Some years ago, in reaction to the modern violinmaking trend in towards “hyper-copying”, I made a violin without a predefined outline. I built the body of the Cadenza Violin without the use of templates and without using any graduated measuring tools (no numbers). Instead I relied on memory, experience and feel to guide my design and making process. In the end I produced a pretty normal looking Del Gesu type violin.
Hoping to develop this idea of building without the strict rule of numbers I took the idea the Oberlin Violinmaker workshop. The hope was that the project would :
- Reveal the extent and reliability of our existing intuitive sense of violinmaking
- Consider the design of the violin from basic principals rather than through exact copying existing instruments
- Teach us more about violins and violinmaking by approaching it from unfamiliar angles
Building the violin partly an exercise in improvisation. The project was also run in an improvisational manner, some ground rules were established but then the direction of the project evolved as possible avenues of research became apparent.
14 violinmakers signed up for the project and this was enough that we were able to divide into two teams to produce two violins intended to have contrasting tonal qualities.
Bright and Dark. We wanted to produce one violin with a “bright” tone and one with a “dark” : tone. These are two terms commonly used to describe the tone of a violin. A short consideration of these terms soon reveals them to be poorly defined and open to a lot of personal interpretation, however it was felt the light / dark contrast would be a simple, if rather blunt, tool for defining contrasting design goals.
The two teams
Dark: Ron Fletcher, Marinos Glitsos, Valerio Nalin, Martin Schwalb, Gino Sfara, Stella Eunbyul, Ludovico Zanni
Bright: Chris Albrecht, Andrew Carruthers, Stefano Gibertoni, Boris Haug, Theo Marks, Hugh Withycombe, David Van Zant
All round help: Scott Albert, Gaian Amorim, Andreas Hudelmeyer, Jordan Ripstein, Alex Wilson, Ute Zahn
- no templates besides a story story stick
- No numbers
- Straight edges, pencils, squares and compasses ok
The main resource was the collective knowledge and experience of the participating violinmakers.
Given, derived and relative dimensions, working process
Since a major objective was to produce a “normal” fully functional violin, some measurements were given to the group.
Body length ,and bout widths were taken from the inside rib line of the Plowden Del Gesu Violin. Since the makers were familiar with this violin and aware that its body dimensions are on the small side of average, they were able to make design decisions based on that knowledge, so for instance , the Dark Fiddle team made their body length a little greater than the given dimension.
The given information was scribed onto a “story stick” : Body length and bout widths were scribed onto the stick.
Neck length (the distance that the neck protrudes beyond the body) and stop length (the distance between the bridge and the edge of the body near the neck) are standardized on violins these were given in the form of an invented unit “The Øbe” (named for Oberlin)
The Obe (Ø) was a unit of half a standard neck length (Neck = 130mm, Øbe = 65mm) Since a standard violin has a neck to stop ratio of 2:3, these dimensions were easily found from the Øbe. (neck = 2 Øbe, Stop = 3 Øbe)
Bridge foot width The story stick was made to be a bridge wide. (41.5 mm)
Relative dimensions. Many dimensions were guessed at based on knowledge that the makers carried from their working experience. So for instance the Dark violin was made with “higher” , “thicker” ribs and “larger” linings
This project centered on the design of the instruments. As we moved through the building process each part of the instrument was considered in terms of what forms and dimensions would best promote either a “bright” or a “dark” tone. Aesthetics were also considered with the aim of giving the Bright fiddle a more delicate appearance , and the Dark fiddle a bolder appearance.
The following tables attempt to summarize the design decisions made. Most dimensions were guessed, being relative to either a given dimension or a remembered norm. These decisions are annotated as follows in the table
- – less than normal
- 0 about normal
- + more than normal
|Body Relative dimensions
|used 1/2 Ø as standard
|by eye, from memory
|Not tall, long, straight, drops from one place
|Long, high, barrel shaped
|Top channel and recurve
|Normal depth, slight recurve
|Recurve not too deep
|Back arch, channel and recurve
|Similar to top
|Similar to top
|Sausage shaped thick spot in center under barrel
|Shorter for stiffness and brightness
|Distance from centerline
|Tilt relative to centerline
|Short. Kind of flat, more, mass at center and ends, center of mass in upper half
|Long, low, medium height at ends
|F-hole, size and layout
|longer and set further apart than normal. Standing vertically
|Normal length with slight tilt
Neck and Fingerboard
|Fingerboard length and widths
|by eye, from memory
|by eye, from memory
|Neck shape and dimensions
|by eye, from memory
|by eye, from memory
Different Approaches to the Work
Working within the rules of the game, the two teams took contrasting approaches to designing the violins . The Bright team relied more heavily on geometric devices, looking for repeated units within the violin layout. For instance, the scroll and pegbox was found to be just over half the width of the lower bout. The depth of the neck block was half the C-bout width. etc. Once those guide points had been established the Bright team improvised the curves for the sides, cutting the corner blocks by eye and bending the ribs to make pleasing looking curves. They took a similar approach to the scroll and F-hole
In contrast the Dark team relied more on collective experience and memory. To establish the body outline design they took the given body dimensions, established the stop (position of the bridge) and then sketched a very plausible outline onto the work board and then bent the sides to those lines. They took a similar approach to the scroll design, hitting a few given dimensions and sketching a scroll design within them. The sketch was then used as a template to transfer the design onto both sides of the neck blank.
Both approaches were equally valid and the Dark team approach in particular demonstrated the depth and accuracy of our design memories based on years of shop experience.
Work in Progress
Choosing the materials. In an attempt to remove the effect of materials on the sound of the finished instruments, two sets of wood were chosen for their similarity. To further equalize the sets, half of one maple back was joined with half of the other maple back. The same was done with the spruce.
Geometric discussions. The bright violin team based a lot of their violin design on finding repeated units and proportions
Hugh Withycombe explains some of the geometric relationships used.
The rib structures were built on skeleton molds which allow great flexibility in design
Flexing the top plate, a non-numeric test.
The violins were played side by side to assess then. Overall the violins sounded and played well, indistinguishable from instruments made with the use of measuring tools. In comparing the two instruments tonally we found that they were surprisingly similar, this despite our best efforts to make a bright and a dark sounding violin. Since very similar materials were used for both violins that might suggest that material selection could be more important than violin design in determining tone.
Comparison to actual measurements
While the violins were built with out the use of our familiar measuring tools, the actual measurements of the materials and parts were recorded and, at the end of the project, were compared to the dimensions guessed at. This is reported in a separate blog post
I was surprised by the numeracy of most of the makers involved in the project. I have a very poor memory for numbers and still have to look up very basic dimensions as I work. Working with other makers it was apparent that they had much larger internal data base of numbered dimensions than I do. Some makers relied on them heavily, to the extent that, rather than guess some dimensions visually, they resorted to elaborate schemes to derive millimeter values from the Øbe’s known 65mm.
There was also a great deal of nervousness in working the thickness of the violin top and back without relying on calipers to check mm dimensions. With urging they took the leap of faith and relied on touch and the feel of flexibility of the plates to guide them. In the end the millimeter, dimensions, tap tones, and weights of the plates were revealed to be very normal.
I think that it is important to recognise and develop this “intuitive” Knowledge. The intuition should be developed through constant reference to measured dimensions that are known to work. Over time intuition can be relied on more heavily to deal with the constantly recurring situations where numbers cant tell us exactly how to make the unique piece of wood that we hold in our hands do what we think it should do.
I advocate paying greater attention to the feel and sounds and smell of the materials and parts as we, handle, cut, bend and flex them while making a fiddle. This can lead to a subconscious but often reliable feel for violinmaking
The Dark Fiddle
The violins have gone for varnishing. The Bright to Milan and the Dark to Toronto. They will meet again at the Violin Society Of America conference in 2024