Crafting a Violin: Background information when reading Black River

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Black River

A Novel

by S.M. Hulse

Black River by S.M. Hulse X
Black River by S.M. Hulse
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2015, 240 pages
    Jan 2016, 240 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp

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Beyond the Book:
Crafting a Violin

Print Review

In Black River, Wes's father made a handmade fiddle for his son. This treasured belonging supports many of the story's themes. The fiddle itself is a multi-sensory object. Beyond its key function of making music, it is also visually beautiful, and provides a tactile and kinesthetic release for Wes.

A fiddle and a violin are pretty much the same instrument. Although there can be variance in playing methodology and the set-up of the instrument (including the strings, tuners and bridge), the difference is most significantly a matter of perception and cultural use—and the type of music played. A musician playing classical music is more likely to call the instrument a violin, while a fiddler plays folk music and bluegrass. Or, as is said, "No one minds if you spill beer on a fiddle."

Parts of a Violin The tools needed to build a violin are not particularly expensive or specialized, so as long as an individual has a fair skill level for woodworking. However it is a lengthy, multi-step process requiring great patience and endurance, and the top luthiers spend a lifetime mastering their craft.

Tonal quality is determined by:

  • Raw materials
    The type and age of wood is one of the biggest variables in determining aural quality. The base of most violin bodies is made from maple, a fairly hard wood. Because spruce is strong for its weight and vibrates easily, it is often used for the top. Ebony is usually chosen in making the fittings and pegs. Besides the type of wood, its age makes a crucial difference. Older wood, properly stored, is far more desirable, and, as a result, more expensive than wood less than twenty years old. The least expensive violins are made from what is considered greenwood—wood that hasn't had time to cure properly. This can lead to cracks eventually forming and/or seams to become unglued.
  • Structure
    All luthiers use one of the proven master instruments as a model. Popular models are made to imitate violins made by Antonio Stradivari or Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu.
  • Set-up
    Although most parts of a violin are pretty standard, some are more personal decisions dependent on the individual instrument and the musician. For example, the bridge has a significant impact. It needs to hold the strings at the proper height to allow the strings to make the desired sound. The bridge must be adjusted according to the type of strings and the style of music to be played.

Each handmade instrument has its own tone and personality. Although there are some standard procedures, there is no way to create precisely the same instrument. As part of a living thing, each piece of wood is slightly different from another, and each and every cut and stroke makes an impact on the final product. And then, each instrument performs differently depending on the musician.

Additional Information
Professional musicians were given a test to see if they could determine the difference between a Stradivarius violin and one made in 1980. See if you can!

Picture of labeled violin from The Violin Guide

Article by Sarah Tomp

This article was originally published in February 2015, and has been updated for the January 2016 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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