Like the world of painting, where we celebrate figures such as Picasso, Monet and Rembrandt for their finely crafted masterpieces, the realm of instrument making has its own set of icons.
And, like painters, not all instrument makers who produce high-quality work are of a bygone age. Modern-day makers of stringed instruments, known as luthiers, are making a mark for themselves among the craftsmen whose violins make beautiful music and fetch high prices. They are joining such master violin makers as Antonio Stradivari and Nicolo Amati.
But it’s hard to compete with the reputations of the old-line virtuosos of violin construction, such as Stradivari, an Italian born in the 17th century. Today, Stradivarius violins are highly prized by museums, private collectors and musicians, fetching millions of dollars.
There are a thousand choices in the process of making a violin.
Kim Tipper, luthier and violin restorer
History's Most Esteemed Luthiers
Over the course of his lifetime (1644-1737), Stradivari designed and produced more than a thousand violins, some of which are still in existence, according to Stradivarius.org. Many consider his violins to be the greatest ever made in terms of sound, design and overall beauty.
Stradivari made cellos, lutes, guitars and harps, but he is best remembered for his superbly crafted violins, the earliest known having been made in 1666. His more perfected instruments appeared between 1700 and 1725. Stradivari reigned supreme at his craft well into his 70s.
Other famous violin luthiers include Gasparo da Salo (1542-1578), Andrea Amati (1520-1611), Nicolo Amati (1596-1684), Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri (1698-1744) and Carlo Bergonzi (1683-1747). Stradivarius.org reports that da Salo crafted double basses and violas that were considered the foundation for Italian violins. Andrea Amati is credited with starting a dynasty of master luthiers, designing fine instruments for Charles IX and founding a violin-making school in Cremona, Italy.
Nicolo Amati, his grandson, is renowned as the most talented violin maker of his famous family and is believed to have taught Stradivari. Guarneri is considered the only real rival to Stradivari, with some collectors and musicians seeking his work over Stradivari’s. And Bergonzi’s violins featured a successful mix of Stradivari’s and Guarneri’s designs.
What Makes a Great Violin
These luthiers have gone down in history for their highly coveted work, and violin makers today are creating musical masterpieces in the image of their predecessors.
There’s no blueprint for making a superior violin, says Kim Tipper, a luthier and skilled restorer in Victoria, British Columbia. Violin making is a personal art, he says, where the execution of a design, the level of workmanship and the overall fitting of various parts rank highest in importance.
“I think there are a thousand choices in the process of making a violin,” Tipper said. “Not all makers are aware of what they are. They may be making some choices very blindly; they might be buying semifinished parts, in which some of their choices are made for them.”
Guy Harrison, a luthier based in Ottawa, Ontario, cites a few broad, basic elements required to craft an outstanding instrument.
“The selection of wood, the design of the violin, the varnish and the setup of the violin have a big influence -- the small parts like the bridge, the strings, the tail piece,” Harrison explained.
For Tipper, choosing the right wood is vital when it comes to making a violin, which traditionally consists of the back, sides and neck made of maple and a spruce front. He opts for big-leaf maple from Vancouver Island rather than the usual European maple.
“Lots of North American makers who are trying to make great violins will order wood from Europe because it’s the traditional thing,” Tipper said. “But I’ve known some pretty great makers using local wood.”
The characteristics of a great violin include “the properties we can see, in terms of the weight and density, the feel of the instrument and how fine grain it is,” Tipper continued. “About 95 percent of the violins I’ve really loved had wood that visually was wood I would choose: fine-grain spruce under the bridge and attractive maple that’s not overly flamed. Not too much figure, not too much density, and properly cut in terms of the orientation of the grain and the figure and so forth.”
Harrison has his own standards. “I’m looking for a light piece of wood, which is beneficial for the sound of the violin, and a certain grain in the wood,” he said. “I want the wood to be cut correctly.
“The general workmanship is important. There’s a high level of workmanship that goes into an instrument that will sound good and be a reliable instrument so it will keep on sounding good.”
Strings, on the other hand, aren’t very important when it comes to rating a violin. They are a personal choice of the player and are easily replaced. Musicians are more concerned with a good-looking box than the strings.
While there’s no “correct” method in the quest to fashion the perfect violin, a few mistakes can lead to an unplayable instrument.
“It could be wood that is far too heavy or not dried properly,” Harrison said. “There could be something inherently wrong with the design of the violin in the way that the top or back has been shaped, or maybe things are not fitted well.
“Maybe the joint of the back hasn’t been well done, so it may or may not affect the sound, but it’ll affect the reliability of the violin. Maybe the neck is at the wrong angle, or it could be something much more subtle. And if varnish is too thick, it wouldn’t be good.”
Tipper says there has been much scientific inquiry into violins and how to build the perfect instrument, but these ideas never stand up to what great violin makers can already do, and they fall by the wayside.
The Modern Luthier's Advantages
Luthiers’ practices today are very similar to those of 300 years ago, Harrison says, with the exceptions of using an electric bending iron rather than one heated in a coal fire and using an electric band saw instead of having an apprentice do the cutting by hand. Violin makers still use fairly traditional materials and traditional designs, partly because they work.
Tipper and Harrison acknowledge that modern makers have some advantages over historical makers. For one, master luthiers across the globe can share design ideas via the Internet. In addition, it’s easier for hobby violin makers to learn the craft using published manuals or instructions found online. But they emphasize that violin making is an art that a student can master only with a trained mentor.
The modern luthier also has access to wood from all over the world. Stradivari’s violin fingerboards were made with rosewood veneers, which are not durable and can wear through in less than 10 years. He didn’t have access to ebony. A modern violin has an ebony fingerboard, which is durable and can be resurfaced.
These advantages, Tipper says, give luthiers and restorers like himself the opportunity to craft some incredible-sounding instruments.
“With enough money, there’s no limitation to what you can acquire to make a violin.”
Is Stradivari Really Superior?
Kim Tipper, a luthier and skilled restorer in Victoria, British Columbia, and Guy Harrison, a luthier from Ottawa, Ontario, say the debate over whether Stradivari’s instruments are superior to a first-class violin produced today is complicated.
“It’s a matter of opinion,” Tipper said. “What it really comes down to is most of the people with opinions have never really played one. They may have heard somebody play one, but the point is when you hear someone playing a Stradivari, you’re not really hearing the violin. What you’re mainly hearing is so many other things, such as the skill of the player, and people are too quick to forget the repairers, because I think there’s very few Stradivari in their original condition.
“The strong points of the Stradivari are great materials, great design, superior skill, great beauty that always makes them appealing, so there’s always a market ready to put the repair work into a beautiful, beautiful historical object. So when you take all of those things … 80 percent is other than what Stradivari did.
“What Stradivari did is he made a really beautiful object that we want to look after and give to the very best players on the planet. They’ve got hundreds of years of age, which does great things to them tonally. It’s hard for a new violin to compare with a really great old violin. There are things makers can’t put into them as brand-new instruments; whether it’ll take 50 years or 500 years to come out, who knows?”
Harrison says Stradivari is on a pedestal, and violin players and makers look up to him. "Stradivari had a history; he was an icon of violin making,” Harrison said. “It’s sort of like asking if Shakespeare is still the greatest playwright. How do you answer it?
“It’s very difficult to analyze the sound of a violin without having your judgment clouded: You kind of want Stradivari to come out on top. Someone’s handed it to you, and it’s worth $5 million; you kind of expect it to sound better. But in blind tests, new violins do very well.”
Amanda Ash is a freelance journalist based out of Vancouver, Canada. She contributes to "Us Weekly," the "Vancouver Sun," "Exclaim! Magazine" and "The Block Magazine." Ash has also worked for CBC Radio 3, the "Victoria Times Colonist" and the "Edmonton Journal." She holds a Master of Journalism from the University of British Columbia.