Tuesday, March 16, 2010

WOOD YA, COULD YA SERIES PART TWO : Symphony in Wood: Stradivari's Violin

It has been said that the sound of a Stradivarius violin is so perfectly brilliant and so pure it can make you cry. Those who have played it have described that no matter how much sound is coming out of the instrument, it feel's like there's always more. The music  is of such unparalleled richness and resonance, and the secret of its creation as deep and dark as its sound. 

Listen and be entranced:

Right: Antonio Stradivari by Edgar Bundy, 1893, Below middle: "Betts" Stradivarius violin, Below, right: Photo credit: BBC News

These magnificent instruments were made by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), in Italy. Working in a preindustrial age, he crafted his violins with unsurpassed consistency and artistry. The result is a violin that makes a sound so perfect and wonderful that the craftsmanship remains a subject of much debate and interest, as famous as the instruments    themselves.                                                                       
Today, most experts agree that the secret of the violins has a lot to do with the wood used to make them. Aside from Stradivari's techniques, the wood used to make the violins accounts for the difference. These woods, harvested from the forests of northern Croatia during a time of extremely cold climate, produced wood of extreme density. The violins were made of soft spruce on the top place and hardwood maple on the back plate and sides. The spruce vibrates, while the maple propels the sound up and out, like a kettle drum.

These coveted instruments could not be copied to this day. Better-sounding violins have been made with great success, but none of them sounded like a Stradivarius. Why? Because, as George Eliot said: "'Tis God gives skill, but not without men's hand: He could not make Antonio Stradivarius' violins without Antonio."

A Short Lesson on Craftsmanship
What does a Stradivarius violin and a good cabinet have in common? Craftsmanship. The superlative carpentry and joinery methods used by early cabinetmakers produced such remarkable furniture that's not only beautiful to behold but lasts as well. How it's put together accounts for a piece's stability and beauty and the focus is on the joints, or that part where two pieces of wood (say the back and sides of a drawer) come together.

The eight basic types of joints are: butt, dado, rabbet, lap, dovetail, mortis and tendon, miter, and tongue and groove

Here are key things to keep in mind when checking out a piece of furniture for durability:
1. A well-built fixture or piece of furniture will not require any metal fasteners, such as screws or nails. In many cases glue is added to hold the joint tight.
2. Intricate details such as dovetail joints are common on older pieces of furniture or antiques.They are also found on high-end custom furniture or reproduction pieces.
3. Dado, Dovetail and Mortise and Tenon joints are more labor intensive, add cost to the furniture but are superior to Butt joints.
4. A Dovetail joint, shown below, will tell you that a piece of furniture is of good quality and well-made or is authentically vintage. 

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