Building a Violin
Retrieved from Get Up! And DIY (http://gdiy.com)
Introduction [ edit this section ]

  The art of violin making is a very precise talent.  A casual observer would say that there is not a whole lot of variation from one violin to another, but each has it's unique characteristics.  Each little change in style and building technique can greatly affect the final sound of the piece.  Changing the basic design too drastically can ruin the result, but there is a lot of room for artistry and character when building one. 

  My Dad studied Violin making in Italy.  For the last 30 years he has made a business out of it from his home workshop.  I started working with him a few years ago and since then I have made several instruments.  This project is a rough overview of all the steps of the process for building a violin using standard traditional tools of the trade.  A person who is good at the process can build one in about a month, but that is assuming we have all the materials and tools ready to go.  Custom designs or reproductions of specific violins can take significantly longer.

Tools and Materials
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  • Wood
    You'll need some special pieces of wood for the front and back of the violin.  Typically the back, sides and neck are made of maple planks from a special cut of the tree that creates a wavy flame-like pattern that looks amazing when it gets some varnish on it.
    The top of the violin is traditionally made from spruce. With this piece you are looking for tight evenly spaced grain.
     
  • Hot Iron
    This is a specially shaped piece of iron that is used for shaping the thin strips of wood for the sides of the violin.  It is clamped into a bench vise while you push the strips of wood around it for the specific shape that you want.
     
  • Chisels
    Used for general shaping of the wood that makes up all the special pieces of a finished violin.  Generally used in the initial stages of shaping.
     
  • Clamps
    There are several specialized clamps used for making violins.  Normal clamps from the hardware store are good for certain parts of the process, but special ones are used for things like clamping the front and back plates against the rib structure.
     
  • Planers
    Very small planers known as thumb planes are used for violin making.  They are used to carve out the back and front plates of the violin.
     
  • Miter Saw
    The miter saw is used to cut a wedge into the top of the violin body.  This wedge cutout is where the neck will fit into.
     
  • Dial Gauge
    Shows the thickness of any particular point along the front and back plate.
     
  • Contra-Form
    The contra-form is basically a sheet of plywood with the shape of the body of the instrument cut out. Around the perimeter small blocks or pegs are glued to hold the top and back in place when they are being shaped. The cut out can be used for the form listed below.
     
  • Form
    The form is just a piece of plywood in the shape of the violin that is used to glue in the corner blocks and form the ribs around.
     
  • Glue
    The only thing that holds all the pieces of wood together on a violin is the glue.  We use Tite-Bond white wood glue.
     
  • Specialized hardware.  There are certain things on a violin that most workshops don't make on their own.  This includes things like the chin rest, fine tuners, strings and the bridge.

In order to start a design you will first have to create/acquire a form.  This is a flat piece of plywood roughly 3/4 inches that represents the shape of the violin.  The corner blocks will be clamped against it and the ribs made to fit aroud this form.

The Form can be created from a template which is available from many online sources.  Some forms are copied directly from the original which was made hundreds of years ago by historically famous artists of the trade.  In either case you end up with a violin shape for the template.  After cutting around the outline you will cut squares out of the corners of the form.  These will hold custom blocks inserted at the corners of the violin. Holes or slots( pictured above) need to be cut across from the blocks to allow for clamps.  These blocks will be lightly glued to the form because the form will eventually be removed. Once the block cutouts are made you can trace out the precise shape that you need for the corner blocks.  This will give you a template for forming the blocks.

Next is to cut out the corner blocks and glue them to the form.  Take the template you made from the original drawing and draw the outline from a small piece of wood for each block.  There will typically be four corner blocks as well as a neck and base block.  Once these are cut to the general shape lightly glue them to the form and clamp them in place.

When the clamps are taken off you can start cutting out the final shape of the corner blocks.  Use your template to make sure you have the right outline drawn onto the blocks.  Shape the template with whittling knives, chisels and rasps until your block fits the precise shape of your original template. Keep checking the shape against the template.

Ribs - the sides of the violin
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The sides of the violin are called the ribs.  These are thin pieces of wood which will be shaped to the contours of the Form and glued into the corner blocks.  In order to shape these thin planks you need to slowly push them against a hot iron.  The traditional iron is heated over a stove then clamped into a bench vise while it's hot.  There are also electric irons which serve the same purpose without the need to use a secondary heat source. 

As you continue to get the rib shapes completed you insert them into each of the blocks and clamp them in place. It is always a good idea to do a dry fit before adding glue.  There are multiple ways to get them clamped in place. One way is to make blocks that fit the curve of the corner, top and bottom blocks and sandwich the rib in between the form blocks and the ones you have made for clamping. Once all the ribs are in place and the clamps removed trim up the ribs on the corners to a nice point. You will also need to plane down the ribs to the height of the blocks on both sides.

 Once the ribs are planed to the desired height you flip the form over so you're looking at what will be the back side of the violin.  Along the inside edge of the ribs you apply a strip of wood called the lining. This piece is made just like the ribs and will fit on the inside of the ribs snuggly between the blocks. On the outside it is planed flush with the ribs. On the inside it will be taperd down to meet the rib. This lining will create a more solid surface onto which the back can be glued. The same process will be done on the top after form is removed.

Now it is time to move on to the back side of the violin.  The front and back both have a rounded surface like a hill.  Some people think that these contours are shaped by heating the wood up and bending it around a mold, like the ribs, but this is not true.  Instead, the back and front pieces are carefully carved out to the desired shape.  Most of the work is done by hand using the same tools that were used hundreds of years ago.

The first thing you need to do in order to start on the back side is to find planks of wood with the right characteristics.  There are certain cuts of the maple tree which have a wavy pattern in it called a flame.  This pattern turns shimmery and vibrant when the varnish is applied.  This type of pattern has come to be expected in violins.  It is not so easy to come by though.  Only about 1 out of 300 planks of maple wood will have this sort of pattern in it.  I suggest you try sifting through the lumber yard supplies first.  Buying the necessary maple in this way can be as cheap as 10 dollars.  If you try to buy pieces like this from a specialty distributor of violin supplies, then you're going to end up paying a considerable amount more for them.

 

Once the pieces are chosen, they need to be assembled. You can use one solid piece or two pieces that are matchbooked and glued together. If you are useing two pieces you need to make sure you have good joint, glue and wait until it is dry.

The outline of the back and front are typically about 2.5mm larger than the outline of the ribs which are currently around the form.  To get the outline place the form with the ribs on the back, makeing sure that you center it with the joint on your back, and trace around the ribs at a distance of 2.5mm.  The outline is drawn onto the plane which will face the inside of the violin.  As you can see below, some people use a button to get the correct spacing for the outline.  As long as it is roughly 2.5mm it will be OK.  Once you get the outline traced out, cut it out. Now its time to start forming the curv that will be the ouside of the back.

 To accomplish this,  violin artists typically use a set of very small hand planers like the ones below.  To help keep the piece in place you can brace it against a bench dog which is a metal pin placed into the work table.  Start carving out the shape of the contours like this until you get the desired thickness.  Make sure to keep a even thickness all the way around the border.

  

To get more stability you can clamp the piece against the bench dog using a bench vise. Once the carving on the back plane is complete smooth it out with scrapers and sandpaper. Now it is time to flip the back over and start carving out the inside of the back. Be sure to leave a surface all around the outside for the blocks and the ribs to glue on to.The thickness will depend on your design and it varies from about 4.5mm at the center to about 2.5mm at the edges. This is a good time to use the jig you made erlier.The hole on the inside of the jig is shaped so that only the edges of the piece sit against the jig while the curved shape is allowed to hang down. 

Now it is time to glue the back to the ribs.In dry climates such as Minnesota we use a weaker, watered down version of the strong glue for this step.  This is so that if the wood expands and contracts too much with the changing environment then the ribs can actually separate from the front or back.  Otherwise the front, back or ribs of the violin could crack with the pressure.  It's much easier to re-glue the joints than replace a rib or repair a crack in a back or top. Take a brush and put the glue on the rib edge and then glue the back to the ribs. Be very carefule when clamping because it is very easy to crack a rib from to much preasure.

 

 

Front - also called the top, table or soundboard
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Now it is time to close up the violin.  First you need to take the form out.  To accomplish this you need to very gently tap the blocks with a small hammer.  This dislodges the glue between the blocks and the mould.  Tapping too hard could crack the rib structure or one of the blocks so this is a very deleciate step in the process.

Create the linings as we did on the back side.  Cut each strip of lining to the length of each rib segment, then shape it with the hot iron to align it to the curve of the ribs.  Glue each lining to the ribs so that they are flush with the top.  Allow the glue to dry.

Next you need to to shape the blocks.  This will further decrease the weight of the instrument and leave a smooth surface to the insides to prevent any unwanted reverberations.  Use a chisel to cut down the blocks then sand them smooth.  Below you can see the difference between what the block looks like initially when it's in the form, and what it looks like with the linings in place after being sanded down.

Apply glue to the inside plane of the front plate where the ribs will fit against it.  The process is the same as what we did for gluing the back plate onto the ribs.  Fit the front onto the ribs and clamp it in place to allow the glue to dry.

 

While the back is made of maple, the front is commonly made of spruce which is softer.  Carving out the shape of the front is much like the process for the back so I won't repeat that portion. 

There are a few special steps to be taken for the front as compared to the back.  One of these is the f-holes, or sound holes.  They are called f-holes because they are shaped like a cursive f.  These allow the sound to come out of the violin.  The shape and length can affect the final sound of the violin.  The wood between the two f-holes moves more easily than the rest of the body.  This creates a resonance around 300Hz.

The f-holes are cut out of the front piece once all the carving and gouging is complete.  The shape is drawn onto the face using a template.  The holes at each end of the f-hole are drilled first then a scroll saw blade is inserted into these holes and the shape is cut out.  Rasps and files are used to finish off the shape, then a v-shaped file or a small knife is used to carve out the details at the middle point.

 

There is a length of wood which lays against the inside face.  This is called the Bass Bar.  It acts as a reinforcing element which strengthens the front plate.  It helps propogate the low frequency sounds from the strings to the body of the violin.  It lies under the area where the G string, or the lowest frequency string, will be attached.  It also allows the maker to retune the violin to the proper resonance.  It is made of a strong, lightweight piece of spruce wood.  It should be perfectly split from quarter sawn spruce so there is no grain run out along its length.  If the grain does not follow the whole length of the bass bar then a crack will eventually form where the grain exits the wood.  Here are some dimensions:

  • Length: It is suggested that the length does not need to exceed 270mm.
  • Width: about 5mm
  • Height: 10 to 12mm at the middle to about 3mm towards the ends then tapering flat according to the contours of the violin.

All these measurements are adjusted when building the bass bar according to the specific acoustic requirements desired for the piece.

 On the front and back face of the violin you will see a line running along the inside close to the edge.  This is an inlay of Purfling.  Purfling is a material which is made up of multiple layers of wood of different colors, typically willow and bass wood.  The layers are all sandwiched together and sold as strips. 

The outer edge of the violin needs to be finished off with a file and sanded down smooth before you can start applying purfling.  This gives a good edge to run the cutter against.  Two lines are drawn along the margin which idicates the two outer edges of the inlay.  After drawing the two lines the cutter is pulled along these two lines which will help to cut a wedge in which the purfling will lay. After cutting these lines a small gouge or purfling pick is used to finish out the purfling channel. 

The purfling strips are heated against the iron used for the ribs.  Heat them until they are shaped to fit into the area of the channel they will be inserted into.  The individual pieces of purfling come together at the corners of the voilin to form a v shape.  This is called the Bee Sting.  They must be carefully attached to eachother to form a mitre joint where they come together.  Glue is applied to the channel then the purfling is pressed into place.  Tap it into place with a light hammer to ensure a good fit.  When the glue has dried the final touches can be applied to the purfling.  A gouge is run along the purfling to cut it down a bit.  This will give the violin a raised edge along the outside of the purfling.  The inside edge will be sanded smoth until it is level with the rest of the face.

 

The neck is where most of the artistic flare is visible on a violin.  Given the beautiful scrollwork that most violins have, this piece will take a lot of effort to create and is arguably the most eye-catching feature of the violin as a whole. 

There are several parts to the neck:

  • Peg box
    This is where the pegs are inserted for tuning the violin strings.
     
  • Fingerboard
    A strip of wood along the length of the neck.  The player presses the strings against the fingerboard to change the pitch of the instrument.
     
  • Scroll
    The intricately hand carved decorative piece at the top.
     
  • Neck Block
    This is what will be glued against the body of the violin

 The neck starts with a roughly shaped block of maple which only hints at the final result.  Initial holes are drilled where the pegs will fit into.  Small holes are drilled into the scroll area which help the maker know how deep to cut when carving.

The scroll design is roughed out using chisels and carving knives.  The peg box is cut out to the desired depth, also using chisels.  The neck is shaped using files and sandpaper until a smooth slope is developed on the underside.  The top of the neck is left flat for the fingerboard to be put in place.  Grooves are added along the outer curve of the scroll.  Once everything is carved to shape the entire piece is sanded smooth and ready for finishing.

The fingerboard is made of ebony.  Typically you buy a fingerboard roughly shaped to the appropriate dimensions of the piece.  It is then shaped to the final design using planes and sandpaper.

The neck block is the part which fits against the body of the violin.  The neck block support is part of the back plate and can be seen below as a small tab that sticks out of the top of the violin body.  This will help secure the neck in place. 

Precise measurements must be taken both at the neck block and on the body where the neck will fit into.  A fine tooth hand saw is used to cut the outline into the front and ribs of the body where the neck block will sit.  A chisel is then used to remove the material inside this outline. 

The neck block is cut down using a mitre saw then shaped with a hand plane until it is the exact size of the area that was cleared on the body.  During the cutting process the neck is constantly tested against the body to ensure that the cuts are deep enough and to the correct dimensions and shape. 

 

Once the pieces are judged to be the correct fit they are glued together and clamped in place for drying.

After the glue dries the neck button can be shaped.  This is the semi-circle shape at the base of the neck that protrudes out of the body.  It is shaped using knives, chisels and rasps.  A template and caliper are used to check the dimensions and shape of the neck.  Final adjustments are made according the the fit of the template against the neck.

 

After all the pieces are fit together you look over the entire piece for touch-ups.  The edges on the perimeter of the front and back are rounded over with a file to give a soft, smooth outline.  The edges are further smoothed with sandpaper of increasingly fine grades.  You can use a thin piece of cork backing material against the sandpaper to get around all the curved areas.

Once these touch-ups are complete the violin is considered to be "in the white" which means all white wood underneath the surface has been exposed.  The violin must now sit exposed to the air and sunlight for a period of at least a few days to take away all the whiteness of the freshly cut wood.  The fresh wood gets tanned through exposure to sunlight and the open air will slightly darken the wood surface through oxidation.  This effect will amplify the appearance of the grains and texture of the wood that was so carefully chosen for the piece.

After letting the piece air out we can move on to finishing.  There are typically about 12 to 13 thin coats of finish applied and numerous recipes and methods of application.  Here are the main components of the finishing process:

Ground Coat

The first coat is called the ground coat.   This coat is important to the sound of the violin as well as the durability of the finishing layers of varnish.  It also creates a strong layer at the surface which prevents the varnish from soaking into the wood.  It can be bought from violin supply stores, or made on your own.  A traditional ground coat called "Vernice Bianca" is still used by many today.  It is composed of gum arabic, honey and egg white.  Another one is propolis soap which is made from propolis from a bee hive, denatured alcohol, alum and potassium hydroxide. 

Varnish

After applying the ground coat you apply the varnish.  There are many varnish recipes used by various workshops and methods.  The most common is Terpene varnish which is made with turpentine and linseed oil.  Another recipe uses walnut oil combined with an amber resin.  More recipes can be found in the links below.

Dyes

Dyes are used to give color to the finish.  Some makers don't use any dye, but prefer the natural color of the varnish and wood to come out.  Some varnishes have a good color on their own.  The dye material used depends on the color desired.  The dye material is dissolved in alcohol and added to the varnish.  If using a dye, the varnish is made slightly thicker than usual to account for the alcohol used to make the dye.  Here are some natural dyes used today:

  • Yellow dyes:
    • Saffron
    • Kamala
    • Tumeric
    • Aloe
  • Brown dyes: 
    • Catechu
    • Ashphalt
    • Guaiac resin
  • Red dyes: 
    • Sandalwood
    • Pernambucco
    • Madder root

After the ground coat is applied, the dye is mixed into the varnish if desired.  The varnish is brushed on with a soft-bristled paint brush.  Standard varnishing techniques apply here.  Use smooth vertical brush strokes to prevent brush marks from developing.  The varnished vioilin is then set in the sun to dry.  After all the layers of varnish are applied, an abrasive pad is used to remove any remaining brush strokes.

Once the varnishing is complete the violin is polished with a soft felt cloth.  The cloth is dipped into a 50/50 mix of mineral spirits and alcohol and smoothed over the surface of the violin.  A commercial rubbing compound can also be used.  Even, continuous strokes of the cloth will prevent an uneven finish from developing.

 

Hardware to finish it off
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The final stage to finishing a violin is to attach all the necessary hardware.  Usually these pieces are bought straight from suppliers of such things and just attached to the violin.  Here are the necessary pieces of hardware used on a violin:

  • Pegs

     
  • Chinrest

     
  • Tailpiece

     
  • Sound Post
    You can see a sound post easily through the f-hole.

     
  • Strings

     
  • Bridge

     
  • Tuners

     
  • Tailgut (often included in the tailpiece)

 

Once all these pieces are attached the violin is complete.  All you need to do now is learn how to play (not described here).

All about violins:
Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violin
Violin acoustics: an introduction - www.phys.unsw.edu.au/jw/violintro.html
Setup and adjustment of your violin: www.josephcurtinstudios.com/about/setup.htm
Hans Nikolaos Pluhar violins: www.pluhar.com

Other How-To pages:
Hans Nikolaos Pluhar's progress page: www.hanspluhar.com/bergonzi_progress.html
Stages in Violin Making by Hand: www.violins.demon.co.uk/making/index.htm

The violin site: www.theviolinsite.com/violin_making/

Where to buy Materials:
Hardware: www.violins.ca/fittings/index.html
Hardware: www.violincompany.co.uk/violinparts.php
Hardware: www.playbetterbluegrass.com/violin_parts_198_ctg.htm
Maple: www.curlymaplewood.com/
Varnish supplies: www.violins.ca/varnish/violin_varnish_gums_resins_dyes.html
Strings: www.violins.ca/strings/index.html
Cases: www.violins.ca/cases/index.html
Bows: www.violins.ca/bows/index.html

Violin Galleries:
Guesset:www.gussetviolins.com/gallery.htm
Hans Nikolaos Pluhar: www.hanspluhar.com/instruments.html

Varnishing
Varnish secrets: www.gussetviolins.com/varnish.htm
1704 Variation Violin Varnish Recipe: www.violins.ca/varnish/violin_varnish_recipes.html
Henry Jr Varnishes his Violin: www.henrystrobel.com/violvar.htm
TERPENE VIOLIN VARNISH: www.scavm.com/Fulton.htm
Gianna's varnishing process: www.giannaviolins.com/Information/Varnish.html

Parts of a Violin: 
General Diagram: www.the-violin-guide.com/violin-parts.html
General Diagram: musiced.about.com/od/beginnersguide/a/vparts.htm

Sound post:
What is a sound post: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_post
How to set a sound post: www.violins.on.ca/luthier/soundpost.html

Bass Bars:
History: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bass_bar
Design: www.vmaai.com/bassbar2.htm
Design: www.violins.demon.co.uk/making/bassbar.htm
Fitting a new bass bar: www.maestronet.com/m_library/maestro_mag/bass_bars.cfm

Bows:
How to build a violin bow: www.diynetwork.com/videos/crafting-a-violin-bow-blank/6412.html

Bridges:
All about bridges: www.violinbridges.co.uk/

 

Where to buy a violin:
Sales by various artists and owners: www.maestronet.com/index.cfm
Buyers Guide to Student Violinswww.violins.demon.co.uk/studentguide.htm
Gianna violins: www.giannaviolins.com/index.html
Luscombe violins: www.violins.ca/instruments/violins/violins.html
Mark Edwards: www.markedwardsviolins.com/site1/node/16
The Violin Company: www.violincompany.co.uk/newviolins.htm

 

 

 

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