Re-sawing the apple wood

A set of conventional wood to build a violin.The billets are cut to accommodate (left to right) a neck and scroll, sides, a top, a back.

I normally buy the wood that I need for the back, top, sides and neck of the violin from specialist violin suppliers in Europe. The wood comes in billets that are small enough to allow me to work them easily with hand tools. For that reason I’ve never acquired many of the machines that feature in most modern wood working shops. This works well as long as I’m not facing a large piece of wood such as the plank of apple wood that I’ll be using for the Redwood Violin. A plank like that can be reduced with hand tools and that, of course, is exactly what would have been done in the early days of violinmaking. It would have been processed either in a woodyard away from the violin shop or by an apprentice in the shop. All of this is to say that I didn’t feel like re-sawing the plank into usable sized pieces using hand tools. Instead I went to visit my friends Mark Tindley and Greg Zall who own a cabinet making shop in Petaluma. Their shop is equipped with a full complement of woodworking machines – the modern day apprentices.

The art of re-sawing lies in getting the most usable wood from the plank with the minimum waste. The wood is cut with regard to the orientation of the grain, while avoiding any defects in the wood. During my visit to Vulture Hill Orchard, I learned that the plank that we are using is actually an exceptionally fine specimen for apple wood since the trees are very prone to internal rot and such a large clear piece is unusual. As we started working with the plank, several small defects were revealed that we had to work around. It became apparent that small bark inclusions occurred randomly in the wood and that, while we could avoid the visible ones, I should be prepared for small defects to be revealed later when carving out the back and scroll. I think that these small defects give a very possible reason why fruitwoods, which are known to be good carving woods, are rarely used for violin making. The wood is suitable but the risk of coming across a flaw at a late stage of carving a scroll or back, make it not worth the risk.

There are small hidden defects in the apple wood, like this bark inclusion and spot of rot, that need to be avoided.

The process of resawing the apple wood started with first removing enough of the end of the plank to avoid the end-cracks that occur as the plank dries. Then a rectangle large enough to accommodate the back was cut off. This was planed flat, at which point it appeared that there may be just enough thickness in the plank to yield two backs. Deciding to do this is always a little nerve racking because there is the possibility of ending up with two backs that are too thin to use. Mark was confident enough in his machining technique that we decided to go ahead. We did get the two backs out and that will provide a hedge against hidden defects in either one of them.

The thin strips of wood for the sides were cut from the edges of the backs, leaving two roof shaped pieces that have enough thickness in the center to accommodate the arched shape of the back. There was enough wood left from the slice we took off the plank to provide a block to carve the neck and scroll from.

The apple wood re-sawn and ready for construction to start. The maple violin parts in the picture show what each billet will become. We were able to get two backs from the plank, providing a back up incase I encounter a fatal defect while carving.