Designing a Custom Violin

In comparison with some of my other instruments, the designing of a custom violin requires fewer decisions than most of my other instruments. That stems not from lack of complexity, but more that I make only one model of violin, a Stradivari. I've also found that violinists cherish tradition, and that as a rule they don't want new innovation in an instrument; they want it to look, feel, and sound like a well-built, well-taken-care-of, three-hundred-year-old instrument. I can't quite do all three, but have gotten a pretty good handle on the first two.

As a bit of testimonal to the quality of my violins, I've recently been informed that my violins are being played in the following venues:

  • the Yale orchestra
  • two in the Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory of Music, including by the concert master of both the orchestra and the opera orchestra
  • three by musicians in the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony, plus by the First Violin Coach
  • the Allegany Symphony Orchestra

Basically, your design choices are: top wood; color; and accessories

Top Wood

Your choices in top wood are basically three: red (Adirondack) spruce, European spruce, and Lutz spruce.

  • Red spruce is my preferred top wood for most instruments. Its sound is big and bold, and as I've found to my surprise in violins, quite traditional.
  • European spruce sounds traditional because it is the traditional violin maker's wood. It's balanced and focused. I've recently located a dependable source of this wood that is some of the finest I've ever known.
  • Lutz spruce is a genetic cross between Sitka and Engelmann spruces, and has the power and headroom of red spruce but with lots of tonal complexity.

All my backs and necks are built from curly or "fiddleback" maple. Though I don't find a discernible difference in the tonal qualities of the various maples -- hard, soft, Eastern, Western, European -- I'm becoming very partial to European wood from John Preston at Old World Tonewoods. This wood has gorgeous figure, works and finishes well, and sounds great.

Color


My violins are all finished with oil varnish, and the process begins with an underlying traditional ground coat such as dichromate or gamboge. Color is applied in the first coats of varnish, and can change radically during the finishing process, especially if cured unter UV light; the final color is a guessing game, but one that I'm slowly mastering. To this point my palette has been a traditional one with ambers, browns, and reds, but if yours contains greens and purples, we'll talk.

Accessories

Accessories offer the best opportunity to customize your violin. Tailpieces, chinrests, and tuning machines come in a wide array of woods and shapes. Traditional-looking geared tuning machines are also available, and can be viewed on my Hardware page; all accessories can be found in my manufacturers' websites found on my Links page. Cases, too, come in a wealth of styles, and can also be found there.

Traditional Sound

Retired Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra violinist Richard DiAdamo has become one of my most avid promoters. After I built his first violin (he now has three Skipper violins, two mandolins, and a ukulele) he said:

"I have performed on many violins throughout my forty-one-year career as a symphony violinist, and I can honestly say none of my so-called 'well-known' violins (modern and vintage) could equal the tone quality of the violin Roger Alan Skipper custom made for me."

I'm often asked how I achieve the tone normally found only on fine vintage instruments. My answer: I use the methods and materials that were used then, and enhance my shortcomings with modern technology. Most of my carving and shaping is done with chisels and planes and gouges, guided not by a template but by my eyes and ears. I use hot hide glue and shellac and gamboge and traditional varnish. Just like the old masters.

Unlike the old masters, however, I have a wealth of tools they couldn't dream of. My ear may not be as discerning as Stradavari's, but my tap-tuning software allows me to see and examine in detail what I can't hear. The Internet and published works give me access to a wealth of information that allows me to learn from the experiences of other luthiers. My work as a contributing editor to American Lutherie magazine brings me in contact with the best of luthiers from all over the world, and as a rule they freely share what they've learned.



To hear Richard DiAdamo perform on a Skipper violin, visit our Audio / Video page.
Many questions about a Skipper violin can be answered by watching the construction step by step. A wealth of this information is available in my Archives section, where all the instruments I've built in the last several years are presented in detail.

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