Inside-the-Shop are informative articles written by Kevin Smith, Luthier of The Violin Shop
San Diego | San Diego County | Southern California
A 5-Seam Map to a Small Corner of Violin History
John F. Kennedy once said: “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” I imagine he meant those who wallow in the past and those who have no concern for anything but the moment. But the fact is, and I’m fairly certain he’d agree, to plot a reasonable course for the future you need to know where you’ve been and where you are. You need to know history.
Growing up, history was an unfairly maligned subject. Violin making school changed all that. History came with romance, myth, and legend. It’s an integral part of how we see violins, violas, cellos and basses. It’s what lures us like moths to a porch light in the heavy, warm air of a late August night. It’s irresistible.
Put plainly, to take yourself safely into the future you need to know a little about its past. Something of the history, the different methods of making, the reasons instruments of different nationalities have different values.
It’s things like these that can make history more intimate. More real. And save you a possible fortune when you’re shopping.
So lets start by imagining you’re browsing for an instrument.
If you know enough not to get bowled over by the rhetoric of a smooth talking private “collector”, traveling dealer or established salesman, you’ll be more objective. You’ll be able to decipher what it is they’re saying. And you’ll have a better idea where you can go to verify questions about an instrument.
For instance, if you like a violin labeled Italian that says it was made in 1820, you can look at the top of the neck for a first reference. It should have had a new neck grafted into the scroll and you’ll be able to see the seams. Five of them.
There should be one seam across the bottom of the scroll where the neck hooks around and catches your thumb in first position. It will be close to the back of the scroll. From that seam there will be a seam on each side of the peg box running at right angles, up toward the fingerboard area (the top surface of the peg box). The last 2 seams readily visible will go from there toward the head of the scroll, angling to the inside of the peg box.
Five seams that are a map to a small corner of violin history.
You see, in the mid 19th century a violin-maker named Jean Baptiste Vuillaume, working in Paris, changed the way violins are set up. The necks (which until then were shorter, fatter, and nailed onto the instrument) were cut off the scroll and longer new ones grafted in. The necks were then set, using a dovetail joint, into the neck block (the upper interior block of the rib structure —see issue #3, Th. Word).
Anyway, as a result of Vuillaume revolutionizing violin setup, instruments made before 1840 needed longer necks, and so, a neck graft. Most instruments after 1860 will have been made with the new setup. Short of having had an accident, the younger violins will most likely not be grafted. There are exceptions due to wear and tear, but in general, understanding neck grafts is a good tool to have in your grab bag of knowledge.
Getting back to the Italian violin with a label saying “made in 1820” (look through the left f-hole and the label should be glued inside to the back). Maybe you’ve fallen in love with its quick response and a sound that shades your expression with nuance, warmth, and power. All this for a mere $20,000. It’s what you’ve been searching for.
But when you look, you see it doesn’t have a neck graft. You still love the way it plays, but something’s fishy. You ask if the violin has papers of authenticity, and your new best friend happily shows you papers written by a retired engineer from Piedmont North Dakota who made violins in his garage in the late 1940’s.
Do you think I’m stretching? Think again. Even though the fellow from Piedmont is fictitious, the scenario is real.
What do you do? Look the papers over, jot down the appraisers name, city, and date of the certificate, and then ask to take the violin home for a week to try. Anyone selling instruments worth dealing with will have you sign a release, get pertinent information from you, and send you on your way. If they won’t let the instrument out on trial, expecting you to make a decision at their place of business, smile, thank them for their time, and leave. The situation is too suspect. And $20,000 is a lot of money.
Regarding the label, it may be a commercial label used only for name recognition and to give a general idea about the model it was made on. A very common practice for factory instruments. Or if it’s a notch up from a commercial violin, or in this case several notches up, the label may have been switched at some point. Easily done—just not ethical. Whatever the reason for the inconsistency, you need to find out if the stated origin is valid.
But once you’re at home, trying out the instrument in familiar acoustics, you have time to call someone whom you know and trust. Hopefully a well trained violin maker with good experience. You may have to pay them for their opinion, but the small fee is well worth it. And see if you can find anything out about the fellow from Piedmont. Because like all business, it’s buyer beware.
Whether you buy it or not, looking for an instrument can be fun and educational. And the more you know about the evolution of instruments, the more you’ll be able to cut through smoke screens. The more you’ll know whom to trust. And the easier it will be to find not only the instrument that compliments you as a player, but one that will gain value as time goes by. You’ll find it all. The past. The present. And the future.
P. S. As an aside, in case you’re interested, the short, old style necks with the original Baroque setup had an additional wedge between the neck and the fingerboard. This controlled the angle (the projection) of the fingerboard over the instrument. These wedges made the necks thick and cumbersome, very difficult to play in the upper positions. With the new necks being dovetailed into the instrument, the joint controls all the angles, eliminating the need for the extra wedge. And you’re free to glide gracefully (or not, if you play like me) up and down the instrument.
Scoop is a term used for the concave shape of the fingerboard length wise from where the strings leave the upper nut by the peg box, to the end of the fingerboard by the bridge.
Scoop is an important feature of any fingerboard. When a string is pressed down to the fingerboard, it’s the scoop that makes sure the string leaves the surface immediately instead of remaining in contact beyond the finger, causing a buzz.
The scoop can also be adjusted to the temperament of the player. An aggressive player may want a bit more scoop so the extra amplitude, or string vibration, will clear and still produce a clean sound.