Sunday, July 15, 2018

Resonance Requires Air-Dried Tonewood

The Terrier by Mando Mo
air-dried 3-5 years
There are several schools of thought as to what makes a good tonewood. But in the end, a maker can’t be 100 percent sure they have built a nice-sounding mandolin until it is finished and played. However, there are factors along the way, starting with the selection of the species, that are the key to making a quality instrument. Tight grain is not essential, but pieces with wide growth rings are best to avoid. The wood has to be quartersawn, thereby preventing any expansion and contraction like there would be with flat-sawn wood, which tends to warp. Then there is the tap test.

“You look for woods that have a good tap tone to them, that resonate when you tap them,” says Bob Cefalu, owner of RC Tonewoods & Sons in Kenmore, N.Y. “Most of the rosewoods fall into that category. I don’t know if there is really such a thing as a bad tonewood, because probably 90 percent of the sound comes from the top or the soundboard. A good, stiff soundboard in Sitka [spruce], Engelman [spruce], or any of the European spruces; they all make good soundboards.”

Mandolin tops are selected from billets, which are cut into book-matched boards about 3/8" thick in the rough. In final form, they are sanded down to widths as small as 1/10" (.12"). Some believe a flexibility test will help determine if a set will make a good top as a tonewood.

“You’re looking for sound transmission, so you’re looking for lightweight wood, which is crispy,” says Marc Culbertson, who runs the musical instrument operation at Gilmer Wood Co. in Portland, Ore. “If it is lightweight, you will have more amplitude of sound, more energy to carry through. Heavy wood dampens the tone. The crispy thing is about the quality of the tone. If you have a piece of wood that is fuzzy like leather in your hand, then that’s the quality of tone you are going to get. It’s going to sound airy and fuzzy. If you want your tone to be crispy, have some detail to it, then you’re looking for that in the wood.”

“There are certain woods that have proven over the centuries that they make good tonewoods,” says Shiraz Balolia, an avid guitar maker and founder and president of Grizzly Industrial of Bellingham, Wash. “Spruce is one, cedar is another; they’re both very good examples. One of the things that I look for is if I get a stack of Sitka spruce for example, I’ll pick each board up — they’re usually cut to 1/4" size and are bookmatched —and I’ll give it a tap tone. I can feel what will have a really good sound once it is built.”


As critical as the top is to the mandolin's sound, the choice for the back and sides doesn’t have to be as highly selective.

The Tortoise by Mando Mo
air-dried maple back and sides
3-5 years
“Backs and sides are a different thing,” says Mitch Talcove, owner of Tropical Exotic Hardwoods of Latin America in Carlsbad, Calif. “Traditionally, it was Brazilian rosewood. Then it became difficult to get, even before being listed on CITES. Martin [C.F. Martin Guitar Co.] made its last production run with Brazilian rosewood in 1969. Then everybody switched over to East Indian rosewood. Supply is still plentiful and it is pretty much the standard for everybody out there from Larrivee [Jean Larrivee Guitars] to Martin to Taylor [Guitars].”

Some makers are using mixed species of hardwoods for the backs and sides, essentially for aesthetics.

“I like quilted maple because of the figure, but it is not the best tonewood; it’s a good tonewood, but it’s not the best,” Balolia says. “So I try and complement that with something like koa or something else. I built a two-tone guitar with koa sides and a curly maple bottom, and then the Sitka spruce top. It turned out really nice, the tone was spectacular. For me, it was an experiment, and you don’t know until it is done. And that’s when it is too late if it has a bad sound.”

The drying process for tonewoods is also an important element of how a top will eventually sound. The average air-drying time for the best tonewoods is around three years, with some drying times as much as five years.

“We deal with a company in the Alps which has been doing tonewoods for eight generations,” says Rick Hearne, owner of Hearne Hardwoods in Oxford, Pa., who uses European red spruce for acoustic guitar tops and European maple for classical instruments. “A quality of the tone of those [classical] woods comes from sunning the maple. They actually have racks all over their property where they take the rived matched billets of maple and they’re getting sunned. They air-dry them for about three years.

“Everybody is in the game of selling tonewoods; it’s big business,” Talcove says. “For me, if I can pick the wood, I’ll buy top wood and I have it here. To my knowledge, here in Southern California, I’m the only place you can actually walk in and buy tonewoods. Most of the people who are manufacturers like Taylor, Martin and people of that caliber, they go direct to the source.”

The price of a book-matched mandolin top varies greatly. Although most are Sitka spruce or some other spruce, they start at about $40 a set and run much higher. Sides and backs are priced on an individual basis. The type of species and amount of figure will greatly influence the cost.

Here are some Tonewood companies that carry 3-5 year air-dried materials:

Kiln-dried or Air-dried Tonewood. What's the difference?

If you’ve seriously shopped for a premium instrument, you have most likely heard the term tonewood applied to the materials coveted by mandolin builders (and even some musicians). It generally applies to the woods used to build musical instruments, usually those with strings such as violins, cellos, mandolins and guitars. The inherent effect of different wood species upon the tonality of an instrument is a never-ending discussion, but little is heard about how wood is prepared.

The idea of old wood has currency among builders, but unless properly seasoned, a board’s age is a worthless statistic. Labels like “air dried” and “century old” are suspect because these designations by themselves mean nothing. As we start to examine the actual science behind how wood gains and loses moisture, the fallacy of these sorts of terms becomes clear. The correct seasoning of wood that’s used for mandolins is important, but exactly why is a bit opaque as viewed through the lens of marketing.

Why We Dry

Builders of all things wooden must be concerned with moisture content for many reasons. Most of the considerations are structural, including the ability of glues or final finishes to bond properly. Wood shrinks in size as it dries, so it is important for pieces to be stabilized before fitting them together in a final form. Unlike a table or door, extremely small changes in dimensions can cause playability problems for a guitar. For all these reasons, it is important to bring instrument wood into a state that will be at rest in “normal” operating situations and environments.

Appropriate Moisture Content

To begin with, wood in its natural state is fairly saturated with moisture in what is referred to as sap. It’s the easy flow of this moisture through the tree that nourishes its extremities, much like our own body’s circulation system. After a tree is felled, it no longer draws moisture through a root system, but can still absorb water from its surroundings. Even after trees are cut into boards, the wood is at the mercy of its environment. Moisture in boards is found in the tube-like rays and vessels that supply food to the wood cells, as well as inside the cells themselves. Transfer of waterborne food to the cells is accomplished via small gateways called pits, which act as valves. The notable thing here is that this system can work in either direction—gaining or losing moisture in an effort to reach what is called equilibrium. This fact is important because it means that a board stored for decades in a humid environment will not lose enough moisture to be deemed usable for most furniture or musical instrument purposes.

On a freshly cut tree the moisture content can be anywhere from 30%-45%, this is called green wood and some chair makers use this wood for their projects, but for the rest of us the MC is too high to build anything from it, so we, have to dry the lumber before it is of any use to us.  The ideal MC for furniture making is around 8-9%, some say 7 and some say 6, so let’s just say anywhere from 7-9% is ideal.

How We Dry

Most commercially available lumber is dried to between 8 to 12 percent moisture content, measured by weight in what is called the “dry basis.” The most common method of achieving this is by using a drying oven, or kiln. It’s not just a matter of putting wood into a hot room and waiting because there are a myriad of variables to be aware of. Green (new) wood can vary greatly in moisture content, ranging anywhere from 30 percent to as much as 200 percent as a ratio.

Bound and Free Water 

In the living tree, the wood cells, which are like skinny soda straws, are about 3 to 5 mm long; the diameter is 1/100 of their length. The center of the cell is hollow. Water that is in the hollow space is called free water. It could be removed by blowing it out of the cell. (Actually, we call the liquid "water," but the water contains many other chemicals--just ask anyone who likes maple syrup on their pancakes what the water in wood tastes like!) The cell wall itself (which is actually 1.5 times heavier than water, so wood actually doesn't float--the air in the hollow spaces makes wood float) also can absorb water. The wall can absorb up to 30% of its weight in water. This absorbed water is called bound water, as it is held in the cell wall by hydrogen bonding.

Moisture is divided into two different categories: free water, which is found in the rays and vessels, and bound water, which is held in the cells themselves. Also, the material nearest the outside dries more quickly than the center of the board. The resulting vacuum instigates a capillary action that draws the internal moisture towards the surface. This aspect takes more time and requires more heat. But forcing any of these issues with too much heat too soon can destroy the wood with cracks, or leave the center wet—a structural time-bomb. Some experts insist that fracturing the cells or cooking the resin left behind by overenthusiastic drying can also change the resonance of the wood. Whether or not this is true, the structural reasons are enough to warrant tailoring the drying cycle to each individual load.

When drying wood, the free water leaves first. It requires less energy to evaporate than the bound water. At about 30% MC, all the free water is gone and just bound water remains.

Air-drying Tonewood

Air drying is a lengthy process usually each board takes 1 inch (25mm) per one year to dry, the lumber is stacked off the ground 15-24 inch(400-600mm) on stickers which are placed across the boards and inline to each below, and above in between the boards to avoid sagging to gain even weight distribution.  The stickers serve to allow air flow between each board.  stacks-of-lumber

A canopy or preferably plywood with cinder blocks or other heavy items should be placed on top.  The canopy or plywood is there to protect the timber from weather elements, plywood is preferred over the canopy because it allows air flow and protection from the sun.  If you use a canopy you should remove it when it’s not raining.  Once the boards have reached equilibrium with its environment which is usually about 15% outside, you then need to bring it into your shop to acclimate, and continue to dry until they reach the 7-9% MC.  Depending on your own environment this can take from two weeks up to a month or more. g05550art01

Air drying needs to be in an open space not surrounded by trees or other plant life, the ground mustn’t be damp either.  If any of these features are present, then the lumber will continually absorb the MC from its surroundings and not dry properly and mold may start to form, mold is notorious in pine and other woods.  These stacked timbers will continually absorb large amounts of moisture from the surrounding trees and damp ground.

Unfortunately for many who are not financially endowed, we have to make do with the surroundings we have.  It just means that once the timber has reached equilibrium with its surroundings, which may well be above 15% and then brought into the shop, you will have to wait longer than usual for the stuff to dry thoroughly or acclimate before it’s ready for use.  It pays to have a high quality moisture meter, a Wagner is a good choice.  Luthiers prefer a pinless version which costs anywhere from $200 up to $900.  They are every bit as accurate as the pinned type,  even though some will disagree.

Air dried lumber is a hand tool woodworkers best friend, it’s easy to work and is more stable than kiln dried lumber because it’s not forced dried through high temperatures, but rather a natural slower process.  As the timber air dries the cells collapse, slowly causing them to compress and stay put, so when air dried lumber absorbs moisture, it doesn’t swell as much hence it becomes more stable.  Many people including myself find kiln dried wood more physically demanding to work with hand tools.

We also know that very slow drying of lumber enhances the musical properties. Drying at warm temperatures or hotter has a definite effect on wood properties. Therefore, air drying for a year and then continued drying in a home or office to achieve the correct final MC is essential. Air-drying alone will reach only 12% MC in most of North America; 7% MC is the typical final MC required for interior uses. We also know that rain on the lumber enhances certain other properties. For example, white oak lumber is normally quite acidic in character. But if you air dry it for 2 years, there is a vanilla odor that becomes very obvious and enhances the flavor of wine and whiskey in barrels made of such material! In short, air drying cannot be replaced for musical instruments--even low temperature systems do not do as good a job.

Kiln Dried 

Kiln dried is a forced but controlled process where humidity and temperature is controlled using steam and fans for drying.  The drying process normally takes between 6-8 weeks, because of its fast drying due to high temperatures, the cells collapse quickly rather than slowly as it would with air drying, making it unstable.  Because of this when moisture is absorbed, the cells expand rapidly filling up with water quickly than it would with air dried lumber.  However, the positives with Kiln drying due to high temperatures, any laid eggs and bugs are killed off. There is treatment for mold and insects at an extra cost.

If hot dry air is used, then the surface dries too rapidly and develops case hardening, ‘checks’, so kiln drying requires careful control of both air and temperature.  The idea is to prevent stagnant layer of excessively humid air from lingering around the timber, as in the case of air drying, the air is frequently renewed which prevents this from happening.

Beyond the Dry

Henan Junyu Export & Import Trading Co., Ltd.
Since wood is porous, even if a builder buys wood that is carefully and correctly dried, it must still be kept in a controlled environment or the moisture content will drift. This applies to the mandolin in your home, too. Maintaining a relative humidity of around 35 to 40% will keep your mandolin close to the environment that it was (hopefully) built in. It is important to note that some of the drying parameters of commercial lumberyards do not include considerations of cell damage that may affect resonance despite being structurally acceptable for furniture applications. In those cases, structurally sound has nothing to do with the sound it makes!

In the end, it comes down to having a mandolin that functions properly and won’t shift too much during use. Beyond that, it has to do with resonance. I'll cover that in the next blog post.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Origins of the Violin Part 3 - Andrea Amati (1505-1577)

Andrea Amati was born in 1505 Cremona, Italy.  It was in the workshop of Andrea Amati (ca. 1505-1577) in Cremona, Italy, in the middle of the 16th century that the form of the instruments of the violin family as we know them today first crystallized.  Several of his instruments survive to the present day, and some of them can still be played. Many of the surviving instruments were among a consignment of 38 instruments delivered to Charles IX of France in 1564.

According to a biography by Roger Hargrave, Amati was one of the top candidates scholars have advanced for the "inventor of the violin." The two other candidates he named were Fussen born in a region now part of present-day Germany. The other candidate he named was Gasparo' da Salo from Brescia.

The violin-like instruments that existed when Amati began his career only had three strings. Amati is credited with creating the first four stringed violin-like instrument. Laurence Witten also lists Amati and Gasparo' da Salo, as well as Pellegrino de' Micheli, also from Brescia; as well and Ventura di Francesco de' Machetti Linarol, of Venice. Amati's first violins were smaller than modern violins, with high arches, wide purfling, and elegantly curved scrolls and bodies.

Andrea Amati's two sons, Antonio Amati and Girolamo Amati were also highly skilled violin makers, as was his grandson Nicolò Amati, who had over a dozen highly regarded apprentices, including Antonio Stradivari and Andrea Guarneri.

Few of Andrea Amati’s instruments survive today. Of those that do, many were commissioned by wealthy patrons and royalty, such as the celebrated group of instruments made for Charles IX of France. These instruments date from 1564 to 1574, and we must assume that Amati had been working for some time prior to that date to have won a commission from the French court. His earliest known instrument is thought to date from 1546, but sadly all trace of it has been lost. The instruments made for Charles IX were decorated with the royal coat of arms, and the cutdown viola illustrated here was also decorated to reflect its ownership, in this case by a noble Italian family of the rank of Marquis.

Gigue from Partita No. 2 in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
played by Sean Avram Carpenter.  Violin: Andrea Amati (ca. 1505--1578), Cremona, ca. 1559

Origins of the Violin Part 2

Welcome to the Sweet Music Studio!  Today, I'm continuing to explore the history of the violin.  As I've shown in previous posts, violin owes its existence to ancient instruments such as the rabab, rebec, vielle and viola/lira, used in northern Africa and eventually Europe. These instruments were played in an upright position and bowed. 
The viola early stringed instrument evolved over time in Europe into two separate families of instrument: those that were held in the arms and square in shape ("viola di braccio") and those that were positioned between the legs and shaped with sloped shoulders ("viola da gamba"). They both enjoyed great success and wide use, but over time the instruments held in the arms became more popular and led to the development of the violin in and around 1550.
Marco Cara- lyra da braccio
The classic master period of Italian violin making stretched from the 16th to the 18th century. Famous luthiers included the Guarneri, Amati, da Salo, Ruggieri and Micheli families along with Antonio Stradivari and Jacob Stainer, among others. Though players have preserved many of these treasured violins through the years, they are in limited supply and worth astronomical amounts today.
Northern Italy had two regions that excelled in luthier skill in the earlier part of this 200 year "golden era" range: Brescia and Cremona. Milan and Venice also were important locations for stringed instrument building. Brescia was the first to emerge, and its famous stringed instrument school and workshop bred a generation of innovative and highly skilled artisans.
The credit for the first violin is usually given to a Cremonese luthier named Andrea Amati who had made his name originally as a lute builder. He created at least two three string violins in the 1540s. He was then commissioned to build one of the first four-string violins by the wealthy Medici family in the 1550s. Though the instrument was intended initially for professional street musicians, it became a favorite of aristocratic amateurs who had money to spend in the instrument shops.
The two earliest examples of violins that survive today were both crafted by Amati in the mid 16th century.
The “Greffuhle” violin is one of only 11 decorated
Stradivarius instruments still around. (Smithsonian)
Antonio Stradivari, another famed luthier, learned his trade as an apprentice in the workshop of Nicolo Amati, a grandson of Andrea Amati who was active through much of the 18th century. But he added his own discoveries in varnish and body design to the skill he gained in Amati's shop.
The violin became a central part of the orchestra in the 1600s, popularized by composers such as Monteverdi.
Through the centuries, the violin evolved considerably and went through one major transformation. Originally the neck was shorter and the instrument had gut strings. Some versions had only three strings. The most sweeping change happened in the 1800s, when a change in the accepted pitch of the violin resulted in luthier modifications to almost all existing violins. A centimeter was added to the neck and fingerboard to allow for the change and the bass bar was increased in weight to allow for more string tension. Strings are usually made of steel now.
One famous historic violin is stored today under close guard at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. Built by Antonio Stradivari in 1716 and almost never played, it is preserved as an example of how his instruments looked and sounded in a like-new condition. This unique and uniquely valuable violin, called the Messiah-Salabue Stradivarius, left Stradivari's workshop upon the master's death in 1737 and passed through several hands before arriving as a donation at the museum in the 20th century. According to reports, the gift came with a proviso that the violin never be played.
A great deal of research and experimentation has gone into trying to recreate the qualities of golden period violins using modern materials and methods, but the original instruments are still highly prized.
Stradivari violin, "The Antonius," played by Eric Grossman
The violin continues to evolve today with innovative designs in electric violins that can be played with amplification and effects.

Famous Players

The violin is not only used in classical music, it is also a popular sound for jazz, bluegrass, rock, folk and country music.
Famous classical violin players include Pablo de Sarasate, Yahudi Menuhin, Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, Giuseppe Tartini, Fritz Kreisler, Mischa Elman, Arcangelo Corelli, Itzhak Perlman, Joseph Joachim, Antonio Vivaldi and even Wolfgang Mozart. Niccolo Paganini is thought by many to be the ultimate classical violin player and composer, as he wrote and flawlessly performed some of the most challenging repertoire available for the violin.
There are many notable jazz violinists, including Stephane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, Jean Luc-Ponty, Ray Nance, Svend Asmussen, Federico Britos and Regina Carter.
Well known country and folk violinists include Charlie Daniels, Dale Potter, Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, Roy Acuff, Tommy Jackson, Chubby Wise, Vassar Clements, Tommy Vaden and Alison Krauss.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Origins of the Violin - The Viola di Braccio (Viola da Braccio, Lira di Braccio, Lira da Braccio)

The viola di braccio ("viol of the arm"), which was used to distinguish them from the viol family (violas da gamba - viol of the leg), appears in the 15th century in Italy.

It retains the general shape and size of the vielle but reduces the strings from five to three like the rebec. And for the first time, the c holes of the rebec and vielle are replaced with the now familiar f holes used on modern violins.

Origins of the Violin - The Vielle

The vielle appears in 13th century France and differs from the rebec significantly. There are now 5 strings, the body is much larger and closer in shape to the modern violin with ribs to enable greater flexibility when bowed. It is worth noting that the name vielle came later to refer to a different instrument--vielle à rue (vielle à roue)--or as it is more commonly known now--hurdy gurdy.

The vielle /viˈɛl/ is a European bowed stringed instrument used in the Medieval period, similar to a modern violin but with a somewhat longer and deeper body, three to five gut strings, and a leaf-shaped pegbox with frontal tuning pegs, sometimes with a figure-8 shaped body.

The instrument was also known as a fidel or a viuola, although the French name for the instrument, vielle, is generally used. It was one of the most popular instruments of the medieval period, and was used by troubadours and jongleurs from the 13th through the 15th centuries. The vielle possibly derived from the lira, a Byzantine bowed instrument closely related to the rebab, an Arab bowed instrument. There are many medieval illustrations of different types of vielles in manuscripts, sculptures and paintings. Starting in the middle or end of the 15th century, the word vielle was used to refer to the hurdy-gurdy, as a shortened form of its name: vielle à roue ("vielle with a wheel").

Several modern groups of musicians have formed into bands to play early music (pre-Baroque), and they sometimes include vielles, or modern reproductions, in their ensembles, together with other instruments such as rebecs and saz.

Origins of the Violin - The Rebec

As a result of the European crusades, an instrument called the rebec based on the rabab appears first in Spain during the middle 11th century. The rebec differs from the rabab only slightly: The rebec has three strings instead of two, the body is made of wood rather than gourd, and the instrument is placed at the shoulder to play rather than on the lap.

Life in the Medieval era was pretty different than life now. They ate different foods, talked differently, and listened to different music. In fact, most of what we think of as traditional Western music wasn't actually developed until the end of the Italian Renaissance or later. So, what made medieval music so different? For one, they used different instruments, like the rebec. A rebec is a stringed instrument common to the Medieval era and the Renaissance. It was an important part of medieval life, giving a unique sound to a unique period in history.

The rebec was small, carved from a single block of wood into a shape sort of like a stretched-out pear. From the neck to the body stretched between one and four strings. The most common version features three strings, each tuned in increments of fifths on the musical scale. It was played sort of like a fiddle, with one hand passing a bow drawn across the strings, and the other pressing the strings against the neck at various positions to change the notes.

The rebec produces a unique sound, which may come off somewhat sharp and crass compared to the softer sounds of modern violins and fiddles. It is able to sustain long notes, like most bowed instruments, and does not strictly adhere to what is now the Western set of musical notes.

So where did this unique instrument come from, and why does it have such a distinct sound? The rebec may sound familiar to anybody who has experienced music of the Middle East. That's because it has its roots in Islamic traditions. Like a great number of things in medieval Europe, the rebec originated in the Middle East and made its way into Europe during the high amounts of cultural contact in the Holy Crusades.

In roughly the 10th century, there was a small stringed instrument popular in Arabian music called the rabob. Many scholars believe that the rabob entered Europe through Spain, which at the time was partly occupied with Islamic Moors from Northern Africa. The rabob first appeared in Europe around the 10th century, taking on the name of rebec and adapting to local needs. Generally, a rebec has more strings than the Arabic rabob, and is held on the shoulder rather than the thigh or lap as in Arabic traditions. Although the instrument developed a following in Spain early on, its popularity remained limited in the rest of Europe until the later medieval era between the 13th and 15th centuries. At this point, it seems to have become a commonly used instrument.

Resonance Requires Air-Dried Tonewood

The Terrier by Mando Mo air-dried 3-5 years There are several schools of thought as to what makes a good tonewood. But in the end, a ma...