What’s your favorite part of the process of making an instrument?
For me, carving the back and top plates is the heart of violin making. It’s a process that is both physically demanding and mentally engaging. Carving a cello back can take several days, passing through distinct stages. During the early “rough arching,” pushing a gouge is hard work but it has a mesmerizing rhythm, plus there’s the excitement of seeing the swell of the new arch emerge from the skein of divots on the surface. In the later refining stages, using small planes and scrapers, you become more absorbed in understanding the individual piece of wood you are working on, and how to persuade it for your purpose.
Carving the plates is a puzzle to solve and, since there is no single right answer, it is an endlessly engaging problem. We try to balance structural necessities of the instrument with our tonal aspirations, while at the same time making something with aesthetic appeal. To solve this puzzle we look first to our predecessors, taking physical measurements from old instruments. Millimeters, grams, and hertz give a good working framework, but that’s only the start of it; as you work the wood, you gather a lot of less-quantifiable information about it. The way the wood feels and sounds as you cut it—even the way it smells—tells you something about its properties. As you learn about the piece of wood, you can modify arching shapes and plate thicknesses to compensate for shortcomings, or to enhance unexpected potential. Over the years you come to associate working qualities of the wood with tonal qualities of the finished instrument. If the wood feels “crisp” or “buttery” under the gouge, I will likely hear those qualities in the tone of the finished fiddle.
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Strings magazine.