Some labels are better than others!
Michael Darnton is a violin maker, restorer, writer and teacher who lives in Chicago...
Some labels are better than others!
There’s a tool in Stradivari’s collection of tools that’s designed to prick depth marks to be used in the graduation of the plates. It looks somewhat like the sketch above, which is a drawing of the device I made for use in my own shop.
It is used to punch holes to a depth that leaves unpunched the desired graduation thickness. Usually Stradivari removed all of the marks it made on the inside, but not always, as you can see on the inside of this unusually-well-preserved Stradivari top:
In softer wood or if the punch point had to go through too much wood, the anvil on the other side (outside) could leave dents in the surface. These can be steamed or scraped out, but once in a while they’re visible.
This cello back has them all over, and these aren’t the only ones I’ve seen on Strads:
Notice, also, that the arching on this cellos is so full at the edges that there are clamp “smiles” all around the c-bout just inside the purfling where the clamps used by some later repairman to glue the back on bit into the rising arch.
Here’s a close shot of a couple of the punch dimples:
Old violins often have pinholes in the varnish. No one knows exactly how they got there, but they imply some things about how makers 300 years ago varnished, and what was important to them (pinholes obviously didn’t bother them much). This probably wouldn’t happen if the wood under the varnish was too well sealed, except we can see that sealer is there and that it has prevented the varnish from going into the wood, and pinholes aren’t compatible with that. It’s one of those little mysteries.
The violin in the photo is a very early G.B. Guadagnini from Piacenza, with bright red varnish. The size of the area in the photo is probably about 12mm across.
The instrument head in this photo is a Peregrino di Zanetto viola (read about this instrument and maker at the link) that was made around the middle of the 1500s. The varnish appears to be original, and it also appears to have been applied with fingertips, not with brushes, as you can see by the fingerprints of color all over the surface. The body, too, has these prints, though many of them have been polished out and smeared more than on the back of the head, which is relatively fresh.
A friend of mine whipped up some jigs to permit him to make quick neck grafts in blocks of rough, uncarved wood that he could then carve so that his new “antique” instruments would have authentic neck grafts in them. When he came to visit me, he brought this dummy graft test made of a couple of pieces of construction lumber. Normally a neck graft takes hours to complete, but this setup makes one in a few minutes. Of course you could never safely do something like this with an valuable old instrument!
Maybe you’ve heard violin makers talk about violins with “integral” bassbars (cut from the top, not separate) and carving straight from the gouge. This is one of those. It doesn’t get much worse than this. Usually they might smooth a bit around where the post would go, but not this time! A violin like this can be perfectly finished on the outside, and the parts you see through the f-holes will be as finely detailed as anything else. You might think that it looks really well made, but it’s what you don’t see that makes the difference.
… than that it’s so pretty. This is a Brothers Amati violin from around 1615 seen from the top end. The red line is a laser line from a carpenter’s level, to show how the arching is shaped in that area. If you’re one of those people who just can’t get enough of this stuff, try this movie of the same violin, and here’s the latest silly iteration of that technology (this photo is not the same violin as above). For Mac people here is a Mac version of the movie.
Some makers theorize that the early Cremonese makers inlaid purfling in three separate, unglued strips, the way French makers of the 1800s did. That has never appeared to me to be the case, and here’s one Cremonese violin, a Brothers Amati from 1605, where there’s obvious proof that the purfling was glued together before it was bent and glued in place. Notice the compression folds on the inside of the curve (the outside, black, purfling strip).