When you think of maple, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Syrup, of course! That wonderfully delicious sweetened sap that goes great on pancakes and waffles, right? If you think so… then you would be absolutely correct! However, there is another popular use for this versatile hardwood that may be less appetizing on your breakfast food, but just as sweet – not to the tongue, but to the ears! And as I’m sure you guessed, it would be the making of violins.
The use of maple in making violins goes hand in hand with the use of spruce and has been the wood of choice for just as long. Many of the reasons are the same, but maple has some very unique qualities all its own that has allowed it to establish its own heritage in violin making over the centuries.
For starters, maple is a hardwood, as opposed to spruce which is a softwood. Maple is typically used to make the back, ribs (sides), neck, and scroll of the violin. And it makes sense for these to be carved from a hardwood, as these are the parts of the instrument that take the major blows of blunt force trauma and suffer the most wear & tear with regular use. Thus being a hardwood, maple will be more resistant to damage than a softwood would be.
Maple is also very dense and incredibly strong, but still remains light in weight, making it ideal for a musical instrument. But unlike the spruce top which can spread and disperse the forces of tension exerted upon it over its larger thin surface area, other parts of the violin are not so fortunate. The neck of the instrument, for example, is also under incredible stress from the constant tension of the strings. But because it is an elongated dowel shape and can not disperse this tension as well as a flat surface, it must be strong enough to resist the tendency to bend, warp, crack, or split over time. Maple is a great wood for this purpose.
Similar to spruce, maple trees that are grown in colder, higher-altitude regions make the best tonewoods for the same reasons – denser, more consistent growth. But maple has one particular quality that makes it stand out among all other hardwoods – its figure! No, I’m not talking about your sleek little black party dress, I’m talking about its wood grain. Maple possesses a wonderful quality of its wood grain called flame (or figure). Properly cut flamed maple on a violin looks like tiger stripes that glimmers with iridescence when tilted back and forth in the light. Truly, a well-varnished flamed maple violin is absolutely captivating with its beauty and elegance! This singular quality alone is what has allowed maple to become so endearing as a tonewood in the making of violins.
Now, I do not know how accurate this is, but I read that roughly 1 in 1,000 maple trees possess the proper flaming look that is desired for a violin, and it takes a trained lumberjack to imagine what a tree looks like on the inside before cutting a suitable one. How they do this, I have no idea! Maybe you can find a lumberjack and ask him or her (would that make her a lumberjill?). Regardless of the exact number, the fact is that it certainly does take the expertise of trained people to choose, cut, and prepare the most suitable trees which will become violins. And if you are looking for a “good” violin, you must always keep this in mind, as it will be reflected in the overall value of the instrument. If you like the taste of someone’s cooking, chances are they didn’t use inferior ingredients. The same goes with violins… except you’re not eating it.
Besides flamed, maple wood can also be cut to exhibit two other different style woodgrains – quilted and birdseye. Quilted maple has a pattern that looks like interwoven patchwork and birdseye looks like lots of swirls or eyes. While less popular than flamed, cut maple with these patterns can also be very stunning.
While on the topic of maple, I think it best to address the issue regarding the back of the violin, as this has been the center of debate for quite a long time. The question is, does a violin sound better when the maple back is made from one piece of maple or two? If you look at the back of any violin where you can visually see the flamed maple, the wood will either be cut down the center with two symmetrical halves glued together (called bookmatched) or it will be a single piece of wood. Of all the research I’ve done, expert opinions I’ve read, and professional violinists I’ve listened to, there is only one overwhelming answer – nobody knows! Scientifically, there has been no study that has proven that a violin with a one-piece or two-piece back is acoustically superior to the other. And it seems that anyone else you may talk to only has a personal opinion on the matter. The simple fact is, nearly every great luthier throughout history has made violins with both one-piece and two-piece maple backs. They have also been made with varying orientations of the flame pattern with no measurable difference in sound quality.
So how does this help you when choosing a violin? Well, I will venture to say that a majority of folks will base a part of their decision on what the violin looks like. And I’m here to tell you, that’s OK! Of course, the major factor in selecting a violin is how it sounds, which is why the quality and types of wood that go into its construction are so important. But a violin also has a physical beauty all its own, and if luthiers have used maple for so many centuries because of its elegance as well as its function, isn’t it safe to say that they intended the instrument to be seen as well as heard? The violin we choose is often a reflection of our personality and preferences. Just as we may have differing affinities for the tonal qualities of a violin, we will also differ in its visual qualities that we find appealing as well. The goal is to find a violin that blends the two together, which will become an extension of the personality, achievement, and emotion of the one playing it.
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