Wood, Knife, & Sound

Notes from the workshop of Jedidjah de Vries.

Archive for March, 2020

Making in a time of Crisis

Saturday, March 21st, 2020

I write “This Machine Kills Fascists” on the inside of all my instruments as an homage to Woody Guthrie. I started playing violin when I was very little. But it wasn’t until middle school, when I discovered Woody, that I glimpsed the potential power of music. His guitar, with that slogan scrawled on it, has always represented the complex nature of that potential for me. Of course music can be an incredibly powerful force. But also, for all his singing, it still took troops to do the actual fighting in World War II.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of music broadly, and violin making specifically, as we collectively barrel into the present pandemic. We’re going to need music to stay grounded, connected, and empowered in the times ahead. I have great love for all the musicians out there, and have really enjoyed the live streams and other creatives ways folks have been keeping the music going. We’re going to need it all—and I hope we can figure out ways to get musicians paid for their work too! But, I also want to acknowledge that many of the difficult challenges we face won’t be solved by music alone. And I want to thank deeply those on the front lines of this crisis, the doctor and nurses, the retails workers at the grocery store and the truck drivers keeping them stocked, cleaning staffs, and ordinary folks caring for each other.

To be honest, my job just doesn’t feel that important these days. I keep doing it anyway in the hope that we are moving towards a different world. I sometimes think that might be important in it’s own way, but I am not at all sure it is.

In the mean time, stay safe and health friends, and please take care of each other out there.

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

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.