- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2004

David Ludwik Chrapkiewicz practices empirical science. As owner of Rapkievian Fine Violins in Washington Grove, the violin maker uses trial and error to try to make the perfect instrument. He handcrafts about three violins a year, which cost about $16,000 each.

“Most violin makers are not trained in science,” he says. “They may make beautiful instruments, and one will turn out well in terms of sound, and they won’t understand why. … I don’t think [Italian violin maker] Antonio Stradivari had any knowledge of acoustics… but he experimented.”

The technological method of making violins hasn’t changed much in 300 years. Although electrical equipment can be used to make mass-produced instruments, traditional violin makers carve their violins by hand, aware that the laws of science, especially involving acoustics, enable them to create their masterpieces. Most, however, don’t completely understand the science at work in their creations.

Sometimes machines are used in the beginning stages of handcrafting a violin, but the final product must be finished by hand, Mr. Chrapkiewicz says. He works in dimmed light to better see where the wood needs additional carving. The shadows help him see details in the contours of the wood.

The arching of the wood on the top of the violin is one of the most important aspects of its design, he says. The curves should extend all the way to the edge of the top to carry the vibrating sound waves throughout the entire instrument.

The sound waves originate from the friction of the bow on the strings and are carried to the bridge, which supports the strings. The bridge pushes down on the top of the violin and sends the vibrations through the instrument.

“People think of the violin as a string instrument,” Mr. Chrapkiewicz says. “It’s really a wind instrument that uses strings to activate the air column.”

Distribution of the stiffness and thickness of the wood on the top, back and bridge is what makes a great-sounding violin, he says. Thickness can be measured with a ruler, but the hand of a trained violin maker serves as the “stiffness” calibrator. The stiffness of the wood determines how the waves move in the air and travel throughout the violin, which affects the tone of the final sound.

“If the top is too thin, it will vibrate OK on the lower end and won’t support the higher-pitched vibrations at the top of the violin,” Mr. Chrapkiewicz says. “Everything ties into acoustics and stiffness. It all boils down to that.”

Tapping on the wood in certain places can help a violin maker clarify whether the violin needs additional work before the pieces are assembled, says David Lashof, owner of Lashof Violins in Gaithersburg.

The top and the back pieces should be held separately while they are tapped. Each side should be held by a corner of the upper section and tapped in the center. They also should be held near the middle, where the sound post would be placed and tapped at the edge. The pitches heard when the front of the instrument is tapped should be an octave apart, while the pitches on the back should be a fifth apart.

Also, placing the top panel on a stereo speaker and vibrating the wood at different frequencies can reveal whether the piece needs additional carving. By placing pieces of glitter on the wood while it vibrates, the maker can check the patterns made by the glitter. Depending on the specific frequency, the glitter should make a certain shape, such as an oval.

Although this test couldn’t have been done 300 years ago, the main change in violins since their origin was made in the early 1800s when concert A, the pitch to which the orchestra tunes, was raised. The change placed a lot more stress on the instrument.

“The top was too weak to support the extra pressure,” Mr. Lashof says. “The bass bar inside was made longer, and the neck was made longer and repositioned to create less tension on the top of the instrument.’

Within the next 20 years, Fan Tao, director of research and development at J. D’Addario in Farmingdale, N.Y., hopes more exact information can be understood about how science can help make violins. He anticipates it will be similar to how scientific research aided in making golf clubs or tennis rackets.

“Historically, violin makers wanted nothing to do with science,” he says. “They thought there was no place for science. Fortunately, that attitude is beginning to change. Some of the younger violin makers are seeing that in order to make better and more consistent violins, they need more knowledge of how [science] works.”

Mr. Tao is trying to bridge the gap between the physicist and the violin maker. However, because every piece of wood is different, a simple formula for making a violin cannot be created, Mr. Tao says. Lightweight spruce traditionally is used for the top plate, while maple is used for the back. Sometimes violin makers experiment by choosing different types of wood for their instruments.

“The violin makers would like to know what to do with that particular piece of wood,” he says. “Wood selection is very important for visual and aesthetic reasons. They should select wood for good acoustic properties.”

Despite the benefits of understanding science, many violin makers don’t want scientists to learn the secrets to making instruments, says John Schmidt, owner of John Schmidt Violins in Columbia, Md.

“If the scientists have a recipe, it diminishes our value,” he says. “There’s a large effort among the really good violin makers to distance themselves from science. The end result would be destructive to their livelihood.”

Even though science may be used when creating violins, the craft in its highest form is an art, says Christopher Germain, owner of Christopher Germain Violinmaker in Mount Airy, Md.

“If you had the knowledge or knew the special pigments that were used in paint, would that enable you to reproduce the Mona Lisa?” he asks. “No, you would have to be an artist first.”

Mr. Germain does simple tests on his violins that he believes the renowned Italian violin makers of the 1700s performed, such as weighing the pieces of wood for the instrument. He also tests the density of the wood he uses. Violin makers look for wood that is strong, but light. The varnish applied to the wood also needs to be light, which is another point of experimentation among makers.

The light weight of the instrument is important to allow it to resonate well, says Jeff Liverman, executive director of the Danville Science Center in Danville, Va. The resonance is what allows the violin to be used as a solo instrument in a concert hall.

“The goal of a good maker, whether they know it or not, is to produce an instrument that responds well over a wide range of frequencies,” he says. “It’s a very complicated system. There’s still a lot that we don’t completely understand. It’s an exciting topic, being able to make an instrument and think about what the science is behind it to help you improve the next one.”

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