Great Designs in Wood - The Stradivarius Violin

By Chuck Ray | Posted: 05/11/2014 7:41PM

 

Chuck Ray, PennState, Associate Professor of Wood Operations I enjoy browsing through the World of Wood, the bi-monthly publication of the International Wood Collectors Society, the group I visited and joined last year.

About half way through the one of editions, I ran across an article about violin woods, originally written in 1958 by Dr. W. Mautz of Oburursel, Germany. I had read a lot about the famous violins and their wood, but this piece by Dr. Mautz has some fascinating insights I had not seen before. Many thanks to the kind folks at IWCS who have allowed me to re-print the article here. I've slightly edited the text...

"The most famous of European violin makers who pride themselves for carrying on the tradition of the great past masters of their craft - such as for instance: Stradivarius, Amatius and Guarnerius - and whose ancestors have been devoted to making violins for many generations and several centuries still use the same classical materials which once went into the making of a highly prized, famous 'Stradivari' violin. It can be considered an established fact that the old Italian and Bavarian masters whose handiwork is still unsurpassed and nowadays worth a small fortune, had found out by long experience just which woods were best suited for building a violin.

"Is it a coincidence that the woods they and their successors used, grew in the land of their birth? Naturally, in the course of the last centuries, experiments have been carried on with the object of testing numerous other woods hoping perhaps to find still better materials or at least to discover an adequate substitute for the rapidly diminishing supply.

"The result was, however, that no other woods were found which could equal, not to speak of, surpass the classical materials of old which Stradivarius and his contemporaries once used. These were Curly Maple (Acer pseudoplatanus) and the so-called 'Tune Spruce' (Picea abies). (Note: Acer pseudoplatanus is commonly called "sycamore" in the UK and much of Europe, which adds to the confusion about the Plane Tree and American Sycamore that I noted a couple of months ago. Picea abies is more commonly known as Norway Spruce. - cdr) The latter is used for the top of the violin, whereas the maple is used for the back and the sides.

"Now as far as these woods are concerned, it is not so much the botanical species which is important but more than that the location and peculiarity of the particular tree. Both the Maple and the Spruce of the desired quality grow only (with certain exceptions) on the slopes of the Italian and Bavarian Alps; the Spruce generally occurring at somewhat higher altitudes than the Maple which, by the way, is called 'Bergahorn' meaning Mountain Maple in German.

"It is usually the very big, old maples which yield a finely textured, slowly grown wood of the desired and highly prized figure of grain, i.e. a fine, regular, curly figure on radial cuts. This figure of grain has always been preferred for the back and the sides of violins and it is due to this fact that nowadays, a very regular curly-grain on quartersawn material is always referred to as 'Fiddle-back Figure.' Some trees have curly grain only at the base of the trunk (where this figure of grain frequently occurs when a tree is very old due to the enormous pressure on the wood tissues) whereas more rarely others are curly up to a height of 10 to 12 feet. The figured part of the tree is processed into regular 'slices' both faces of which are exactly parallel to the medullary rays.

"The reason for utilizing only quarter-sawn material is of course not merely a matter of beauty, but first of all to ensure that no warping will take place in case of possible changes of atmospheric conditions since a quartersawn board will always remain straight. On extremely rare occasions, old trees of Acer pseudoplatanus show a true birds-eye figure comparable to the well-known 'Bird's-Eye Maple' of Acer saccharumorigin. It is, however, well discernible from the latter, Acer pseudoplatanus being more yellowish white and never having a reddish or brown tinge. The annual rings are never so pronounced as in sugar maple and the 'Eyes' are not quite so prominent and with somewhat less lustre.

"The previously mentioned slices are roughly cut to the size of about 16” x 5 ½” being approximately 1” thick at the thickest edge and tapering down to 3/8”. These small boards are stored and seasoned for many, many years. In fact, it is not extraordinary if a good violin maker uses the material which his grandfather had acquired in his day. Seventy years is considered a good age for the material and the longer it has lain, the better it is. These woods, of course, are not stored in the open but in perfectly dry rooms.

"A typical characteristic of the so-called 'Tune Spruce' is the close and above all, regular spacing of the annual rings. However, this can also be found once in awhile in old spruce trees growing in the lowlands. The most important peculiarity of the true Tune Spruce, however, is the fact that the late-wood is extremely narrow in comparison to the spring growth and somewhat lighter in coloring compared to trees grown elsewhere. This peculiarity is restricted to trees growing at high altitudes where adequate conditions of climate and soil prevail. It is never to be found in trees from other localities. The characteristic structure of wood - close and regularly spaced annual rings with narrow late-wood - is responsible for the 'resonance' which in turn influences the sound qualities of the violin.

"Naturally, due to the narrow latewood, the specific weight of Tune Spruce is considerably below the average of Spruce derived from trees grown in other localities. An old and very experienced violinmaker with whom I am acquainted is carrying on experiments with a view of finding a definite relationship between specific weight and sound quality. Since these spruce boards also have to be exactly quartersawn and because they must be at least 5-1/2 “ wide and furthermore taking into consideration an average of 20 to 30 annual rings to the inch, this means that a tree yielding the desired quality wood must be at least 150 to 200 years old. In fact, a tree usually has to be very much older because when it is young the trunk has branches all the way down and many years have to pass before these branches die, break and are finally overgrown by layers of straight grained wood. Hence the prices for suitable Violin-Spruce are very high and it is not exceptional that for a pair of nicely-matched boards of superior quality prices amounting $50, - and more – have to be paid."

- Dr.W. Mautz Oberursel/Ts., Groenhoff Str. 17, Germany

And it gets even more specific than that. Spike Carlsen, in his book A Splintered History of Wood, relates that one firm in Italy that specializes in harvesting violin wood, "cuts trees only in the late autumn while the moon is waning."

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So there you have it, even more mystery to add to the lore of the famous violins of the world. Author Carlsen put it best in the closing paragraph of his section on them:

"But in the end, the thing that makes a Stradivarius a Stradivarius is the same thing that makes a Monet a Monet. Its beauty is indefinable. It can't be analyzed in pieces but must be taken as a whole: age, wood, wonderment, craftsmanship, and all. Violinist Itzhak Perlman responded, when asked if he knew what was behind the secret of his Strad, "No, absolutely not. It's wonderful, you know, to have some sort of mystery that cannot be explained, cannot be put in a computer and analyzed. It's nice."
- Spike Carlsen, A Splintered History of Wood

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About the Author

Chuck Ray, PennState, Associate Professor of Wood Operations

Chuck Ray

Dr. Charles D. “Chuck” Ray is Associate Professor of Wood Operations Research at Pennsylvania State University. His specialty is in the area of operations research, specifically those operational issues that confront the majority of the wood products sector. He previously spent 15 years in research and quality management for two large building products corporations, Temple-Inland Forest Products and Louisiana-Pacific. Ray is the sixth generation of his family to work in the sawmill industry, the Ray Brothers Lumber Company, established in East Texas before the turn of the last century. He can be reached at cdrpsu@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @ChuckDRay. He maintains an Extension website for Penn State at http://extension.psu.edu/woodpro and also writes a blog on all wood issues called Go Wood which can be found at http://gowood.blogspot.com.

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