The Timbre of Timber

I walked into James Robinson’s cramped workshop, one of a few businesses under a big grey apartment complex in Chatswood, Sydney, where I found him gluing a gourd to a violin. On the wall behind him, hung an Arabic oud, and a little further along was what looked like the awkward love child of a zither and a trombone. I was going to like this man.

“Hi. Luke? I just gotta hold the join in place. It’s a bit of an experiment really; I’m making a new instrument.”

James is a luthier; he makes violins, violas and cellos. He studied luthiery in Italy and in his native USA. He has also studied horticulture and Chinese medicine, and has run a coffee and guava plantation while living ‘off the grid’ in Hawaii. Since getting a bit long in the tooth (his words), he has started to experiment with inventing instruments, which explains why I found him mounting a gourd onto a violin.

The word luthier comes from lute. The lute and its cousin, the oud (el’oud), probably originate from an Arabic word meaning wood.

My reason for visiting James, besides seizing the opportunity to meet an exceptional craftsman, was to discover more about the progression of wood – from tree to instrument and to the creation of sound. How does the sound made by one of his violins reflect the tree it has come from?  And, perhaps with a large pinch of personification, is there a memory of this tree found within the instrument and its sound?

The woods that are used for musical instruments are known as tone woods, chosen for the ability to convey and sustain a musical tone. The oboe and cor anglais, western orchestral woodwinds, are commonly made from Grenadilla wood (Dalbergia melanoxylon), while their Armenian cousin, the duduk, is often made from the softer apricot wood (Prunus armeniaca), which as the latin name suggests, has a long history of cultivation in Armenia. The variation in  sound qualities of these instruments can be attributed not only to the variation in construction and musical styles but also to the wood used in making the instrument.

The cor anglais can be heard in the opening passage of the second movement of Dvorak’s well known 9th symphony, his ‘New World Symphony‘. The duduk is less well known, but thanks to the wonders of the interweb, we can listen to some of the masters of this instrument such as Jivan Gasparian, occasionally without reverb and not accompanied by synthesiser. The modern folk group the Armenian Navy Band features a duduk that seems less influenced by 80’s pop music, played by the band leader Arto Tunçboyacıyan.

But back to the luthier’s workshop.

The wood that James uses is from three tree species, which are traditionally used in high-end violin construction. They are maple, spruce, and ebony – chosen for the qualities each imbue in the finished instrument.

Maple comes from various species of the Acer genus, with species in north America and Europe. It is used for the back and sides of instruments. Selected pieces can be highly figured or patterned due to growing conditions causing what is variously known as fiddleback, tiger maple, and quilted maple. James is close to finishing a beautiful cello with quilted Canadian maple back and sides.

Spruce (Picea) is a genus of the pine (Pinaceae) family and holds great cultural significance to people living in cold northern climates, including native Americans and Scandinavians. It is used for the front of the instrument. Due to its relative strength and low density it allows the sound created by vibration to project clearly and loudly from the instrument. James picks up a piece, testing it’s flexibility, which tells him how thick the wood is. He relies more on his feel for the piece of spruce than he does his calipers for measurement.

Ebony, from the Diospyros genus, is almost black, incredibly hard and extremely dense. The dried timber has a specific gravity greater than 1.0 – in other words it sinks in water. It is commonly used to make the finger board for orchestral stringed instruments.

The gourd violin

Our conversation swung to the industry of violin production, and the masses of half decent Chinese-made instruments flooding the student market, making violins affordable but also putting pressure on James’ business. I wondered out loud why he used only the traditional timbers for the construction of his violins. James must supply what’s in demand and as a maker of top-shelf instruments in the conservative world of orchestral music, he sees no demand for deviating from tradition in his business.

It seems every luthier must emulate the shapes and construction of the Italian school of luthiery from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. But I think there is scope for innovation in orchestral music: Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring‘ comes to mind. Initially rejected as the work of a madman when it premiered, it is now accepted as standard repertoire.

“There is a lot more innovation in both construction and materials in the world of fretted instruments (guitars, bass guitars, mandolins, etc),” says James. Less dead wood it seems.

We went on to discuss Greg Smallman, the guitar luthier who has revolutionised the bracing system in classical guitars using carbon fibre technology, and Peter Biffin, who has used his years of research and experience in luthiery to make beautifully crafted bowed instruments, rethinking the spike fiddles that originated across Asia, from Turkey to China.

The timbers used vary more outside the orchestral world too, with more acceptance of uncommon timbers being used in construction. One of James’ unfinished instruments that caught my eye was a violin-like instrument, but with a 8 strings organised  in pairs. He tells me it’s another experimental instrument, something between a mandolin and a violin. The back and sides are made from Queensland Maple, which is not a maple at all, but the native Flindersia Brayleyana. The front is King William Pine, Athrotaxis selaginoides, a Tasmanian conifer from the cypress family.

But I’m not sure my question has been answered. Does a violin have a memory?

The quality of tone wood can vary considerably between maples of the same species, and in fact, timber sourced from different heights in the tree has varying tonal qualities. Perhaps more interesting is the violin’s memory for having been played. Countless acoustic studies into this subject have been been conducted with varying and often inconclusive results. The romantic belief in the greatness of the antique brings acoustic experts back to study it again and again.

The reasoning for the possible tonal improvements is the continued ageing of the wood, and the response of the wood to the vibrations it is subjected to over the years.  There is even a Swiss material sciences organisation growing the same fungus through timber that parasitised the famous Stradivarius violins, in an attempt to emulate the tone.

A particular violin in Genova, Italy, annually comes out of its controlled museum environment to be played by the winner of the city’s young violinist competition. The violin in question is steeped in history, and my romantic side likes to think it retains something of the soul of its previous owner. Il Cannone, made in 1743 by Giuseppe Antonio Guaneri, was owned and played by for many years by the composer Niccolò Paganini, lauded as the greatest violin virtuoso of at least his century.

And maybe this is point.

The greatness of antiquity lies in our belief in the memory we bestow upon these instruments. Change is slow, but maybe it can be seen in the acceptance of James’ experiments, or his contemporaries pushing for the full realisation of tone woods in the orchestral setting.

Or maybe it’s just me. Sitting and daydreaming of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto being belted out on an Australian native violin, Bunya (Araucaria bidwilli) front, Wilga (Geijera parviflora) back and sides, with a mulga (Acacia aneura) finger board.

Examples of James’ work can be seen at

James Robinson in his shop