Minnesota Woodworking Guild

Volume 130 December 2010-January 2011 

October Meeting:  Violin Maker Lisbeth Nelson Butler
Story by David Mitchell
Photos by Bob Bridigum

The October meeting started with these announcements: 

  • The Show and Tell portion of our monthly meetings is now being expanded to include a display table.  Attendees can bring items of interest to leave on display before and after the meeting.  This will give everyone a better opportunity for a close-up view. 
  • Members are encouraged to bring surplus items like tools, woodworking magazines, etc. to give away at the meeting.
  • One of our members reminded us of the need to be always vigilant when using the tablesaw in order to avoid painful injury.  Keep hands well away from the blade until it has stopped spinning. His personal courage taken to tell his story will hopefully help others avoid an accident.

Lisbeth Nelson Butler then spoke on the design concepts and history of violin making. 

The very first instruments that are considered violins were made sometime between 1530 and 1550. These early instruments could be in daily use even today. A properly cared for instrument does not suffer any permanent damage. The normal wear items on a violin are replaceable.

Andrea Amati is considered the very first violinmaker. Nicolo Amati, Andrea's grandson, is a noted early violinmaker as well. Very few of the Amati violins still survive today. Probably the most recognized of the early violinmakers is Antonio Stradivari. Stradivari did most of his work in the early 1700s, considerably later than the work of Andrea Amati in the mid-1500s. The mid-1700s is considered the end of the golden age of violinmakers.

Stradivari was an industrious luthier. He lived to the age of 93 and made three violins in his last year of life. There are still approximately 600 surviving violins attributed to Antonio Stradivari. A quality collectible instrument made by Stradivari would sell at auction for 4 to 12 million dollars.

There are so many variations on the violin today that the whole class of instruments is referred to as VSO, or violin shaped objects. This includes the violin (sometimes called the fiddle), the viola, the bass violin, the cello and king cello.

As a side note on the various VSOs Lizabeth told us there is sometimes a rivalry between violin and viola musicians.  One joke that violin players tell is this:  Question: What is considered perfect pitch for a viola? Answer: When the viola is tossed into the dumpster without hitting the rim.

The violin is made from natural materials. Sounds vary from instrument to instrument. Different listeners and differing players will disagree on which instruments they would prefer.

Violin construction is a complex process requiring years to learn. Lisbeth briefly described the overall sequence of construction. The process begins with a base-form that defines the shape. The side ribs are then bent around the form. The front and back are shaped and mounted to the side ribs after removal from the form. There is a sound post that sits in the center of the violin, and is placed through the f-holes on the face.

The face and back are shaped and planed to an approximate 3 mm thickness. The front supports the strings, which are stretched creating approximately 25 pounds of force on the thin face.

The overall shape and size of a violin are standardized. You can vary either when you make your own instrument, but it will not find a ready market unless it is recognizable as a classic violin form.

The selection of wood used for violins is important. The back, sides, neck and scroll are maple; the front and bass bar are spruce; the fingerboard is ebony.

A completed instrument without any finish is referred to as in-the-white. Lisbeth had two violins at the meeting that she has made. The first was completed in approximately 1980 and was finished with a spirit varnish. The second was completed in 2005 and was finished with an oil-varnish.

Lisbeth referred us to three sources for further information. The first was Martin Schleske's web site and the second was the "Violin Making, As It Was and Is" by Edward Heron-Allen. The third is a book on the basics of violin making, "The Art of Violin Making" by Chris Johnson, Roy Courtnall and Yehudi Menuhn.