At last we have come to the final type of wood that is predominantly used when making a violin – ebony. Nearly every violin you will come across will have a black fingerboard. And if you are picking up on the pattern from previous posts, the reason a good violin will nearly always have a black fingerboard made from ebony wood is a combination of both form and function.
Ebony is an exotic hardwood that grows mainly in parts of the world like southern India, west Africa, and Indonesia. It is quite arguably the densest, strongest, and hardest of all light woods. Ebony is so dense, in fact, that it sinks in water. It is so hard that cheap sandpaper won’t touch it and carving this wood can easily dull the knives and saw blades used on it. Is it any wonder why it is the wood of choice for a violin fingerboard which has wires at high tension vibrating against it added to the consistent pressing, rubbing, and sliding of fingers upon it? This is obviously the major functional value of using ebony wood. It is highly resistant to the wear and tear of the strings and fingers that goes along with the normal playing of the instrument.
But quite equally, ebony is known for its visually pleasing quality as well. It’s like dressing a violin in a fine black tuxedo. It is difficult to not look sophisticated and dashing in a tuxedo! The species of ebony used for violins consists of a wood that is literally solid black on the inside (with possibly some dark chocolate brown streaks running through it). Even though it can be difficult to work with, it can be smoothed and polished to a flawless finish and shine. As much as maple is highly prized in violin making for its flame pattern, ebony takes the crown for its solid, even, and consistent dark color.
It is also these same properties that make it ideal for playing the violin as well. A uniformly black fingerboard gives a wonderful contrast of color behind the bright, silvery strings strung across it. The strings and finger placement, especially when first learning to play the violin, are much easier to see against a black background. And because there is no wavy or striped wood grain pattern to the ebony fingerboard, there are no optical illusions that can play tricks with your eyes when searching for the correct finger placement on the strings.
I would venture to say that most violin fingerboards you will find will be made from ebony wood. But for the lower priced instruments you may come across, you will definitely want to check to make sure that is not made of an inferior wood that’s just painted or dyed black to look like ebony. As stated in a previous post, a quick test is to look under the fingerboard to see if any non-black wood is showing. Oftentimes, quickly made mass-produced violins will have a swath of paint or dye applied to the top only and may leave the exposed color of the original wood underneath. If looking at an older or used violin, you will want to carefully inspect the top of the fingerboard as well. There should be no discoloration or signs of rubbed off color under the strings. Neither should you see ruts or grooves under the strings, formed from their constant pressing and vibration. A true ebony fingerboard is solid black through and through (with perhaps an occasional dark brown streak) and will be completely resistant to any abuse the strings or fingers will impress upon it.
While I may go into further detail in future posts, this is a great place to mention the other noticeable parts of a violin possibly made from ebony. These are the end pin (or button), the saddle, the tailpiece, the chin rest, the nut, and the pegs.
The end pin (or button) is located at the base of the violin. It is what the tailpiece is attached to and acts as one of the anchoring points for the strings. The end pin must be very strong indeed, for the tension of all four strings culminate to this one point on the violin.
On the opposite end of the instrument, the tuning pegs act as the other anchoring point for the strings. If you look closely at them, you will see that a tiny hole is drilled through them to accept the end of the string to which the remainder is wound around. A very strong wood must be used for the pegs not break, crack, warp, or split under the constant tension of the strings or while turning the pegs during tuning.
If you look carefully at the upper section of the fingerboard closest to the pegs, you will find a small block of ebony wood called the nut. The purpose of the nut is to raise the strings slightly off the flat surface of the fingerboard so that the full length of the string is playable. It acts as the counterpart to the bridge. As one of the few places where the strings are actually consistently touching and pressing against the instrument, the nut must be made of very hard, strong wood.
The tailpiece is what the other end of the strings are attached to and the chin rest is where the violinist will place their jaw/chin to hold the violin in place. You will also notice that the looped wire (or tailgut) that connects the tailpiece to the end pin must contact the corner of the violin. Under this contact point is small piece of ebony wood called the saddle.
The reason I briefly mention these other parts of the violin here is because you may find quite a number of violins that will have these parts made from either another type or wood besides ebony or even a composite plastic material. With the exception of the nut, which is almost exclusively made from ebony, two other hardwoods – boxwood and rosewood – are primarily used in place of ebony. All three woods have very similar properties, but different aesthetic value. Boxwood is also typically uniform with little wood grain but its color varies between the orange and red spectrum. Rosewood, in contrast, usually has a beautiful wood grain pattern and typically has a soft red to brown color.
While some may argue that these woods will produce a different sound from ebony when used on the violin, I have found that most luthiers will incorporate these woods simply to give a violin a different look or feel while still retaining the strength and function for these parts. Another reason to note, is that ebony wood is actually becoming more rare as it is cut down for its unique properties in wood crafting. Many of the species are shrub-like and it takes many years for a tree trunk to grow thick enough to be properly used. Boxwood and rosewood trees are currently much more prominent, adding to their increased availability and cost-effectiveness. So while the violin you are looking at may be wearing a fine black tuxedo fingerboard, it could also be donned in fashionable cowboy boots or quality leather loafer accessories! And just like some folk, some violins can pull it off, while some can’t!
Visit lukonisviolins.com for the official website of Lukonis Violins.