Saturday, August 26, 2000

Handmade or factory-made?

        New stringed instruments may be commercially or factory-made — mass-produced instruments with hundreds of people involved in an assembly line. They may also be shop-made, with perhaps five people in the process, or entirely handmade by one master maker.

        One method is not necessarily better or worse than the others, says Jay Ifshin of Ifshin Violins in Strings magazine (July 1999). What matters is the goal of the shop — and the creativity used to make the instrument a work of art, not just a copy.

        The violin is constructed of about 70 parts. Acoustically, it is among the most complex of musical instruments. Here is a glossary of stringed instrument terms.
  Arching: A vaulting of the back and belly for acoustical reasons.
  Bass-bar: A strip of wood glued under the belly.
  Belly: The top plate of the instrument, made of soft wood, usually spruce. Both the top and back may be made of a single piece of wood, although usually it is two pieces joined.
  Bridge: A thin piece of maple on the belly, supporting the strings.
  F-holes: Sound holes in the belly shaped like an “F,” to aid the resonance.
  Fingerboard: A hardwood plane, usually ebony, where the player presses the strings to find the notes. The fingerboard is not fretted as it is on a guitar.
  Luthier: French term for violin maker.
  Neck: The long end of the instrument on which the fingerboard is attached.
  Pegbox: The upper end of the instrument where the strings are secured by pegs. The pegs are turned to bring the four strings to their proper pitches.
;   Purfling: A carved line around the edge of the instrument with strips of inlaid wood (two are dyed black). Purfling prevents cracks on the edges from going further into the body.
  Ribs: The sides of a stringed instrument. The back and sides are made of hardwood, generally maple.
  Scroll: The decorative piece on the end of the neck. In earlier times, the instrument was hung up by the scroll.
  Soundpost: An interior post stands vertically between the back and top of the violin. The position of the soundpost is critical in producing the best sound from the instrument.
  String family: The family of stringed instruments consists of violin, viola, cello and double bass.
        “Some shops aim to make very good instruments; some shops just make lots of instruments,” says local violin-maker Damon Gray. “I obviously want to produce as quickly as I can, but I don't want to sacrifice the quality of the instrument.”

        Because each piece of wood is different — with different densities, different resonances — Mr. Gray spends time selecting the material, shaping the thickness of the top and back, and matching them to get the best sound.

        “I try for the best-looking, best-sounding instrument I can,” he says. “You find not only good, attractive wood, but wood that violin-makers judge as suitable for good-sounding instruments.

        “You're building with a professional in mind. I spend time thinking, "What's going to make this instrument sound best?'”

        He starts with general guidelines and works with the wood “until it starts to feel right. I do a lot of bending, to see how it moves,” he says.

        The final step is varnish, which some believe is the secret to a great instrument. The red-gold Cremona varnish used by Stradivari and others has been a mystery for centuries.

        “There's a lot of fantasy that there's the secret of great varnish that will make an instrument,” Mr. Gray says. “Stradivari had beautiful varnish. It may have helped the sound to a certain extent, but the genius of Stradivari was workmanship. It was what he did before varnishing.”

        • To read more, check “Handmade or Factory-Made?” by Susan M. Barbieri (July 1999) Strings magazine (; and “Violin” by David D. Boyden, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

        • Coming up: The Violin Society of America (VSA) will host its 28th national convention and 14th competition for new violins, violas, cellos, basses and their bows, Nov. 13-19, at the Drawbridge Inn, Fort Mitchell.

        The convention will include lectures, discussions and open forums. There will be an exhibition of “Contemporary Masterworks” and commercial exhibits of leading suppliers of violin- and bow-making materials, accessories and services.

        For information about the convention, see (the VSA Web site) or call (845) 452-7557.

Stradivarius? No, it's a Gray

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