be perfectly honest, it’s a jumbled mix of intuitions, concepts, sense memories, guidelines, images, and also a few stray measurements. Together they help me evaluate whether or not I am on the right path. But, there is no preset end to that path. That’s why knowing when to stop is so difficult. The line between just right and too far is both thin and ill-defined. And, of course, there is no way at this point in the construction to directly evaluate what actual matters: the final sound of the instrument.

At the end of the day, sometimes you just have accept a little bit of uncertainty in life. Luckily for me, this won’t be the last violin I build. My experiences from this instrument will help build and refine my arching concepts for the future. For me, this kind of working out of an abstract concept on and through a physical medium really goes to the essence of what it is to be engaged in a craft.


And the arching isn’t just important for the sound. It’s also important for getting the ff-holes right. Laying out ff-holes can be a trip. You might think it’s a straight forward matter or correctly positioning a template so as to meet a few simple constraints. But no. Really you are projecting a funky two-dimensional shape onto a complex curved three-dimensional surface.

The ff-hole you start with and the ff-hole on the instrument are never actually the same. Making even small adjustments to their location or orientation can alter how it looks and its relation to its surroundings in surprising ways. It’s like walking past a fun house mirror trying to find the sweet spot where everything comes out just so. Plus, it all depends on the underlying arching you carved. Even slight asymmetry, a small dip or wave, or just a different flow from usual can make it very difficult to get the ff-holes to sit well on the plate. Sometimes it feels like a puzzle without a solution. But, once everything falls into place they are deeply satisfying to behold. Then again, once they are laid out, it’s time to actually carve them.

Carving ff-holes takes faith. After the initial rough sawing they look ugly. They look scary. They don’t look like ff-holes. I always have the same thought: what if this time I can’t make them look right? But you have to pick up the knife anyway and carefully and slowly begin to remove a bit of wood here and a bit more wood there. There is no guarantee that you’ll end up with a nice ff-hole and not some molten gaping horror. Can’t let that stop you. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’ve done it before, and that I’ve sharpened my knife well, and that my hand is following my eye. Can’t stop even if you want to because what use is a top plate with a partially carved ff-hole? So you keep carving and making it look a little bit better and a little bit closer to how you want it.

It can be frustrating. That’s why I have a post-it on my toolbox to remind myself of what to do when it gets overwhelming:

  1. Go have some tea.
  2. Sharpen your tools.
  3. Make a small thing a little bit better.

But then, once you get one ff-hole looking pretty good there is always the second one—and now it has to look not just good, but more or less similar to the first one!

But at least while carving ff-holes you can make nice, more or less linear, progress from not-an-ff-hole towards your goal. Carving scrolls takes a different kind of faith.

Craft is most pleasant when you are able to make steady progress towards your goal. And that works for most things. Not scrolls. Scrolls—at least to my mind—take a detour through an ugly phase. You can layout everything nicely, work everything into a nice initial form, and then…there’s a point when the shapes don’t quite make sense anymore and you have weird extra bits of wood and ragged spots that you will, of course, clean up later but right now it doesn’t make much sense to deal with. It always comes together at the end. But to get there you have to maintain your faith, not in your hand skills and tools like with the ff-holes, but in the steps and process that will get you from A to B, and ultimately to C, a good sounding instrument that a musician will enjoy using to produce music.

But that’s just how craft is: Faith and uncertainty, mediated by hand and tool.

The Mystery and Mystique of Making

Sunday, April 5th, 2020

Violin makers are obsessed with corners. Those are the pointy bits at the end of the c-bouts that you’ve probably never given a second (or first?) thought to. It’s very easy for the fetishization of tiny details to turn into hipster snobbery, and there is plenty of that in the violin world. But allow me to give three reasons to care about corners anyway.

First, small, seemingly insignificant, features are often key to establishing the overall aesthetic of an instrument. The corners help give the eye context as it takes in the instrument’s outline, and convey much of its character and style; especially since the lines of the purfling highlight their shape.

Second, while the overall shape of the violin may seem arbitrary, it actually has a strong internal logic. At the corners, however, the dictates of that logic tend to be weaker. You could therefore see the corners as space for “creative expression”. But, to me, it actually means that you have to think extra carefully about their shape and how they relate to the rest of the instrument.

Third, obsession is sometimes a useful tool in craft. Even if I don’t care about the corners themselves, picking them out as important focuses my attention in a specific way that helps get the outline as whole just right. A masters of a craft will sometimes give explanations for how or why they do something that, to say an engineer or physicist, does not correspond with reality and yet precisely captures the understanding needed to coordinate the hand, mind, and eye to produce the desired result.

All of which is to say, that—as a violin maker—I think it’s worth my time to endlessly contemplate the infinite mysteries of corners, but you…you shouldn’t feel any obligation give them a second (or first?) glance.

But also, corners, because they stick out, experience a lot of wear. On older instruments they are rarely pristine. In fact, full corners look very odd to some people. Even Strad made corner-less violin once! So while I appreciate a perfect corner, I also try to maintain a bit of perspective. Social media tends to be full of perfect photos of beautifully finished work. I find myself, on other hand, tending to share my messy work-in-progress. Even though it’s not always as flattering, I think it’s often more interesting. I guess that’s why I’m a violin maker and not an online brand influencer person.


But more than that, I’d like to break the mystique of violin making a little. I don’t think we should pretend that what we do is more special than it is. Musicians will respect us without appeals to secret ancient knowledge. My ego will be fine without claims of super human precision. I work with my hands based on principles of sound craft, and I think that’s pretty cool on its own. Yes, making a violin is highly skilled work, but it’s not magic. I would rather keep the door to my workshop (metaphorically) open than find myself hiding behind a veneer of prestige.

In that spirit, I have a confession to make about rib structures: they aren’t my favorite…and that’s ok.

Building a violin takes a range of skills. I realize that sounds strange because it all looks like woodworking. But, bending, carving, shaping, fitting, set-up, and varnishing all require different strengths and mindsets. The diversity, and the challenge of bringing it all together, is a big part of what I love about making violins—even if I don’t enjoy each individual step equally.

Not enjoying your job is, unfortunately, common. There is this notion, however, that jobs of passion are categorically different. It’s not true. Even though I love making violins, there are always ups and downs. But, more than that, it misunderstands the nature of work.

I prefer to see making violins, not as an expression of who I am, but as a contribution I make to music, my community, and the world.

Under capitalism, there is no such thing as a pure work of passion. The economic realities necessarily change how we work and our relation to that work. (Just ask a school teacher!) I don’t just mean that it introduces the need to find balance between speed, quality, and price in an effort to triangulate value. To a certain extent that’s always present in craft. But, because in capitalism that value is determined by a necessarily antagonistic relationship between makers, dealers, and players.

More perniciously, this myth is used as a foil to justify the misery of “regular” jobs. By setting apart a small number of “special” jobs the everyday toil of the rest is framed as just the way it is. The hidden assumption here is that our jobs are fundamental to our identity, especially since most of us rent our very selves out by the hour. In this worldview work becomes utterly fulfilling or utter drudgery, and if it’s the latter it’s your fault and not that of the job itself!

But work doesn’t have to be your very identity or the expression of your self worth as a human. I prefer to see making violins, not as an expression of who I am, but as a contribution I make to music, my community, and the world. For me, that radically changes how understand the ups and downs of my work…and lets me enjoy it even more!

An imperfect work in progress.

Notes from a Baroque Modernization

Friday, February 7th, 2020

With the viola I have been working on ready for varnish I am turning my attention back to an old (and slightly neglected) project: converting a baroque style fiddle I had made to a modern set up. Today’s task is to remove the neck and reattach it in the modern way. This has more in common with a tricky restoration than with a regular new build. I am reminded of my violin making teacher’s wise words: Someone asked him, “Say I was working on an expensive instrument, and I make a mistake while carrying out this step, how would I go about fixing it?” To which he replied without missing a beat, “Just don’t make a mistake,” and then after a pause, “That goes for inexpensive instruments too.”

That’s the neck I am going to re-set. You might have to be a violin maker to appreciate how deeply odd of a photo it is. This is not usually what a violin neck looks like, but is a result of the conversion from a baroque to a modern set up. You can still see the remnants of the nails I used to attach the neck to the body of the instrument, which was standard practice at the time1Sorry, quick aside about the history of nails: If you look very closely you can see that the profile of the cross-section of those nails is square, as opposed to round like most nails you see. Before the mid 1800s all nails were square (or rectangular) because they were forged, which means they were formed by pounding on the sides until the shape, length, and taper was just right. Now a machine extrudes metal into a wire and then cuts the end to a pointy shape. It’s cheaper, but square nails actually hold better.. There is also the wood I added to the end of the neck. This isn’t because the effective neck / string length is different between a baroque and modern instrument, but because instead of a butt joint there needs to be some extra material for the sort of half-blind dovetail that we use these days to set the neck. And lastly, there’s that weird cut out bit. I decided to preserve the top entirely as I had made it—without cutting into the edge like one usually would—as was done, for example, with the Lady Blunt Strad when it was modernized. None of this was necessarily the easiest path, but sometimes it’s also a little bit about the story the instrument tells.

Because I am converting this instrument to a modern set up I will no longer need the baroque fingerboard that I had made for it. The most obvious difference with a modern fingerboard is the wedge-and-notch side profile, which has to do with the changes in how the neck is set into the body of the instrument. But, what I actually want to talk about are the materials it’s made of. Instead of solid ebony2Actually, I use a synthetic alternative to Ebony for my fingerboards because of conservation issues. this was made with a willow core, maple veneer on the side, and an ebony veneer on the top.

The usual explanation given is that this keeps the weight down, even as the wedge shape adds a lot of material, and that’s definitely true. It’s also very easy to construct and shape, which is helpful because the final adjustments on a baroque violin are done to the fingerboard itself, instead of to the neck as we do now.

But, I suspect two more things are at play. First, we use ebony in large part because it is very hard and and able to withstand a lot of wear, such as that of metal wound strings repeatedly being pressed against it. Back when plain gut strings were the norm veneer over a soft core was probably enough. Second—and this what I more interested in—, ebony is a tropical hardwood that doesn’t grow anywhere near Cremona. It would only have been available to European makers via colonial extraction. My hunch is that due to colonial trade patterns later French makers, such as Vuillaume, had easier and cheaper access to ebony than Stradivari did. I would love to do a deep dive into the history of ebony to see how it lines up with changes in fingerboard construction and confirm this. I haven’t had time to do this yet…but stay tuned.

More broadly, we think of the violin as a quintessential example of High European Culture. But, both because of and despite this, its history is tied to and embedded in a global story. This can also been seen with bows (the role of pernambuco wood has a similar colonial history), changes in varnish (hello Indian shellac!), and even musical styles (e.g. the chaconne’s roots in Latin America).


I should also explain that this violin is somewhat unusual in that it was modeled after an instrument made by Nicolo Amati (1595–1684) in 1666, as opposed to after one made by Antiono Stradivari (1644–1737). We makers spend a lot of our time studying and copying the work of Stradivari3And also sometimes his contemporary Giuseppe “del Gesu” Guarnari (1698–1744)., and with good reason: his violins are amazing. But it’s important to remember that he was building off of an approximately 150 year old tradition.

That’s why, to better understand Strad I decided to copy the type of instrument he would have been looking up to as his models, i.e. a baroque style Amati. My aim was to get as close as possible, in both design and working method, to what Stradivari might have taken as his starting point4The extent of Strad’s access to the specifics of Amati’s working method is unknown, but was likely, at best, incomplete. But he certainly would have seen finished instruments…not dissimilar to my position!. This was not to uncover the teleological inevitably of Stradivari’s “perfection”, but precisely to explore—through the experiment and experience of making a copy—the contingent choices and influences that may have gone into Strad’s making.

Making a copy is not an “exact science”, though it is often referenced as though it means something well defined. First, differences in wood and changes in modern set-up make an exact replica impossible. Second, because of the craft—as opposed to techno-industrial—nature of violin making ‘copy’ doesn’t mean the same here as a photocopy. Instead, a very rough and preliminary definition might be something like: trying to channel, through the material and the work of our hands, what the original maker might have done were they here now. Which is precisely why I wanted to go beyond measuring and studying Amati’s instruments, and make a copy myself, to better get “into the head” of Strad.

This also helps explain why we are hung up on Stradivari and not some violin maker who came after him. It’s not that he reached the pinnacle of making and no further changes were possible (though again, he was exceptionally good). Instead, I think it has more to do with the growing influence of the Industrial Revolution. Changing economic conditions meant that the craft mode of production was being supplanted by the putting-out system, which is a sort of proto-factory system of manufacture. The evolution of our collective craft knowledge took a backseat for a while as more techno-industrial ways of making and thinking came to the fore, both generally and in violin making specifically. Making a copy of an Amati violin, in the baroque style as he would have done, was thus an attempt at a sort of living archaeology.


Here in the present, I am often asked whether isn’t it now possible, with modern science and materials, to build a “better” violin—just as it seems Strad did relative to those who came before him. In a small way the answer is a qualified yes. Remember, the violin is a highly complex system with many interdependent parts. “Improving” one aspect is more likely to throw the whole thing out whack than to yield a quantum leap forward. What we can do is refine our knowledge and skills. And that’s happening. I think it’s safe to say some of the best instruments ever made are being made today.

But, there are two big caveats. First, there is no single “better” violin. Although we mostly copy Strad’s work, other models are used successfully as well, and even within all those Strad copies different makers will have their own take. Morever, every musician is looking for something a little different. Taste, need, playing style, and more all play a part; since it’s the system-as-a-whole and not the instrument alone that makes the music.

And second, even if I could magically make something that was better than a violin that’s not what the music calls for or current ensembles are built around5I would love to work with a contemporary composer to make a custom “violin” for a piece.. Which is also why, at the end of day, I am talking the time to convert this baroque fiddle to a modern set up6And of course there is the whole world historically informed performance. I’m a big fan. But we will have to accept the economic realities for now, and leave the philosophical implications of it all for a future post..

References & Notes   [ + ]

1. Sorry, quick aside about the history of nails: If you look very closely you can see that the profile of the cross-section of those nails is square, as opposed to round like most nails you see. Before the mid 1800s all nails were square (or rectangular) because they were forged, which means they were formed by pounding on the sides until the shape, length, and taper was just right. Now a machine extrudes metal into a wire and then cuts the end to a pointy shape. It’s cheaper, but square nails actually hold better.
2. Actually, I use a synthetic alternative to Ebony for my fingerboards because of conservation issues.
3. And also sometimes his contemporary Giuseppe “del Gesu” Guarnari (1698–1744).
4. The extent of Strad’s access to the specifics of Amati’s working method is unknown, but was likely, at best, incomplete. But he certainly would have seen finished instruments…not dissimilar to my position!
5. I would love to work with a contemporary composer to make a custom “violin” for a piece.
6. And of course there is the whole world historically informed performance. I’m a big fan. But we will have to accept the economic realities for now, and leave the philosophical implications of it all for a future post.