When you play your instrument, did you know you’re holding a masterpiece made up of about 70 individual pieces of wood? They’re not even the same type of wood–those 70 pieces can represent as many as six different wood species. The use of different woods for the various parts of an instrument is essential for good playability and sound, as certain parts require certain properties. Read on to find out about the types of wood used in instrument making.

Top or Belly

The wood of the top (or belly) of the instrument is often considered the most important wood in the whole instrument. It must be strong to withstand the tension of the strings and resonant to transmit vibrations from the bridge to the air inside the violin. Because of these requirements, spruce is the most common wood for the top. Spruce is lightweight and resonant, longitudinally strong, and laterally flexible–all characteristics that make it perfect for an instrument top.

Back, Sides, Bridge, Neck and Scroll

Maple is the most common wood for the back, sides, bridge, neck and scroll. Maple is not quite as resonant as spruce, but its greater strength is important for the structural integrity of the instrument. The pegbox is one example of where the strength of maple is needed. A violin’s pegbox is a hollowed-out space with thin sides–perforated with multiple holes–that must remain stable under constant pressure and tension. Not just any wood will do in this application!

Bass Bar, Soundpost, Blocks and Linings

bassbarThese two critical pieces strengthen the top and transmit vibrations between top and back. Resonance is very important here, so spruce is usually the preferred choice.

Notice in the picture that the sound post is lined up underneath the right leg of the bridge, and the bass bar is directly underneath the left leg of the bridge. This setup is important for optimal sound production.

Regarding the blocks and linings, spruce or willow is commonly used for the inner structural supports of stringed instruments. These blocks and linings call for a strong, non-brittle wood.

Here is a video of the process of creating the creating the sound bar, inserting the sound post and more.

Fingerboard

photoThe fingerboard is almost always made of solid ebony, a wood prized for its density, strength, resistance to warping and deep black color. On very inexpensive instruments, the fingerboard is sometimes made of other types of wood painted or stained black. This black facade wears away over time and reveals unsightly lighter wood underneath. Also, fingerboards made of woods other than ebony (or even plastic) can warp and wear unevenly, causing buzzing noises and other problems.

Tuning Pegs and Chinrest

The tuning pegs and chinrest (on a violin or viola) are made of a sturdy and visually pleasing hardwood, usually ebony, boxwood or rosewood.

Tailpiece

The tailpiece is commonly made of a hardwood (such as ebony, rosewood or boxwood), resin, or metal. The tailpiece is one of the few components of a violin-family instrument that can be made acceptably of a material other than wood.

Other Violin Structure Materials

Violin-family instruments have been made of wood for the last 500 years, and for good reason. Wood is a unique material for its strength, flexibility, beauty, and most importantly, its resonant properties. While instrument makers have been experimenting with other materials for many years, nothing has yet surpassed the look, feel, and sound of a wooden instrument. However, there are a few materials that are worth mentioning.

Carbon fiber instruments are very sturdy and visually striking. They are stable in extreme temperatures and humidity and hold their tuning very well. They can be louder than wood and have tone not unlike that of a traditional instrument. The difference in sound between carbon fiber and wood is not so drastic as the difference between electric and acoustic instruments.

Metal or stone instruments are unique, but they are really just a novelty item. While they might technically be playable, their weight makes them impractical.

Electric Instruments are the greatest departure from a traditional instrument. The sound of an acoustic instrument is the product of an equation with many variables: the resonance of the body, the volume of air in the instrument, the f-holes, the strings, the bridge and much more. In contrast, the sound of an electric instrument is much simpler. Vibrations are picked up right at the bridge, with minimal contribution to the sound from the rest of the instrument. This makes for a much less rich and complex sound, one that usually requires considerable electronic trickery and effects to make it palatable. Because the body material and shape is acoustically irrelevant, electric instruments often have solid wood bodies contorted into unconventional, fun shapes.

Plastic parts on an instrument (with the exception of the tailpiece) is a sign of extremely low quality. Do not buy a violin with plastic parts (except perhaps as a child’s toy), as it will not sound or play properly. You’re far better off spending more to get a violin made of real wood. You’ll save yourself lots of frustration.

Knowing about the types of wood used in violins, violas and cellos will not only aid you in making a decision when shopping, but it will also help you appreciate the craftsmanship and care that goes into making instruments. The next time you see an stringed instrument, take a moment to admire the intricacy and natural beauty of its wood. You’ll be glad you did!


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31 replies
  1. Three Chord Monte
    Three Chord Monte says:

    Very interesting. I’m considering buying a kit to build a violin. I’m an amateur luthier having built one guitar and two mandolins. Need a better violin but can’t afford to spend a thousand dollars. Stewart-McDonald has a kit with quality wood. May try building a violin from the kit.

  2. Beginner
    Beginner says:

    Nicely done article Michael. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more experimentation with plastics resulting in a variety of plastic instruments that are good. The carbon fiber instruments get good reviews, and I assume that they use an epoxy resin. There are so many other plastics that I would bet that there are quite a few other polymers with suitable properties.

  3. hmoulding
    hmoulding says:

    I got hold of an extremely cheap violin (bought it for spare parts) that has a wide crack in the back – but it still sounds “OK” since the back is covered with a wood veneer, and the crack is just in the veneer, with solid wood underneath. Can’t recommend buying an instrument like this for actual playing, but the construction of this one was a revelation.

  4. Will
    Will says:

    From bird’s eye (burl) to tiger striped (curly)… the maple is a beautiful wood… and you can get SUGAR from the sap of the tree in early spring. I used to wonder if there was a violin inside the trees that I would tap.

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