Stradivari's Secret


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In the not so distant past, when violin makers and dealers played their cards much closer to their chests than mercifully they do today; when secrets were the name of the game, I was fond of reciting the following line. "The only secret that most violin makers and dealers have, is that they have no secrets.

Basically the premise of Sacconi's book is exactly that; that there are no secrets. It is all about good working practices. And anyone who has read any of my stuff will know that I don't have much time for pie in the sky theories that have little or no historical substance. It is the reason why I was so much against Hutchins ideas. Strad did not have useful tone generators. But then of course I realised that he did and that they were extremely accurate; they were called organ pipes. But then I reject the idea a second time, because the thicknessing on Strad's backs and bellies was done after the box had been closed. And in any case the thicknessing of so many great instruments was either all over the place from the makers hands, or ditto from later repair work or re-thicknessing. But who knows?

Then it was down to the varnish, or the ground beneath the varnish, because so many great sounding violins have no varnish.

And then it was the cut or treatment of the wood. Was the sap wood removed, were the wedges boiled, were they ravaged by bacteria in the lagoons of Venice, or in some other was altered? 

So then you take a fact like the lightness of the wood and you start to weave theories to explain this, such as searching out woods of the right weight and density. Or you hear that the old timber merchants ring barked their trees in the spring, so that when the leaves began to draw up sap and water, the tree was slowly starved to death as the leaves used up all the reserves in the trunk, making the tree lighter. Koen Padding and I worked a lot on this last one.

So why am I bringing up these old chestnuts now? Well I am just wondering if anyone has any nice theories, that might actually hold water and that they are willing to set up in the shooting gallery here on MN? If you do you might need to be prepared for a bloody nose. But who knows someone might just come up with something useful. Note I used the word theory and not secret here.

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I couldn't agree more.  I do believe that a mineral ground does enhance tone, even make it better.  If you play a violin in the white, if it is good, it will be loud and harsh sounding.  After a mineral ground and some sort of sealer on the sound board it will smooth out and have a pretty sound.   Just enough to seal it up and prevent oil varnish from soaking in.  I don't think the varnish proper has much if any thing to do with making tone better.  You could probably kill tone with too much varnish.  Just my two cents worth.

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After seeing the work of William F. (Jack) Fry mentioned in a recent thread, I ordered the book, Cremona Violins, A Physicist's Quest for the Secrets of Stradivari, by Kameshwar C. Wali, read it through and watched the accompanying DVD demonstration of Professor Fry's adjustments by internal sanding or scraping of the top, with violinist Rosemary Harbison's testing and evaluation. In the video, based on Ms. Harbison's comments, he seemed to be making gains better than 50% of the time on each adjustment. After one, her comments strongly indicated that it was moved in a bad direction. But in general, there appeared to be positive progress by Ms. Harbison's evaluations. His last adjustment must have been very good in outcome. After it, Ms. Harbison said "your done" and my body language take, she appeared to have a death grip on the instrument neck too. :)

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My theory is that Stradivari was really really good. And he was the recipient of a few hundred years of concentrated knowledge on one subject. He had a innate talent which he drove further by hard work, and he did not have to discover the basics as they were given to him along with the received wisdom of the few hundred years of violin making. 

 

Did Babe Ruth invent baseball? No, he was just really really good. Stradivari just hit more home runs that anyone and his record still stands. That is it. Break his record. 

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I am personally curious about boiling the plates. Anyone like doing this?

I boiled bass bar stock. The treatment lightened up my bass bar significantly (pulling 10 grams from the stock).

The method is mentioned in Cennino Cennini's Craftsman' s Handbook, which I found at a used book sellers' for $4. (!!!)

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I am personally curious about boiling the plates. Anyone like doing this?

I boiled bass bar stock. The treatment lightened up my bass bar significantly (pulling 10 grams from the stock).

The method is mentioned in Cennino Cennini's Craftsman' s Handbook, which I found at a used book sellers' for $4. (!!!)

 

"Tony, the new tonewood arrived"

 

"Great, stick it under the rabbit cage and bring me the billets that're there."

 

"Madonna!  The filthy things stink to heaven!"

 

"S'okay, we toss 'em in the cauldron with some salt and ashes and boil the crap out of them" :lol:

 

[How's that for a theory? :ph34r: ]

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Roger Hargrave, on 02 Mar 2014 - 2:26 PM, said:

And anyone who has read any of my stuff will know that I don't have much time for pie in the sky theories that have little or no historical substance. ... Well I am just wondering if anyone has any nice theories, that might actually hold water and that they are willing to set up in the shooting gallery here on MN? If you do you might need to be prepared for a bloody nose. But who knows someone might just come up with something useful. Note I used the word theory and not secret here.

 

Roger, I know you are mostly interested in the "how they might have done it" historical theories.   I'm on the other end of the spectrum, interested in "how the good instruments work" from a physics point of view, with less concern about historical substance.

 

I do agree with Stephen, in that I think Strad was an amazingly good maker, and that trial-and-error development is far more effective than most people realize.  But I will put forth one not-quite-yet-a-theory about Strad.  I only have very limited information, and anyone with more information is welcome to shoot down this idea: for his "golden period", Strad got in a batch of really good wood.  After that period, the wood sucked.

The limited evidence I have is from Curtin's taptone article, which I plot here as taptone vs mass of the unbarred plate.  The faint gray lines are my violin tops, at various stages of lightening.

post-25192-0-89197200-1393814935_thumb.jpg

 

The thing I noticed is that the instruments from 1726-1728 are all at the low end of the chart, and the single "golden period" instrument is on the high end.  In my estimation, if you started with the wood of the 1726-8 instruments, there is no way you can get the taptone and weight of the 1716 one.  The implied stiffness/weight of the wood is far different.

 

I will put out another theory:  the physical/acoustic properties of wood change with age.  Anyone who has been reading any of my stuff knows I'm trying to accelerate that time with thermal processing.  Whether it will result in consistently superior performance is still an open question, as is the question of what "superior performance" even means.

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I am personally curious about boiling the plates. Anyone like doing this?

I boiled bass bar stock. The treatment lightened up my bass bar significantly (pulling 10 grams from the stock).

The method is mentioned in Cennino Cennini's Craftsman' s Handbook, which I found at a used book sellers' for $4. (!!!)

I only tested one sample, with very minimal mass loss.  Stiffness also went down a little, erasing the gains, in my view.  I guess it depends on how much water-soluble stuff is in there to start with.

 

Several other instances where I have had wood in hot water have resulted in shrinkage, cracking, cell collapse, warping, all kinds of bad stuff... so I don't do that.

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 But then I reject the idea a second time, because the thicknessing on Strad's backs and bellies was done after the box had been closed. 

I assume you don't mean thicknessing all over, or some form of "tuning,"  but just that the flutings and necessary blending were done after the box was closed.  But if I'm wrong, I would appreciate it if you would expand on this. 

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"Tony, the new tonewood arrived" "Great, stick it under the rabbit cage and bring me the billets that're there." "Madonna!  The filthy things stink to heaven!" "S'okay, we toss 'em in the cauldron with some salt and ashes and boil the crap out of them" :lol: [How's that for a theory? :ph34r: ]

Actually, that's great...rabbit poop. Or mumeo (aka mouse poop). Are you trying to spread theories around?

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Actually, that's great...rabbit poop. Or mumeo (aka mouse poop). Are you trying to spread theories around?

I was having a little fun mixing something Roger said in his bass fiddle thread with the other theories floating around :lol:  Rabbit poop and other nitrate/ammonia sources have historically been used to treat wood for a number of purposes, and until recently (as Roger pointed out) rabbit excrement was used to toughen wood for Aubert bridges.

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hows about no tv, no super wide inter webs, far too few books to read. just much more sensitive hearing, a post renaissance sense of design, and A WHOLE LOT of time to get some work done. oh, and lets not forget a culture that valued craftspeople/artists insofar as they could actually make a living doing it. just my two cents.

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Agreed, VdA. OT somewhat, but was anyone else wondering if MN would be back up? I was pretty worried. There are ideas on here that are not in print together, or searchable, anywhere else. It made me want to devise a computer program that prints the page every time certain people write anything. Not that I could. These pages are archived, right?

I would buy a disk of archives of this site, every year.

Someone make that happen!

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I'm inclined to toward the 'no big magic secret' idea.  Just many many points of quality work. 

 

But I do think there is an 'ethos' behind the old master work that we can attempt to adopt.  Many of our 'comfortable assumptions' are inherited from later more commercialized approaches, and should be looked at skeptically, including many of the most generally accepted practices from school and trade sources.  The more we can put aside modern assumptions and viewpoint, the more we study and familiarize ourselves with the materials, aesthetics, and methods of old Italian industry and arts, the more we can put ourselves in their situations, the more we can steer ourselves toward confronting the same problems as they faced, while confining our solutions to the same pallet of resources they had, the better. 

 

Also, Stradivari might best be viewed as the exception, rather than the rule.  In many ways, Stradivari changes things up and doesn't represent a basic version of the common practices running more broadly through the old master work.  He changes the design in many little ways.  However, his nuances can always be seen as variations of the basic practice, not has whole-clothe inventions .  Still, the main traditions are harder to perceive and comprehend by studying Strad directly.  Better to study Italian and Cremonan making more generally, then look at Strad's special variations as extensions and refinements.  

 

In many ways, I find it more constructive to look at the Amati, Guarneri, and Ruggieri instruments as the core practice, and try to understand the principles that are common among these.  Then look at Seraphin, Montagnana, Zarlino, Maggini, etc trying to understand these, together with the core Cremonans, as variations on a larger overarching practice.  Then at last look again at Strad in terms of this larger context.

 

 

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I think that the secret is in the full implementation of logic and sound reinforcement through the preparation of wood to work. Stradivarius violin possess amazing logic in the mechanics of producing sound. All the details are exactly the what should be. Form a whole. Perfection is not the result of one or two parts. Are formed together a great puzzle.

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I thing, after several years in violin-making, the sound of the instrument you produce is more related to the "idea" or the "line" of what you want, instead of x-thickness, x-frequençy or x-weight. This idea won´t be visible even with a close examination of your work by other maker. For me it´s better to have your own system, even if it doesn´t fit the classic Cremonese, because you understand it very well (normal, you create it!) than to try to reproduce something you don´t understand.

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hows about no tv, no super wide inter webs, far too few books to read. just much more sensitive hearing, a post renaissance sense of design, and A WHOLE LOT of time to get some work done. oh, and lets not forget a culture that valued craftspeople/artists insofar as they could actually make a living doing it. just my two cents.

That is, of course, until cholera or plague or some other awful thing got you. I think I was grumpy last night……Carry on.

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That is, of course, until cholera or plague or some other awful thing got you. I think I was grumpy last night……Carry on.

This is why boiling and rodent poo in conjunction, is a more sensible theory than some others. Probably began when someone got Amati's wood after he died, and boiled Plague right out of it. I favor less-complex "theories" because I can't handle the rest. Not that the truth is always so facile, but it could be.

Also, what Christian Bayon said.

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