By James N. McKean
Making a violin is much like making music. For you, as a musician, your raw material is notes on a page. Mine is a stack of maple and spruce. Most of what we both do is pretty structured—you by the score, me by the specifications. Violins don’t vary by more than a few millimeters. Making them, for the most part, is like being a classical musician: It’s mostly a matter of interpretation.
But there are two parts of what I do that are different: the scroll and the f-holes. It’s not a matter of numbers; for both, the parameters are just as tight as with the rest of the instrument. The difference is what happens in between the numbers—you start here and end up there, but in between, you improvise. It’s kind of my chance to do a cadenza. Eight bars: The rules are just as strict (the key, the tempo, staying in tune, referencing the whole piece), but beyond that it’s up to you.
With f-holes, though, that spontaneity can be hard to spot. That’s because almost every instrument you see is a copy of something else—a Strad, a Guarneri, Maggini, or a Goffriller or Montagnana. For hundreds of years now, makers have used templates; the goal (or so I learned at school) is to divide the pencil line. Every f-hole looks exactly like its twin, and they all look the same.
But this is not the case with classical makers, especially the Italians of the Golden Period. If you compare a real Strad to, say, a French copy, you’ll immediately see the difference: One is alive, the other static. That’s because on the Strad, the f-holes are like the eyes in a face: They match, but they’re not the same. On the French violin, though, they’re mirror images—more than a bit spooky, like a Diane Arbus photo of twins.
It’s a matter of looking: how the maker sees the instrument, at its most basic. I grew up playing the violin, but I’m not a musician. I’m an avid listener, but it’s not the same thing. I have no idea what it is you see when you look at a score; I just hear music. But that mysterious alchemy that lies between the notes on the page and what I hear out there in the audience is exactly the difference between what I see when I look at a top and what you do when you glance at your violin.
“Cutting spruce across the grain dramatically affects the way it moves, so if you turn the upper eyes in, you effectively double the amount of cut wood.”
Part of the problem is that the shape of the f-hole is so iconic that you almost can’t see beyond it: that familiar double-tailed swallow, with a roundel on each end. The top half echoes the bottom; if they are well-cut, the curves open so gradually that you can’t see a break in them. It’s like a skater executing a pirouette and spin—a fluidity of motion in which nothing leaps out to catch your eye. The form itself is so seductive that you almost can’t stop looking at it.
Well, if you’re a violin maker, I suppose. I realize it’s not quite the Venus de Milo, in terms of universal appeal. But adding to the innate beauty of the f-holes is the mystery: They just seem to have appeared out of nowhere. Earlier bowed stringed instruments, like the rebec or members of the gamba family, had the familiar backward Cs. Who had the brilliant idea to turn around the upper eye, to turn a C into an F?
Why they did it is easier to understand, and is the key to understanding how a violin maker looks at them. If there is any constant in the development of musical instruments—especially the stringed ones—it’s a simple one: more sound. More projection, more power, more edge. The halls get larger, the orchestras get bigger, the audiences more restless, the composers and conductors more demanding.
Violin making is a continuum stretching back unbroken for half a millennium, in fact back to the High Renaissance, and if there is anything that connects me to all of my forebears, it’s that we all have had to respond to those changing demands. In my own lifetime as a violinist and maker, I’ve seen a revolution in strings, from gut to tungsten—a clear case of technology responding to the musicians’ needs. I’m sure that a violinist walked into Andreas Amati’s shop and told him that he needed to be able to turn it up to 11.
You look at a page of notes and see phrases, themes, accidentals, and accents, all of which you synthesize into music. I look at a violin and see an amplifier. The different woods, the arch, the f-holes, the varnish—these are all the elements that I put together to make a violin. But, to be more precise, it’s not the f-holes themselves that make the difference: It’s what lies all around them.
Think of the gamba, and the sound it makes: refined, elegant, perfectly attuned to a drawing room. Let’s say you’re a maker, and you want to make something that is a quantum leap in power and projection. You would think of exchanging the flat back with bracing for an arched one that would act more like a trampoline for the soundpost, giving it a real kick. You would also think of how to increase the flexibility of the top. Cutting spruce across the grain dramatically affects the way it moves, so if you turn the upper eyes in, you effectively double the amount of cut wood.
That’s what I look at when I’m designing a pattern for a violin, or a new viola or cello—how I want the top to move, and most especially that critical area between the f-holes. I locate the upper and lower eyes, and lay out the width across the chest where the bridge sits.
The rest—the actual f-hole—then is just a matter of joining up curves. But even in this I keep the movement of the top in mind; the more slanted the f-holes, the stiffer the top. It’s the wood in between that matters, along with the width of the cut wood between the inner side of the upper eye and the outside of the lower one.
As for the actual f-hole, the length or width doesn’t really seem to make that much difference. Although the shape varies, and is the signature of the maker, they are all remarkably consistent in dimensions. I’ve been lucky enough to take detailed measurements and drawings of a number of the greatest Italian instruments of the Golden Period, and the f-holes are all within a few millimeters of each other (even on cellos, which can vary quite a bit in body size). More than that, I’ve never found a correlation of f-hole aperture size with power or timbre; narrow ones seem to work just as well as more open ones. But again, there are so many factors contributing to the sound of a violin, it’s impossible to correlate any single one with its effect on the sound.
I lay out the position of the eyes, based on the lower corner and the narrowest part of the c-bout. (I do it on the inside, so as not to score the soft spruce of the finished arch with pencil lines.) I drill pilot holes for the upper and lower eyes, and then use cutters to make the actual holes. Then, after joining the upper and lower holes with a template, I use a fine jeweler’s saw to rough cut them.
After that, I’m on my own: It’s time to improvise, to let the curves emerge and play off each other, widen and converge, touching them here and there until there is no longer any more wood to cut away. It’s all done with a knife, one that is specially shaped and honed to a razor edge to cut smoothly through the contrasting density of the winter and summer grain of the spruce. The final cut of the notches—to indicate where the bridge will sit—is an inflection point that pins them in place.
And then, before you know it, the trip is over. And even though you’ve done it time and again, it always looks a bit different. New, and not quite the way you remember it, but nevertheless, you’re home again.
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Strings magazine.