Violin Knives

v-knifeA “Violin knife” refers to a traditional tool used in both violin making and in broader luthier and wood working.   The basic violin knife is a long relatively narrow piece of tool steel sharpened with an angled ‘blade’ at one end, double beveled and inserted in a removal wooden sleeve handle.  What the knife is used for varies on the width of the steel, the angle of the blade portion and the bevel angle.

The  blade portion can be made by tempering any high carbon steel, or ready made blades can be purchased from suppliers like Pfeil or Hock.  The handles typically are separate and can easily be made in the workshop.

The size of the knife describes the width of the stock.  Because the blade can be moved forward in the handle it can have a very long working life, making it an economical tool.


Top to Bottom: For comparison a Flexcut Detail Knife and Pfeil Detail Knife #11, a 3/4″ mill blade in shop made maple handle, and finally 6mm and 3.5mm  Pfeil violin knife blades in shop made ebony handles

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Jigs: Benchtop Cradle

A cradle is very useful for working on assembled instruments.  Tasks like setting sound posts are easier and less prone to damaging an instrument when the instrument is held in a cradle.

The cradle is no more than a thick piece of wood (or in this case several sheets of inexpensive plywood) hollowed on one side to fit the back of an instrument and lined with cork or leather.  Its also helpful to put something on the bottom to keep the jib from slipping on a bench.

Aside: I keep my setup tools in the old cigar box pictured below.  This are nice boxes and can be found fairly cheap.  Most cigar stores will have a pile and only charge $5 or $10 for the nicest ones, sometimes less.

New Davide Sora Videos

Check out the latest videos from Davide Sora.  Davide’s videos are fantastic demonstrations of tried and true violin making.

His latest is a set of 23 videos on making a violin scroll.  You can find this list and indexes of his other videos on my Best Practices page in the Resource section.

Also he’s made a time-lapse of making the scroll from neck block to finished product in 3 minutes and 15 seconds.  Check it out!


A UV Varnish Drying “Cabinet”


Drying Varnish

There is a saying in violin making that it takes about only a few years to learn the basics of constructing instruments, but it takes the rest of your life you learn varnishing.  A UV Varnish Drying cabinet can speed up the entire finishing process.

Traditional oil varnishes are a combination of drying oil (for example, walnut or linseed), a resin (for example, copal or amber), and a thinner.  While initial drying of varnish is accomplished by the evaporation of the thinner, the curing of the varnish is a chemical process; the varnish alters at an molecular level.   The curing, or polymerization, of the varnish is accelerated by UV light.  Alcohol based varnishes, notably used in the French tradition after the Cremona golden period, do not require this method.  Based on my research, I’m certain that the Cremonese makers used oil varnish.

Tanning instruments (both in the white and after coats of varnish) is a common technique in violin making.  Exposure to artificial UV light effectively replaces exposure to sunlight.  This is useful in areas which have lower sunlight exposure due to winter, or where exposure to direct sunlight isn’t practical (the glass in household windows blocks a large portion of UV light).  Aside from curing varnish, sunlight is also used to ‘tan’ an instrument which darkens the flaming of maple.

CAUTION: exposure to UV light causes cataracts and skin cancer, just like over exposure to the sun.  The bulbs I recommend below should be fairly safe for short period of exposure, but its best to avoid prolonged exposure.

The UV cabinet is a tool which provides a way to accelerate the exposure of the instrument to UV both for tanning of the bare wood, and accelerating the curing of the varnish between coats.  An instrument may be tanned for one or multiple weeks, while varnish exposed to UV will cure overnight.



The UV “Cabinet”

A simple, cost effective method of building a UV cabinet is the steel can cabinet.  Not glamorous🙂, but certainly low cost and functional.  This consists of a galvanized steel rubbish bin or garbage can, with UV florescent lights mounted vertically inside the can.  A small amount of electrical expertise is required.


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Jigs: Vee-Board

A vee-board is very useful for fine fret saw work, such as for rough cutting the f-holes, I also find it quite useful for work where the edge of plate (belly or back) needs to overhang, such as using a purfling marker or cutter, or filing edges to shape.

Roger Hargrave outlines how he uses a vee-board in his article Purfling & Edgework in Cremonese Instruments in the library section of his website.


Book Review: The Art of Violin Making

art of violinThe Art of Violin Making by Chris Johnson and Roy Courtnall, first published in 1999, is a step by step guide for making a violin based on traditional methods with an inside mold.  One of the most popular books on making, its also a great shop reference for the new maker, and my personal go-to book on violin making.

The book’s primary focus is the process of making a violin using traditional (non-power tool) methods.  It has brief overviews on historical and modern makers, tools and sharpening, material selection and glue use, and sound adjustment, but does not delve into detail in this matters.

With about 400 illustrations over 253 pages, including a few color examples of violins from historic makers, and many black and white pictures of the making process, it has plenty of graphic references for the reader.

The book is separated into these sections:

  • Part I The Violin Makers
  • Part II The Maker’s Workshop
  • Part II Violin Construction
  • Sound Adjustment
  • Appendices: Technical terms, Metric/imperial conversion, Suppliers, Collection

Part I The Violin Makers

A 16 page write and color pictures of violins from significant historical and modern makers.  The historical section includes chapters on the Amati Family, Antonio Stradivari, the Guarneri family, and Jacob Stainer.  In the contemporary section there are bios and opinions on violin making from Paul Bowers, Glen Collins, John Dilworth, Roger Hargrave, Patrick Jowett, and Patrick and Andrea Robin-Frandsen.

Part II The Maker’s Workshop

This part of the book focuses on the workshop, tools and materials.  As noted above the method of making in this book focuses on traditional hand-tool focused making of instruments.

This section first touches on the working environment, lighting and humidity control.  Then goes on to document the tools needed for making an instrument by hand (without power tools), breaking them into common woodworking tools and specialized violin making tools.  The specialized tools include a description of each.  A brief section on sharpening follow, as well as short sections on types and selection of materials (such as tonewood).  Lastly this section includes a brief section on hide glue and its use.

Part III Violin Construction

This section comprises the bulk of the book, about 170 pages.  It goes through a step by step process of making a violin utilizing an inside mold right from preparing the mold to varnishing the violin.  Of course there is no substitute for hands on instruction, but this guide is a great aid and reference.  Plenty of illustrations demonstrate the steps, jigs and tools and critical dimensions.

Sound Adjustment

This three page section was written by Gerald Botteley and discusses instrument setup, particularly the bridge and soundpost.


This section contains a list of Technical terms, tables for Metric/imperial conversion, Addresses of materials, tools suppliers and journals, and finally a collections of instruments around the world.

Jigs: Edge Fluting



This swivel cradle is ideal for edge fluting.  The cradle rotates in a vice.  It’s designed so that tightening the vice locks the rotation of the jig.

The jig is also useful for final shaping and finishing.  The jig is hollowed so that the inside of plates can be worked as well.

The four corner holders are lined with cork and are slotted so that they can fit a variety of plate sizes.

Its all about pitch (angle)

Hand planing is a fast and effective way to achieve a great finish on ribs.   Hand planes are also key for getting a good flat surface on plates, necks and the back of finger boards.  How well your plane works for you will depend on its setup, including the pitch angle.  Check out my new addition to the best practices page, Hand Plane Setup to learn about this topic.

Low-Angle Bevel-up block planes are great for a variety of tasks, but only with the correct blade bevel.  Knowing which blade bevel to use for which job will vastly improve your making experience.  Check out the page to learn more.


Traditional Bevel Down Terminology

Petition: British Airways & Musical Instruments


At Amsterdam Schiphol Airport on 4 June 2016, Cecilia Bernardini, a violinist flying from Amsterdam to London for a concert at the prestigious Wigmore Hall, was forced by BA staff to carry her 18th century Italian violin on her lap with no case, while her case (not designed for rough travel) containing three valuable bows was checked into the hold.

A petition has been started to have British Airways update it’s policy with clear language around the allowance of Musical Instruments (and their cases) as carry on.  Sign the petition.


Cutting the Purfling Channel

I’ve tried a new method for cutting purfling channels, this uses Roger Hargrave’s interpretation of the Stradivari method.  Among Strad’s artifacts, now in the Museo Del  Violino in Cremona, Italy, are two single bladed purfling cutters.  Roger believes that Strad used these to cut independently the outside and inside edge of the purfling groove.

I used this method on my most recent violin and found it worked well on the back, but was especially useful on the top, where year growth rings can cause a freely held knife blade to be pulled into the soft summer wood.

To do this I re-ground two of the blades from an Ibex-style purfling marker to be double edged (pointed) so they could cut in both directions.  A narrow taper ensures the blades won’t over-widen as they cut around the turns and corners.  I then mounted each blade in its own purfling marker.  I added a small brass ‘L’ to act as a depth stop which meant less checking of my depth of cutting.  The cutters worked well, but I did occasionally use my knife.

To setup the cutting position, test with a scrap of wood with the purfling you plan to use for the instrument under construction.  Also in the pictures above you’ll see a file which i converted to purfling picker.