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Secret Knowledge and violins

Craig Tucker

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I though it might be interesting to entertain this topic here, and get some different points of view on the matter.

With regard to violin making, it seems that the subject, as a whole, has always been sort-of shrouded in mystery, or at least, various elements in the world seem to entertain the idea that there is some esoteric aspect to the craft that might be hidden from the public eye for whatever reason. Some esoteric knowledge. Most probably it started with the long nurtured idea of "Strad's missing varnish secret", pushed on the public for so many years.

But I've witnessed people who worry over various other aspects of what it is that might be hidden - the mysterious, hard too describe, impossible to duplicate, Cremonese Arching, lost or secret wood treatments - either using immersion in some sort of formula, or using heat, freezing, rafting down the Po river, cutting on the solstice from the northern slope at mid-night with a virgin present, whatever, and various ground and/or varnish secrets.

& etc.

So, when various people mention "secrets" in connection with violin making, I often wonder exactly what violin making aspect they're talking about...

Suffice it to say that I have no intention, no interest of attempting to get anyone to here divulge their "secrets". In fact, many the most ridiculous posts here (in my opinion) have to do with posters who intimate that they possess some special secret or hidden knowledge that they cannot divulge least the public learn something that those few that are "in the know" hold dear.

On the other hand;

For me there is a great deal of difference between what some modern makers decide to use - which products or methods, that are simply proprietary methods, that are accessible to anyone who cares to experiment on their own with the various products that are available on the market today, and are only "secret" in the sense that they don't care to discuss their methods, (with good reason having an interest in creating a recognizable aesthetic for the market) and some knowledge that has been cloistered through the centuries by reason of being essential to making violins, but which is kept from the public at large by virtue of its immense guild-like worth in creating (somehow superior) violins.

One of these type of "secrets" doesn't exist, and one of this type of "secret" exists in great numbers.

I think that most people out there who believe that there is some great mystery connected with violin making, mistake exactly what sort of information it is, that might be being kept from them.

In my opinion all of the various (grandious) hints and posturing can be safely ignored. Also there exists the idea that one may grow old and die never knowing the “true secret(s)“…of the initiated.

Well, there isn’t one.

The more you make, the better you get, and the more people you ask and the more you circulate, the more “inside” information you acquire.

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My guess is that it's 'secret' sweat!

If I asked David Burgess to try and make a copy of 'say' a Joseph Curtin violin, I bet you it would be tough, but he seems to do a pretty great job of impersonating himself, and duplicating his own work!

If you did a survey of all the top makers today, you would find so many variations in all that is involved in making, that once you eliminated everything, you would be left with only the maker!

Like it or not, what made Antonio Stradivari, Antonio Stradivari is long gone and the likes of which, will never be seen again.

Does anyone think Antonio knew what it was that made him him? :huh:

Now for the brighter side, what makes NewNewbie, NewNewbie is long gone and the likes of which, will never be seen again ....either! :lol::huh::P:rolleyes:

Adios Muchachos! ;)

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One more possible reason for a "secret" existing is that the posessor of it has gotten tired of getting shot down for doing what "everybody knows" is no good. So he/she simply quits talking about it. Whatever it is the maker is doing seems to work, and no further discussion is invited. (shellac ground, or whatever...) Condemnation for straying from herd-central can be pretty discouraging.

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The idea that there is one specific secret that is the magic bullet to violins seems more of an American idea to me. I would like my European counterparts to comment, confirm or correct me if I am wrong, but I always thought that the main thought in Europe is that there are no real "secrets", just 30 years or so of experience. I am under the impression that most everybody in the business or not in Europe understand this. I know a lot of people in the business here in the states think the same way, but beginning makers and the general public seem obsessed with the idea that a person only has to discover the "secret" and then they can make very successful instruments.

It seems linked to our culture here. People here love the idea of someone who can go from rags to riches by discovering or inventing some thing.

Am I right in this thinking?

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One more possible reason for a "secret" existing is that the posessor of it has gotten tired of getting shot down for doing what "everybody knows" is no good. So he/she simply quits talking about it. Whatever it is the maker is doing seems to work, and no further discussion is invited. (shellac ground, or whatever...) Condemnation for straying from herd-central can be pretty discouraging.

like using asphalt colorant... ?

(A huge open "secret" nobody will consider, and yet, my very best violin (by far - looking and sounding) is covered with the stuff. And you're right about one thing - I don't even try to get people to experiment with it anymore)

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Am I right in this thinking?

I believe so.

Mostly I posted this here because I have seen both ends of this spectrum recently - one who believes he's "missed the boat" and one who implies he possesses special hidden knowledge.

In my universe (I believe in quantum physics...) both views are slightly right and left of center.

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Call me quasi-cynical and a person with many many more questions than answers about Cremonese lutherie, but IF there was a "Cremona Code":

1. Why do Andrea Amati's violins sound nasal, i.e., was it his 'goal' to produce nasal-sounding instruments? Perhaps if there was some sort of "acoustic code", Amati himself was unsure of how to apply it.

2. Considering ALL the violin 'Models' and mould patterns Antonio Stradivari experimented with apparently using empirical methods, it's tempting to conclude two things: (1) Stradivari didn't know whatever Andrea Amati knew; and (2) Stradivari himself wasn't working from some master "code" for even in his Golden Period he kept changing the arching, etc.

Oh, and that 1700 Rawlins Guitar ... enough said!

3. Del Gesu died relatively young but other than going 'thick' with some grads, it's quite apparent he still wasn't following any particular code.

Perhaps these three gentlemen were simply some of the finest lutherie craftsmen ever ... and that's all. :)


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Interesting topic, Craig.

In ten years of recruiting teachers, I've found that secrets can boil down to almost anything. Sometimes, I've had the sense that it was valuable information which was hard-won, providing a competitive advantage, and might reasonably want to be protected. Other times, it was either garbage, or stuff already in the public domain.

It's not terribly different from what goes on here.

One odd thing I'll highlight is that I can't think of one single thing I do, or anything most successful makers do that I'm aware of, which hasn't been mentioned here by one person or another. Mostly, it seems to get buried in the static.

Internet learning involves some time and discretion.

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i think matts right that the real secret is lots of hard work and experience working with and for good people, but there are still secrets kept by top shops that have been passed down for years perhaps not even shared with all their apprentices, i tend to think the secret varnish and undercoat formula might still be a know closely guarded trade secret at some prestigous shops, but this is just a theory

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I worked on violins on my own, with occasional mentoring from an old violin maker for around 20 years, I guess. I learned more in my first year working for a large shop than I had in the previous twenty.

There's no one secret, there's hunjdreds of them. I guess I'd call them tricks of the trade. Just being able to watch and get feedback from a dozen guys with different backgrounds has been amazingly helpful.

The way to learn is indeed by doing, but there are so many seemingly trivial techniques that make it so much easier to get the results you want. A lot of that is in books now, and a lot of information is available on the Web, but getting to know other experienced makers and trade ideas is invaluable, IMHO. You still have to assimilate the ideas and test them for yourself. "Knowledge isn't skill. Skill is knowledge plus ten thousand times." Shinichi Suzuki

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and a strad filled with sand sounds like a chinese vso, i actually bought a great very old german violin from new orleans that must have been in the flood, it was horribly warped, it would have had to be a strad to be worth the trouble of correcting the warps IMO, lesson of the story dont buy on ebay from somewhere thats just had a big flood, it wasnt a complete loss, the good grafted neck is recyclable

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