...On Carving a Violin Plate
Among the gouges, planes, and wood chips scattered over my workbench lies a partially carved violin belly. It's a lovely, light, straight grained piece of red spruce that I recently brought in from the barn loft, where it has been seasoning as part of a large split billet for the last 5 years. I remember the winter day that we harvested that old tree from where it had been growing at the back of the woodlot of Jim Drescher's farm. It had grown there for the last 250 years and would have been a mature tree before Stephen Wentzall and his family first settled the land there and carved his homestead down by the lake. That day we skidding the logs out through the snow with the horse, and when I got them home, I split them up with chainsaw, axe and wedges before hauling them up to the loft to dry. As I carve this wood I am aware of the years that it had stood in the forest -- so many more than I will ever see -- and I realize my responsibility in bringing it here to my workbench and the obligation that I owe it in transforming it for a new life in music.
Carving this plate is at the heart of the process of violin making. After selecting my wood and choosing my design, no other factor has so crucial a role in determining the character of the finished instrument. I am always aware of the mystery involved in this. I know that with every stroke of the gouge I am affecting the outcome, but at the same time I am never certain just what that outcome will be. I look for guidance, but realize too that these are my own decisions, and that this particular violin, made from these materials and this design, has never been made before. I do have the examples of the past -- drawings and templates taken from the classic instruments of the great makers, but the old masters did not know this wood. I have my own past experience to draw from (I envy the long experience of Stradivari's prolific 70+ year career) but am cautioned with the knowledge that I am exploring and learning as I go, and that no two are alike. But I am getting to know this wood -- I have made a number of instruments from it and have a sense of expectation of its possibilities. In my mind, I carry images and ideas of the unseen internal structure of this violin belly -- the stresses that it will be asked to carry and how they will be distributed, its constrictions and freedoms in movement, and the efficiency of its shape in supporting these. In my imagination, I will myself into this piece of wood to try to get a sense of what it must feel like to carry these loads. And over all, I keep in mind the goal that informs all of my decisions: the musical response that I imagine -- quick and easy, bright but with depth and richness, and a sense of solidity to push against. I hope to hear this wood light and free, compliant but firm, with the honesty of its years in the forest.
I am constantly faced with choices, the sum of which is an instrument that not only speaks of the forest from which it came, but also reflects the character of its maker. With gouge and plane, I rough out the surface of the arch. I mark it's maximum height at the bridge -- I can make it fat and full, with an easy softer tone, or low and lean for efficiency, power and projection. As I shape it, I try to envision the weight of the strings pressing down and spreading throughout, bringing it all into easy compliance. I carve the central table area into a long barrel-shaped arch to support the bridge, imagining its geometry as providing a unity that is conducive to integrity of tone. From here I work outward, toward the flanks of the upper and lower bouts, and toward the ends. From the strong convex arch of the centre, it now gently turns into a concave scoop as it approaches the perimeter, providing flexibility for easy response, and freedom of vibration for the central table. Working around the outside with my smalI arching plane, I pay special attention to the way the arch flows out to the edges. I can control the flexibility of the table's support to some degree with the shape of the recurve rising up from the purfling line. I can soften it up with a deeper scoop, or give it rigidity with a steady rise to the centre of the plate. As the contours take shape, I move on to my scrapers, smoothing the curves and blending them into an organic whole. With the help of the bright sunshine coming in my window, I watch the shape of the shadows spreading across the plate as I angle it away from the light, throwing all the contours into sharp relief.and turning any small irregularities into mountains or valleys.
When I'm satisfied with this outer arch, I will turn the plate over, and commence the hollowing of the belly. With a few guide holes for a depth reference, the gouges will return for the rough hollowing, followed again by the small round bottomed planes. As I near the projected thickness I'll slow down in time to make some more choices. The assessment of the belly at this point comes from several sources. It's thickness can be measured with calipers, but given the different characteristics of different trees in regard to density, stiffness, and other qualities, methods for taking these into consideration are needed as well. The plate will also be weighed, flexed, and tapped for tone (the pitches of its natural resonances are a function of its stiffness and density). Working slowly with the scrapers, I will try to balance all these factors while aiming for a distribution of thicknesses that will both support the load of the tensed strings over the bridge and efficiently respond with sensitivity to its vibrations.
Throughout this whole process, I am aware that all these choices are mine to make. The violin maker has a rich tradition to draw upon, but it is a tradition rich in diversity, and what rules there are have come as an afterthought. There are innumerable systems that have been invoked over the centuries in an effort to provide a formula for creating a superior violin, from ancient hidden geometries to the microtuning of natural resonances with the help of sophisticated modern technology. However, I think that good violins are made in spite of these, rather than because of them. There is mystery here, we must not forget, as there is at the core of all great art. A respect for the accomplishments of the past, an open mind, and a bit of luck should take us as far as we need.