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ABC's of Violin Making

One of my favorite baby shower gifts to give (if I have the time to do it) is a personalized ABC book.  I haven’t made many–just for a few special people where I had an idea I liked–but they are fun.  I like to use ink and watercolors, but I think anybody could do this if they wanted to.  You could easily just clip letters and pictures out of magazines and make something unique that way.  An ABC of cars or sports figures or artists or pets…. Once the pages are done I usually take them to Kinko’s to get them laminated and bound together into a real little book.  Maybe not as useful a gift as something on the registry, but with luck something that could last.

My assistant and fellow Milwaukee luthier, Robyn, is due with a baby this summer, and I couldn’t resist making an ABC of things related to violin making.  I get a lot of questions about my job since it’s unusual, so I thought I’d show you the book I made for Robyn’s baby and explain what the things in it are.  My kids knew most of them.  How many will you know?

I took photos of each page before I had the book laminated and bound.  Enjoy the slide show!


  • A is for Antonio Stradivari 1 of 26
    A is for Antonio Stradivari
    Antonio Stradivari is considered by many to be the greatest violin maker of all time. He lived from 1644 to 1737 in Cremona, Italy. This is a picture of the seal he used on many of his instruments.
  • B is for Block Plane 2 of 26
    B is for Block Plane
    A block plane is an essential tool of violin making. It's a small hand plane, and unlike many other kinds of planes the blade sits bevel up. There are high angle block planes, low angle block planes, and can come with adjustable mouths. These planes were especially designed for the hard work of cutting endgrain, and supposedly get their name from smoothing butcher's blocks. The one I copied for this book I use for planing fingerboards.
  • C is for Clamp 3 of 26
    C is for Clamp
    And actually the extra fun thing about this page is that particular kind of clamp is called a C-clamp. I own tiny clamps, section clamps, bessey clamps.... I probably own more than 600 clamps, but sometimes the best clamp for something odd is still my hands.
  • D is for Dividers 4 of 26
    D is for Dividers
    This was one my kids didn't know because I use it most often at the store. Dividers are used to make a series of marks that are the same distance apart. I use them to 'walk off' the spots where the strings will sit on both the bridge and the nut.
  • E is for Edge Clamp 5 of 26
    E is for Edge Clamp
    This is a specialized clamp made for gluing seams. The seam is where the back or the top of the instrument meets the sides (or 'ribs'). The clamps are curved and shaped so as not to crush the delicate edges of the instrument. Blue edge clamps fit around upper and lower bout curves, red ones are for corners, and yellow ones are for c-bouts (the area that curves inward, like a waist).
  • F is for F-hole 6 of 26
    F is for F-hole
    F-holes are the sound holes carved into the top of a violin so all the vibrating air inside the body has a way to get out. They look more like S's than F's, but if you look closely there are little notches that would make the dash across the stem of the F. The inside notch is specially placed to help locate the bridge. (The outer notch is merely aesthetic.)
  • G is for Gouge 7 of 26
    G is for Gouge
    I own a lot of gouges. Big ones for arching, a series in various sizes for carving scrolls, random ones for odd jobs, and this particular one is for shaping the channel near the edges of the plates.
  • H is for Hide Glue 8 of 26
    H is for Hide Glue
    Violins are held together with cooked hide glue. (I think the kind I have is made from rabbit, but I'm not sure.) Hide glue comes in dry granules that you mix with water in different amounts to vary the strength, and heated in a water bath to 140 degrees. There's something very satisfying about using such an ancient form of glue, to know that despite our advances we haven't invented a glue that works for this purpose better. It's very strong but completely reversible. It's great glue, but only if you have the skill to prepare the surfaces it is being used on very well. (It's not a gap filling glue.)
  • I is for Italy 9 of 26
    I is for Italy
    Cremona, Italy is the capitol of the violin making world. It's where some of the greatest makers lived and worked. It's beautiful there. Cremona is the city my middle child is named for.
  • J is for Joiner 10 of 26
    J is for Joiner
    A Joiner is a particularly long plane used for preparing the center joints on violin plates. This illustration I made based on a picture of a joiner plane that Robyn built herself. It's propped on a stick, blade facing up, and you run the wood over the plane instead of the other way around. (It's easier to control the cut on such a long surface that way.)
  • K is for Knife 11 of 26
    K is for Knife
    My kids were appalled that I used a word that starts with a silent K, but you can't make a violin without your knife. Most violin makers shape their own knives and make their own handles.
  • L is for LInings 12 of 26
    L is for LInings
    Linings are an internal structural element of a violin that most players aren't aware of. The ribs (sides) of the instrument are very thin--only about 1.2mm thick--which doesn't create much surface area for gluing the plates on. Linings are strips of a lightweight wood such as spruce that are bent and glued along the edges of the ribs where the plates will meet them in order to have that extra bit of surface to hold the glue.
  • M is for Maple 13 of 26
    M is for Maple
    The most frequently asked question about violin making I get (after "How long does it take you to make a violin?") is "What kind of wood is it made from?" The back, ribs, and scroll are all made from maple. The top is made from spruce. It's possible to use poplar on the back, or some other conifer on the top, but the vast majority of violins are maple and spruce.
  • N is for Nut 14 of 26
    N is for Nut
    The nut is the small piece of wood at the scroll end of the fingerboard that holds up the strings. (Personally one of my least favorite jobs is making a new nut. It doesn't look like much, but it takes a while to make one well.)
  • O is for Orange Dye 15 of 26
    O is for Orange Dye
    To do retouch work I have a 'color board' with a variety of aniline dyes that I mix with alcohol and sometimes varnish to match the look of the rest of the instrument. I probably go through more orange than anything else.
  • P is for Purfling 16 of 26
    P is for Purfling
    My kids all knew this one, even though most violinists don't. Purfling is the decorative inlay that runs along the edges of the plates. The place where the purfling pieces meet in the corners is called a beesting. (I say 'decorative' but purfling also has a protective function. It helps prevent cracks from running into the heart of the plate when the edges get chipped.)
  • Q is for Quarter-Sawn Spruce 17 of 26
    Q is for Quarter-Sawn Spruce
    Top wood is cut on the quarter. This means that if you have a cylindrical log of wood you cut the pieces out of it like you would a pie--cutting out wedges in toward the center. This is important in order to have straight even grain lines for stability. (If you cut straight across the log the whole way that's called cutting on the slab. Some maple is slab cut on violin backs, but the top is always quarter-sawn.)
  • R is for Ruler 18 of 26
    R is for Ruler
    It's hard to convey just how precise the measurements get in violin making. Tenths of millimeters matter. All the luthiers I know use a Starrett engineering ruler. Violin work is done in metric.
  • S is for Scroll 19 of 26
    S is for Scroll
    The scroll at the top of the violin is probably the most identifiable feature from the Baroque era whence these instruments came. Sometimes you see them carved into heads or something unusual, but it's a point of pride among makers to be able to carve a traditional scroll with perfect symmetry and balance.
  • T is for Template 20 of 26
    T is for Template
    The template for the body is usually made as a half shape, and then flipped to keep both sides symmetrical. I make mine out of brass kick plates (like you would put along the bottom of a door).
  • U is for Upper Block 21 of 26
    U is for Upper Block
    There are six blocks used as structural elements inside a violin--one in each of the four corners, and one at each end. They are often made out of spruce, but I usually use willow. The upper block is the one you carve a dovetail joint into to set the neck.
  • V is for Varnish 22 of 26
    V is for Varnish
    Varnish probably has the most mystique of any part of the violin making process. People ask me all the time about Stradivari and his secret varnish. There is good varnish and bad varnish, but a lot of its ultimate quality is in the application. Varnish affects sound, and using varnish correctly takes skill. It also takes a lot of time--often longer than it takes to build the instrument. Varnishing is considered half the total process. Most instruments are coated with spirit varnish, which is alcohol based and dries quickly. I prefer to use oil based varnish.
  • W is for Water Stone 23 of 26
    W is for Water Stone
    Getting tools very sharp is important in violin making. We spend a lot of time sharpening, and final honing is done on a series of water stones.
  • X is in Pegbox 24 of 26
    X is in Pegbox
    X is always tricky in an alphabet book, but my kids have a Beatrix Potter one that uses "X is in Fox" and I decided that was a much more clever and useful way to include X than X-ray or xylophone. So my X is in pegbox, and the pegbox is the part of the violin that the pegs you use for tuning fit into.
  • Y is for 25 of 26
    Y is for
    I'm done with ______! (Fill in frustrating step in the violin making process here.) I couldn't think of a Y. But I could think of many steps that make me want to cheer when they're over.
  • Z is for Zebra…. 26 of 26
    Z is for Zebra....
    ....Because Z is always for zebra. There actually are some special clamping blocks in violin making called zulagen, and I could have done that, but it's more fun to draw a zebra.

 

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