Wood, Knife, & Sound

Notes from the workshop of Jedidjah de Vries.

Posts Tagged ‘stradivari’

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.

The Materials and Means of Production

Saturday, March 7th, 2020

The first step when starting a new instrument is deciding what to make. I knew that for this next violin I wanted to go back to one of my regular Stradivari models. I really enjoy taking on new challenges and figuring out how to make new models work. But I also know that repetition of, and iteration on, past success is the key to improvement.

I have more than one mold based on Stradivari in my arsenal. On the right you can see my copy of his P mold and of his PG mold. Those aren’t my names for them, but Strad’s. His molds have survived—thanks in large part to a wealthy dilettante named Count Cozio who decided to make violins his thing—and are inked with those designations. That’s his original P mold on the left, which is now at the Museo del Violino in Cremona1The photo is theirs too..

When people call a violin as a “Strad model” or a “Strad copy” it doesn’t necessarily mean something specific. It could refer to any number of models, or even to some personal amalgamation, or really just “in the style of…”—and that’s setting aside the question and variations of what it is to make a copy. So if you happen to be in the market for a violin, you’re better off ignoring all that and just trying as many instruments as you can until you fall in love. But, for me as a maker, the question of model matter a great deal.

The mold only directly determines the shape of the ribs, and by extension the outline; which is, of course, important, but it’s hardly the sole determinate of the final sound, and a millimeter here or there might not seem like a big deal. However, generally, when following a model we also try to copy the arching, that is the curvature of the top and back. Varying the outline inevitably also changes the arching. Either the height, or the shape (the fullness, recurve, etc.), or both have to adapt to flow properly into the outline. And different arching requires different final thicknesses, and so on. Thus, the consequences of today’s choice will trickle through to all aspects of the final violin.

For this fiddle I’ve decided to go with my P-mold copy. This is a choice I am going to be living with for the next few months, so even though the differences are slight I have to think carefully. It’s difficult to explain exactly why I’ve made this choice, except to say that I have a vision in mind of where I want to end up and I think the P-mold will best set me up to go towards that direction.


After the model, the other big choice when starting a new instrument is the wood. For this violin I’m using red maple for the back and sitka spruce for the top, both from the Americas. It’s more common to use European maple and spruce so this will be a little bit unique, but not iconoclastic.

Picking wood to use for a particular instrument is the beginning of a collaboration. As a maker I have an idea in my head of where I want to go. You can try to force that preconceived vision onto anything at hand, and you may even succeed. However, it’s far more pleasant to choose wood that wants to go the same direction, and then to work with it harmoniously.

To make a good instrument you need good materials, design, and craft. Making by hand is often equated with making from scratch; praise for the maker is often framed by the ability to create ex nihilo. But, for me, that is not the way of Craft. The wood I use and where it comes from is important to me. The line between raw/natural materials and crafted/finished goods is not as clean as we pretend. When I hear fancy chefs describe their dishes I think to myself that the farmers, the cheese makers, etc. who provided the ingredients did as much, if not more, to shape and craft the specifics of that dish as the chef did.

Unlike, for example, guitars—where the maker can choose from a wide range of wood types—violins are always¹ made of maple and spruce. However, not just any piece of maple or spruce will do. Certain specific species tend to work better than other, but at the end of the day it’s less about species (our modern need to categorize doesn’t always fit well onto the organic world of trees) and entirely about the specific tree and its unique life story: where exactly in the forest it grew, the seasons it saw, the forester who felled and dried it, etc. Violins are products of their terroir.

A few of my tools.

Just as the embodied history of the wood goes into the instruments, the story of the tools I use is also important. This was particularly apparent to me last week as I was setting up the converted from baroque fiddle, just before starting this one.

To carve the bridge and complete the rest of the set-up I had laid out all of the tools I would need for the job. It’s not just violins that are still made by hand, but often their means of production as well. I am not a tool fetishist who collects and covets tools for their own sake and status. But, it is deeply satisfying to me that I sometimes get to know the people who crafted the tools I use personally, or at the very least know directly who they are.

The curved knife I use for fitting the bridge feet was made by J. P. Schmidt in North Carolina. The thin knife I use for shaping the cut outs of the bridge was made by Mats Thureson, who also taught me about square nails for the baroque fiddle. The file was made—yes, by hand—by a fellow named Udo Pechar in Germany. The jar contains varnish made by the invaluable Joe Robson and the bowl has glue from Bjorn Hide Glue. At the top, are a peg shaper made by Alberti and a block plane from Lie Nielson. You might not be able to see it well because it’s clear, but leaning against the knife handle is a bridge template I made for myself. And then lastly there is that cut up Charlie Card; my all important sound post gauge was made for me by my violin making teacher Roman Barnas from one of his own used up transit tickets2Actually, I have a nicer one I made for myself out of copper but I keep this one for sentimental reasons..

References & Notes   [ + ]

1. The photo is theirs too.
2. Actually, I have a nicer one I made for myself out of copper but I keep this one for sentimental reasons.

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.