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lversola

Alternative Violin Woods

42 posts in this topic

Prompted by the "Alternative Bow Woods" discussion, I was wondering about alternative woods for violin bodies. I know that over the years, other materials such as carbon fiber, plastic, and even metal have been used to make bodies for stringed instruments. And we all know that today's manufacturers are offering fittings carved from all sorts of different woods.

But apart from a few carbon fiber instruments, there doesn't seem to be any innovation going on with regards to the materials of the instruments themselves. What are the specific properties of say, maple, that make it the most ideal wood for making the back of a violin? If, for example, the hardness of maple is a factor, aren't there are other woods such as persimmon or ironwood that are even harder and might sound better, or be just as attractive as maple?

Has any noted maker made a great (or even just good) sounding violin made from woods other than the traditional pine and maple? Are there any modern makers currently experimenting with other woods?

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Hi! I think that fittings made with new types of wood is more linked to the shortage of traditional woods (ebony, rosewood and boxwood) than to the inovation desire. In the case of Bosnian maple and European spruce, there is no shortage os this material, as far as I know, they come from forests that were planted sometimes more than 100 years ago.

Italian makers made instruments with local spruce (oppio) as well as "salice" and "pioppo" (for ribs, back and neck).

Musicians and the market are very conservative, it would be difficult to sell violins with alternative woods.

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Well--I guess this is an implied question, not an attempt to answer: I think I have observed that among violins, the players are MOST conservative, and that nothing but the traditional woods will do...but among the larger instruments, and possibly on a sliding scale from smaller to larger, they are less particular. Am I right?

I have known more makers to experiment with poplar, willow, cherry, etc. on violas, cellos, and basses, and no-one seems to be deterred by this.

Um,... incidentally, this is not intended to be an invitation to jokes about the above instruments, or their respective players. :-) It really is a serious question, and possibly my observation is incorrect.

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As far as players are concerned, I think that most everyone here is mainly concerned with sound quality and aesthetics. Sure, I'm a sucker for tradition as much as the next guy, but if I can get Strad looks and a Del Gesu sound (or wherever your preferrence lies) out of a violin made from non-traditional woods, I don't think that I'd have any reservations in buying one. And I'm no botanist, but I don't think your average player could see the difference between a violin made from spruce, and one of pine.

I'm sure that it's more than possible to make a gorgeous-looking fiddle from woods other than those traditionally used. But it seems that all the innovation in this area ended with Da Salo, or whoever first made a decent-sounding instrument out of maple and spruce. It also seems that all the luthiers since the 17th century have just taken their word for it that spruce, maple, and/or pine are THE best woods for violins. I'm no luthier, so I'm not saying that they're NOT, of course, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence that they, in fact, ARE. Sure, the best instruments yet made are constructed from these woods, but would the Soil sing as sweet (or perhaps sweeter) had Antonio made it from some other kind of wood?

So if the holy grail is the sound, why hasn't there ever been a big movement to experiment with other woods? Perhaps it's more accurate to say that the holy grail for players is the sound, and for the luthiers it's trying to equal the great Italian Masters (by using the same techniques and materials)? Which leads me back to the orginal question -- what is it about pine, maple, and spruce that make them ideal for stringed instrments?

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Well, spruce has some physical properties that are unique, I remember reading something about that, the velocity of sound in spruce is very high, as well as the weightXresistance relation. Da Saló used cedar from Lebanon also, if I'm not wrong, in some bigger instruments.

When the violin was born, there was already a tradition in instrument making and this knowledge was used in the instruments of the violin family too.

Sacconni points all that problably Stradivari used "salice" and "pioppo" for economic reasons, since these local woods were much cheaper than bosnian maple.

And you have the colour, maple and spruce have almost no colour, so you can colour your varnish the way you want. For instance, some North American maple is darker, you can't make some colours if you start with a darker wood.

I'm sound oriented too, but musicians are very very conservative, they already frown upon many things and I don't want to give them one more reason to frown upon.

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Did Vuillaume, Sacconni, the Hills, or any other Strad expert ever notice a difference in sound between those Strads that were made from Bosnian maple and those made from salice and pioppo?

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Quote:

Has any noted maker made a great (or even just good) sounding violin made from woods other than the traditional pine and maple?


My husband's Grancino has a poplar back & sides. Sounds terrific; rather plain to look at.

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Sacconi mentions that the sound is good regardless Stradivari's wood choice (I Segreti, page 56) and that Bosnian Maple was used for it's decorative features, it's luminous wavings and for being light and prone to vibrate (oh, tradutore, traditore!). Sacconi mentions that "maple was used in all violins, in almost all violas and 3/5 of his celli".

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Iversola,

I'm not a noted maker but I do make violins from alternative woods. I use straight grained fir for the tops and almost any highly figured wood I can find for the backs and sides. The different woods do have somewhat different sound qualities. The goal is to be able to focus the sound for the type of wood being used.

It's been my experience that COB3 is correct is saying that for most players, nothing but the traditional woods will do. Fortunately for me there are players who appreciate having more choices

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Wolfnote,

Do you have any pics you can post of some of your violins with the alternate wood? I am interested in making one out of a different wood, but haven't got the nerve up yet.

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I have experimented with a few alternatives for backs, sides and necks. I got quite nice results with Jacaranda, for example. I do not think there is a wooden alternative to good spruce though. We discussed some alternatives a few months ago but there was not a lot of response from "netters". I am particularly keen on trying a hybrid of wood and carbon fibre. Carbon fibre front with wood body.

I am not a traditionalist (that does not mean I am not able to appreciate fine traditional pieces, I do). But, I am most disheartened by the conservatism in the ranks of violin (classical) players. In an effort to bring more youngsters to violin playing, I design and make modern violins, sometimes with bright colour options (see www.violini.co.za). They do, in fact, attract the younger generation of violin learners but when it comes to buying, their teachers or parents will not allow these modern instruments.

I love this hobby but really do think it is going round in circles. It seems there is no room for innovation or progression, I am glad that the same conservatism did not exist just before Amati.

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Murray (AMORI), I checked out your designs on your website, and I think they look great! And Pete (Wolfnote), I also checked out your fiddles -- they look phenomenal! Out of the woods you've used, what would you say is the best sounding one? Personally, if either of your instruments sound as good as they look, I would have absolutely no problem perfoming on one, no matter what anyone else thought.

From a historical perspective, I find that all the research into WHY the great Italian instruments sound great is fascinating. With great interest, I read all the threads on "how [insert great Italian master here] did this", or "how [insert great Italian master here] did that". However, I'm surprised that in today's world, there's not a lot of effort into HOW to achieve the same sound with non-traditional techniques, designs, and materials.

I know that all great instruments have their own unique tonal qualities, and I won't even begin to try and quantify personal preference. However, there must be at least some common tonal characteristics that make these violins superior to the rest. In scientific terms, couldn't we identify these characteristics and quantify them in some way to serve as some sort of objective performance benchmark?

Don't get me wrong, I know that violin making is an art. And I'm not suggesting that we reduce violin making to graphs and numbers, or that we turn our back on tradition and take aesthetics, individuality, or passion out of it. I appreciate a historically accurate, traditionally-made, nicely antiqued Cannon copy more than most, but let's face it -- it's highly unlikely that I'll ever own a Del Gesu in this lifetime, much less the real Cannon (barring some highly illegal act). And even though I'm just a casual player and not a rich collector or a world-class soloist, I'd still love to own and play on a fiddle that SOUNDS just like the Cannon...

History and tradition will always have its place, especially with classical violinists -- and perhaps that'll never change. But it surprises me to think that there are musicians out there that, if it came right down to it, would chose an inferior sounding, but traditionally-made violin over a non-traditional, but tonally superior violin...

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Thanks for your kind words. I must say I have not had the opportunity to mess around with too many woods as yet. The Jacaranda sounded quite good but not as good as traditional woods.

Another example of "traditionalism". One of our best South African violinists tried my "purple traditional". She liked the sound and instrument feel but said that conductors would never allow it on a stage, not even if it were the an excellent sounding violin. Come to think of it, I have never seen anything but traditional violin colours at a classical concert. Of course, jazz would be different.

The issue of sound vs. aesthetics is quite ridiculous. It seems that violins are rated/valued firstly on their (old) appearance and secondly on sound. I cannot change this fact but surely absolute sound quality should come first? Even if it is a new modern violin.

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Traditional appearance with great sound leads me to think individual maker and player quality. Modern design/color leads me to think production and electronic quality. Although, I know that my ear alone could be fooled in a blind test.

Someone in an earlier thread talked about the value of violins as opposed to other instruments. The best professional instruments other than violins can usually be pruchased for $5,000 or $10,000 (or even double that). But, that cost is considered a very good student violin by many people. Age, reputation, & pedigree are what drive those six figure prices. A modern style violin that retains demand in a couple hundred years may be in the same class.

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Here in New England, there are a number of fiddle makers who use unusual woods. I say fiddle makers rather than violinmakers because the market seems to be entirely among fiddle players. Classical violin players are much more conservative as to what they will bring to rehersal. (Also, since fiddlers don't have the concern of blending with an orchestra, if there is an effect on the sound of the instrument (apart from the basic construction and setup), a fiddler is much more likely to like it.)

I've seen koa, walnut, and cherry used, and possibly mahogany. Also, we blithely say 'maple' is the traditional wood, but I've seen norway maple, red maple, sugar maple, bigleaf maple, sycamore maple, american sycamore, and plane trees used, all of which are often called just "maple" (though some are Acer and some are Plantanus species). I'm sure the maple found in so many chinese instruments is a different species; it has a pretty distincive pore structure.

On the belly, I've seen the European spruce, but also sitka and englemann. And I've seen cedar used, and even pine.

Some of you may also know of the experimental carbon-fiber reinforced balsa wood fiddle that was shown around at the last VSA meeting. It sounded surprisingly good -- certainly no worse than many student-level factory instruments.

The problem with using unusual woods is that the maker is not usually a professional with a consistent style and output. So it's very hard to tell what is the effect of the wood, and what is the effect of that maker's skill, the design chosen, etc. What would really be needed (other than elaborate scientific testing, as was being done with the balsa fiddle) is for a maker with a consistent track record to make two instruments in tandem, one of traditional materials and one of the experimental materials. The traditional violin would serve as a control, and it's consistency with previous instruments would give credibility to the 'sameness' of construction of the experimental instrument.

Just an idea....

--Claire

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I have seen violin backs and necks made of Myrtle, Black walnut, Carolina Poplar, Black Cherry, Eucalyptus and Alder...and tops of pine, Douglas Fir, Sinker Cypress, Western Red Cedar, and others.

There has been a LOT of experimentation...I don't know all the physics, aesthetics, acoustics, and longevity issues involved, but there is a reason everyone eventually comes back to maple and spruce, on violins, at least.

I know there are some who automatically reject an instrument based on what KIND of maple and spruce were used. (sigh...) To me, that is excessive, but I know a very fine maker (on this list) who swears there IS a difference in European woods, and will no longer use others.

I am not a good enough maker (yet) to think that the difference between Yugoslavian maple and Oregon bigleaf, or Alpine Spruce and Englemann, will transform my work into priceless concert instruments. Right now the limiting factor is ME.

So that is what I am working on for the time being, but (at least on violins) I WILL restrict myself to maple and spruce, though I am not too picky (yet) about what species.

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Hi Iversola, I like your "sound" approach, I remember the Hill's comment on how ugly violins (made with traditional woods) with outstanding sound were (and still are) difficult to sell, and how we would have more good sounding violins if the question of appearence was disregarded by musicians... But I'm not willing to change the violin world.

Sometimes I take my instruments to top players to have their opinions. In general they are just interested in the sound, they just give a glance and start playing it imediatly.

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People say they want to get the sound quality of the instruments made by the great masters and ask why there isn't more experimentation with alternative woods to reach this goal. One thought regarding this is that it seems to be extremely difficult to reach that level of sound no matter what materials are used. And we know it can be done with the traditional materials and techniques. So I'm not surprised that makers striving for the highest sound quality would restrict themselves mostly to the traditional ways. A lifetime of effort might be needed to succeed with methods and materials we know can work. Why waste time trying something we don't know is even capable of working? Now, I don't mean that it is fruitless to work with non-traditional materials; beautiful things can be done which might work as well as anything a non-genius type maker could achieve otherwise. Finally, we have a good amount of information about the long-term behavior of the traditional materials. I think less is known about how non-traditional materials age. That factor, too, might inhibit makers from experimenting with alternatives to the usual woods.

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Good point. It takes lots of time to make a violin and we makers are not disposed to risk. We would have to risk with other woods if they were scarce, but it's not the case since the offer of European maple and spruce is very good.

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For those of you who saw "Red Violin", didn't the restorer comment to Samuel L. Jackson's character that the Bussotti was "the single most perfect acoustic machine that [he's] ever seen -- then conducted some sort of "scientific" test on the violin by suspending it over a speaker and gauging its "response curve" on his computer? Maybe that test was purely science fiction (and yes, I'm a BIG sci-fi fan), but there should be some way to objectively rate a violin's performance.

No matter where a player's preference lies, all players desire at least some of the same characteristics out of a violin. Take projection as only one example. Couldn't someone manufacture a machine that could play a simple test pattern (I'm thinking of the violin equivalent of the "Iron Byron" for you golf fans out there) in a acoustically controlled room. The machine would play the test pattern on the same test bow at exactly the same bow pressure and at exactly the same bow speed. Couldn't we then create a control group of recognized "great" violins by measuring their loudness at different distances with different notes, then come up with some sort of comprehensive "projection curve benchmark"?

Maybe I've watched too many episodes of Star Trek, but at least to me, this seems reasonable...

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You can find some graphics of this sort in some luthier's sites, comparing Strads and Del Gesu's with their own great instruments...

I think that there are some playing machines to test violins, I don't know how they work, but do we need machines to do that?

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Iversola,

Search the archeives for Sound Landscape software discussions. That's a good start for more along these lines.

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At least with a machine, all the findings would be totally objective. A player's preferences would be entirely eliminated from the process. And I think we all know that there's certain "feel-related" things about a violin that AREN'T related to sound (such as the thickness of the neck or bridge height, for example) that could possibly bias a player's opinion (and the way he or she plays or tests that violin) even before the player puts the bow to the strings. Plus, I don't think that even the best players could guarantee that they'd play EXACTLY the same way every time with every violin.

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Yes, but somethings like response time, it it's difficult or easy to play etc are just felt by playing. For instance, some violinists may wake up a wolf that other violinists would not notice. Playing is a very personal experience that cannot be valued by a machine.

By the way, I find that top players are quite objective about what they want of a good violin.

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Manfio, I totally agree with you! Playing and selecting a violin is very much based on feel. And of course, I don't honestly think that there's a way to objectify "feel", nor do I believe that every aspect of a violin can be boiled down to a simple graph. And I know that there are several qualities of how a particular violin feels and plays that are crucial parts of of the selection process -- and that most, if not all, of those characteristics can never be quantified. However, the fact that machine doesn't care whether it's playing Il Canone or a Palatino is exactly the point in developing an objective benchmark.

However, I'm only trying to quantify some certain common tonal qualities common to "great" violins (the ones that can be measured, at least) -- and to use these results so that we can objectively compare how certain violins compare acousticaly against some sort of established benchnmark. Perhaps in this way, if anyone ever gets around to constructing 2 violins of different woods, as Claire suggested, we would have some way of objectively comparing the performance of different materials or construction techniques.

Believe me, there's probably thousands of great-sounding instruments that are totally lacking in feel. I'm merely suggesting that with all the technology we have at our disposal, perhaps science can help show us how to build a better mousetrap...

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