By Cliff Hall | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
The violin has always had a certain mystique. In the film The Red Violin, the instrument takes on an otherworldly quality, which is rooted in the beginning scenes as an eccentric luthier toils away to craft the perfect violin. Even the varnish he chooses is mixed with his dead wife’s own blood, which further mythologizes lutherie to apotheosis.
That’s some drama, for sure.
Although the violin has not changed much in the last 400 years, and the way it’s made by individual luthiers has stayed nearly the same as well, modern technology has dragged this process out into the light of day. Edgar Russ, an Austrian luthier who has lived in Cremona, Italy, for almost 40 years, started his YouTube channel (which has more than two million views) with exactly this goal in mind.
“Years ago, instead of telling people that I handmake instruments, I thought it was a good idea if I just showed people tiny details. Then, if they’re a little bit interested in it, then they understand that many tiny details make one nice result,” says Russ. “It’s an indirect way to underline that only by making it by hand with a certain concept in your mind will you achieve a certain quality.”
Before a tool is raised, however, Russ first needs to pick the brain of his customer. “What they’re going to expect for the new instrument is a pretty important detail. [You get the] happiest customers if you satisfy their request, but you even give them more than they actually expect,” says Russ. But it is not enough for a client to ask Russ for a Guarneri copy, as is typical in the trade.
“Among the Guarneris you have the Ysaÿe, the Ole Bull, the Heifetz, and the Lord Wilton—four different sound characters within the Guarneri sound. And when you match these models one over another, you’re surprised how little difference there actually is,” says Russ. “Sometimes it’s only one or two millimeters, and it has such a big impact on the character of things.”
Russ evokes actor Christoph Waltz in his speech and Ernst Heinrich Roth in his reputation as a master craftsman with a line of historical instruments and a similar devotion to quality. “I could make a violin in one month, but I don’t make more than eight instruments a year now,” says Russ. “In the beginning, I was better, but the more I kept on going, the more I became a maniac of preciseness.”
As for wood selection, Russ exclusively uses Bosnian maple and spruce from Val di Fiemme, a forest in the Italian Dolomites that has been renowned for centuries for producing some of the finest tonewoods in the world. To avoid any surprises like tops that are light on one side and dark on the other, Russ splits the wood in his shop.
“If it’s cut well, and if it comes from the right area and is well seasoned, I think this is a good ingredient to start with,” says Russ. “It doesn’t make any sense to not use good material. It would be like building a nice house with the worst tiles and materials. The most expensive part isn’t the wood—the most expensive part is actually your time.”
Once the top and back wood is book matched and glued, he begins construction on the sides. “I bend my ribs on the inner form like the Cremonese unless I make a very fancy copy like the Ole Bull. Then I make the outer form like the French mold,” says Russ, noting that the outer form is best for asymmetrical copies.
Once the sides are glued to interior blocks and linings, Russ takes the ribs off the mold and marks the outline on the top and back. To rough out the basic shape and thickness of the plates, Russ temporarily diverges from using the traditional hand tools, instead opting for modern efficiencies that can be only obtained with a band saw, an electric plane, and a router.
Although it is at this point that many luthiers turn to graduation maps of Stradivari instruments to determine the variable thicknesses of the arching of the top and back, Russ uses an approach that was used before these maps were drawn.
“When I was starting, I drew even the lines, and now I don’t do that anymore. I have a rough concept where I make my thicknesses. I make them by touching and bending and tapping with my fingers on it. I take a little bit away. I tap again,” says Russ. “You’re slowly reaching the right thickness. Then sometimes it’s already so good, nicely vibrating, then why should you take away more? And if it’s too thin, then it becomes a little bit floppy, and then the sound becomes too dark.”
Though quality is always top of mind, Russ has learned to spend just the right amount of time on this step.
“Then I clean it up with a scraper, and it’s pretty quick. Some makers in the past, I saw them take two liters of red wine and a lamp that’s very low down. And then they stay there for a long, long time—until it’s super clean, and they’re super drunk,” says Russ.
After he makes the channel for the purfling and inserts it, he turns to a pleasant point of the process after the purfling has dried.
“It’s just a very nice moment to take the gouge and make the fluting all around along the purfling. And then with the small planes, you adjust the fluting with the arching,” says Russ, who then cuts the f-holes and flutes them as well.
These smaller details, though important, are dwarfed by the time and attention that making the scroll gets. Serving mainly an aesthetic but also a functional purpose (weak or absent scrolls can create wolf tones), Russ can spend between ten and 15 hours on this aspect of the violin that Yehudi Menuhin once called “a thing of beauty that would have graced a temple of the gods.”
“Years ago, I invested time and money to find ways to have it roughed out quicker by someone. But I was always regretting it because you have to make some compromises. Personally, I love to do it myself,” says Russ. “It’s somehow your signature, you know?”
Another important consideration that Russ spends a great deal of time on is fitting the bass bar.
“People pay a lot of attention to cleaning and making nice purfling and fluting, and the scroll and everything you can see. But the bass bar actually is smashed in, from even the great masters, just somewhere in an area that is not clarified where it should be,” says Russ. “It takes us more than a day because that has to be well fit. And I swear that this makes a huge difference.”
After Russ glues the top and back plates to the ribs and sets the neck at an ideal angle (which can change depending upon the part of the world it’s going to), he begins to consider whether to apply spirit or oil varnish. Russ does not see one as superior to the other, although he only uses oil varnish on his master instruments.
“Spirit-varnished instruments are just a little bit more focused and more brilliant, which might be a taste that nowadays people prefer,” says Russ, who will mix pigments in either type to determine the instrument’s color. “But with an oil-varnished instrument, I have the impression that the instrument is freer and more ready to vibrate from the very first day.”
Although that was the last step luthiers like Guarneri would have taken with the body, artificially distressing or “antiquing” a violin is very common today. But Russ noticed this quality is not desired for other new items. “If a car is shiny and well cleaned, it’s immediately driving better. If you have the same car dirty, you probably would perceive it a little less reliable. And with the violins, it’s just the opposite,” says Russ. “A little bit of patina gives it a nice charm where you’re not afraid to take it in your hands. If you make it so sharp that you are afraid that you will make the first scratch on it, you might say, ‘Oh, damn. I used my violin too much.’ I personally like them better when they are slightly antiqued.”
Finally, the tailpiece, strings, soundpost, and bridge are attached to the instrument, and Russ tailors the setup to the player. Though he loves the entire violin making process, there’s something special about when the player meets their new instrument for the first time.
“I love it all,” says Russ. “But I appreciate it very much at the end, when a musician comes, and I take my time to adjust the sound, and I realize what I have created.”