Which Wood Would Be Best? The Types of Quality Woods from which Fiddleheads' Violins, Bows and Fittings are Made

violin shape over a wood trunk cross section

Sichuan Province - Balkan Region - "Seasoning" and Tone Woods - Two Primary Woods - Maple - Spruce - Ebony - Jujube & Boxwood - Snakewood - Rosewood - Cocobolo - Pernambuco & Brazilwood

 

A certain kind of tree yields a special tone wood, which yields refined materials for expert luthiers, which yields the quality violins I am proud to provide through my shop.

While explaining the main sources of my violins' woods, I'll don my instructor hat and teach you about the various kinds of trees harvested for violin construction. It's nice to brain dump all this knowledge into an article that will help people understand the care and attention that goes into making my shop's violins.

There are spectacular physics that are employed in the design, construction and playing of a violin. Sparing the nitty gritty details in the science, I will simplify it in saying the softer top plate passes vibrations through the sound post. Then the hard maple back acts like a speaker cone to send the sound back out to the listener.

There are two key woods used in the construction of the main violin's frame itself: maple and spruce. But first, let's talk about our violins' two primary sources of these woods and their seasoning.

 

looking up into the green leaves and branches from the trunk of a maple

Our Woods from Sichuan Province

Anyone who has eaten deliciously flavourful and spicy food (Romanized as Szechuan or Szechwan) from this beautiful region has experienced something for which the Sichuan Province is world-renowned. The spicier the Sichuan meal, the more likely you are to remember this fact!

Another key, far-less tongue-punishing commodity from this alpine (high mountain) region is the quality tone woods which grow in the region's dense mountain forests.

But first, let's have a quick lesson in Tone wood 101: Mountain forests are subjected to harsher winters and shorter summers, hence the trees have thinner summer growth or "rings," which results in a denser, better quality tone wood. Faster-growing trees are usually a fair bit softer, and their tonal qualities not nearly as desirable.

The Sichuan region is comparable with European woods from the Balkans regions and is China's local source for better tone woods. Fiddleheads' Chinese violins utilize these finer tone woods from the Sichuan mountains, with the best quality tone woods and more beautifully-flamed pieces going to our best violins.

 

looking up through green maple leaves into the sunlight

Our Woods from the Balkan Region

The Balkans consist of eight countries in Southeastern Europe: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro.

Our European violins and top Zhu workshop violins use woods from the alpine-like Balkan Mountain range around Bulgaria. Many makers believe this is the finest wood in the world especially that which has been seasoned naturally for many years.

A top quality piece of wood seasoned over decades, only enough to make a single violin, can literally cost thousands and thousands of dollars.

 

stacks of blocks of wood drying naturally in storage

Photo: Stacked tone wood drying naturally in storage

A Few Words on "Seasoning" and Tone Woods

Trees are like giant porous sponges. Tiny little pockets throughout the wood fibre act as storage compartments for water. When a living tree is cut down, the wood has the moisture in these pockets. Wood freshly harvested that is still moist is called "green" because it was recently verdant.

Anyone who has gone camping and put freshly harvested wood or even small shrubs with leaves on the campfire knows what a smokey mess it makes. Well, green wood doesn't make good tone wood fore pretty much the same reasons: Green wood is heavier and dense from the moisture.

However, give the wood some time to release moisture from the tiny pockets and it burns much better (the gaps allow oxygen to permeate the wood and feed the fire) and also makes for much better sounding violins. All the pockets, bereft of moisture, act as tiny resonating chambers for the vibrations to permeate and this results in a much better quality sound than that of a violin made with poor quality wood.

Seasoned wood, that which has dried over time and possess the best tonal qualities, is more valuable because someone had to have the foresight to harvest the wood, prepare pieces for eventual violin-making and stack it in temperature- and humidity-controlled conditions for years, even decades. Because of the time and cost involved in seasoning wood, some tone woods are seasoned inside dry, warm rooms or even placed in special seasoning kilns to speed up the drying process.

This is an area where the person seasoning the wood must practice great caution. Drying it too quickly can cause the wood to become brittle, but this is only done on the cheapest violins where the factory just wants to churn out as many units as possible. Responsible makers don't take human-enhanced seasoning too far because they are in the craft for the long haul and want to make violins that will last lifetimes. It's usually pretty easy to hear the difference between these violins.

Just as the best violins are made from seasoned materials, the best materials are made from the best quality woods in the first place. There is a difference between a standard piece of maple and a piece of maple that was hand-picked because it possesses key qualities to be considered a tone wood.

It's not worth the time and effort for a master luthier craft a masterpiece from green wood or wood that wasn't worth seasoning in the first place. That's just throwing good money after bad. Therefore, the better violins are not only made by the most skilled makers, but also using the finest woods AND having more time invested into the seasoning of the woods and the carving of the plates to get the resonance just right.

Before this turns into an E-novel (thankfully no trees were harvested in the publishing and enjoyment of this article), I will give a quick summary of the woods used in violin-making.

 

The Two Primary Woods

Thankfully, both Maple and Spruce are highly sustainable and readily available trees that replenish nicely and are not under threat of endangerment like the more exotic, tropical trees. Using regional woods from sources closer to our makers is also more responsible and economical for the production of our violins.

Fiddleheads utilizes top-quality woods primarily from two main sustainable sources that are close to the violins' production, China's Sichuan Province and Europe's Balkan Region.

These woods usually are white-ish when they are first milled and are stained to take on a spectrum of colours, ranging from golden yellows to fiery reds or tawny to chocolate browns.

Label reads Maple: flamed mapleLabel reads Maple: higher flamed mapleLabel reads Maple: marble fire-like flamed quilted mapleLabel reads Maple: flamed maple with defined stripes

Maple

Being the stronger and harder wood of the two primary materials, maple is used for the violin's back, ribs and neck/scroll/peg box as well as the bridge over which the strings cross.

Maple can be cut in a variety of ways, which produces a wide variety of tiger-stripe-like flame or "figuring" and results in one-of-a-kind patterns much like a unique fingerprint for each violin. In cutting the back plates as a 1-piece or a 2-piece back and using the flame horizontally or at an angle, the maker can display further artistry and individuality.

Some varieties of maple yield spectacular figuring. For instance, the Sugar Maple, known for jaw-dropping Autumn foliage, is also responsible for gorgeous "curly" flamed patterns. Then there is the Western Big Leaf Maple, which produces a quilted flame that really looks like flame in a wood stove or how a rippling surface of water reflects light in small waves.

"Birds eye" maple produces small "freckles" of figuring rather than the usual stripes. The causes of some of these intriguing patterns is still not known by botanists, but I am just happy these beautiful trees give us these magnificent patterns for violin making!

A final word on 1-piece or 2-piece plates: No, there is no difference in sound. It's purely a matter of aesthetic preference. Often a violin with a 1-piece back costs more because a piece of wood twice as wide must be used, which costs more because larger pieces of tone woods are usually saved for cellos. Higher material costs naturally means a higher price tag for the violin.

The usual practice for violin backs is to cut a thicker but narrower piece in half to be opened from the cut like a book and matched (book-matched) to the other piece. In this method my makers can reveal the inside seam where the top of the cut is used on one side, and the bottom of the cut is used on the other, hence the alternating pattern.

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Label reads Spruce: striped spruce wood grainLabel reads Spruce: striped spruce wood grainLabel reads Spruce: striped spruce wood grainLabel reads Spruce: striped spruce wood grain

Spruce

The softer primary violin-making material Spruce is used for the top plate (front of the violin) as well as the sound post that connects to it.

Spruce is the ideal "Goldilocks" wood because it's not too hard, not too soft; it's juuuust right for use as a top plate and sound post. Too hard of a wood for the top or sound post and the sound is adversely affected, and if the post wood is too hard, the top can be damaged from the inside where the post connects.

Another interesting tidbit to mention is that the top plate is almost always constructed using two pieces of spruce lined up in the center. Unlike the usually noticeable 2-piece maple backs, which are frequently book-matched (stripes line up, like sentences on adjacent pages of an open book), it's usually pretty tricky to notice that a top plate has two pieces. This is because the grain on the front runs vertically and the seam between the two pieces is concealed by the grain, plus most of it is obstructed by the fingerboard and tailpiece.

Fun Fact: A few times in my career selling violins I have come across used instruments with a 3-piece front. It's fairly rare but always interesting to behold.

 

Ebony and Other Hardwoods

Label reads Ebony; Black wood with some lighter clouded grainLabel reads Ebony; Black wood with reddish brown streaks

Ebony

  • Black wood. Sometimes with beautiful brown grain.

  • Used for fingerboards on most quality violins.

  • Also the most popular wood for fittings (chin rest, pegs, end pin) and frogs for bows

  • Cheaper ebony with more brown is often stained black.

    • Caution: Poor quality violins use other woods and literally paint them black to claim it is ebony. (I do not sell violins with fake ebony).

  • Various strains of ebony are endangered species. Some are approaching threatened status, while others are critically endangered.

 

Label reads Jujube; burnt orange coloured woodLabel reads Boxwood; orange coloured wood with fine figuring

Jujube and Boxwood

  • Both are tawny brown hardwoods that are very dense and quite resilient to chipping or breakage. The colour will vary from sample to sample but is usually manifested in the orange to burnt orange spectrum.

  • Boxwood grows around the world and has been used to make fittings for violins for centuries, as well as being a choice material for recorders, wood flutes and bagpipes for some time.

  • Jujube's Latin name is Ziziphus jujuba, but is also referred to as "red date" and "Chinese date." I call Jujube "Asian boxwood" because Jujube and Boxwood can be used interchangeably when the Jujube is of a high quality.

  • Neither wood is endangered or threatened. Jujube is native to the regions where our makers are who use this wood, which makes it that much more sustainable.

  • Jujube is used for violin fittings. Some makers use it almost exclusively, like Zhu's workshop, for whom it is almost a hallmark.

  • Like any wood, there are varying qualities of grade. My violins have superior quality jujube fittings, which is not only easier for Chinese makers to source as it is grown locally, but it is also considerably more affordable and obtainable than imported Boxwoods.

Other Nut Woods

    • Some fittings are made with almond wood or other nut woods.

    • These closely resemble Jujube and Boxwood for colour.

    • Cheaper alternative to Boxwood, so is often painted black and used as fittings on beginner violin outfits sold at other shops.

 

Label reads Snakewood; Deep reddish brown wood with nearly black spots in a scale patternLabel reads Snakewood; Deep reddish brown wood with nearly black spots in a scale pattern

Snakewood

  • The moniker stems from its spotted pattern resembling that of the patterns on the back of a snake.

  • Reddish brown wood with dark brown or black "spots" which darkens with age.

  • Grown mostly in South America. Not on any current endangered species lists.

  • Used for better quality baroque bow sticks, frogs and tighteners as well as fittings [such as what you will see on our stunning Bellissima Scarlatta violins].

  • Known for it firmness and rigidity.

  • Less spots results in a firmer bow stick, more bounce.

 

Label reads Rosewood; wood with medium brown and dark stripesLabel reads Rosewood; wood with dark brown and darker stripes

Rosewood

  • Dark brown, often with darker and black grain.

  • Used for fittings

  • May darken with age

  • Some strains are endangered and on banned lists for harvesting.

  • Lower density rosewood not suitable for fittings is used for some bows

  • Quality rosewood tends to be expensive, only used on higher-end bench violins. It's also easier to come by than similar-looking Cocobolo.

 

Label reads Cocobolo; stunning striped brown and dark brown woodLabel reads Cocobolo; stunning striped blackish and red brown wood

Cocobolo

  • Costly exotic wood used for fittings and on select fine instruments

  • Similar to Rosewood, but even more stunning striped patterns and contrast of colours.

  • Darkens with age.

  • Some people are allergic to its dust when harvesting or cutting/sanding it in the workshop.

  • Its essence has an interesting fragrance and it has been used in some perfumes

  • Some strains of cocobolo are sadly under threat of endangerment due to deforestation, usually burned down by the hundred acre to allow for cattle farming and NOT due to overuse in the instrument-making craft. Thus these fittings are difficult for my makers to obtain in recent years.

    • Consideration: Beef production is the number one cause of deforestation and you can do your part to reduce unnecessary deforestation by reducing or eliminating meat and animal products from your diet. This saves the trees for producing oxygen and fiddles!

 

Label reads Pernambuco; very finely-grained reddish brown wood with tiny figuringLabel reads Brazilwood; very finely-grained cedar-ish brown wood with tiny figuring

Pernambuco and "Brazilwood"

  • Pernambuco is an exotic, rare and costly wood used for fine bows owing to its incredible strength and pliability.

  • Very fine grain with tiny figuring on better specimens.

  • Brazilwood is the overall term for these woods, with many unique latin names for each variation.

    • Lower quality variations are nicknamed "Brazilwood," with the name "Pernambuco" saved for choice varieties.

  • Like Cocobolo, many strains of Pernambuco are also under severe threat of endangerment as countless acres of forest are burned to the ground to make room for beef production. The bow bow-making craft is not to blame.

 

Did you learn something about violin tone wood today? Leave a comment!