Great violins last hundreds of years, so perhaps a ten-year wait for wood to age isn’t so bad for violinmakers. But scientists hope to speed things up.
The nature of violinmaking is that the mastery thereof is part science, part art – and lots of patience. Just looking at one aspect of the process, determining if the raw wood has sufficiently aged, illustrates this point.
The reason wood – spruce for the soundboard and maple for the bridge (ebony and rosewood are typically used for the fingerboard) – needs to age is for the natural water content to dry out. For some wood applications, furniture making for example, it is less important that this process occur naturally over a long stretch of time. But a dining room chair is not a $50,000 violin.
For fine violins – as well as fine cellos and violas - the amount of moisture in the wood of a violin needs to be equal to that of ambient moisture. The technical term is “equilibrium moisture content.” If this equilibrium is not achieved, there can be several bad effects on the raw material:
Bowing along the face of the wood board
Curvature springing along the edge of the wood board
Twisting (“winding”) of the board
Cupping, or a curvature across the width
Grain of wood splitting
Collapse of the wood cells
Moisture traps in the center cells of the wood, even if the external regions are dried.
The drying method used by suppliers of wood to a violinmaker (they’re also known as “luthiers”, although the term also applies to makers of violas, cellos, stringed bass, and guitars) is to stack cut pieces from logs in such a way that maximizes air exposure. Some say three to four years of drying is sufficient, and others argue for wood that has aged for at least ten years. Experts say the difference is seen in quality, which is factored into the material pricing (less-aged wood is priced lower). But they also advise that such things as the wood itself, the age of the tree, and where it grew, can affect dry times.
This naturally begs the question about speeding up the dry time with heat, applied through kilns. This is something used in all kinds of woodworking, but again, a violin is not a dining room chair. A kiln changes the very cellular structure of the wood. That would have a deleterious effect by changing the sound of the finished violin.
All that said, there are violins made with accelerated, kiln processes. These are the lower-end, manufactured violins typically made for beginner-level students, particularly those produced in China.
There is also some research underway at the Institute for Musical Instrument Making at the University of Dresden in Zwota, Germany, which claims thermally modified timber, “artificially aged wood,” can considerably reduce storage times and costs. The researchers note that demand for high-quality wood that has been aged for several years is not keeping up with increasing demand for quality musical instruments – and that the demand for old-growth wood has an environmental cost as well.
“Fir trees have grown calmly in the mountains for 250 to 300 years with fine and uniform growth rings, until they provide light and yet stable resonating wood for guitars, violins, violas or cellos. But this precious wood is becoming rarer and more expensive, and to complicate matters, only one in five of these old trees is suitable for instrument making,” says Klaus Eichelberger, a member of the university’s wood research faculty.
The method used by the researchers, described as a “mild pyrolysis,” is not yet advanced to commercial use. But they say it is promising, with “ larger dimensional stability, higher durability, and an improved tonal behavior, comparable to artificial aging without negative effects.”
Perhaps one day the wait for usable material in finer stringed instruments will not require quite so much time. For now, patience remains a virtue – for virtuosos.