Old National Violins, a new beginning

Way back in the Renaissance, the Cremona violin school made violins that remain the best ever made. No one has duplicated this feat, though many now claim that modern makers are getting close to the standard set by these past masters. Despite all the science, ability to analyze, ability to measure, and argue the issues, the modern makers seldom achieve what the Italian Cremonese were able to achieve

My contention is that the Cremonese simply were good craftsmen, who knew that good craftsmanship, good materials, and a sharp knife would trump any arcane theory or mysterious alchemy that has since clouded our minds in building this family of musical instruments.

For decades I have wanted to build Violins and their kin … It was an itch I had ever since I was in college and had played in a band with a fantastic fiddle, err … violin player, the late Jimmy Cavanaugh, who had taken up violin after a little arrogant shit had told him that his banjo playing needed work. That arrogant little shit was me, who was the banjo player in the band, but what did I really know? He became one of the best fiddlers I have ever heard, learning both by ear and by taking formal music lessons at the University of Georgia. Jim eventually went on to play in Las Vegas and other major venues, both in Jazz violin and Folk-Rock settings. I really don’t remember how good the instrument was that Jim Cavanaugh played. I am sure that it was a good one, but in those days most of us were of modest means and truly great instruments were somewhat beyond our financial reach. However we always bought the best we could afford at that time.

Jim and I eventually patched up our rocky start, and became good buddies.   Over time, I became acquainted with many other local fiddlers.

While playing in the North Georgia Bluegrass band, I was also in pursuit of an education in the Arts and Sciences at UGA, both in the Zoology Department and Art Department. What I actually learned in college was this: That a person should never base his or her life’s interest on someone else’s agenda, but be true to yourself and study what you are most passionate about. Despite well-meaning advice from advisers and teachers, I was never happy with Medical or Scientific Illustration, which I felt was much too restricted in scope. I was more fascinated with the more freewheeling areas of art, music, and after a little reflection realized my fascination with science was pretty much limited to all the pretty colors and shapes found in nature and the science lab. Looking at rock samples under a polarizing microscope was a completely amazing experience, transcending the scientific aspect all together, but it bored me to deal with mathematical data or anything to do with numbers alone.

The art of building musical instruments to me was quite a mystery, more on the scope of industrial arts than that of fine art … albeit with the additional realization that the archetype of any musical instrument was the product of some individual maker working in a small shop in past times.

The Art Department at UGA was a nurturing environment where one could pursue many other areas, including music (many of the art students were also musicians), sculpture, wood working, photography, architecture … many disciplines … while relating it all to the visual arts.

Art school exposed me to the mechanical aspects of art, meaning the physical process of making art, and exposure to the materials of art, traditional and modern. Aside from esthetics, composition, and making of so called ‘Fine’ art, the study of mediums, pigments, painting tools, varnishes, gums, oils, solvents, grounds, traditional methods, and more about the methods and materials used for thousands of years or modern developments in paint manufacturing are all brought to bear on the art and craft of making of musical instruments. This exploration of art can have many dark corners and blind paths, especially if one has a specific study in mind …


A bit about the musical instruments that I was drawn to as a young musician … Stringed instruments particularly.

Like many young children the song flute, a plastic instrument resembling the recorder, was my first real instrument. I eventually took up drums in school band and orchestra, but as a young child was also interested in banjo. Initially attracted to Dixieland banjo, I eventually found the 5-string banjo to be a fascinating and complex instrument. The violin, guitar, and other instruments were way over the horizon.

However, stringed instruments of all kinds became a passion, nurtured both by their mystique and the challenge needed to play any instrument to its full potential …

There are three basic types of stringed instruments, Harps, Psalteries, and Lutes. Harps are basically a frame with strings, psalteries are boxes with strings stretched over them, and lutes are a stringed instrument with a neck attached to a resonating body, with the strings stretched from one end of the resonating body to some point near the end of the neck. All of these variations can be found in any historical period, in just about any culture.   Luthiery is the craft of making musical stringed instruments, most inspired by the European Lute or some offshoot of the European Lute. Individuals who build stringed instruments are known as Luthiers. Most of the greatest instruments are made in small shops by individuals or small numbers of workers. There are some brand name instruments made by factories, but this is not where my interests are at this time.

Whether the instrument is plucked with the fingers, finger picks, a plectrum, or bowed, all of these instruments can be classified as lutes if they have a neck and resonating body over which the strings are stretched.   Violins and their relatives are most commonly played with a bow, with the nature of the bow evolving over time, from being a simple bent stick with the hair stretched and tied at both ends, to the modern recurved Tourte bow invented in the 19th century. Violins can also be plucked, in a technique called Pizzicato; however, the bowing technique is by far more common. The evolution of the violin and other stringed instruments over time is well documented in the historical record, although many of the ancient illustrations of musical instruments appear to be rather fanciful, and how the instruments were actually built, and how they sounded when played can only be a matter of speculation.

The origins of the violin family itself are obscure, but historically Nicola Amati is credited with making the first true violins. Actually, Viola sized instruments were made first, with the more treble and bass instruments branching out later. He and his descendants made violins based on his original design for nearly two hundred years. The Guarnari Family, Maggini, and Antonio Stradivarius, who were Italian makers from the town of Cremona, Italy, and Jacob Stainer, an outstanding German maker, continued the traditions and developed their own unique models, but all basically working from the original work of the Amati Family. Of course, there were many other makers of violins, which were being made nearly everywhere in Europe. A complete listing probably is best only found by exploring the historical records.

Today, when one wants to make a violin, the most common advice found is to follow a pre-designed plan or blueprint, or find a nice old violin to take measurements from to copy.   Indeed, many a violin maker with stellar reputations take pride in their ability to reproduce some ancient model to the Nth degree.

From my point of view, while it might be instructive to make copies of any work of art in order to get into the head of an old master, say Michelangelo or Antonio Stradivarius, and understand something of his working methods, copying is an incomplete method for instructing the beginner on how the original design functions, especially in the specific case of the violin.

In other words, taking measurements from an older example is not enough to actually make a great violin. If this was the case, copying a Stradivarius exactly should produce a reasonably accurate instrument in every way: Visually, tonally, and playing in every way identical to the original. Sadly, we know from experience that is not the case.   Why this is will be further discussed here at a later time.

I think a maker has at least an even chance of making a truly great violin if he designs a violin model using similar methods to the original makers, but with some measure of originality in mind.

The violin is a combination of wood, glue, varnish, a few odd parts, and the maker’s skill. It is an archetype of something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Good tools are a must. A good work space and work bench, with good lighting and storage is a must. Patience and persistence are a must as well.


The Fetish of purity.

Many writers stress that one should only use ‘Pure’ ingredients, perfect wood, only the best materials of any sort or tools made of only the best steel. A student might get the idea that his efforts are never good enough simply because one can never find the “perfect” materials. There is another facet of this attitude, that only the ‘best’ need be approved, and that there is no room in this world for the mediocre.

This attitude is prone to carry over for teachers and performers, often to the detriment of those simply wanting to learn something more about violin playing or teaching.

Workers in past centuries tended to stress that only the best Ingredients be used to make varnish, to use a familiar example (see the preliminary remarks above). The purity of the alcohol, or concern for the substitution of inferior pigments sold as expensive ones, promoted a “buyer beware” environment in the marketplace. The use of contaminated oils or resins would likely result in a failure of the varnish to perform as expected. Making varnish is a tricky enough occupation at best, and even on a good day, the varnish might not live up to the expected performance in durability, color, or drying characteristics. Should that batch be thrown out simply because one can’t call it absolutely optimal?

A brief note on varnish as an example of the mystique of making instruments:

At the risk of getting ahead of our discussion I will make a few preliminary comments on violin varnish … …

Every artist encounters the materials used in violin varnish, perhaps in a somewhat different context, but in my opinion not that different. Drying oils, grounds, sealers, stains, pigments, dyes, solvents, and thinners are all part and parcel of fine art, especially as relates to painting, and many of the materials used in making varnish, including violin varnish, are also found in the context of fine art.

The number of books, articles, academic papers, and online discussions covering the single issue of the varnish can be overwhelming. Many makers simply buy a premade oil or spirit varnish, follow the instructions on the bottle, and call it a day. I will devote an entire section on my various adventures on varnishing and other related activities at a later date.

To single out an issue that comes up as far as varnish solvents are concerned, if the alcohol purchased is not 100 percent alcohol, does one have to accept a compromise to the desired result? Ancient writers were certainly concerned with the purity of this ‘spirit of wine’, because fraud was so common, and the purity of the alcohol was so easy to contaminate with water. Also note that 200 proof alcohol was unobtainable during those times.

Concerning the problem of absolute alcohol, purchase of 100 % alcohol is near impossible in today’s market. The question becomes: Would going to the extra expense of acquiring near 100% alcohol be worth the extra expense, knowing that the results might not be equal to the extra cost? At what point does adhering to principles produce diminishing returns?

Reagent grade alcohol is prohibitively expensive, and near pure consumable ethyl alcohol is not exactly cheap.   Even the best grades of distilled spirits contain some amount of contaminating water; as a matter of fact, it is hard to find any distilled spirits anywhere near 200 proof, or 100% alcohol. Some workers have advocated using fine vodka or grain alcohol. I have in the past experimented with “Everclear”190 proof … But again, do I really need to go to this expense, or can some modern substitute work? In my experience, a gallon of denatured alcohol (methyl alcohol mixed with ethyl alcohol) is just fine for my purposes. At just around $17.00 a gallon in today’s prices, it is affordable and depending on use, will last quite some time. It will dissolve shellac with minimal cloudiness and fast drying times. Any cloudiness will disappear on complete drying. To the point, any source claiming that only the ‘best’ spirits need be acquired, otherwise one is wasting your efforts, may be gilding the lily.

Another example might be turpentine.   Traditional sources of turpentine in this country centered on the turpentine industry in the State of Georgia, where the pine tree was common. European Turpentine from the larch tree and other conifers comes from other species of evergreen, but the end products are similar. In the good old days it was possible to purchase a gallon of turpentine for under $5.00, but today the gallon of turpentine approaches $25.00 dollars for imported Chinese turpentine. Domestic turpentine is much more expensive (a gallon of good domestic Georgia turpentine is nearly $70.00)

Turpentine is a natural product from the sap of certain evergreen trees. Most ancient writers when referring to turpentine meant Venetian turpentine, which today is a mixture of larch turpentine and its colophony. True Venetian turpentine in the classic sense is pure Larch turpentine unadulterated by colophony or any other contaminant. The word ‘turpentine’ can refer to several related materials. A reader of the literature must be aware that the writer may be writing from a point of view that assumes the word ‘turpentine’ can mean the raw sap of an evergreen, the distilled solvent turpentine, or any number of products related to these materials.

Currently there is a revival of the nearly moribund Georgia turpentine industry by local business pioneers (I will include these in my links at a later time …). The Imported stuff commonly found in hardware stores and home improvement centers doesn’t have the “Sweetness” and gentle odor of home grown; as a matter of fact they can be quite harsh, with a chemical overtone that is quite nasty. However, for bulk use I find these products OK, and the chemical harshness is moderated with cooking and evaporation in the process of making varnish. Should I want to go with high quality more refined product, the local product or even the European materials are quite wonderful. A 16-ounce bottle will last a considerable time if used for diluting a thick varnish for use, in which case a few mere drops are used, making the cost justifiable.

For drying oils, referred to in the literature as ‘Siccative’ oils, Bulk oils such as walnut oil, Linseed oil, or other drying oils are available from food providers at a reasonable cost per volume, in food grade purity, which is more than adequate for any purpose we can think of. There seems to be some disagreement on the exact definition of ‘pure’, but my contention is that if the material can be sourced from edible oils, or bought from art supply stores, it is likely good enough for making violin varnish … Some writers seem to think that linseed oil sold for artistic purposes is somehow contaminated with materials harmful for violin varnish making. I disagree.

One authority recommends common boiled linseed oil, which contains driers, for making varnish, another condemns its use vociferously.

More on the subject of drying oils and differing grades and uses later. Let me say that there are several authoritative sources that I will cite, and also I will relate the results of my own experience.

The choice of wood for making the violin can also be a controversial subject, fraught with much opinion, folklore, and contradictory advice. Generally it is thought that the back, sides, and neck should be made of a hard wood, figured maple being the most popular choice, and a soft wood, such as spruce, an appropriate choice for the top or table. Even the source and quality of the wood for making the sound post, bass bar, and bridge of the instrument is subject to much discussion and debate.

These principles can be applied to most any aspect of instrument making. Saying no compromises should be made is not really practical in the real world. It should be up to the worker to decide what compromises need to be made in his process, provided that compromise does not inhibit the quality of his output. As the worker gains experience, one can decide whether or not the material, process, or tool meets your own standards.

As a matter of fact, almost every tiny aspect of the subject of violins, or luthiery in general, is prone to debate and opinion. But then that is living in the real world, isn’t it?


The real world (messy and prone to error) vs the theoretical (Ideal).

One interesting principle I was taught in my math classes at Reinhardt College (now Reinhardt University) was that:

  1. Errors tend to diverge, or
  2. Errors tend to converge.

Also as a collateral that:

  1. Errors tend to cancel.

For an example of A: A good example of errors diverging would be to take an initial measurement off the drawing board, say of a part that you would like to duplicate many times, take the first one off the line, use it to make a second one, and then take the second one, and use it to make a third … If you continue the process and take the last of these items and compare it to the first, you will find that the last item will be considerably longer, bigger, wider that the original. The reason is that the usual shop method of “Stay outside the line for your cuts” results in a measurably larger copy than the original, and repeating the process only multiplies your error.

For an example of B: One of the problems that often comes up in the design process is to divide a line into a given number of equal parts. There are several ways to do this, often described in Geometry books or Industrial Arts textbooks …   One of the more intriguing ways I use was taught to me by my tenth grade geometry teacher.   Given a line of any length, divide it into any number of equal parts by the following method:   Given a line of any length, estimate by eye the number of divisions you wish to have and open up your compass to your best guess. Say you wish to have 7 divisions of the given line, ‘walk’ your compass across the line and count the number of steps you swing the compass. If greater than the 7, close the compass a bit and try again. If less, open the compass a bit and try again.

As you approach the required 7 divisions, you will open or close the compass to smaller and smaller increments. With patience you will be able to nail down the exact opening of your compass needed for your 7 steps, without using other methods often cited for this task, at a fraction of the time used to draw and construct these other methods.

The above remarks are inserted here because of discoveries I have made over the years on the necessity of measurement and accuracy in any creative process. Sometimes you just have to get to the level that you can ‘eyeball’ your design, working from an intuitive level rather than one of metrological (exact measurements) purity.

The principle of Grandmother’s biscuits: Grandmother may have shared her biscuit recipe with you, but are your biscuits as good as hers?? Simply copying a recipe, however closely, does not guarantee success in any activity.


The fetish of Permanence

In art school, the study of archival materials is part of the curriculum, and the subject of many of the books on art materials. As a salesman of Art supplies, I was often astounded at the misconceptions that many customers, even working artists or former students of art schools, had concerning the Permanence and Purity of the materials that they bought.

My customers thought that Industrial grade products were somehow inferior to products made for artist to use. After all, many of the ‘How To’ Artist’s books have discussions on the judgment of artist’s grade materials versus art materials that are determined to be marginal in quality, manufactured for industry or home building.   Many warn against using materials that are not specifically made for artist’s use.

OK, let’s do a thought experiment.

The Brooklyn Bridge is a well-known Landmark that is covered in industrial grade paint and sits in a seriously hostile environment, subject to salt, sun, rain, snow, pollution, and other assaults. It must be constantly repainted, and indeed once the workers finish up painting one end of the bridge, they likely immediately turn around and start painting the other end. The process normally takes about two years.

The Mona Lisa by Da Vinci is about 400 years old and has been in a museum for most of that time, and currently in a special Noble Gas filled box to preserve its integrity. It was painted on a panel using the ‘best’ materials available to Da Vinci at that time.

Now flip their situations. Let’s move the Bridge into a museum, and place the Mona Lisa out into the collective elements of Urban New York. How long would the bridge last in this situation and how long would the Mona Lisa be recognizable as one of the greatest works of art?

It would be easy to conclude in this thought experiment that the Brooklyn Bridge could be preserved practically forever in a museum context and the Mona Lisa would be completely obliterated in a very short period.

Further, it is part of the job of the curators at a museum to restore faded and damaged works of art, which deteriorate even in a protected environment. Paintings and other works need restoration, even if made from so called ‘Permanent’ materials.

Let it be noted that permanence of any paint pigment and medium can be viewed in the context of Ultraviolet light exposure.   Ultraviolet does not affect the color of, say, red or yellow Iron oxide, but can easily destroy the color of some vegetable pigments or drying oil layers. UV light can yellow clear layers of oil varnish or mediums, and can even destroy or cause major deterioration of modern commercial products. The question becomes what are the acceptable limits? At what point do we accept our results?

Other conditions might be excess moisture, chemical reactions (pigments that might react with materials with which they might be used in association), heat, cold, wear and tear resistance …

Pigments made from minerals or geologic deposits for the most part seem to be the most permanent and indestructible materials, Bitumen or Asphaltum, often sold as a colorant for varnish being an exception. Pigments made of vegetable or animal origin tend to be impermanent in most contexts, with a few exceptions. Bone black, Soot blacks, and Alizarin Crimson (Rose Madder or Madder lake) have special qualities and have been used for permanent work for many years. Pigments that are manmade are also used, but tend to be less important in the reproduction of ancient recipes. One notable exception might be Vermilion, or mercuric oxide, which is known to be a pigment used in old varnishes. Vermilion, a beautiful red, can be found both as a mineral and made in a furnace. Various qualities of any of these materials can be found, some more expensive because of their source, or relatively cheap because of the huge bulk in which they are manufactured.

The best example known, Fra Angelica Blue, or Afghanistan Blue, one of the most expensive pigments on Earth, used in ancient times to decorate holy buildings and images, is chemically identical to Ultramarine Blue, which is made in a furnace from simple materials. Fra Angelica Blue does contain tiny bits of natural rutile, or titanium dioxide, that gives that pigment exceptional brilliance and depth. Manufactured Ultramarine blue never quite gets this exceptional, but is orders of magnitudes cheaper.

As an additional stumbling block for modern craftsmen of any discipline, Government regulations and politically motivated public policies might dictate such historically traditional materials as Lead White, or even modern ones such as Cadmium Red, pure turpentine or high grade alcohol be legislated off of art store shelves. Attitudes and market conditions make some of these materials scarce or unavailable to the casual maker. Sometimes these materials are available only to professional restorers, museum curators, or research labs, but the good news is that these materials are not often necessary for making violins, and I find that modern materials are indeed sufficient for the task.

Commercially available Varnishes and lacquers used for furniture, coaches, and even paintings lack certain characteristics necessary for violin making.

Now let’s set down a criterion for our varnish …

Keith Hill at his website sets down a list of qualities that seem insurmountable for any material on Earth we care to use as a varnish for violins. However Keith is in fact listing the necessary aspects that we indeed want to have our varnish produce. Further, he has an extremely plausible recipe for a turpene based varnish.

Reducing this extensive list to three basic but absolutely essential characteristics, one might reference Sacconi …

  1. The varnish should not penetrate the wood, otherwise the tone of the violin would be compromised.
  2. The Finished varnish should have sufficient color and aesthetic qualities to contribute to the visual aspects of the violin.
  3. The varnish should be very transparent.

Note that our list as it stands does not address such issues as the wearing qualities or longevity of the varnish layer over time. Most of the older violins were made for immediate use and though not ephemeral in nature, the materials normally used by the master makers had sufficient durability for their purposes, and the varnish was part of their process.

There are many qualities assigned to varnish that the above list does not address. But it is sufficient to say, that a varnish that satisfies the above list of three aspects will accomplish every practical aspect of how the varnish worked for the Cremonese luthiers.

Note that violins are analogous to the Mona Lisa painting, a fairly ephemeral object that will be protected and cherished, not a hunk of steel and concrete to be left out in the weather. Permanency can be viewed in the context of a violin that is centuries old, cherished, played and kept out of the elements and away from material harm by conscientious owners, and permanency and durability and permanence are to be judge from this point of view … …

(More to come!!)