Some points on purfling

Purfling is the name of the black and white inlay which was traditionally used by most classical instrument makers. Besides its decorative appeal it also protects the plates. By running across the grain at the top and bottom end it can stop a hard impact to the instruments edge from traveling forward into the plate along the grain line as a crack.

Historical purfling shows a wide variety in material, width and coloration.

Different species of woods can be found, maple, pear, poplar, walnut, beech, spindle wood, boxwood, ebony etc. The Dutch tradition was to use whalebone. Makers of the Naples school have often used paper- the city was big in paper manufacturing at that time. Occasionally you see purfling being only scratched in and filled with black ink, the Testore family comes to my mind- it saves time. Stradivari has used poplar for the white middle section and black stained pear wood for the dark sides. The material of choice has an effect on the final look but also on the usability, as the strips are bent into shape like the ribs on a hot bending iron it is nice to work with a flexible material. Ebony for example being brittle makes bending a big challenge and once it is bent and set in it gives a very stiff look to the lines and a strong look for its inherent blackness- ebony was traditionally used by some French makers.

Purfling is commercially available in various materials and thicknesses but I prefer to make my own as to me it looks more authentic. My method is to cut up a thin poplar strip on a bandsaw, plane it down to the desired thickness- this makes the white part. For the black sides I stain pear strips with ferrous sulphate and logwood chips to my desired blackness and glue the strips black-white-black together with hide glue. Once it is dried I cut it up into strips. The width of the black is adjusted at the bench for each individual instrument- I use a scraper and thin the black part down until I like it and/or it fits the model I copy. Thinning them down by hand also adds natural variations in thickness which is most times to be seen in original Stradivari purfling.

martina hawe purfling

The inlay is done by hand, some makers use a purfling dremel to cut the groove. I have made my own purfling cutters, the way they work is historically approved. A hand held shaft with a fixed metal bar which rests against the plates edge- an adjustable steel blade which can be set to the desired distance from the edge and a depth stop to control the cutting depth. I have made two of those cutters, one for each side cut of the purfling groove.

purfling tool

cutting the purfling channel

Once the cuts are made for the groove the wood in between has to be dug out. I have two tools called purfling pic for this task.

Purfling pic

Before marking out the purfling groove on the instruments plates I like to do a pretest. I use a piece of maple to inlay a pice of my purfling. This ensures my purfling cutters are set correctly, I want to avoid having a groove that is too tight or too loose for the purfling material. I also glue size my purfling groove one time to make sure the grain is saturated with glue before I do the real glue job. This is what the test looks like. I also like to keep this as a reference for the next instrument.

glue test

I have chosen some photos of historical purfling just to show you the variation that can be seen.
Guarneri del Gesu 1736
Guarneri Ysaye violin

Two photos above of Guarneri del Gesu violins of 1736 and 1740. Del Gesu purfling typically shows variation in thickness and the material used has a soft look and feel to it- it seems to bow to the slight unevenness in the groove.

Below you can see some purfling samples of the Brescian school, a Gasparo da Salo viola and a Maggini violin. Rather crudely made and inserted- matching the rest of the instrument very well- they have their own charm!

Gasparo da Salo viola
Maggini violin
Finally a corner of a Stradivari violin. Width and colour of the black strip give a strong impression and nicely accentuate the lines of the outline. There is a little mess in the purfling mitre going on, some black filler being used to fill gaps there. Looking at purfling in detail and close up almost exclusively shows imperfections and mistakes- however from a distance the impression is excellent. A little bit like a masters oil painting which doesn´t make sense when you look at the single brush strokes but is magnificent being looked at from a certain distance.

Violin Neck Reinforcement

String instruments are under constant tension and subject to changes.
The forces of the strings pulling the neck forward, their downforce being transfered through the bridge into the body of the instrument, humidity changes generating expansion and shrinkage of the wood in various ways and of course players inducing energy causing the system to vibrate which creates the sound hear.
A weakness in the structure is the point where the neck meets the body which is called the neck root. The modern neck is set into the top block with a dovetail joint, as opposed to being nailed onto the flattened top rib as in the baroque construction method.
The neck itself is stabilised by the ebony fingerboard which in theory, if the wood has been seasoned well and has a decent thickness, should stay the way it is glued on- flat.
The parts which are more likely to bend under tension and humidity changes is the neck heel- the underside of the neck root and the curved endgrain area where the thumb lands in third position, which can result in a slight change of the neck angle which than affects the playability and sound.
This problem is seasonal and usually more dramatic on the cello than on the violin. Still this can happen and in order to prevent that I reinforce my necks with a wooden dowel.
It is firmly glued into a predrilled hole, cut down and at the end covered by the fingerboard. I have been useing this method for a few years now and it seems to help against unwanted changements of the neck angle.
Another area where elevation changes are born is underneath the fingerboard at the point where the spruce front leaves the top block glueing surface rising into the long arch- I carefully work this area when I shape my archings to gain ideal stability there.

Below I include a short photo series to show the simple process of installing a dowel in a violin neck.

The neck root is now ready to receive some extra strength. I have drawn on the angle to show you where the dowel will go. For ease of drilling and to ensure the correct angle I have made a wooden block with a pilot hole which is attached onto the fingerboard surface during drilling. The dowel is of beech and 6mm in diameter.

The guidance block is clamped in place and I am about to drill the hole with my power drill.

The hole is drilled.

I use Titebond as my preferred glue. A hammer is needed to drive the dowel into the tight fitting hole.

Once the dowel is in I cut it down with a gouge, slightly hollow to allow some swelling when it comes in contact with hide glue when the fingerboard is glued on.

My New Bow

Every year in June a group of violin and bow makers from all over the world meet up in Oberlin, Ohio for a two week long summer workshop held by the Violin Society of America, The VSA
Since 2009 I have been a regular participant in the violin making workshop but this year was special to me as I bought myself a new violin bow, made as a group project by the Oberlin bow makers.
The bow makers are a very friendly crowd of highly skilled craftsmen. Aside from doing individual work they build two bows as a group which are then sold to finance some of the workshop expenses.

I have been thinking for a while to buy a new bow for myself and this seemed like a good opportunity,
not only for the expected quality work of these guys but also for the chance to follow up the making process of my own bow which seemed very appealing to me.
And indeed it was a pleasure to see it in the works, talk to the makers, ask questions and get background information on the model- I´m so glad about this to happen and very happy with my bow.

Here are a few photos, thanks to Kaspar Pankow- bow maker at Florian Leonhard´s workshop in London- who was kind enough to send me some pictures of my bow including the individual makers stamps which are now hidden under the silver tinsel winding.

The original bow was made by John Dodd around 1820. Here is some information about this wonderful bow maker:
Tarisio John Dodd

I especially love the elegant simplicity from frog to tip, nicely flowing curves without unnecessary decorative elements.
For the silver tinsel lapping I was allowed to chose colour and pattern and picked a silver-blue lapping- a traditional style used in France arund 1850.

The tip is made of a synthetic material called “Tip Armor” a polymer composite offered as a substitute for the now restricted traditional tip material- elephant ivory. Ivory has been banned from the world market to protect the living elephants by CITES- The Fish and Wildlife service CITES

Traveling musicians with ivory bow tips or frogs are being held by customs in danger of their bows being confiscated and there has not yet been found a solution for this issue.
The overall look of the synthetic tip is not as neat as ivory but it completely fulfills the structural need.

The makers of this wonderful bow are:
Morgan Andersen
Tim Baker
Florian Schneidt
Kaspar Pankow
Steve Salchow
Lauri Tanner
David Forbes
Eben Bodach-Turner
Michael Maurushat


Dodd copy

John Dodd style bow head with typical chamfer

Dodd head Tip Armor

John Dodd style bow head with a synthetic tip

Dodd frog

Oberlin workshop bow 2015

David-Forbes Kaspar-Pankow Steve-Salchow Tim-Baker Morgan-Andersen Florian-Schneidt

Each of the makers stamp is on the stick- now hidden under the silver tinsel lapping

David-Forbes Kaspar-Pankow Steve-Salchow Tim-Baker Morgan-Andersen Florian-Schneidt

David-Forbes Kaspar-Pankow Steve-Salchow Tim-Baker Morgan-Andersen Florian-Schneidt

David-Forbes Kaspar-Pankow Steve-Salchow Tim-Baker Morgan-Andersen Florian-Schneidt

A rough start…

Some parts of the violin making process are very delicate and demand attention to the finest detail while other steps are rough work requiring force and sweat.

When it comes down to shaping the front and back plates of an instrument you need a good gouge and a steady bench as well as a clear idea in your head regarding the shape you are aiming for. Although this is the first step of working out an arching and still miles away from the finished shape one is laying the foundation of it and the closer you get with the biggest tool you have the more fluent your working process and outcome can be.

To give you an idea about this part of violin making- the rough removal of a lot of wood with my muscle driven gouge I spent some time capturing the stages with my camera. From the piece of wood, fine bosnian maple with great looking figure towards the roughly arched plate that almost looks like a violin back. A rough start towards a good violin.

violin maple back

A beautiful piece of bosnian maple. This is going to be the back for my next violin- a Stradivari model from 1703.

The outline is drawn on to the flat side of the plate, the finished rib structure being the template. I use a bandsaw to roughly cut out the plate. It already looks a little bit like a violin.

notice how thick the plate still is- a lot of wood has to be removed

Notice how thick the plate still is- a lot of wood has to be removed. This is a one piece back. More often backs are jointed from two pieces of wood which have been cut radially out of the tree.

I try to shape the plate as symmetrically and structured as possible to get the shape I aim for

Useing a gouge I try to shape the plate as symmetrically and structured as possible to get closer to the shape I aim for. It takes a lot of experience and a trained eye to know how far to go.

now you can see some kind of an arching, still needs a lot of refinement. The arching is close to its final height and the edges are taken down

Now you can see some kind of an arching though it still needs a lot of refinement. The arching is close to its final height and the edges are taken down. Next to the plate is the tool I work with. This gouge has a nice long handle which enables me to use my body weight to support each stroke. Notice the heap of curly maple shavings which were removed throughout this process.

After cutting through the hard maple it is a pleasure to push the gouge through the spruce being less dense and much softer. Compared to the rock hard back plate it feels like cutting soft butter

After cutting through the hard maple it is a pleasure to push the gouge through the softer spruce. Compared to the rock hard back plate this feels like cutting soft butter.

In no time the spruce top is roughly arched if you have the shape in your head.

In no time the spruce top is roughly arched if you have the shape in your head.

Complexity of corners

I´ve already written about Stradivari corners but it might be of interest how the initial formation of a corner is done.

Instrument corners are mainly a stylistic feature. Like any other part on a violin viola or cello their size and mass will have some acoustc effect but more than that it is the craftsmans pride to create a good looking corner.

To understand the making process we have to start with the “mould”, the foundation for any instrument made in the cremonese tradition. This wooden board is the starting point and already determines the final dimensions of the violin. The shapes of upper-, lower and c-bouts are constructed and fixed in form while you see nothing yet where the corners are going to be.

This is a form used in Antonio Stradivaris workshop- now on display in the Violin Making Museum in Cremona along with many other tools, drawings and artefacts of the most famous workshop in Cremona.


Making a violin with such a form offers variability without compromising the cremonese tradition and proportions. While the maker is forced to bend the ribs around the given shape and curves- freedom lies in the corner areas. Those four small wooden templates you see next to the mould were used to mark out the shapes of the blocks. I will add another picture to explain this.



The little template is drawn from two arcs and is made to fit into the slot of the mould. There are four different templates, two for upper and lower corners and two for the upper and the lower block. This tiny template already sets the idea for the final shape of the corner.

The next step is to cut down the blocks which are all glued to the form to keep them in place while working on the ribstructure.

upper-corner-block Strad-mould-cornerblocks

There the c- bout rib is bent to shape and glued to the block.


The lines of the ribs determine the outline of the instrument which is created by simply drawing around the ribstructure and adding certain “overhang”.

Below you can see the most graceful combination of rib-overhang-outline-corner on a Stradivari violin from around 1700. Such a flow and harmony- excellently executed. To achieve this look, to make everything hang together you need to know from start to finish what you´re aiming for.


Not only the underside but more important the front view of a corner has to work visually including tow more features, the edgework and the purfling. Very nicely done on the same Stradivari violin from the 1700´s.


At the bench

It is time to close the box of my 40th instrument- closing the box in this case means to glue the front onto the ribstructure which is already fixed to the back. For the model I chose to copy a 1703 Stradivari violin which I have made a few times now. With each instrument I change small details, following my eye regarding stylistic features that I think can be made to look more authentic as well as going by intuition about changing the final sonic outcome- working the arching and thicknessing a little differently. Changes that I make from one instrument to the next (within the same model) are always a step by step approach and very small- the cremonese makers output as a whole can be grouped by having been designed and carved strictly following traditional ways and methods, still you see a progress in every makers work during their lifes- gaining experience resulting in small changes while keeping their feet under the cremonese bench.

Here are a few photos I just took, the back upper corner in detail, the left f-hole and how it lies withing the arching and a last look at the inside before glueing it together.




Stradivari Corners

String instruments in daily use are subject to wear- no matter how careful musicians are, accidents happen and 300 years are a long time to stay all fresh and in good shape.
Luckily we have a few prime examples of Cremonese violins, violas and cellos which are still in very mint condition and give contemporary luthiers like me the chance to study them- to see what they looked like before a lot of details were worn away.

One good example for a part of an instrument that is prone to be worn due to its prominent placing is the corner.

Eight of them, important features in an instruments outline and each one gets a slightly different ageing treatment due to their position on the body.
The lower corner of the front on the treble side (right side if you look at it) typically gets worn the most being closest to where the bow passes by.
The upper corner on the same side for example may easily be touched by a pizzicato hand. Spruce being softer than maple also makes them more fragile.
Just pay attention next time you have the chance to look at an old instruments. Notice how different the corners are worn.

The best protected corner usually is the upper one on the back treble side (left side when you face the back).

I would like to show you a few examples of a very fresh, a mint condition and a very used Stradivari corner all from his golden period.

The famous Messiah Stradivari, 1716

A Stradivari corner from around 1700 in very mint condition

A fairly worn upper corner of a golden period Stradivari

For me as a contemporary luthier who does make copies of the old masters instruments, it is highly important to get an idea and a feeling for what an old, worn corner had once looked like when it left the makers workshop.
A fresh corner provides much more information on how the woodwork had been executed- the tools used, the size and angle of the chamfer, the original design of the corner etc. -small details which transport the intention of the maker.
To emulate the wear in a natural way you have to think backwards and it needs patience and practice to catch the right look if you try to make a new corner look like it was in use for 300 years.

Here is the upper back corner of my latest violin, before and after I induced some wear.



And this is a picture of a plastercast showing an original Stradivari corner in good condition. Notice how the flow in the outline is still present although other details are worn away.