After the Covid-Pandemic which forced the Passion 2020 to be moved to 2022 this traditional musical highlight is being held again right now from May until October in Oberammergau. The whole town is engaged in the event and I am very happy and proud that Pia Janner-Horn as a member of the orchestra is playing a viola of mine. She kindly shared some photos taken during a rehearsal.
In ancient times harvesting wood was a labourious job requiring skill and man power. Mainly done in winter times when the trees carry the least amount of sap- hard work in cold weather!
Once cut, the trees needed to be taken out of the forest and transported to places where they would be processes further. Specially trained horses where often used. For sometimes long distances to a saw mill- waterways were used floating the trees. A number of trees could be tied together to “rafts”, highly skilled rafters would guide their “boats” along the way, a dangerous and difficult work.
The trees would be submerged in water for quite some time and undeniably this would have an effect on the wood. One theory trying to explain the superiour sound qualities of cremonese instruments points towards the “ponding” of tonewood.
I am curious to find out what happens if I leave maple wood under water for a longer period of time. From talking to colleagues who have experience with it I expect to lower the density a bit, maybe gain some colour which would make the varnishing a more delightful process. I also hope for a better stability towards humidity changes since the wood underwent wetting and a thorough drying cycle.
I acquired a barrel and stacked pieces of maple which had a slightly higher density. Recording the density of each piece I will check again once it has undergone the whole process. Filling the cask with water and pushing the upcoming wood down with a heavy weight, sealing it with a tight lid and back to the bench…
Having enough and high quality wood in stock is a good feeling for a violin maker. It is this material we work with and we depend on for excellent results-tonally as well as visually.
For spruce I did travel to South Tyrol a few years ago to buy some wonderful spruce growing in this mountanious region cut by experienced wood-fellers.
Maple is in my opinion more difficult to find, I´m looking for Bosnian maple with medium flame and the density I like. Being close to Mittenwald with a few places offering tonewood I did not find spectacular pieces recently.
A few days ago I had a wood dealer visiting, he had some very good maple for sale. I have bought enough to last for a few years.
Recently I´ve built an instrument shipping box in this case for a viola which I sent to the US for a competition. I wanted to make sure it is a very stable package since I didn´t want to take down the bridge and leave the soundpost in. The second thought was to make the package easy to open and repack for the person who would receive the instrument and later send the shipment back to me. Weight is always an issue when it comes to shipping expenses so I tried to keep the weight down.
Polystyrene seemed to be the ideal material- light, easy to work with and resistant to compression. The Polystyrene came in sheets from a hardware store and I found a good cardboard box with dimensions where I could stack 4 layers of Polystyrene on top of each other with the middle two having the cut out for the case.
The first step was to draw the outline of my case onto two of the sheets.
Then I used a bandsaw to cut out the shape.
I stacked four layers into the cardboard box, one full sheet of Polysterene on the bottom, two with the viola case cut out on top and the upmost layer being a full sheet yet again.
To my disappointment I ended up with a weight over 5 kg which is a limit for price level of international parcels in Germany. The material cost for the Polystyrene and the box was ok. I also liked the simplicity of the packing without having a bubble wrap chaos. The viola case was packed snugly and had no chance to move around much during transport which is good. If one intends to use the box more than once I think it´s an worthy investment in time and money.
During a holiday in Östgöterland-Sweden I took the opportunity to visit a blacksmith in Motala. That time I was looking for a special tool, a socalled “Löffelbohrer” which is great to shape the underside of bow wedges with one sharp cut. Not being able to find this tool anywhere else I went there to ask for it. They knew exactly what I was looking for but didn´t have any in stock, so I placed an order and went back there at my next trip to Sweden to pick it up. Aside the Löffelbohrer I requested them to make an inchannel gouge for cutting down corner blocks with my desired radius and also a large gouge to roughly shape archings and hollow out plates.
During the second visit my partner Ingo took some photos and we got to see the guys at work which was a great experience, really hot metal working craft!
The company is a family business and we were heartily welcomed. Their enthusiasm and experience came apparent when we talked to them and watched them work.
The tools they made are wonderful! Exactly what I was hoping for, good steel, nicely made handles, great service.
Here´s the link to their website: http://www.klensmide.se
A few impressions from their workshop:
Two large presses used to forge the iron into shape, the machine on the left is from the 1920´s.
Detail shot of the press.
Various tongs- elongation of the craftsmens hand, their connection to the hot iron.
A fire burning local coal for heating up the iron.
Fine woodworking gouges waiting for their handles.
My latest violin received a very special treat this summer by a fantastic french wood carver who kindly put his skilled hands to it during the Oberlin violin makers workshop in Oberlin, Ohio.
Olivier, who is a fine wood carver working at Bois d´Harmonie in France first drew up the design and than carefully decorated the finished ebony crown.
A violin is made up of various parts and the stuff which holds them all together is animal glue.
There is a long tradition for this kind of glue. The first and earliest finds of pieces of furniture glued with animal glue and descriptions of how to glue pieces of wood with animal glue date back to 1400 B.C Egypt. Greek philosophers wrote about the preparation and use of this glue (e.g Homer towards the end of the 8th century B.C). Also the Romans knew about the techniques and practices. The Middleages left us manuscripts dealing with the making and useage of various animal glues (11/12th century)
For violin making and restoration the material is absolutely perfect and indispensable with any modern type of glue. The biggest advantage is its reversibility- once the glue is dry and set it can always be returned to gel with water. In practice it means you can for example reopen an old crack if necessary e.g when it became dirty with time or was not glued level. For glueing the back and front to the ribs a weaker kind or more diluted glue is used to ensure the instrument can be reopened for repair or more vital the plates can pop up at the seams when shrinkage of the plates occurs during the drier seasons of the year- this loosens tension in the wood and avoids the energy built up releasing in a crack further in the plate (dry-crack). Animal glue fairly colourless which is good for glueing cracks invisibly and it does not creep with time.
The strength of animal glues is very good too. Different kinds of glues are available and it´s strenght can easily be manipulated by how much it is diluted with water. Types of animal glue are Bone glue (made e.g from Cattle bone), Skin glue (e.g from Cattle-skin), Rabbit glue (made of rabbit skin), fish glue (fish skin) and techical gelatine (made of cattle skin and comparing well to gelatine from the food industry).
Glue in granular form is soaked with water for 1-2 hours or even overnight, heated up to about 65C, taken out the water bath to cool once and than reheated for ideal strength. I store the glue in the fridge if not used to make it last longer and not getting mouldy- it is a natural material after all. It is liquid when warm and sets when cold.
The process from raw material to the glue-granulate we use takes about 90 to 100 days. The animal parts are being cleaned, cooked and degreased, cooking releases the collagen from bone or skin into the cooking water. Filtering, steaming down and drying brings it into the customary form.
The secret of the glue are the extremely though fibres of the collagen. Collagen is protein found in human and animal fascia. Our cartilage, skin, tendons and ligaments are mainly consisting of collagen.
One “measure” for sorting animal glue is the so called Bloom number. According to Dr. Kremer (www.Kremer-Pigmente.de) the bloom number is defined by the flexibility of the glue. The granulate is cooked up with a certain glue to water ratio and poured into a plastic cube of a set volume. Once cooled and gelled the glue-cube is taken out and set under pressure with a metal ball pressing down on the cube until it starts to tear/disrupt. This measured pressure is the Bloom number. The higher the bloom number the more flexible the glue. A flexible glue can be good e.g for glueing a patch in a repair- since the glue bond between original wood and the new wood is constantly vibrating when an instrument is being played.
Glue adhesiveness is greatly affected by its fat content. Less fat means a better bond.
I like to use Körnerhautleim in Würfeln (cattle-skin granulate) and a new Kremer product Rabbit skin glue for stronger bonds.
Here are some photos to show what the granulate can look like before it is soaked in water and cooked up and a picture of the prepared glue ready to use. (First picture: cattle-skin glue on the right and a japanese glue Harima S1, very light in colour on the left)
Violinist and violin have a close relationship. Although the player seems to age faster, the violin does too!
One part of the instrument which is unwillingly shaped and worn through the decades of use is the button.
The button is part of the maple back being left as an attachment to the upper curve of the outline to reinforce and hold the neck in place. Original cremonese well preserved buttons are rare to find, mostly the details and initial shape have been rounded off and smoothed out or in many other cases an ebony crown has been fitted.
Installing an ebony crown can become a necessity if the button is too small and/or too low. The hight of the button determines the shape of the neck root and if too low neck heel strength may be affected or the look becomes an issue. I quite like the look of a nicely shaped ebony crown but the drawaback always is that original wood has to be removed through the process.
For my new instruments I don´t have any conflict with removing original wood, my crowns are part of the antiquing.
I would like to show a few photos of how an ebony crown is made and also some pictures of original Stradivari buttons with wear and with a crown.
Here is a slightly worn Stradivari button. You can still see the decorative comma cuts on the left and right where the button and the outline come together. The shape is completely rounded away and smoothed over the centuries.
This is an early Stradivari button on a violin from 1683.
Note how large the maple part still is and how off-centre the centre joint sits. Todays restorers probably would have tried to save an original button in this condition
Making a button crown starts with a piece of ebony about 6mm thick, I use a forstner drill bit to drill a hole on the pillow drill.
Here you can see the crown fitted to a violin of mine.
Since I fit the neck after varnishing the neck is still rough and slightly large to be reshaped after the crown is installed.
This is the same crown from above.
Since I´m not only making instruments but also playing violin I´m always seeking ways on how to improve my technique and tone.
Working with my teacher on the ease and quietness of slides from one position to another she recently suggested to cover the left thumb with something soft and smooth which could help reducing the slight tension between thumb and the violins´ neck and getting a feel for a smoother shift. She made me try with a glove, wearing only the thumb part having the rest hanging aside. It felt good and worked quite well. To get rid of the four useless fingers of the glove I didn´t want to destroy my glove but decided to knit a little thumb-cover for practising.
I can only recommend to try this!
Tool marks left by the old masters are always fascinating to me and I keep looking for them trying to interpret the type of tool which created them, the way of handling it (direction and depth of the cuts for example) which may at the end give me a clue about the overall working method.
On this Stradivari violin from the makers golden period some interesting scratches can be seen, mainly on the pegbox walls. My assumption is that they are the result of a very strong and agressive abrasive, possibly sharkskin.
For a while now I have been useing dried skarkskin on my own work, experimenting how deep the marks need to be in the white wood to be still apparent after the whole varnishing process. Most of the scratches disappear during wetting and scarping the wood- the first step which is done to the raw wood in order to let it swell up, raising the grain a few times before putting the ground and varnish on to have better control over the final surface texture.
If you´re interested in how sharkskin can be prepared from fish to finish please visit this blog by Charline Dequincey, a colleague in Canada who presents a detailed photo essay on the subject. Shark skin