Thursday, May 26, 2011

My Tonewood

I have a special relationship with my tonewood. Many pieces are like old friends. I go back to visit them each time I peruse my wood collection, choosing materials for an upcoming commission. In fact, I prefer a certain amount of my work to be un-commissioned ... in part because I can through my wood and decide the time has come for a certain piece, even when there may be no standing order for it.
The piece I'm holding below is an interesting case in point. I got a call from a contact in Bosnia that scouts wood for me. A beautiful curly maple tree had been found high in the mountains. 

This week, time has finally come for one old friend. I will build a personal model violin and make it available to someone who would like a part in the next chapter of its long future.
I flew over to Belgrade and went up into the forest to have a look at this tree. It was spectacular! Large enough for many cello backs! However, there was a problem. The downhill route out of the mountain led through Bosnia-Herzegovina and it would have been impossible to move such a trunk uphill to the road, even when cut into 3 foot lengths. So we had to split the wood in the field and with curly maple that was a real pity as the yield was greatly reduced. You can still see the scars from that day on the piece I am holding. Nevertheless, I got a wonderful supply of maple that now beginning to use.
Piles of top wood. Although maple is more costly, the contribution of spruce to the final sound of a violin is far more dramatic! I have piles and piles of spruce, sorted according to various qualities that I feel are important.
The thing about wood is that 'speed of sound' is only half the question. What if the sound is pretty fast but the wood is also heavy?? In fact heavy, stiff wood is often quite fast. The speed comes from the stiffness ...think of bow wood for example. I want top wood that is maximally fast while also being maximally light ... low density. Some makers look only at density, but this too is only half of the story. What about super light wood that is punky and weak?? i.e. the opposite of bow wood? Not so good either, if you follow me.To really nail this question, you need an equation that takes both factors into account. This so called "Figure or Merit" actually exists in engineering terms and, luckily for us, a formula for tonewood is out there, albeit little used in the violin making world. It is calculated as the suare root of the speed of sound (along the grain x across the grain) divided by density. The higher the result, the lighter my top can be for the same target tap tones and modes. I find lighter weight plates are generally more responsive and give higher sound amplitude for the same amount of energy put in. Oliver Rodgers wrote a Fortran program for calculating the Figure of Merit in pieces of wood. And, my friend Thomas King re-worked it as an Excel spreadsheet which he shares on his web site.

This piece of wood will become GA203 later this summer. A violinist in the Euclid String Quartet has been using my violin for some time. Now the other Euclid violinist, Jacob Murphy, will be joining him.
When a big piece of wood is roughed out, some internal tension is released and altered as well. So I prepare my blanks ahead of time and let them rest and move. The square notches in the top piece are not just for the joining clamps. By cutting them ahead of time, the top moves less when the final outline is completed.
I like to talk to my clients about their wood. We send pictures back and forth in order to include them in the creative process. But players come to me for more than just pretty wood. Its like going to a famous tailor for a custom made suit. Everyone can sew straight and buy fine cloth; that is assumed. You go to a tailor that will make you look good!

I educate my clients about wood because I want the instruments they sponsor to make them sound incredible!!!
This set of wood was prepared for a client in England for whom I am building a personalized Stradivari. After reviewing some photos, he wanted to swap the back with the one shown below. This one won't be wasted. It's a bit playful, but I really like flipping down one side of a flitch a one piece back. So I will finish it as a personal instrument, following some new ideas that are on my mind this summer.
Work underway today, roughing out the arching for the new back.
It's the same wood, from the same tree. But the flames slope upwards from the center joint, like the Betts.
A few hours later and Dr. Winter's GA204 is back on schedule.

Dear Friends,

I'm off to Prague on Monday for a meeting of the Entente Internationale des Luthiers et Archetiers (EILA). I will be representing my American colleagues as the US delegate and presenting a talk about "Trends in Today's Violin Making". Stay tuned ... I'll send photos back to the shop to tell you about the trip next week!


Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Vuillaume Visits Alf Studios

Restoring the set-up on a 150 year old violin

I have a busy week ahead. I'm making the final touches on my presentation for Prague and selecting wood for my summer violinmaking commissions. In addition, I have repairs to do on a very fine violin that I brought back with me from Hong Kong. While bridges and soundposts are easily changed for tonal reasons, bass-bars require a lot more effort and attention. But they are still very important to the sound.

This week I will be removing the top of a J.B. Vuillaume and installing a new bass bar. Doing this type of work is very helpful for my knowledge of new violin making because it gives me access to the work of great masters of the past. The request to completely re-do the set-up of a fine old violin provides the opportunity to see how my bridges, soundposts, and bass bars work in a violin that is 150 years old.

My client in Hong Kong, owner of the Vuillaume we are working on this week

After removing the set-up, strings, bridge, and tailpiece, etc., the first step was to remove the top. Looking closely, you can see that I am backing my palette knife with a sheet of clear acetate to help protect the underside of the edge.

The first thing one notices when the top comes off a Vuillaume violin is his charismatic autograph on the upper treble side of the back.

We can see a few things here besides Vuillaume's label. There are some signs of a leaky dampit in the distant past and an interesting penciled number: "1924". This violin is from the 1860's, as you can see in the center of Vuillaume's signature in the previous photograph. 1924 is merely the registration number. This took some explaining at customs since only violins that are over 100 years old can enter the USA duty free.

Whenever we do one repair, other things come up that are best attended to while the instrument is open. Here you can see some denting in the soundpost area. To protect the area in the future, and after consulting with the owner, we decided to swell out the denting and glue over a protective veneer. It's also interesting to note the traces of Vuillaume's varnish which seeped through the F-holes.

The first order of business was to remove the old bass-bar. We carved the entire bar away with a gouge until a paper thin veneer of the old bass bar remained. After dampened, it came off in one long strip.

With the new bar finished a 0.4 mm maple veneer was glued over the soundpost area. Alignment marks for the new soundpost were added in pencil.

The owner asked us to install a new set of pegs. As is often the case, we found the taper to be different on each peg hole and they were all different sizes as well. Rather then reaming them all to a standard (but larger) hole, we decided to fill in some of the deviant openings with spiral bushings.

Spiral bushings are long strips of wood cut along the grain which can be used to make small corrections without some problems associated with normal bushings. Here we are gluing in the strips with a white Teflon mandrel.

The last step was to retouch the new work and replace the strings and bridge. It will be interesting to hear the new sound. A good bass-bar often needs some playing in when new.

Next Thursday, I'll post some photos of the wood I've picked for my summer clients: Andrew Winter and Jacob Murphy!


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Strings in Spring

Nice weather finally arrives in Michigan!

With Spring finally here for good, I knew I had to be outside as much as possible before the mosquitoes arrive. My focus in the shop recently has been preparing a lecture on trends in violinmaking, which I'll be delivering in Prague at the end of this month.

About two weeks ago, a deadline was announced for submitting my abstract for the paper. What's an abstract? Thanks to the Internet, and an emergency Google mission, I learned that an abstract is usually the last thing one writes. Yikes. It was time to reverse engineer a summary for something still being written!


. A Renaissance is underway in the craft of Violin Making. Scientific advance in the study of Master-instruments is making more information available to more makers than ever before. This technical and specifications rich data is bringing a marked improvement to the average quality of both artisan-made instruments and to those mass-produced with low-cost labor. In this review, Gregg Alf shares a vision for how master-makers of today can keep up with these trends by combining the technical ‘treasure trove’ of our times with a return to some more aesthetic traditions of our craft.

It was such a nice day, we thought it would be nice to photograph a violin amongst the flowering trees around the shop. We have a flowering pear tree in the front yard and a very old Japanese maple tree that Joseph Curtin and I planted back in 1985 to commemorate the founding of Curtin & Alf.

There is a magical space underneath the awning of red leaves of the maple that my children like to hide-out in. With some creativity and a little rigging, we were able to take some lovely pictures of a violin suspended under this canopy. I thought it a nice touch, capturing the maple back under an old maple tree.

The violin we chose to photograph is the first instrument made by my long time assistant, Walter Mahoney. One of the challenges of training apprentices is that they usually have violinmaking dreams of their own ...and eventually leave to pursue them. While I'm very happy for the success that many of my students have found, I am also most grateful to have had in Walt an assistant who still feels content supporting my studios after more than twenty years! Finally, and with a little encouragement, Walt felt motivated to complete an instrument of his own. As you can see, it came out beautifully!

This violin is based on the LaFont Guarneri del Gesu. The "LaFont" is one of Guarneri's last instrument and, like other late Guarneri instruments, is known for it's exceptional tonal qualities. Walt's interpretation is made with a two piece back, quarter cut from strongly flamed curly maple.

The top of the violin is made from two pieces of book-matched spruce which is quite narrow between the f-holes but broadens to the flanks. Walt left the varnish natural, with very little antiquing. Our varnish is made with the resin from spruce trees that is oxidized and mixed with linseed or walnut oil. The violin seemed so at home resting back amongst the blossoms.