Wood, Knife, & Sound

Notes from the workshop of Jedidjah de Vries.

Posts Tagged ‘violin’

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.