The Violin Maker’s Notebook


The Violin Maker’s Notebook is a hand written reference on violin making written by an unknown author around 1987.   The author references Peter Prier and may have been an apprentice of Peter’s or a student of the Violin Making School of America (which Peter founded).

The document is wide reaching, touching quite a variety of topics and is a great reference for those starting out.  It could be a nice complement to other more through works like “The Art of Violin Making” by Johnson and Courtnall.

I have a page dedicated to the notebook here in my Reference section.  You can download the notebook there.  If you use it and find it useful, please consider donating to the VSA’s Scholarship Fund, a link is provided on the notebook’s page.

Resource Section Added!

Resource Section Added!

I’ve added a resource section which contains summaries and synopsis of a number of commonly referenced books on violin history, research and making.  Check it out!

Please let me know if you have any requests for information, or if you have suggestions of books to be added.

For each book I’ve included a WorldCat lookup.  Many of these books cost in the hundreds of dollars, but can be borrowed at local libraries or through inter-library loans.

What’s in a colour

I’ve begun looking at pigments to colour the ‘Titian’ Strad I’m making.  From the ‘Pigments through the ages’ website, we can see that brown, yellow, and red pigments used in the 1650-1750’s included:

  • Lead-Tin Yellow 15th-18th Centuries.  Lead stannate (Type I), Lead tin oxide silicate (Type II).
  • Indian Yellow  15th-19th Centuries, Magnesium euxanthate.
  • Vermilion (aka cinnabar) 8th Century on.  Used by the painter Titian, the color of whose paintings inpsired the naming of the Titian Strad. Mercuric sulfide.
  • Red Lead (aka minum) Lead(II,IV)-oxide.
  • Orpiment (aka King’s Yellow), Arsenic sulfide.  Used in Asia and Persian, but not Northern Europe.
  • Realgar, Toxic Arsenic sulfide.
  • Madder Lake (Natural: garanza lake, Synthetic: Alizarin), most widely used in the 18th and 19th Centuries.   Often refered to as the colour used most often by the Cremonese makers.
  • Yellow Ochre, Iron oxyhydroxide.
  • Red Ochre, Anhydrous iron(III)-oxide  (Aka Cinabrese, Synthetic: Mars Red).
  • Umber, comes in Raw Earth and Burnt varieties.  A natural mixture of iron and manganese oxides and hydroxides.
  • Carbon black, (aka Charcoal black, vine black, lamp black).
  • Bone Black (aka ivory black, bone charcoal) It contains about 10% carbon, 84% calcium phosphate and 6 % calcium carbonate. It is made from charring of bones or waste ivory and has a black-blue hue.

These are period pigments and all are very light-fast.  Other organic dyes can be extracted from a variety of plants, etc, but in those cases you have to weary of fading.

Note that some of the above are opaque pigments and some are translucent.  Opaque’s are good for touching up blemishes, but should be avoided for varnishing new instruments.

For the current instrument, I’m exploring Vermilion, and Alizarin (Madder Lake).  Here are some colour samples.  I’m using synthetic pigments based in linseed oil.

Chladni and the his infamous patterns

Chladni patterns are visual representations of the nodes of vibrations setup in the a surface while it is subject to a specific frequency.  This and more on modern acoustics is found in Chapter 5 of Erik Jansson’s publication “Acoustics for Violin and Guitar Makers” here.  A good overall description of Chladni patterns can be found on the New South Whales University website here.

Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni has been around a while and published a book on the patterns seen in vibrating plates in 1787.  His original publication is on Google Books here, however, a knowledge of old German and a Ph.D. in physics are prerequisite.  It’s reported that his interests in the patterns were inspired by George Christoph Lichtengberg’s earlier experiments on electrical figures[1].  Interest in this visual representation of sound waves was such that Chladni demonstrated it for Nepolean in 1809[2].  A plate of the image of Chladni is seen below [2].

Brain, Robert Michael, Robert S. Cohen Ole Knudsen, Hans Christian Orsted and
the romantic legacy in science: Ideas, disciplines, practices, Boston Studies
in the Philosphy of Science (Springer: 2007) p238

Stockmann, Hans-Jurgen, Quantum chaos: an introduction (Cambridge Univeristy
Press, 1999) p15

The cradle jig

A cradle jig comes in handy during hollowing and base-bar fitting.  I managed without one up until now, but decided it was time.  I based this one on pictures from Courtnall.  Its made to accommodate deep (high) arching, adjustable length (up to large violas), and interchangeable blocks.  The wood is poplar, the adjustment knob is an old piece of ebony, all unfinished at this point.

“The most ingenious piece of mechanical drawing…”

The 1885 book by Ed. Heron-Allen is well-known to the curious violin makers.  While certainly not a modern reference, it is interesting in its historical picture of the world of violin making.  It also teaches us there is nothing new under the sun; on page 133 he refers to the vibration modes 2 and 5, and nodal lines.  The book is now available from the open library project online, here.

In this book Heron-Allen provides a geometric way of producing a violin outline, taken from Jacob Augustus Otto book “ueber den Bau der Bogen-instrumente” from 1817 [Otto] also available in English [Bishop] here.   I decided to try reproducing the outline in a CAD program and came up with the following outline.  I can offer it to anyone interested.   Heron-Allen described it as: “though terribly complicated, the most ingenious piece of mechanical drawing I have ever come across”.   He does not give any method for choosing the dimensions, so I would classify this as more of a ‘curiosity’, then a sound reference.

Here is an excerpt from the book and the instructions for generating the diagram (Ed. Heron-Allen, Violin-Making: As it Was and Is Being a Historical; Theoretical and Practical Treatise on the Science and Art of Violin-Making for the use of Violin Makers and Players, Amateur and Professional, 2nd edition (Ward, Lock & Co. Ltd: London, New York, Melbourne, 1885) pp136-139):

To trace an independent outline mathematically on a given, graduated, perpendicular straight line, you must proceed as follows.  And I beg, before commencing the explanation of this operation, which is illustrated by Fig. 79, to record my indebtedness to Mr. John Bishop, by whose courtesy I am enabled to reproduce this diagram and descriptive letterpress from his translation of Otto’s work on the construction of the violin (vide note p. 20) [1] :—

Draw a perpendicular line down the middle of a sheet of paper or of the flat side of the piece of wood intended for the back, of the exact length required for the body of the instrument (without the button b, Fig. 79), and divide it into 72 equal parts, as shown in the figure.  This must be done with the greatest accuracy, for on it depends the correctness of the whole.

Then intersect this perpendicular, by 20 horizontal lines at the points named below.

Line (1) A at the point 8 Line (11) L at the point 33
Line (2) B at the point 14 Line (12) M at the point 34
Line (3) C at the point 16 Line (13) N at the point 37
Line (4) D at the point 20 Line (14) O at the point 39
Line (5) E at the point 20 ¼ Line (15) P at the point 40
Line (6) F at the point 22 Line (16) Q at the point 44 ¼
Line (7) G at the point 23 Line (17) R at the point 48
Line (8) H at the point 27 Line (18) S at the point 55
Line (9) I at the point 28 Line (19) T at the point 56
Line (10) K at the point 31 Line (20) V at the point 65

This being done, open the compasses to an extent of 9 parts of the perpendicular, and describe the two arcs a a from the point b.
Then place the compasses on the point 24, and opening them to b, draw the curve a b a.

Next set off 2 parts c, on each side of the perpendicular, on the horizontal line C. Place the compasses on the point c, and opening them to a, draw the curves d d, from a to the horizontal line A.

Now set off one part e, on each side of the perpendicular on the line B. Place the compasses on these points, and opening them to the line A, where the curve d ends, draw the curves f from the line A to that of D. This completes the draught of the upper portion of the instrument without the corners.

For the middle or narrow portion proceed thus :—On the horizontal line L set off 11 1/3  parts from the perpendicular to the point g; and then 11 other parts, from g to h, from which latter point draw the curve from the line L to that of P.

Next set off 23 ¾ parts on the line K, from the perpendicular to k ; open the compasses to the point where the curve i intersects the line M, and draw the curve from the line M to that of H. The little angle formed by the curves between the lines L and M, must be worked off so as to bring the sides into proper shape.

The lower portion is obtained as follows :—Open the compasses 11 parts, and describe the two arcs v v from the point r r.  Then place the compasses on the point 35, and opening them to r r, draw the curve v w v.

Next set off 6 parts x on each side of the perpendicular on the line S. Place the compasses on the point x, and opening them to v, draw the curves y y from v to the line V.

Now set off 4 parts z on each side of the perpendicular on the line T. Place the compasses on these points, and opening them to the line V, where the curve y ends, draw the curves a a from the line V to that of R.

For the upper corners, set off 24 ½ parts on the line G, from the perpendicular to o, and placing the compasses on this point, open them to the line D, where the curve f ends, and draw the curve from the line D to that of F.

Then on the line I set off 14 2/3 parts from the perpendicular to m. Place the compasses on this point, and opening them to line H where the curve ends, draw the curve from the line H to s.

Now on the line E set off 22 parts from the perpendicular to q. Place the compasses on this point, and opening them to where the curve meets the line F, draw the curve from the line F to s. Again place the compasses on the point 20, and opening them 16 1/3 parts mark off the length of the corners s s.

For the lower corners set off 24 parts on the line Q from the perpendicular to b b, and, placing the compasses on this point, open them to the line R, where the curve a a ends, and draw the curve from the line R to d d.

Then on the line N set off 16 ½ parts from the perpendicular to t. Place the compasses on this point, and, opening them to where the curve meets the line P, draw the curve from the last-named line to d d.

Lastly, place the compasses on the point 49, and, opening them 19 ¾ parts, mark off the length of the corners d d,d d.

This completes the entire model, and the belly can now be marked from the back thus traced.

To obtain the proper rise or height for the back or belly, take a thin piece of bard wood, about 2 inches broad, and a little longer than the violin you propose to make (Fig. 79a), and mark it in the middle at the point A, which must be three ” parts ” (of the foregoing scale) distant from the edge, shown here by the dotted line. Then, placing a large pair of compasses on the point A, open them 216 parts, or three times the length of the body of the instrument, and with this radius describe the arc shown in the figure, which, by being sawed out, will serve as a guide for the height or rise required.

The small semicircular piece seen at the top of Fig. 79 is the ” button,” which is part of the back, and made in one piece with it, to which is glued the shoulder when the neck is fixed to the body.

This method of tracing an outline (which has been given by more than one author) is, though terribly complicated, the most ingenious piece of mechanical drawing I have ever come across. Nowadays any one can get access to a good outline, which may be copied as before set down, but I have given the above method as it is extremely interesting, and clever in construction.

Jacob Augustus Otto, “ueber den Bau der Bogen-instrumente,” etc., 1st edition (Halle and Leipsic, 1817); 2nd edition (Jena, 1828),

John Bishop, of Cheltenham, “A treatise on the Structure, etc., of the Violin, etc.” (London, 1st edition 1848; 2nd edition 1860; 3rd edition 1875), Translation of Otto’s “ueber den Bau der Bogen-instrumente”

Peg Layout

Proper layout of the pegs is important to avoid string-peg contact (and a tuning nightmare).

Here I layout the peg pattern for the Titian project.   I chose to follow this scroll pattern as it is fairly small (and hence light and less tiring on the player).  The pegs were spaced at 14.5mm, 23mm and 14.5mm and a line draw between the E-D-A Pegs (as appearing in order viewed from the right side).  I estimated the largest dimensions of the pegs and then adjusted their relative positions to prevent any string to peg contact.

Layout for Titian Variation #1

This is the completed pattern (April 4, 2011 – Titian variation #1).  I rotated the scroll slightly with respect to the neck.  In most cases the edge of the front side of the scroll is in line with the base of the finger board, that is now the case for this pattern.

Final pattern used in the Titian project.

One jar of spool clamps please…

These are some spool clamps I made on  my lathe early on in violin making.  These are maple and roughly follow the specifications laid out in Courtnall.  I made 32 of them.  I modified the design to include a raised area so that the stainless steel threaded rod does not come in contact with the edge of the plates.  The rod is fixed on one end to ease installation.  They are lined with cork with a diameter of about 25mm and have a capacity of 47mm.  The finish is two coats of tung oil.  This jar exactly fits the 32 of them, so that’s where I keep them.  They work well!