By Christopher Jacoby
A violin maker is an atavist—or, as you may know it, a throwback. Mostly ignoring the results of generations of tool and technological advancement, a violin maker is interested in an older tradition, and uses tools that were optimized hundreds of years ago. Ours is a craft that has remained largely unchanged for 500 years. So I can make a violin in a well-appointed shop with band saws, lathes, mills, and jointers (there has been some technological adaptation), but I can also make a violin on a mountainside, without electricity or plumbing.
The hand tools a violin maker uses are special, often specialized, and if you put in the work to shape, sharpen, and use them well, they reveal a surprising truth: It’s almost always faster and more efficient to use the old tools that the Cremonese makers were using, back before all these lovely jointers and CNC tables existed. On a non-industrial scale, the hand tools are less hassle, produce less harmful dust, and are really fun to travel with through the violin-making learning curve.
Other violin makers look for efficiency and cleverness when they see what tools you use to build your instruments, and part of learning how to make a violin is spent understanding how each hand tool will ideally work. My first teacher, Peter Prier, hit the nail on the head with the first rule he taught me: Always use the biggest tool for the job.
Big P was a big, strong guy, and he hated to see violin-making students fussing with tiny tools for shaping and refining the plates of instruments. Get used to the biggest tool whose shape will remove wood the way you want it to, and you save time—and keep yourself fit to boot. Here are a few of the specialized tools I use to build my violins, violas, and cellos.
GOUGES & PLANES
Speaking of the biggest tool for the job, these are hand tools for roughing out shapes. The rough arching gouge and the scrub plane are the one-two combo for removing lots of wood quickly. They require confidence, strength, and an understanding of how and why a good tool cuts through difficult wood.
Violin makers pick figured maple pretty consistently for instruments, and the depth and beauty of the chatoyance—the “flame” in such wood—belies its difficult, thorny nature under a blade. A heavy gouge with a deep sweep (the depth of the curved shape of the steel from side to side) will produce long, clean slugs of wood out of heavily figured maple if the maker knows that tools cut best by slicing, and not simply pushing.
A curved samurai sword drawn across an enemy will slice them into two halves, while a broadsword brought down like a club just gets stuck in whatever it cleaves. When you push with a gouge, you also spin the tool subtly, so that its sharp edge travels in rotation as well as forward. This helps slice the wood fibers in its path—also dulling the tool less than a sheer-muscle approach does.
My rough arching gouges are a 2 1/4″ Buck Bros. firmer gouge from the late 19th century, and a 1 7/8″ Douglass cast-steel boatbuilder’s gouge from the same time period. I’ve made heavy hardwood handles for them, in ebony and Che Chen, and might swap those out for Osage orange sometime—going even denser and heavier. Making the tool large and heavy helps it do the work, instead of my wrists and elbows.
The scrub, or roughing plane, does the same work as the gouge, with a little more stiffness from the plane body. A scrub plane traditionally has its blade ‘toenailed’—shaped into a gentle round from side to side—allowing the maker to dig deep furrows into wood without leaving scratches and shelves from the square sides of the iron.
Pictured are two roughing planes: On the left, the Stanley No. 40 scrub plane, into which I have set an over-thick cast-steel blade, to help it take big bites. This is a “Sweetheart Era” No. 40, with a patent date on it of 1914, and it is absolutely the toughest hand plane I’ve ever used. Working with quick arm strokes across the shape of the long arch of an instrument plate, it saves hours of work with finer planes on a cello in process.
And a rare bird. A Stanley No. 340 furring plane—the largest production scrub plane ever produced. Stanley made this step-soled hand plane from 1905–17, and it was designed to take the “fur” off of large beams and timber fresh off the blade of the sawmill. The concentric marks of the mill’s blade left on the surface of the cut wood could be quite deep—leaving it “furry”—and this scrub plane’s unique bottom shape lets the blade cut deep and fast, smoothing any unwanted steps out of the timber. I need to regrind the blade of my 340 into a rounder “toenail,” as it still sometimes gouges edge-of-blade marks into my instrument plates as I work. The unusual projection of the blade from its stepped sole means the standard round shape just isn’t enough.
When I got the 340, I couldn’t find any help online or through personal contacts on how to tune and optimize it for my work. And there’s a good reason for this: No one else has used one! Mills have power planers and thicknesses to clean beams these days, and the need for a scrub more aggressive than the 40 has disappeared from the world. Folks seem to collect them because they’re exceedingly rare, but they get set up on a shelf with other pre-war Stanleys to be admired—not for their utility. As I said at the outset, we are atavists, we violin makers.
Along with general roughing and shaping tools, there are tools made specifically for steps in the process at hand. These get created mainly to make the setup of an instrument—the soundpost, bridge, pegs, fingerboard, and nut shapes—go well.
Here we have:
1. A bronze endbutton vise, for holding that hardwood button while shaping and fitting it into the bottom block. I bought this for a few dollars from a fellow student at the Violin Making School of America 15 years ago. The ones available at the time cost $15–$80, and my colleague would take such overpriced simple machines back home to China with him during the summer break, and reproduce them for a fraction of the price. While I eventually abandoned the bronze finger planes he made me for their unpredictability, this heavy little guy has earned his place in my setup box, only needing a new leather washer every few years when the hard ebony endbuttons wear one out.
2. A cute little pair of sharp Starrett machinist’s dividers, for quickly marking accurate string spacing at the nut (where the strings go into the pegbox) and at the blade of the bridge. I try to use dividers whenever possible. The masons that built the world’s great cathedrals knew exactly what the Cremonese violin makers knew: Your eye and your hand are fallible. Your mind is also fallible, when asked to divide a length of wood into equal parts.
The strings on a new violin need to be exactly the same distance from one another, so that the player feels confident moving across them in 12th position. I don’t want to trust my mind to divide the width of the ebony nut into four string crossings, my ruler to have marks that measure perfectly, and my hand and pencil not to roll the lead a tenth of a millimeter one direction or the other! I want to have a little steel machine that spins from needle foot to needle foot across that ebony nut. I adjust the width of the feet in a few tries until it starts in the middle of the G string and ends in the middle of the E. Less measure; more method.
3. A trio of violin/viola string lifters for use during bridge work, each one a half-century apart in age, for adjusting or shaping the bridge without tuning all the strings down in order to do so. I use an unmarked folk-arty ebony and brass lifter (with cork all the way across the bottom), a zinc/aluminum lifter from the heyday of the Wurlitzer shop (with cork across two contact feet on the bottom), and a modern Herdim resin lifter (with soft rubber at the two contact feet).
The evolution from the oldest, from the shop of a violin maker working in Iowa from 1880 to 1920, through the Wurlitzer, made as an employee bonus somewhere between 1948 and 1963, to the light, all-petroleum material of the Herdim is obvious. Our boy in Iowa was likely to mess varnish up in a visible way working with his; the newer two sit on two pads just behind the bridge, instead of a solid strip of cork pressing down across a violin top that might not have the exact same arc as it does.
4. A pair of violin/viola spiral reamers. These are also Herdim brand, and are lovely little one-trick ponies. The pegs of your violin are fit through the scroll’s pegbox on a taper—the pegs are shaped into gently conic prisms, and the holes in the scroll are shaped at the same conic taper, so that you can press the pegs in to hold tight while tuning, and ease them out to spin a string free, without the extra weight and hassle of machinery to hold things in place. These two sizes of spiral-bladed reamers are on the same modern taper: 1:30, meaning that the diameter changes 1 millimeter for every 30 millimeters traveled down it sideways. If you have an instrument that was set up a long time ago, it’s likely to have a steeper taper: 1:20 was standard for many years.
5. The dreaded soundpost setter, peeking up over the lower reamer. This is a lovely, stylish steel setter a client gave me a few years ago, and I keep it in my jacket or bag when traveling, even though I usually reach for the cheap, electric-taped aluminum one I filed down by hand the first time I tried to make a violin. As musicians know about their own instruments, value isn’t just what an object gets at market.
I say dreaded soundpost setter because too many people fool about with the soundpost. Not just your stand partner, your teacher, and that guy who does guitar refrets behind the laundromat. Violin makers sometimes also fool about with an instrument’s soundpost when other, more fundamental issues can be addressed first, sparing the delicate plates the crushing, overstrained ministrations of a setter in an aggressive hand. I broke a cello top on a brand new instrument once, trying to cram a few more pressure clicks from it, standing a stick that was much too high up. That was an expensive lesson—sometimes small tools have immense power in the wrong hands.