This is a lovely project. It’s a commission from close to home, a violinist in Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra who lives quite near me. Philippa had seen one of my violins and heard quite a lot about my work before she visited. When we chatted about what she was looking for, I thought that a late Stradivari model would fit the bill, and started to think about which one to use as a model.
While I was thinking, I paid a visit to the workshop of the Royal Academy of Music to say hello to friends who work there. I also had a look at some of the stunning instruments on display in their museum. This violin really stood out for me as a potential for this commission. It’s a wonderful instrument, with the high full arching that I like and marvellously asymmetric sound holes. It comes from the very end of Stradivari’s life and it’s likely that much of the work was undertaken by his son Francesco. Thanks to the generosity of the Academy I was able to arrange to have access to the violin to measure and photograph it.
As ever with a new model, there is a lot of work to do before anything begins to look like a violin; making the templates and mould as well as preparing the wood for the back, front, head and ribs.
I’ve started with the ribs, which are sawn from the piece of maple I’ll use for the one-piece back. These are planed to just over 1mm thick then bent with heat to fit round the mould. Then the linings are glued into place; these are small strips of spruce which reinforce the eventual glue joint with the back and front. Finally everything is planed flat ready to make the outline of the back and front.
While the ribs are in progress, I’m also working on the scroll. This is a lovely one, and made with the characteristic Stradivari craftsmanship.
With the ribs finished, I’ve drawn round them on the back and front, cut out the wood and started planing the arching shapes.
The wood for the back of the violin is a high-quality piece of maple, probably over 30 years old. It has a nice moderately wide figure and excellent grain structure. I’ve matched it with a younger front, a nice piece of spruce. The arching is now planed close to the finished shape, and I’ve finalised the outlines.
I sometimes think that violin making flows with the same rubato that musicians use. The beginning of an instrument seems to take longer than it should, and then when you get going it goes faster than you expected. So in the last week the violin has really begun to take shape. Firstly, I fitted the purfling. I cut the groove round the edge and then bent, trimmed and fitted the sandwich of dyed pear and poplar.
Then I finalised the arching of the back and front.
The next job is to turn over the wood and remove wood until I reach the final thickness. I decide this by balancing a number of factors; the weight, how stiff it feels when I flex it and how it sounds when I tap. This violin seemed to know where it wanted to be quite easily and I was able to work fast and fluently, just as I like to.
Then the very enjoyable task of cutting the sound holes. On the original violin they are very asymmetrical, but when I measured the instrument, it was striking how many of the dimensions were identical on both left and right sound hole; geometry the same, execution not. But I do enjoy asymmetry, so I’ve followed the original as well as I can.
For the front to be finished, it needs its bass bar, which helps to strengthen it and also to reinforce the bass register of the violin.
And now the ribs come off the mould, I finish the internal surfaces and glue the back to the ribs and then the front.
And finally, I fit and shape the neck so that the violin is finished ‘in the white’. An exciting moment. I’ve loved making this, is such an inspiring and interesting model, and I’m so grateful to the Royal Academy of Music for allowing me access to measure the original.
The violin is now finished. It had a warm reddy varnish with a lightly aged finish, which shows the beautiful wood to good advantage. I’m pleased with the sound; the G in particular is extremely rich and warm, and overall there is a good balance of warmth and power, which I hope will make it a rewarding instrument for its new owner.