Now that you have a better idea of the types of violins you may want to avoid, it’s time to turn our attention to the special attributes that differentiate the many “good” instruments that you will discover along your journey! Our primary focus will begin with one of the most versatile of crafting materials throughout all of human history – wood.
Believe it or not, the essence and techniques of violin making have remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years, and that goes for the types of woods used to create them as well. By far, the dominant wood of choice for the top plate of the violin since the days before Antonio Stradivari until now has been spruce.
Spruce is an evergreen tree and is considered one of the best tonewoods. A tonewood, in general, is any wood that is used to make a musical instrument. Spruce has been highly desired as a tonewood for a multitude of reasons. As far as woods go, spruce has a very high stiffness-to-weight ratio, meaning that even though it is light and must be carved very thinly to make a violin, it still remains very strong. This is ideal for a violin because the wood must be able to retain its shape and strength under the constant tension produced from the strings. And even though spruce is a softwood, it is also very dense. It’s this denseness that really allows the sound vibrations of a violin to resonate through its structure. Wood that is too porous simply does not carry sound as well. As a simple analogy, try clapping your hands outside in the open and then clap in a smaller, unfurnished room. Porous wood (which has microscopically lots more air space) is like clapping outside. The sound essentially dissipates into the open air. Dense wood (which has less air space) is like the room, producing much more resonating sound vibrations. One other major aspect of spruce that makes it desirable for violins is mostly for aesthetic purposes. Spruce has a long, even grain that runs down the whole of the tree trunk. When cut properly, this wood-grain gives the violin top an even, slender (dare I say svelte!) look. Let’s face it, a violin is simply one of the most beautiful of instruments in the music family! I may be a little biased, however. I’ve heard the violin’s chubby cousin, the cello, is getting some attention these days, but I’ll let you be the judge. 😀
Because of it’s excellent tonal qualities as a sounding board for the top of the violin, spruce is also typically used for the bass-bar, sound-post, the corner/top/bottom blocks, and linings inside the violin as well. Each of these not only help to bolster the structural integrity of the violin, but they are also critical in transferring the sound vibrations throughout the whole of the instrument. Thus the same properties that makes spruce ideal for the violin’s top also apply to the inner parts too.
These are the essential qualities that have crowned the spruce as the reigning king of wood used in violin making. But these are just the inherent properties of the tree itself, and can only count for half of the credit that goes into making a quality instrument. The other half is craftsmanship. A marble slab is just a block of stone until a master sculptor takes his/her chisel to it, then it becomes a work of art. The same is true for the spruce tree. There are aspects to choosing the right tree, cutting it, and crafting it into a violin that only a trained luthier can perform.
While the species of spruce tree (Engelmann, Carpathian, Norway, etc.) which makes the best tonewood is still under debate (and most likely just a matter of preference), there are other aspects of the tree that are typically not. Firstly, most of the species of spruce best used for violin making are found in colder, high-altitude regions. This is because the more consistent, colder temperatures will cause the tree’s wood to grow more densely and the growth rings to be more evenly spaced. Both of which are good for the tonal, structural, and aesthetic qualities of a violin. These trees are generally much older and pristine as well, making them larger and healthier.
Once the tree is selectively cut into pieces, it needs to be dried (or aged/cured) to remove much of its moisture and sap. If fresh wood is used to make a violin, it would quickly distort, crack, or split as the wood dries itself out. This is not unlike the building of a new house. Over time, as the new house settles, cracks in the baseboards, squeaky floorboards, and nails popping out will appear. Imagine this as a violin – not a pretty sight indeed. Now, traditionally, the spruce would be allowed to air dry for ten years or more, although the length of time may vary. Artificially accelerating the natural drying process by using kilns and similar techniques, may help dry the wood faster, but it could cause structural damage to the cells of the wood, decreasing its tonal qualities. However, I will say that this may be a parting myth as advancing technology makes its way into the art of making instruments. “Reclaimed” spruce is also becoming popular as well. Reclaimed spruce is wood that is taken from the frames of old houses as they are torn down. This spruce may not only be cheaper to attain, but in many cases it has already been aged 50 years or more. If the other qualities mentioned above can be applied, it can make for some very fine violin-making wood indeed.
So, if you are buying a newly crafted violin, you will want to try and find out what kind of spruce it is made from and how long has it been aged. This will give you an idea of the starting qualities of the spruce itself. If looking at an “older” violin (which can be interpreted as you see fit) you will want to look for warping, cracking, splitting, and overall structural integrity of the spruce top. For both, you will also want to look for the uniformity of the wood grain, discoloration of the wood, or any signs of insect and/or weather damage. All of these will help you determine the quality of the spruce top and aid in determining the overall value of the violin.
Obviously, the more you know about the violin you are looking at and potentially going to purchase, the better you will feel about your decision. Now, will the seller know everything about the violin and its scintillating spruce top? Probably not. But it doesn’t hurt to ask. And with the information above, now you can feel confident and more knowledgeable about what questions to even ask at all! You will also have a better idea when looking at a violin yourself if the seller doesn’t seem to have a clue.
While the spruce is certainly not the end-all to determining a violin’s quality, it is certainly one of the more important aspects because it will very much influence the sound created by the instrument. However, there’s more to a violin than just the top spruce! There are still two more woods that go into its making to look into. So let’s check those out!
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