Wood, Knife, & Sound

Notes from the workshop of Jedidjah de Vries.

Posts Tagged ‘violin’

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.

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.