We take the violin for granted. But there is no doubt it is one of the most played and most loved instruments there is. If you take a moment to consider it, what music would we be missing if we didn’t have the violin? It doesn’t bear thinking about it.
But how are they made, and what are violins made of? Well, you are in luck, because at are going to take an in-depth look at what violins are made of. And in doing so, I will also be discussing how violins are made.
Culture and Evolution
It isn’t an instrument that suddenly arrived on our doorstep gift-wrapped. It evolved through various cultures over thousands of years. There was originally a stringed instrument in Palestine used for religious purposes.
Furthermore, there was an instrument called the Rabab that came much later. It had two strings, a body, and a neck and was played seated with a bow. That finally arrived in Europe in the 11th century, probably brought over by invading armies from North Africa.
If indeed that is how it arrived, it was renamed the Rebec and had some construction differences. Now it was played wedged under the chin with a bow, not seated. The Rebec acquired an extra string, and what we know as the violin began taking shape.
The instrument spread across Europe, with changes being made to its build. By the 13th century in France, an instrument called the Vielle with five strings was popular. This was during the Medieval period, and as we headed towards the Renaissance, music was changing.
Not France, but Italy
The credit for the Violin we know today goes to Andre Amati (1511-1577). He began making the instruments and set up his own school to teach his art. The oldest Violin still in existence was made by him. But not in France. In Italy.
The School in Cremona
Two of Andre’s children, Antonius and Hieronymus Amati, attended his school. Known as the “Brothers Amati,” the dynasty was established. Grandson Nicolo arrived as a student. And in later years taught both Antonio Stradivari and the grandfather of Giuseppe Guarneri. We all know where that ended up.
Now world-famous and the indisputable “kings” of the Violin, the original instruments were made from Maple. They were often adorned with motifs like the fleurs-de-lis. The instrument had evolved into what we have now. But how has the build changed in five hundred years, if at all?
Today there are thousands of violins churned out of factories all over the world every day. But the best quality made violins still come from those Luthiers using the original techniques. With that in mind, let’s see what woods they use.
Which Woods are Best for Making a Violin?
Always remember that the violin is a complex instrument. You need a quality Tonewood for the top and a resonant wood for the back and sides. Sturdy, strong woods for the ribs inside. The tuners are also sympathetic to sound and ‘feel’ woods for the neck and the bridge. Let’s look at these woods in order of how a violin is made.
The ribs give the violin its shape. They are usually made from Maple and cut to shape using an outline “map” of the finished instrument.
They might be responsible for the shape of the instrument, but all the internals need to have a resonant response to the sound. Using the wrong woods could affect the overall sound of the instrument in a detrimental way. Maple is not the cheapest of woods, but it has the necessary qualities.
It has long been recognized that Spruce forms a great-sounding tonewood. This is why it is used on so many acoustic guitars and other instruments today as the “Tone Board” on top. Likewise with the violin. However, you will quite often find in mid-range and cheaper priced violins that the top wood is Maple and not Spruce.
The Spruce top is made from a slice of wood that is then cut in two down the length of the body of the Violin. The task of planing and finishing the wood, so the two pieces form an exact match, is part of the art of an expert Luthier.
The top is also where the ‘F’ soundholes are cut into the Spruce. This is another reason for the value of this wood. It is very dense. That is a great help when joining the two pieces for constructing the top. But it also helps with the accuracy when cutting the sound holes.
This is where a combination of woods helps to create the sound of the instrument. Spruce has certain qualities and will give you a bright, clear tone. To add warmth and depth, the usual wood choice for the back and the sides is Maple.
This complements the internal structure of the ribs we have already mentioned. The result is the brightness of the top Spruce tonewood combining with the warmth and depth of the Maple back, sides, and the internals.
A certain sound is created
As you can imagine, together they produce a great sound. These designs and wood choices emulate, in many ways, the designs of those originals by Stradivari and Guarneri. Although, no one has quite managed to recreate the sounds of those vintage masterpieces. There is a reason for that, but we haven’t got the space here to enter into that discussion.
The wood of choice for the Neck is also maple. Usually taken from a piece of the tree that matches the back for aesthetic reasons. The reason they choose Maple, though, is not just because it looks good.
There is plenty of it, and it has great endurance and strength. This makes it ideal for the neck as it will resist twisting and any malformation. It also takes wood stain very well, so in the final modes of completion, a beautiful-looking instrument is guaranteed.
The neck needs to be stable, but the fingerboard is the part that takes the punishment. It needs to be hard and able to withstand the constant pressure and hammering from the musician’s fingers. That is why Ebony is the chosen wood for the fingerboard.
It is hard, as we said, but it is also very dense and resistant to warping and twisting. It also looks aesthetically good. However, it is not in great supply, which is why some manufacturers don’t use it but use a cheaper version.
Worth a check
This other version hasn’t got the strength of real ebony. But by staining and polishing, it is made to visually resemble it. It is always worth ensuring your fingerboard is “real” Ebony.
An aptly named addition is the Bridge which sits on the body and supports the strings. This is made from Maple as well. It might seem like an insignificant piece of wood, but it has a vital role to play.
It acts as a conduit, transferring the sound of the strings to the body. Allowing for the beautiful sound of Maple once again combining with the Spruce tonewood on top and the Maple body to come through.
The way that the strings are anchored to the instrument on the body. This was also once made from wood, but these days it’s usually made from other materials. You will usually find it is made from metal, but in some cheaper versions, it is made from plastic.
The chin rest is made from Ebony. Up at the top end, the scroll box and the tuning pegs are also Ebony. However, this may vary with some cheaper instruments where they might use an alternative cheaper wood.
Once made exclusively from wood, these days, they are usually made from other materials. There are several reasons for this. But this is one of the few areas of manufacture that a synthetic material pays off in manufacture.
Fiberglass or carbon fiber are the most popular choices. They are lightweight and stiff and, therefore, allow all the bowing techniques required. They are also very durable and are not affected by heat or cold.
One thing that hasn’t changed
That is the hair of the bow. On a good bow, you will still find real horsehair, often Mongolian horsehair. There are some cheaper synthetic options if you prefer.
Let’s just make a short comment about the strings. They are not and never have been made from cat’s digestive organs. Gut strings are made from sheep intestines. Many intermediate and beginner violinists use synthetic strings. Whereas, Gut strings are usually only used by the Pros.
We have not touched on them in this discussion. But, we are asking the question, “What are violins made of?” Even the electric type. So, they deserve their place.
Electric violins still play very much like acoustic violins, but they are usually made from Kevlar or Carbon Fiber. They have a minimalist, “space age-like” design, and the materials designed are used to reduce the overall weight. Furthermore, electric violins sound similar but are also distinctly different from acoustic violins.
Violins are Made to be Played
For a great Spruce/Maple combination from one of the best violin makers, there is the YAMAHA Spruce and Maple wood Violin. However, you will note a difference in the price point.
Looking for a Great Violin or Violin Accessories?
We can help you find just what you’re after. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Cremona Violins, the Best Student Violins, the Best Violin Strings, the Best Violin Bows, the Best Electric Violins, the Best Violin for Kids, the Best Violin Rosins, and the Best Violin Cases you can buy in 2021.
You might also enjoy our guides on How to Replace Your Violin Strings, How Are Violin Strings Made, Tips For Tuning Your Violin, A Guide to Choosing the Right Violin Strings, and Who Invented the Violin for more helpful information about violins.
What Are Violins Made Of – Final Thoughts
The violin is one of the great instruments. It has been with us now for 500 years in its current format. How it is made and what materials are used are vital to how it sounds.
Until next time, let your music play.