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Flamed Maple : Tonal Considerations


martin swan
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Poplar (called "Pioppo" in Italian) can be highly flamed too.

Indeed, I imagine so, if it's cut on the quarter. Presumably Busan cut the poplar on the slab for a reason, and not being a trained luthier, I can only assume he did it that way for economic reasons, or because he felt that particular log did not lend itself to being cut on the quarter.

BTW, seems to me making a back out of spruce would be counter-intuitive, and yet the Testores, father and son, made beautiful sounding instruments. Go figure.

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Another wood used by old masters was "salice", that is, willow, and it can be "marezzato" (flamed) too.

I imagine almost any wood cut on the quarter would be flamed, but since A.S. used willow for blocks and linings I doubt it would be suitable for a back. I don't say my experience is universal, but I've been performing for a very long time, and if there were such a thing as a willow back I'd expect to have seen one.

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Wood cut on the quarter will show medullary rays, if it's the sort of wood that has visible medullary rays (oak being an extreme example - in maple/sycamore it shows up as mirror figure or fleck as seen mainly in bridge wood).

Flame is the result of a growth abnormality, either genetic (like the majority of ripple or "fiddleback" sycamore/maple) or to do with compression wood (steep hills, burrs, branches sticking out etc).

Flame is most visible in quarter-cut maple but is not present in the vast majority of quarter cut maple.

In Scotland ripple sycamore tends to occur in pockets, but on average about 1 in 20 sycamore trees have any ripple figure, and even less have the sort of figure that violin-makers favour.

Hungarian cellos used in traditional music are still carved out of solid willow.

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Hi LeMaster! Stradivari used willow for cello backs, as in the Marquis de Corberon cello:

http://www.antoniostradivari.net/en/marquis-de-corberon-1726.html

According to Sacconi, 2/5 of Stradivari's cello backs were made of poplar or willow, here the text of his book in Italian:

Il fondo invece è in acero in tutti i violini, in quasi tutte le viole ed in circa tre quinti

dei violoncelli superstiti, mentre in qualche viola è in pioppo e neí restanti due quinti dei

violoncelli in pioppo o salice

And there is a Del Gesù with a birch back.

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I imagine almost any wood cut on the quarter would be flamed....

Terminology is always tricky, and there are two unfortunately conflicting uses of the word flame in the English-speaking communities of luthiers and fine woodworkers. To most woodworkers (and I believe to many or most luthiers), flame most often refers to "curl," which as Martin Swan explained is an abnormal growth pattern in which the wood fibers change direction as they grow. Here is a picture of the waney edge (the part of the wood that contacts and may include the bark of a tree) of a piece of curly ("flamed") maple:

post-40581-0-76747600-1315788774_thumb.jpg

Here, you can see on the waney edge of this scrap how the growth pattern changes direction in a wavy pattern. The "fiddleback" figure that we see on the backs and sides of bowed string instruments is curly figure resulting from this growth pattern, and is what most participants in this thread are calling flame.

The other (less common) meaning of the word "flamed" as you used in the quote above refers to the medullary rays as seen in quartersawn wood. Most woodworkers refer to this as ray fleck (or medullary rays, or lace, something like that) but would not refer to it as flame. The only place I know of where quartersawn rays are consistently called "flame" is in the world of bridge sellers. They do indeed call this ray fleck "flame," which is where the confusion seems to have arisen.

Below is an example showing a piece of maple with both properties. The curl (or "flame," in the most common meaning and the meaning used by most participants in this thread) here manifests itself as large horizontal bands. I have indicated them with some tan blocks to the left of the darker part of the flame (as it appears from this vantage point). The much smaller ray fleck (which, yes, bridge makers might refer to as "flame," though most woodworkers and luthiers probably would not) I have indicated at the bottom of the photo by circling a few flecks with blue:

post-40581-0-18536200-1315789725_thumb.jpg

I hope that this makes the terminology clearer. If we always used the words "curl" and "ray fleck" instead of "flame," we would not run into this issue. However, I think that it is generally safe to assume that people who say "flame" mean "curl" unless they are selling bridges or unless the circumstance suggests otherwise.

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That might be a desirable sound for cellos and violas, but maybe not so for violins, one reason why poplar is not popular for them.

The back is most active at the low and midraged frequencies, and it makes sense to me that a lower-density wood for the back might enhance these ranges, thereby giving a warmer sound. Might be wrong, though.

<<Table 7.6 provides some acoustic and elastic constants of maple (Acer spp.).

However, the sound velocity in the longitudinal direction is less than that measured

in spruce. Holz (1974) reported comparative data on curly maple and common

maple. The relationship between density and modulus of elasticity shows

that wavy structure has a higher density and slightly higher EL than plain structure

(550 and 700 kg/m3 and 100 and 120 108 N/m2, respectively). The damping

factor is different only in the frequency range 200−500 Hz: Holz states that “wavy

textured maple has a damping factor of by 0.1×10−2 higher”, 0.9×10−2 for plain

structure and 1.0×10−2 for wavy structure.>>

I read somewhere in The Book (but now I cannot find it to quote) that density and longitudinal velocity are inversely correlated, so I think a denser wood (slower) like curly maple would be slower to respond but warmer/darker in sound, or not?

"Common maple" or "plain maple" is less dense (faster) than "curly maple", that is, it is nearer to spruce in those parameters. Sorry, too sleepy to keep searching...

Good night,

T.

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I would have thought the acoustical properties were more closely allied with the tightness of the grain ie. how fast the tree has grown. This would be determined by the amount of space around the tree as it grew and the climate/altitude.

You can get a lot of curl in very soft and spongy maple, and vice versa, so I think the whole idea of attributing acoustical properties to specific pieces of wood has to start with growth pattern.

It's what we do with spruce - just because it's harder to see grain lines in maple doesn't mean they aren't there.

My own choice of wood for backs is almost entirely determined by the grain (I like it to be very even, though I'm sure this is just prejudice ....)

But after reading this thread I'm thinking I should stop stressing and start using poplar, of which I have mountains ....

Martin Swan Violins

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Hi LeMaster! Stradivari used willow for cello backs, as in the Marquis de Corberon cello:

http://www.antoniostradivari.net/en/marquis-de-corberon-1726.html

According to Sacconi, 2/5 of Stradivari's cello backs were made of poplar or willow...

Hi Manfio, thanks for your post, interesting and informative as always. I'm pretty sure I must have read about willow backs in the Hill book, but that would have been years ago, and obviously I didn't remember it. I think I mentioned somewhere that I've only had occasion to play 3 Strad cellos (though certainly I've seen detailed pictures of many others) and all these instruments had beautifully "figured" [!] backs of maple. Obviously I'm way out of my expertise (such as it is!) on this topic, so I should probably quit before I get even farther behind.

However, it seems to me a large part of this issue is terminology. I think the terms "highly-figured", "medulary rays", "curl", etc. have been used pretty much interchangeably by dealers over the years, at least outside the lutherie profession, but of course they may have simply decided to make the issue as clear and simple as possible so their customers (i.e, players!) wouldn't get intimidated.

Anyway, thanks again for the info. Highly appreciated as always. There's a beautiful book in Italian that is exclusively about Strad's cellos, and as a result of this faskinatin' thread I intend to buy it forthwith. I've seen it often at my luthier's shop so I know first-hand it's worth every sou of the $75.00 price. Whether maple, poplar, willow or birch, the man certainly knew what he was doing.

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I would have thought the acoustical properties were more closely allied with the tightness of the grain ie. how fast the tree has grown. This would be determined by the amount of space around the tree as it grew and the climate/altitude.

You can get a lot of curl in very soft and spongy maple, and vice versa, so I think the whole idea of attributing acoustical properties to specific pieces of wood has to start with growth pattern.

It's what we do with spruce - just because it's harder to see grain lines in maple doesn't mean they aren't there.

My own choice of wood for backs is almost entirely determined by the grain (I like it to be very even, though I'm sure this is just prejudice ....)

But after reading this thread I'm thinking I should stop stressing and start using poplar, of which I have mountains ...

Dear Matin, I am trying to relate the (extensive) data on Bucur's book to what I hear/feel. Not that I understand everything...They say that of wood suitable for building violins (the one you would pick) curly tends to be denser than plain. They don't speak about quarter v/s slab cuts, I'm affraid...As I understood, denser means slower and with different damping/elastic characteristics. That's how far I'll go. I presume slower, denser maple would enhance certain frequencies and filter/diminish others, to me it is better at bass/midbass/midrange (warmer/darker).

I hope someone did or will do a test like this: correlate in time domain the excitation of strings (or bridge) by bow action v/s behaviour and amplitude of movement of the back plate of different woods and cuts... ;)

That way we could better advice different players with different techniques the best violin for each of them. For example; heavy and slow bowing technique with curly maple and fast and ligth bowing technique with slab-cut backs. B)

Cheers,

T.

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Hi Tarisiofever,

There are at least 2 factors governing the density of maple, and the first is the grain. This has nothing to do with flame/curl/fleck, it's purely to do with speed of growth.

Density cannot vary with the orientation of the cut - a block of wood of a given size and weight weighs the same whichever way you slice it.

I assume that denser wood has less damping in that it is more conductive of sound waves, and that slower grown maple is denser than fast grown maple ..... is this right?

I can see how a quarter-cut board and a slab-cut or crown board would have different elasticities (flexibility) across the grain, and I can see how ripple or "fiddleback figure" would introduce an extra element (though whether it causes stiffness or not and how this affects tone no-one seems to understand!), but I find it bizarre that no-one is very interested in the speed of growth of the maple they're using ...

I imagine a great maker can make just about any piece of maple sound decent, but do think that ripple is likely to be a hindrance rather than a help, in that's it's an interruption of the conductivity along the grain.

99% of the curly maple being used these days is from very fast-grown trees, very little is old growth, and I imagine this wood has very different properties to the old-growth timber that early makers found in Croatia and Bosnia, in paticular it's lighter and softer, and probably not as good for violins!

Can anyone shed any light on this?

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Hi Tarisiofever,

There are at least 2 factors governing the density of maple, and the first is the grain. This has nothing to do with flame/curl/fleck, it's purely to do with speed of growth.

Grain width seems to bear a pretty loose relationship to density or hardness. I've been keeping track of these things for quite a few years.

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OK! Very unexpected ...

Indeed, after a bit of further homework, I read that although density in conifers coincides with a high proportion of latewood, density in ring-porous woods is higher in faster grown trees, and in diffuse-porous woods density is greatest in trees with average growth speed.

Maple is diffuse porous, so the densest wood is to be found in trees with neither abnormally tight nor loose grain.

My pursuit of tight even grain has been based on a false premise!

It's always enjoyable to be disabused ...

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Stabilty vs Unstabiltiy?...whenever I'm looking at wood I look for perfectly quartered...all the old slab cuts where I buy are twisted and warped terribly...I was recently told by a local wood dealer that if you know how to work it...slab cut is fine... you can even use freshly cut wood less than a year old...

I was'nt impressed with this sales pitch...

Was this in regard to violin wood or guitar wood? The typical woodworking rule of thumb that I've heard is that you should let wood air dry for at least 1 year per inch of thickness. If that rule of thumb is applied to violin wood then a back would be ready to use in about one year. Guitar wood, which is sawn to 1/4" thick, would be ready in less. Mild kiln drying would speed this up further.

While modern violin builders tend to turn up their noses at anything resembling freshly cut wood, it is always good to keep in mind that some del Gesu violin tops were just a couple years old when he carved them. That doesn't mean that that is the best practice to use but it does show that old wood isn't needed to produce a nice violin. Unfortunately we don't know how old his back blanks were when he started using them.

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