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Workshop Principles


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Gluing the upper bout of a violin using the historical Cremonese clamping method. Sticks, shaped cauls, and string hold the sides to the blocks until the glue is dry.

Construction techniques and working style

Early makers were eminently practical people who used a wide variety of construction techniques to get the job done. They worked quickly, because they had to. They could work very accurately, but they did not think in terms of machine-like precision, a mental paradigm that haunts modern makers. Almost all were able to give their instruments an effortless beauty in concept and detail that defies emulation.

Techniques for violin and viol construction were quite different and worth discussing separately.

Violins: Thanks to a great deal of new research in the past 25 years, we have a better idea of how classic Cremonese violins were built than at any time since the 18th century. It turns out that many of the techniques used by the classical makers were quite different from what is taught in violin-making schools today. Almost invariably, the earlier techniques seem a lot more direct and less fussy.

A simple example is the use of sticks, cauls, and string instead of iron clamps to clamp the bouts against the shaped corner blocks during construction of the sides. The stick passes through a hole in the inner form. String wrapped tightly around the stick and a convex caul holds the bent sides tightly against the corner block until the glue is dry. This seemingly primitive system gives such a positive fit with so little trouble that I use it exclusively.

An example with greater implications for the finished instrument is the old technique of gluing and nailing the neck to the instrument. Much evidence suggests that the Cremonese masters first built the sides, removed them from the inner form, then immediately glued and nailed the neck more or less in position. (Modern makers typically do not mount the neck until the corpus is finished and closed).

Once the neck was attached, the maker would drive two pointed iron pins into the center of the top and bottom blocks, push these pins into the centerline of the prepared slab for the back, then swivel the whole flexible assembly until the neck lined up with the center of the back. Only at this point did they trace the outline of the instrument.

This explains why so many Cremonese violins, even Strads, are distinctly asymmetrical, with the corners of one side higher than the other. It also explains the frequently irregular F-hole placement, as these were placed with reference to the asymmetrical sides. I now build all my violins using this technique. It's fast, sure, and each instrument's outline and F-hole layout come out slightly differently, giving the sort of life so often lacking in modern instruments.

Viols: We know less about viol construction, which was highly variable from maker to maker and country to country. We see most English instruments built without an inner form or corner blocks, and often without liners. The sides were simply bent freehand and mitered together at the corners. The joints of the sides and top were then reinforced with linen strips and glue.

Dietrich Kessler was the first to describe the typical English bent-stave top, where the belly is made from three or five thin arcs of hot-bent wood glued together like the staves of a lute back. This type of construction persists through the end of the 17th century. In France and Germany, on the other hand, we often see instruments with blocks and liners and tops 'digged out of the plank' (Christopher Simpson). In some traditions, the top block is often simply a continuation of the neck, a technique also found in non-Italian violin making.

One thing nearly all early instruments teach is where to put your effort. Modern schools teach us to strive for mechanical perfection in all details. This was certainly stressed in my German training. Early Italian makers, even Stradivari, simply did not work this way. We see great care lavished on some areas, the thicknessing of violin backs or the cutting of outlines and corners, for example. Other parts like garlands of sides were made quickly with an absolute minimum of fuss.

Learning to work this way may be as simple as not bothering to scrape the tooth-plane marks off the insides of the bouts or leaving the liners as cut by the knife. To me, this makes the inside of the instrument more like the varied interior of a baroque church than like the flat wall of a modern concert hall. Working this way can also be as unnerving as doing the inlay work and final shaping of the fluting after the instrument has been definitively closed, when our modern-obsessive measurement of the plate thicknesses is no longer possible, at least not without modern technology.

Finally, the early instruments teach one to be a creative maker. Before I make an instrument, I study the arching, modeling, soundholes, edgework, tool handling, and working style of the original closely. But when I come to make my own instrument, I ultimately create these elements freehand as the early makers did. The style inevitably becomes my own.

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Detail from Der Lautenmacher in Jost Amman's Staendebuch of 1568 showing a block and axe used for splitting lute wood. Before modern times, luthier's wood was split rather than sawn.

Tone Wood

The two classic woods used in bowed stringed instruments are spruce and figured maple. For a long time, I used only the European spruce (picea excelsa) and maple (acer pseudoplatanus) but have now switched to two North American woods, the Engelman Spruce (Picea englemanii )and Red Maple (Acer rubrum). These woods are excellent tonally and are more easily available in the highest grades than the over-harvested European woods.

Before modern times, tone wood was split out of the log rather than sawn. Splitting naturally follows the wood's fibers, yielding pieces that are perfectly quartered and have absolutely straight grain. Split wood has the greatest stiffness per weight, the most stability, and the greatest resistance to cracking. I make all my instruments from split tonewood.

I select wood for growth, cut, optimum density, and acoustic properties. Good wood should be compact without being heavy, and should lie in the block according to the natural growth of the tree. It should project sound well when struck, even in the rough. I like to use maple with a handsome figure, but without overdoing it.

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Varnishes reconstructed from Italian apothecary recipes can match the texture and transparent color seen on classical instruments.

Varnish

I cover all of my instruments with a full coat of transparent colored varnish and aim for the generous texture I've seen on well-preserved antiques. I have seen beautiful antiquing work from other makers but I prefer to aim for the full-varnished look that the classic instruments had when they were new.

My oil-based varnish is of the vernice liquida type described in many Italian apothecary manuscripts from the late middle ages through the 17th century. I am indebted to Geary Baese, whose extensive archival research in this area and whose book Classical Italian Violin Varnish have brought historically-accurate varnish and pigments to any maker who takes the trouble to study his work.

These varnishes, like the originals, are not particularly hard, but they will age very gracefully and, with care, provide centuries of protection.

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Front and rear views of a baroque violin fingerboard after a Stradivari original. The wedge-shaped profile is typical of early Italian fingerboards as are the light willow core, sides of figured wood, hollow under-surfaces, and ebony veneer on the playing surface.

Fittings and Setup

All of my instruments receive handmade bridges, fingerboards, tailpiece, and other fittings designed according to my best understanding of the style and period of the model. The only caveat regards violin and 'cello fingerboard lengths, which I generally make longer to match later 18th-century practice. Many early Italian fingerboards are simply not long enough for some 18th-century repertoire.

The necks of my violin-family instruments are slightly shorter and more full in cross section than the modern standard. Fingerboards are wedge shaped, made on a softwood core veneered with ebony and maple or other hard wood. The necks of my English viol necks are slightly rounder and fuller than my French viol necks, whose delicate construction resembles that of the lute. Viol necks are sometimes made on a softwood core and sometimes on light quartered maple.

Early bass bars were highly variable in dimension, but typically shorter, narrower, and invariably less deep than the modern design. Early bridge design was quite variable, but generally with an 'X' layout that is almost an inversion of the modern design. Viol bridges are based on iconography and the few surviving examples.

While I follow the design and dimensions of antiques quite closely, I strive for modern standards of fit and finish. Thus, the neck rounding is precise, the fit of bass bar and soundpost are highly accurate, the fingerboard receives a standard radius and a smooth parabolic curve from top to base, and so on. This gives the player the benefits of optimum sound and responsiveness, and a good sense of security in performance.

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My shop: Not all that different from what an 18th-century Italian or German worker would have recognized.

Tools and Shop Techniques

My workshop tools and techniques are very traditional, and would not seem that unfamiliar to an 18th-century maker. I build my violins and some viols around a thin inner form, exactly as the classic makers did, but otherwise, I do not use any templates or jigs. My few power tools are for rough dimensioning only.

I have chosen this approach not as an end in itself, but because I can work far more exactly and give my instruments infinitely more character than if I used elaborate machine setups. Early makers had pronounced styles, but they also created their soundholes, edges, corners, and all other aspects of the model according to the inspiration of the moment and in response to the wood they held in their hands. This freedom is the source of the beauty and originality we admire in early instruments, and one of the keys to their fine sound.

I welcome shop visits to view and play my instruments. Please contact me to make an appointment (see contact information).

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Thomas Mace at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York making a technical drawing of a division viol by Edward Lewis.

Biography in Brief

I learned violin making in Germany during the three years I spent studying musical instrument conservation under Dr. Friedeman Hellwig at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, in Nürnberg, Germany. My training as a museum conservator stressed scientific museum practice as well as traditional craftsmanship and I had the opportunity to work on many priceless antiques.

In addition to my work as a maker, I have restored a number of antique violins and 'cellos including fine examples by Jacobus Stainer, Hendrick Jacobs, Matthais Klotz, and Georg Ficker. My clients include the award-winning ensembles Musica Antiqua Köln and Capriccio Stravagante.

I have a B.A. from Oberlin College and a master's degree in Musicology from Columbia University. My professional experience includes two years spent as a conservator at the Muziekinstrumentenmuseum in Brussels, Belgium.

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