Me making a violin

By Sam Harper

Yes, in case you are wondering, I am making a violin. Don't be shocked. Before we get started, I want to share a little background information with you. You can just skip it if you aren't interested. This will sound familiar to those of you who know me personally.

Background information

I've been making bows for a number of years now. Until I started making bows, I had no wood working skills whatsoever. I couldn't even make a wooden box. I still lack conventional skills, but I like working with wood and learning new things. Every time I try something new I discover that it wasn't as difficult as I expected it to be. That has given me the encouragement to always try new things.

I started playing the violin and the viola in middle school. I played through the 10th grade and then quit. After I got out of the navy, I bought a violin, but over the years I have not played it much. Mostly, I just play Christmas tunes and tunes I hear on movies by ear. But last year I met a girl who plays the violin professionally, and it motivated me to start playing the violin more often.

For a while, my thoughts were compartmentalized. In one compartment was my bow-making world. In another compartment was my violin playing world. An incident on the leatherwall last year brought these two worlds together. A fellow on the leatherwall posted some pictures of this dulcimer a friend of his made out of some scrap pieces of cherry. That's when it hit me. "By golly," says I, "I can make a violin!"

I spent a lot of time wanting to make a violin before getting started. I figured I could learn the same way I learned to make bows--by googling it and doing it. Thankfully, there appeared to be just as many on-line tutorials for violin-making as there are for bow-making, and I read quite a bit as well as watched videos on youtube. If you read a lot on the internet about bow-making, you'll find that the most widely recommended books are the Traditional Bowyer's Bibles by Jim Hamm, et al. The violin making equivalent turned out to be The Art of Violin Making by Chris Johnson, et al. My brother (pbuh) and his wife (pbuh) got it for me for Christmas. Wahoo! I read it in a matter of days and would've begun right away if not for a lack of tools. Specifically, it looked like I was going to need some gouges, which were really expensive. I went with the cheapest I could find (on ebay) figuring I may only make one violin anyway. Here are the gouges I got:

They cost about $16. I expect to be frustrated with them by the end of it.

From most of what I read, it seemed like just about every conventional violin has a spruce top, a curly maple back, sides, and neck, and an ebony fingerboard. All the tutorials and books I looked at said that as if it's just the way it has to be.

Well, there was a time when people used to say the same sort of thing about bows--they had to be made out of Yew or Osage. But then about 15 years ago, a few traditional bowyers decided to challenge convention. They began experimenting with different kinds of woods--woods that used to be considered sub par or even impossible to make a bow out of. What they discovered was that you can make a bow out of just about anything as long as the design matches the material. Since then, bowyers have been experimenting with all sorts of different woods and coming out with good bows.

From an initial reading, I was kind of surprised that the same thing hadn't been done with violins. I kept reading that they had to be made of spruce and maple, but no explanation other than "tonal quality" was given, and certainly no discussion of what experimentation resulted in this convention. So I wanted to treat violin making like bow making. I wanted to try some unconventional woods. Why can't the art of violin making be as diverse as bow making? Why must they all be the same? Well, it turns out that I hadn't looked far enough. People have been making violins out of all sorts of woods, and even plastic, and some of them sound pretty good. Here's a video of a girl playing a cedar violin.

A plastic violin. That's right! Plastic!

A chestnut violin. Nice tune, too.

Who knows what this one is! I asked her there were different woods or just different coloured varnishes, and she said they were different pieces of wood glued together.

She has several other videos playing violins made of all sorts of materials. Here's a guy who makes beautiful violins out of walnut and other unconventional materials.

I found this encouraging. I decided to make my first violin with a cedar top, walnut ribs, and maybe a walnut back. I haven't decided on the neck yet, but if I make the sides and back out of walnut, I will probably make the neck and scroll out of walnut as well. I even toyed with the idea of making the top out of bamboo flooring. I don't think anybody has tried that. People used to sneer as the idea of using bamboo flooring in a bow, but it actually works great. Maybe the same will be true in a violin.

And for the fingerboard, I can think of a number of woods that, like ebony, are very hard, should resist wear and last a very long time--ipe, Osage, bloodwood, and purple heart. I won't be using purple heart, though, because I hate purple heart. And about that scroll. Why must it always be a scroll? The scroll serves no other purpose but artistic expression (and something to hang the violin by), so why must artistic expression be so limited? Why can't one carve a horse head instead? People used to carve lion heads. Whatever happened to that?

Upgrade your browser for a better viewing experience »