The back, sides, neck and scroll of the violin are normally made from maple.
Characteristics: Maple is a medium density hardwood with lightly porous structure, It carves relatively easily and leaves a clean cut from a gouge. It’s color matches well with the spruce that is used for the top of the violin, both when they are fresh and pale, and when it yellows with age and oxidation. As a seasoned wood It is relatively stable and resistant to dimensional changes due to humidity, Stability is important in maintaining the playability and tone of an instrument under different climate conditions.
About one in a thousand maple trees exhibit a wave in the growth pattern of the grain and trees with this growth pattern are preferentially selected for violins Wood with this type of grain pattern is often referred to as “fiddle back maple” by other woodworkers, in the violin trade it is usually referred to as “flame”, “figure”, or occasionally “tiger stripe”. The flame shows under varnish as parallel stripes that appear to move when viewed from different angles. This apparent movement is due to maple’s high reflective index. Other figured woods, like pear, are not so reflective and don’t appear to “move”.
Preparation: Maple for violins It is normally cut “on the quarter” to enhance stability and stiffness and to show off the figure to its best advantage. The freshly sawn wood must be handled carefully, initially it is very susceptible to fungus which makes it go “grey” and compromises its structure. Grey wood is not as stiff or reflective and doesn’t carve cleanly. Freshly cut billets are air dried without touching each other until a certain moisture content is reached, when they can be stacked. Air drying continues for a minimum of three years before use. Older more stable wood is preferred by violin makers and the price of the wood goes up incrementally with age, 100 year old wood might fetch over ten times the price of fresh wood. There is a belief that because older violins are perceived to sound better, violins made from older wood will sound better too. This is debatable but is an easy sell to clients. In my opinion maple seasoned about 10-20 years is optimal, after that it seems to loose some of its integrity and doesn’t carve so cleanly. There are also problems with uneven coloration due to age. Aging the wood on the violin rather than in a thick billet may be a different process, particularly if the wood is often vibrated by playing.
Sources: I usually get my maple from Europe. Germany Italy and the Balkan States are the biggest suppliers. It is generally thought that Stradivari used Balkan Maple. European maple looks different to maples from other parts of the world and in a trade where replication of historic instruments is highly valued, this is a concern. Violins made from domestic US maples of a similar density can sound similar to those made of European maple but they are visually dissimilar and there may be prejudice against them.
Redwood violin project substitutes for maple
Possible locally grown substitutes are: Local maple species. Fruit woods; apple, pear, plum, which are traditional carving woods. Cherry. Cypress which is used in flamenco guitar building. Bay Laurel which is finding favor with California guitar manufacturers selling “locally sourced” instruments.
My choice of wood for the back, sides and neck of the violin is applewood. It adequately meets the structural considerations, as discussed below. In terms of the Redwood Violin Project, which is as much about painting a portrait of the region as it is about making a violin, it is an ideal candidate because the county has a long established apple industry.
The violin needs to be ready to play in March 2021, 4 months from now! To find applewood that would be seasoned and usable in time I couldn’t cut and dry the wood myself. Instead I put out a call to the Sonoma County Woodworkers Association and I got a generous offer from Steve Wigfield, who I then went to visit in Petaluma.
Before he retired, Steve owned a business, Wigfield Woodworking inc, which he established in 1985 in Petaluma and ran for 29 years. The company specialized in custom-built windows and doors and radius millwork. Read more about Steve and his business, including pictures from his part in the library at Skywalker ranch. Steve is the SWCA’s machine guru, an expert in setting up and fine tuning woodworking machines. Most of his machines and wood stock have been sold, but he hung onto some planks of apple wood which he had cut seven years ago by a local woodworker named Sean who has a Woodmizer, mobile wood mill.
Steve has a passion for chisel and gouge handles and, as I learned from him, applewood was, at one time the preferred wood for chisel handles in the US, chosen, presumably, for its attractive appearance and toughness. Different manufacturers had their own signature handle designs, besides which there are also classic favorites used by many manufacturers.
Characteristics: I took a corner off the plank that I got from Steve, to measure the density. It came in at 0.69 g/cc. The Maple I usually use is 0.55 – 0.65 g/cc, so its a little heavy but not much. The pore structure is very tight which is nice from a finishing point of view; the surface will be smooth like a normal violin. The medium brown color is a good match for the redwood that I will use for the top. A slightly worrying feature that Steve alerted me to, is that applewood is known to shrink and move a lot when drying. It’s not clear that shrinkage when drying translates to later movement in a seasoned plank. I took some comfort from the fact that this particular plank is still quite flat and has been cut for seven years and should be as stable as it will get. I would hesitate more if I was thinking of this as wood for a cello, where shrinkage movements in the instrument are exaggerated because of its larger size, but I feel pretty confident that it will work well for a violin.
I now have the first substantial piece of material for the Redwood Violin.