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Alastair Wood is a retired primary head-teacher and violinist. He also makes violins in his spare time. He made his first violin at the age of 14 with the help of one of his teachers at Chethams school of music. We asked him to take us through the process, from the moment the wood arrives to the finished instrument.
Alastair’s current instrument is based on the measurements of a violin made by Guarneri del Gesù in 1735 , nicknamed ‘The Plowden’.
The measurements for this particular violin are as follows:
Upper bouts (bits round the top) 164mm
Middle bouts 109mm
Lower bouts 205mm
Arch height (lengthways): 15mm
Arch height (crossways): 14.4mm
(Measurements from The Strad magazine)
The best wood to use is Balkan maple for the ribs, the back and the scroll – as it’s both dense and light; and Spruce for the front (or belly).
For the fact fans out there, the old English makers often used pear or cherry wood because they couldn’t always find maple.
List of tools
Gouges and chisels
Scrapers and dried horsetail (also known as equisetum) as a fine abrasive
Long jointing plane
For the specialist tools, Dictum is a good port of call
Here's Alastair's miniature violin-making workshop with some of his tools on show:
Create your violin templates from card and plywood. Here are Alastair’s:
Using your template, create a mould which will be used to shape the ribs of the instrument as well as the shape of the front and back of your instrument.
Put in the corner and end blocks – these are made of willow and keep the angles of the ribs vertical.
For the linings (that's the thin strips of wood inside the ribs) use lime.
Rub the edges of the mould with candle-wax info so the ribs don’t stick to it when you come to take them off the mould.
Use thicknessing calipers to make sure the wood you’re using for the ribs is a consistent thickness – Alastair’s using 1.5mm.
Next, you need to draw the outline of your violin with a metal scribe, using your ribs as a template. Use a pencil to go round that outline using a washer to create a distance of 2mm between the ribs and the edge of the violin.
Then cut out the back of your violin using a bandsaw and file it.
Mark 4mm thickness of the edges on the pieces of wood you’re using for the back and front and the instrument.
To make the lovely rounded shape of the outside of the back of a violin you need to use a gouge (no bending here!). 80% of your wood block will end up as waste.
Then carve to create exactly the shape you want. You can use five arching templates called quinte (like the one shown in the picture below) to make sure you get the shape you want.
Then thickness the back. (Nb picture below shows a front)
Alastair use lime for the linings – shown below. Check the edges of the back are even.
Alastair decided to keep it very simple here. Traditionally makers used pear wood and ebony – but he uses fibre as it’s easier to work with and bends without cracking).
Mark your pieces of wood with a purfling marker (shown in the image below, far left).
Using those lines as a guide and then cut a channel with a surgical knife (trying hard not to cut your fingers!) until you have a channel that’s deep enough (about 2mm) to go round with the purfling cutter (the middle of the three tools pictured below).
Mitre the corners into a bee-sting (see picture – Stradivari was particularly good at this)
Fill the channel with hot glue and push your purfling in (having cut it to size).
This is nerve-wracking. Using a knife, gently crack the mould out. If you’ve used the candle-wax tip (above) the ribs shouldn’t stick to the mould.
So that’s everything from cutting out the wood to gluing it on to the ribs. If you’re using a softwood like spruce the process will be much quicker for the front, as it’s much easier to work than maple.
F-holes essentially let the sound escape from the sound box of the violin. They’re also one of the most attractive features of a violin. The f-holes on most violins are asymmetrical (even on Stradivari’s instruments).
Measure where you’d like your f-holes to go using a compass and measurements from your model.
Cut four holes (at each end of both f-holes). Join the top holes with the bottom holes with a template – as shown below.
The bass bar runs almost the length of the violin and sits directly under the instrument’s G-string. It strengthens the violin and adds depth to the sound.
Using a template, use pinpricks to create the outline of the scroll shape.
Then drill the peg holes into the scroll.
Now, cut the scroll out using a saw. Then use gouges to carve your scroll.
This is the only real piece of free carving in making the instrument – so the calibre of the scroll is a good sign of a maker’s ability. No pressure.
This is made of ebony, a very dense, hard wood. Set aside a chunk of time for this…
Then attach the neck on to the violin body using a mortise and tenon joint. Glue it in.
The tool for this is rather like a pencil sharpener. You use this in conjunction with a tapered reamer – both shown below.
Prepare the wood and use a yellow ground – Alastair uses linseed oil and Venetian turpentine. On top of that use coatings of a varnish which includes dragon’s blood (a bright red resin from a tree).
You'll need to do about 15 coatings in all, depending on the depth of colour you want to achieve.
Then leave your instrument outside, if it’s sunny, or put it in a UV box so the colour develops.
Alastair’s current violin is still being varnished and it’s missing the strings. But here’s a picture of him with one he made earlier. It’s the first violin he made, aged 14. Not bad, we’d say!
If you’d like to try your hand at making your own violin here are some useful links:
For measurements and general violin geekery: The Strad magazine
For information: British Violin Making Association (of which Alastair is a member)
For specialist equipment: Dictum