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What makes one violin better than another?
Part 1: Wood, Finish, Fittings
Part 2: Setup
Part 3: Acoustic Optimization
   
 
"The way I look at it, violin performance comes
from about 1/3 wood selected, 1/3 quality and
construction, and 1/3 setup."

Stephen Perry, Luthier, Gianna Violins

Wood, Finishes, and Fittings
Violins have been made of all kinds of wood.  No doubt an
adequate violin could be constructed from wood found on
the street.  The more power and precision demanded from
a violin, the more the wood counts.  In general, the body
wood is maple of some kind or another and the front is
spruce.  Most violins today have decent wood.  Some have
superior wood.

Top Wood
Spruce is strong for its weight and vibrates easily, making
it ideal for the top.  Good spruce gives the right balance of
warmth and projection.  For intense, powerful classical
play, good quality alpine spruce from Europe and some
Sitka and Engelmann seem preferred.  For student  
instruments, I suspect that Home Depot pine might work
fine if selected really carefully.  In very general terms,
uniform 1 mm to 1.5 mm spacing seems to consistently
sound nice and respond well, but the exceptions are legion.
  Body Wood
While lots of different woods have been used, violins are
usually made of maple. Maple is typically fairly hard wood,
adding brilliance to the sound.  Other woods (e.g., lime,
poplar, Italian 'willow', walnut) give a softer sound that
works well in some fiddling and folk music.  Maple in violins
typically has pronounced "figure" of great beauty.  Most
violins use flamed maple, but quilted and birdseye maple
are spectacular as well.  Flamed or curly maple exhibits
tiger stripes.  Quilt patterns look like a patchwork or like
intersecting sets of waves.  Birdseye figuring looks like lots
of little eyes in the wood.  A given piece of wood may
exhibit all of these figure types.  Figure doesn't have
anything to do with tone.

For intense, powerful classical play, the moderately firm
maples from North America and Europe are best.  Put
Bosnian and Italian maple at the top.  In North America, put
Northern Red Maple up there. For student instruments and
fiddles, warmer, easier tones come from softer woods
including poplar, big leaf maple, and most of the Oriental
woods.  These woods are also great in violas and cellos.  

Backs can be made of one piece of wood or two pieces
bookmatched.  It doesn't make any difference.  Neither
does the cut of the wood make a great deal of difference.  
Perhaps at the highest levels, quartersawn wood with grain
reeds perpendicular to the back's plane may be better
because it offers the greatest stiffness for a given mass.  
But this is far from certain.
     
     
     
Varnish
Good spirit varnish is better than bad oil varnish; and you
won't be able to tell the difference.  Just watch out for very
hard varnish and varnish that chips easily.  More
importantly, thin is better than thick in general, although
some soft thick varnishes work great.  If you're interested,
ask the dealer or maker about the wood treatment, ground
(under the varnish), varnish, and coloring.  Mainly you'll
find out whether they've thought about such things or
whether they slap something on without concern.

Fittings
Ebony is usually good.  Boxwood and its imitators wear
faster, but work very smoothly.  Fancy detailing doesn't
add function.  About the easiest pegs to use are Swiss
Professional pattern, one of the least attractive!  Chinrests
should be functional; consider the Wittner plastic chinrest
which is light and comfortable.  Stained hardwood
indicates a lower quality violin and often wears easily.
  Quality and Construction
With the increased presence of Oriental and eastern
European violins in the market, the distinctions among
various classes of violins are blurring, providing the
opportunity to get much better performance per dollar than
used to be the case.  For example, the work of individual
makers is available at reasonable prices in anonymous
form.  I select some of these fine violins for our Gianna's
Choice "Tuscan" model.  In particular, the quality of
Oriental and eastern European violins has risen rapidly.  
Also, many more makers are operating in the United
States.  Some of their work is quite reasonably priced,
mine for example.

Some of the best performance buys are in violins initially
constructed overseas but left heavy and shipped to the
United States "in the white" – without varnish.  These
violins can be opened and the top and back shaped for
optimal performance, the bass bar tuned, and then
reassembled for detailing.  The necks can be shaped for
an excellent feel and lower mass, the fingerboards
properly thinned for feel and acoustic response, and thin,
high-quality varnish applied.  Examples of these include
our Gianna models and the well known Rudoulf Doetsch
and Wilhem Klier series distributed by Eastman Strings.
    Continue to Part 2: Setup
     
 
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