How Is a Violin Made?

by Cheryl Macomber, violinmaker

Since the violin is such a beautiful instrument with such amazing properties in tone and texture, and which can be played in so many ways, producing a great variety of sounds, I thought I would briefly summarize the intricate makings of the violin. The violin is a very complex, scientific arrangement with great flexibility and elasticity, and with great response to the performer.

Because getting the right instrument is very important in the violinist’s life, and because the instrument is so amazing in how it responds and how it can be played, I hope the following pages will give a glimpse into how the violin is made.  

Let us visit Albert Muller’s Violin Shop and find out!

Polishing Violin  

Mr. Muller is a master craftsman violin maker who lives in Sacramento, California. He has dedicated the past 60 years of his life to producing violins in the tone and beauty of violins of Guarnerius, Stradivarius, and Amati.

As a young boy, he watched as his grandfather and uncle carved and repaired violins in their San Francisco shop. His grandfather taught him to play the violin, and his uncle began to teach him basic woodworking techniques.

By the time he was eighteen, he was apprenticing with Louis Prince Rare Violins in San Francisco, where he repaired and restored many instruments of the leading concert artists.

Mr. Muller has two Stradivari model patterns (1721 and 1724), two Guarnieri, and an Amati viola model pattern, after which he builds his instruments. As a master craftsman, he not only has the technical knowledge, but the experience and ability to create very fine instruments.

    First, Mr. Muller chooses the very best wedge or slab of maple, pine, or spruce. He keenly judges the piece of wood for its grade, age, grain, and flame (decorative cross grain; curl or wave in the wood).   Violin Wood Selection
Violin Sculpting   Then he carefully sculptures the front and back of the violin from the wood into the shape of a violin. He does not press or mold the wood, but carves it out by hand with special tools. The only exception is the sides, which are bent by dry heat.    
    He uses knives, scrapers, and planes, fashioning first the outside curves and ridges and then the inside.   Violin Making tools
Violin Gradation   To achieve the proper sound chamber, the gradation of the front and back of the violin must be very precise. This is learned through years of experience.    
    Then he selects the proper mold to which he bends and reinforces the strips of maple which form the sides of the violin.
The glue used to put the violin together is made from rabbit hide.
  Violin Molds
Violin Necks   The scroll and the neck of the violin are also carved out from one piece of wood.    
Varnished Violins   After the violin is all put together, it is time to apply a special varnish. Mr. Muller uses an old formula made from special linseed oil, which has been carefully boiled and mixed with colors. It is then applied in 8 to 10 coats.
The varnish is very important. It must be pliable so that the instrument vibrates with the sound. The depth of the color and transparency associated with bringing out the flame of the wood is important for the sound and beauty of the violin.
Mr. Muller uses an oil varnish rather than a spirit varnish, because the oil varnish works together and vibrates with the instrument. A spirit varnish becomes hard and brittle and encases the instrument rather than vibrating with it.
  Violin Flame
Violin Amber   This picture shows Mr. Muller holding amber, which he mixes with linseed oil to cause it to harden. He also uses indigo and gamboage to color the varnish.    
    The master violin maker never uses sandpaper on the violin to prepare it for varnish. Sandpaper would tear the fibers of the wood. He just very carefully carves it and then uses fine scrapers to polish it!   Examing Violin
Violin Tuning Pegs   The tuning pegs of the violin are also carved out and varnished.    
Soundbox process   The master craftsman fashions the violin from a piece of wood in approximately 150 hours.   Violin Making
Bows   The best violin bows are carved from Pernambuco wood, an Amazonian timber chosen for its strength and resilience. After it is properly formed, it is heated and then bent over the knee of the maker. The nut is made from ebony and sometimes ivory or tortoise shell, and silver or gold mounted.    
    The hair of the bow is taken from shanks of horse hair. The hair is carefully chosen and counted out.   Hair