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What's the big deal about flaming?


Lydia Leong
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eBay ads often mention how great the flaming on a violin is... but I dismiss this as typical eBay hype based on con men reading the ads of other con men and imitating their style.

However, I see a lot of posters on this board mentioning the flame on instruments, as well. Is this purely an esthetic quality, or does flaming actually indicate something about the instrument?

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I was looking through my old Sotheby's catalogues and noticed the amount of old Italian instruments that had little or no flaming. There were no real differences in price between the flamed violins and plain backed ones when the old masters were concerned. I kind of like the look of the violins made with the backs cut on the slab instead of quarter cut.

george

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To a lot of people, I think the general flaming and alignment of flames indicates how much care the maker took in selecting and matching the wood...thinking that this is a good indicator of the overall quality of the instrument.

Of course the old Italians, have a lot more going for them than our modern preference....

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I asked this question a little while ago, "flamed vs, bird's-eye, vs straight". I received no responses so I went back and reviewed the archives and found a lot of good information. Based on those discussions, the opinion was that there is no differences except for the bird's-eye, where it is important to use a form of European maple, that allows the wood to be cut in the fashion that produces this pattern, while still maintaining the specific gravity needed for good tone wood. If this is the case than bird's-eye should have the same tone.

An interesting point was made that the vast majority of the sound comes out of the top and not out of the back so that while the back adds a color to the tone, grain variations in the same type of wood should not have that much tonal impact.

If I have misrepresented any of these past post, please don't let it stand uncorrected.

Marsden

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Tonally, figure doesn't mean much. The only opinion that's sometimes expressed is that since plain wood is stronger it has the potential to sound better, but I don't really know if that's true or not, and doubt there's much difference at all.

To expose the figure, birdseye is always slab cut, which is the most unstable and fragile direction to cut the wood. Otherwise, violin wood is almost always quarter cut, since that's stronger. Stradivari made a number of violins with slabbed backs early in his career, and most of these backs have a number of cracks, especially compared with quartered ones, which rarely have any at all.

[This message has been edited by Michael Darnton (edited 09-05-2000).]

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With the comment about most of the sound coming out of the top of the instrument, I could see how the varing grains styles on the back might not be that significant. What about different grain styles on the front?

Take a look at this front (I'm not interested in an e-bay discussion on this, but it gives access to a great example.)http://cgi.ebay.com/aw-cgi/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=429189081

The maker who made this new well that this was not the norm, yet he put in the effort anyway. (The front shows well as more of the pictures download.)

Does anyone know if there is a tonal disadvantage involved to this radical of a deviation from straight grained spruce?

Also there was a lot of past discussion about bird's eyes popping out over time, but even that did not seem to indicate that the tone would be affected.

Marsden

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So, flaming does not mean that it is a better wood that makes it sound nicer? I always thought that was the case. Hmm, learn something new every day!

Also- Some of you remember when I first started posting here, and was talking about my daughter's "Strad" copy? I don't think it is a terrific instrument, but she is really starting to love it! Her's has no flaming on it, but she still thinks it's prettier than my Grace.

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Michael Darnton made the point that slab cut wood was the most unstable. Different wood species vary, but the basic rule of thumb with regard to dimensional stability under differing conditions of moisture/humidity is that slab cut wood varies the most, as Michael said, while quarter sawn wood moves about half as much as slab cut wood. Dimensions along the length of a board barely change with differing moisture contents. So naturally quarter sawn wood will yield the most stable instruments under varying climactic conditions, a definite design advantage.

With regard to the eBay violin mentioned above, judging by the workmanship of the corners and soundholes, I really think we're giving this maker too much credit when we assume that he understood the implications of using a slab cut top. I think it's more likely that he just used the nearest piece of "lumber" ready to hand. JMHO

Mark

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The "flame" in maple is made by a wavey grain. Think of the shape of sound waves...now cut the tops off...what you get is end grain in effect...catching the light at different angles...this is what gives the flame look. This really does not do much as far as sound goes, the density of the wood and other characteristics play a much greater roll.

As far as tops go, the theory is a straight even grain, and that is for a consistent density of wood as well. The dark lines are much more dense than the white. If the grain is even, then the wood should have an even density. The french fiddle on ebay's top would have a very inconsistent density because of the cut of the wood.

Who knows how it sounds tho....

Bob Spencer

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With regard to the eBay violin mentioned above, judging by the workmanship of the corners and soundholes, I really think we're giving this maker too much credit when we assume that he understood the implications of using a slab cut top. I think it's more likely that he just used the nearest piece of "lumber" ready to hand. JMHO

Mark,

How does one learn what makes a good or not so good corner or F hole.....I am really interested to learn the difference!

Mark[/b]

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If I have any expertise at all in the field of violin aethetics, it's only come from years of looking at instruments, both in person and in books. I have no formal training that I can refer to. I'm therefore a little self conscious endeavoring to tell anyone else what to look for in the design of violins. I'm hoping that someone with a greater sensitvity will step in here and correct me, or pick up where I leave off.

Having said that, I think that Stradivari achieved aesthetic perfection in the design of his corners, soundholes, scrolls, proportions among the various parts, etc. Whenever you have an opportunity to see his work, most likely in photographs for most of us, study these details. Of course you should study the work of every other good maker in the same way.

Take corners, for example. Observe the way the bouts blend into the corners. Is the transition graceful, or is there something a little bit jarring about the transition? It should be as if the design is organic, naturally occuring. Do the corners themselves seem anemic, or clubby, or do they have a perfect mass about them? How are the corners pointed away from the body of the violin? Can you perceive an aesthetic logic here, or do they seem to have been applied as an afterthought? Look at the upper and lower corners together. Is there a meaningful balance between them? Stradivari's are perfection and a benchmark for developing your sensitivity.

The same considerations apply to the soundholes. Is there a proportional logic between the upper and lower eyes? Are the curves of the body of the soundholes graceful? Do they connect the eyes to form an organic unity overall, or does it just seem like a bunch of elements cobbled together? How do the soundholes seem when considered in relation to the violin edges?

It would certainly be wrong to believe that there's one perfect aesthetic, but any great violin should seem unified in all its elements. Soetsu Yanagi, a Japanese author and philosopher on aesthetics, wrote that a great work of art seems as though it were born, not made. Pay attention to these things and your aesthetic sense will certainly grow, and you'll see for yourself good and bad designs in violins.

On a personal note, I first became enamoured with violins because of their visual beauty. From there I went on to play them.

Mark

[This message has been edited by mlbouquet (edited 09-08-2000).]

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