Curly Wood for Violins

THE PRIMARY WOODS USED IN VIOLIN MAKING are spruce and maple. Spruce is chosen for the top, also called the front, table or soundboard. It is light in weight, yet longitudinally strong and laterally flexible. To the eye, the most prominent feature of a spruce top is the darker vertical graining. These grains are the annual growth rings of the tree. Top wood is cut radially “on the quarter.” The back, sides (ribs) and neck are usually maple cut on or close to the quarter.

Occasionally, maple cut tangentially (“on the slab”) or poplar is used for the back. The figure, “flame” or “curl” is the most prominent feature of maple. This is the result of the wood fibers having grown in an undulating pattern. When split this wood looks something like corrugated metal; when cut, as in a finished instrument, it produces an interesting optical effect of alternating light and dark flames. Move the light source and the dark flames will turn light and the light flames dark.

Spruce or willow is used internally for blocks and linings. The bass bar and sound post are spruce. The fittings, including pegs, tailpiece and end button are made of any dense hardwood, most commonly ebony, rosewood or boxwood. Oregon mountain mahogany is also an excellent and dense hardwood. The modern fingerboard is solid ebony. For fingerboards and tailpieces, the early Italians used maple or other lighter hardwoods like poplar covered with maple and/or ebony or dyed wood veneer. Ebony and exotic hardwoods were in short supply.

CUTTING and SEASONING. Violin makers prefer wood cut from old growth trees, grown at high altitudes on northern slopes. The wood must be cut during the cold dormant months and stored (seasoned) in controlled conditions for several years. Most of the wood used in violin making is split or cut “on the quarter” for greatest strength.

Immediately after the tree is felled, the trunk is bucked into rounds (cut up into cylindrically shaped lengths) only slightly longer than that needed for the finished pieces. Like slicing a pie, these rounds are split or sawn radially into wedge shaped pieces called billets. The billets are sealed on their ends with hot glue, stacked in such a manner that air can circulate all around them, and stored in a cool area away from direct sunlight.

Each piece of wood dries throughout at an equally slow rate. The drying or seasoning time for a piece of violin wood is generally ten years or more, depending on its size and thickness. Fifty year old wood is even better! Kiln drying of commercial lumber destroys the cell structure of the wood and thus its physical and acoustic properties.

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