When you listen closely to a wooden instrument, whether it be in an orchestra hall or in the middle of a crowded city street, you can still hear it: the whistle of wind in the trees, maybe the rush of a mountain stream. The body of the wooden instrument is an imprint of nature itself, and it is for this reason that the most crucial factor in determining the unique character of a stringed instrument comes down to the quality of its tonewood.
In general, there are four types of wood that make up the body: spruce, maple, ebony, and rosewood. The quality of wood used is important because dense, flexible wood tends to shape well and projects the highest quality of sound. Instrument makers typically prefer wood cut from fold growth trees, which grow at high altitudes on northern slopes and are noted for their versatility. The best trees are selected by tapping the trunk with a hatchet to determine if that particular tree's wood will produce quality sound. Generally, the wood chosen must be light enough to emit melodious sounds through resonant vibrations, but also strong enough to withstand the concentrated pressure exerted by the four strings on the bridge (which can be as much as 17 pounds!).
After the wood is split or cut "on the quarter" for greatest strength, it is aged or air-dried in order to have the optimal moisture equilibrium with the environment. Those lacking this quality will often be inflexible and crack during shaping, or worse, playing. A good wood will be stored in a ventilated place protected from seasonal change for as long as 20 years.
In visually assessing quality of wood, the main point of focus is usually the grain of the wood, not only on the body of the violin, but its neck and scroll as well. Fine to moderate grain is seen as a sign of quality when it comes to spruce, which is commonly used for the top. The even lines of the grain also indicate well-selected tone woods. Maple, which is used for the back, ribs and neck of most stringed instruments, often features interesting flaming, which also provides visible evidence about the structure of the wood. Thus, an old violin with a spruce top that has evenly distributed fine to moderate grain and a back of beautifully flamed maple will tell you that it probably a high quality instrument.
After a rigorous selection process, the wood is carved into two symmetrical plates, the upper and lower bodies, which are carefully tested acoustically. Historically, makers have done this by tapping various parts of the stringed instrument’s plates (the front and back of the soundbox) in order to determine how to best regulate the plates during construction and modification. As the pattern must be very exact, final adjustments are made by a very skilled craftsman, one who knows how each subtlety in the patterns will affect the final sound of the stringed instrument. Ultimately, the goal is to bring out the best in the wood, to evaluate and adjust each other part of the instrument so that all parts work in concert with the whole for a better, purer, more powerful sound production. The end result is an artistic work of art with a unique history, voice, and character all its own.
At Music and Arts, the crasftsmanship behind all our stringed instruments follow the same tedious tradition of excellence in woodworking. Our master luthiers select high quality tonewoods, including highly sought-after spruce from the Northern European region, which are then carefully hand crafted them into the violins, violas, cellos, and basses that we proudly offer to you to as a companion with whom to share your musical journey.
Hopefully, this brief guide has provided you with a little more insight and appreciation of the work and detail that go into making your particular instrument special. If you have further questions or are interested in learning more, as always, feel free to stop in at your local Music and Arts and chat. And stay tuned for next month’s post, where we will turn our attention to the value of a good varnish. Until then, Happy Playing!
Angeline De Leon
Music and Arts Itasca