Some questions regarding my job come around regularly. And especially this one: “which wood species are used to make violins, violas, or cellos?” I could answer in a few words because in violin-making, we usually use maple, spruce and ebony woods. However, I will detail everything in this article.
First of all, if you are here to buy wood to make your own instrument, it is possible. For this, you just have to go on the tonewood section of my shop. If you do not find what you are looking for, do not hesitate to contact me directly so that I can provide you with the right elements.
I like to talk about the fact that the violin family comes from the classical thinking of the 17th and 18th centuries. Just like the other arts born from it, the main focus is the search for balance. Not only a command of expression and a harmonic ideal, but also a search for order and symmetry. In accordance with these criteria, the violin-making of the classical violin family was born. After all, since the first violin came out of Andrea Amati‘s workshop in the 16th century, the shapes, woods and techniques of violin-making have hardly evolved.
This means that today, a violin designed for a classical musician can only be made of maple and spruce. It must then reflect a very precise vision. Indeed, we cannot alter the shape or the components of the instruments without losing their “classical” status. If this were to happen, it would be called a “violin-shaped instrument”.
The classical violin is almost untouchable, but there are some variations on the cellos and violas. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find cellos with more common wood species. This allows to overcome the scarcity of such large maple boards (and therefore the problem of cost).
As for the black sheep of the violin family, the viola, no one seems to mind any experimentation. This is why it can be found with the most exotic wood species and the most dubious tests.
However, there is no mention of electric violins here, which represent yet another universe.
By definition, a tonewood is a wood type which qualities are enough to make acoustic instruments. It involves a number of specific characteristics:
- Timely harvesting: the wood must be harvested when mature and during winter. Because the sap and nutrients are released from the trunk and accumulate in the roots. This ensures that the wood is healthy, more resonant and long-lasting.
- Precise sawing: the wood is sawn or split in the grain direction for optimum structural strength. In addition, it maintains a symmetrical appearence in the case of joined top or back pieces.
- Natural drying: once the wood has been cut, it has to dry naturally for a long time. They can then be worked on once they are stabilised. A minimum of 5 years of drying is required, but the special KMG series includes boards that are over 200 years old.
- Calculated density: the density of the wood must be taken into account when making an instrument. We usually move aside pieces that are too heavy or too light. But in any case, it will give us information that will allow us to make the final thicknesses efficiently.
- Figures: first, the pieces are chosen for their aesthetic qualities. Indeed, these will provide an important visual impact and will give a particular identity to the instrument. The wide, fine grain and details of the wood create a beautiful scenery that comes to life under the light. Provided that the varnish is well done.
Tonewood from Cremona
If you’d like to know the epic saga of tonewood during the time of Antonio Stradivari and Guarneri Del Gesù. I suggest to read this article, sound of venice, the secret of Italian masters.
Wood species and their use
Spruce (picea abies)
Spruce is a softwood tree found in great numbers in the Alps and in Eastern Europe. It produces a quite light wood which has a really good stiffness in its longitivity. It is these characteristics that interest carpenters as much as instrument makers.
The main quality of this wood lies in its growth rings, a succession of summer rings (soft and light with a light colour) and winter rings (strong and rigid with a dark colour). These accumulate over the years in a circular pattern. Trees growing in good climatic conditions have wide rings. This is why they are not used in artisanal violin-making. On the contrary, trees in harsh mountainous regions grow much more slowly. As a result, their more balanced growth makes them more suitable for use as soundboards. In fact, the wood used in violin making today mainly comes from the Jura, the Italian Alps or Bavaria.
A good spruce for violin-making must be free of defects (resin pockets, knots, etc.) and have balanced rings. These will allow regular work on the piece. It should also have acoustic qualities: good stiffness and adequate density. This is what will allow a soundboard to resonate freely without the risk of collapsing under the weight of the strings. Finally, the full acoustic and structural potential of spruce is achieved when the wood is worked in the direction of the grain (after being split and not sawn).
The components of the violin that are made of spruce: the soundboard and bass bar, the soundpost, the blocks and linings.
Maple trees are found in most of the temperate regions of the world. It can be found in Europe as well as in the north of the United States, or in Asia in different subspecies. Yet, it is the European species that dominate in traditional violin-making. The wood that violin-makers seek is Bosnian maple. It grows in the mountainous forests of the Balkans. It was this wood that acquired a strong reputation with the violin-makers of Cremona during their golden age in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Even though it is a fairly common tree, very few of them will eventually become tonewoods. Indeed, besides density and acoustic potential, maple wood is greatly considered for its aesthetic qualities. Therefore, only those with interesting waves or flames are selected. This is a genetic feature that is only found in about 1 in 800 trees.
Most of the violin is made of maple, which is usually found on the back, sides, neck and scroll. The bridge is also made of maple, but the selection method is practically the opposite of the one used for the violin wood.
Willow trees easily grow in humid and swampy areas. It is a light and easy-to-work-with wood that can be used to make blocks and linings instead of spruce.
Buxus plants are slow-growing shrubs that can be found everywhere in Europe. It is mainly used to carve the components of the violin, such as the pegs, the button and the tailpiece. It can also be used for some reparations.
Exotic wood species
Ebony wood is very dense and dark and comes from India, Africa, or Madagascar.
It was the successor to maple and bone on the fingerboards and saddles of Baroque violins. This type of wood was more resistant to wear than the metal strings that replaced gut.
Ebony can especially be found on the fingerboard and the saddles. But pegs, buttons and other accessories can also be made from this wood.
Rosewood is another variety of exotic wood imported from India, Brazil or Madagascar. We mainly use it to turn pegs, endbuttons, and to carve the tailpieces or chin rests.
Future violin-making materials
In the last few years, we have witnessed a revival in the materials used in violin making. These are often man-made materials created to protect resources that have become too expensive or too scarce. Thus, we saw the development of fake ivory, fake ebony or fake pernambuco in workshops.
Carbon is among the most popular alternatives to wood. Indeed, it is a rather light and sturdy material easy to shape – a kind of superwood. On paper, carbon fibre seems ideal for acoustic use, offering good performance for a low price. So much so, in fact, that many carbon instruments and bows have appeared on the market.
On the other hand, it is quite easy nowadays to get access to ebonite. It is a very impressive substitute for ebony, which can be carved like natural wood. The same applies to ivory and synthetic bone.
To conclude this article, do you think that one day, modern materials will be able to completely take over the natural species as we know them?