David Duthie Fine Instruments
David has always been involved in design and creative crafts. Since qualifying as a teacher in 1983, specialising in Craft, Design and Technology, he has developed his skills in cabinet making and fine woodwork through a wide range of projects. He has had a life long passion for making things from wood and his affinity for the material led to an interest in violin making as far back as 1980 while studying for an essay on the craft during his teacher training.
Although he is self taught in the art of instrument making, 25 years of practising fine woodwork skills has made the process much faster and has ensured a high standard of work. The practical side of his violin making started in 2003. Since then he has studied traditional methods of construction for the violin family of instruments. He has developed his workshop at his home in the village of Kemnay in Aberdeenshire and is steadily building up a service for setting up, repair and manufacture of violins and violas for local players and tutors.
“ The method I use was originally developed by the 16th and 17th century Italian masters makers such as Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari. There is a continuous process of learning and striving for perfection. There are many critics of your work from players, other makers and restorers, dealers and the generally curious observer. This business is one where a desire to improve your knowledge of both the sound production and the visual aspects of instruments is forever ongoing. However the most important critic is yourself because only you can influence the small details that combine to make the finished instrument. ”
The Violin Family of Instruments
There are 72 discrete parts to the violin and other similar instruments. There are as many as seven different types of wood that can be used in its construction. The wood comes from many parts of the world. The wood must be carefully dried for a number of years before it can be used and then selected for its acoustic, structural and aesthetic properties.
The Construction Method
The instruments are built on what is called inside moulds. This provides the profile of the instrument as it is built up around the mould.
The sides of the instrument are extremely thin, around 1mm, and are fixed to blocks of wood which are situated at the corners, top and bottom end of the instrument. These blocks provide strength and rigidity to the thin flexible wood of the sides. At the top edge and bottom edge of the sides a thin strip of wood is attached to provide a wider edge. This creates a wider surface, 3mm on which the top and back of the instrument are glued. This also provides greater strength in the finished instrument.
The top of the violin is made in two parts from matched spruce. These parts are glued together using animal hide glue. The back is similar but made from maple or sycamore. These are joined down the centre and are book matched so that each side of the instrument has the same grain structure and density. The arching or curvature of the top and back is created by carving the outside followed by carefully hollowing out the inside to create a shell like form. The thicknesses are controlled precisely to achieve a particular tone when the top and back are tapped. The thicknesses and tones of the back and top have a big impact in the final sound of the instrument.
The neck is usually matched in appearance to the sides and the back providing a visual unity to the instrument. The scroll is an important signature of the maker, giving scope for some artistic licence.
The wood used in my instruments comes from a variety of locations. The table or top of the instruments are made from spruce which traditionally comes from the alpine regions of Europe. Spruce is also used for the internal parts of the violin although willow can also be used. The neck, back and sides are made from Scottish Sycamore that is grown locally and also figured maple which is grown in central Europe. The fittings are generally made from ebony, rosewood or boxwood and can originally come from countries in Africa, Indonesia and Europe. These fittings are sourced from various specialist suppliers. In recent times concerns for sustainable use of wood has led to the development of alternative carbon fibre, metal alloy and plastic fittings.
There are two main categories of varnish that are commonly used. Oil varnish is based on linseed oil and pine resin, Spirit varnish is alcohol based and can contain many kinds of resins and gums suspended in the alcohol. Many theories abound regarding the merits of the various varnishes with respect to the tone of violins. There are however some basic principles that any varnish should comply with.
A good varnish will protect and enhance the beauty of the wood and provide colour to the instrument’s appearance. It will not enhance the sound but will allow the instrument to produce its sound uninhibited. In some cases the quality of the instruments sound will be impaired by varnishing that is too thick or hard. The varnish needs to have a degree of flexibility to allow the vibrating wood its free movement.
The varnish I use in new instruments is an oil varnish specially prepared from a historical recipe which has its origins in medieval times. The earliest type of oil varnish is found on articles discovered in tombs in Egypt.
In all 4 to 6 coats are applied which may take up to 8 weeks to complete.
Prior to varnishing the wood I prepared it in a manner similar considered to be similar to the instruments of the early Italian masters. Some experts in historical instruments regard this special pre-varnish treatment to be part of the ‘secret’ of how the instrument’s tone is preserved and the beauty of the wood is enhanced.