Guy Harrison: Violin Maker
“I enjoy selecting the wood when I start making a violin – to imagine the possibilities and what kind of instrument the wood could be made into.” Violin maker Guy Harrison describes the properties of wood most suited to string instruments, his careful sourcing of and respect for wood, and the conservation efforts of violin and bow makers.
Photos: Faris Ahmed
Q. 1. What motivated you to become a violin maker?
As a child I was curious about all kinds of musical instruments - pianos, church organs, guitars, synthesizers and in particular the violin. I played the violin as a student but I was fascinated how the violin worked. I wanted to know how it was made or what made one violin sound better than another violin. Having a tradition of woodworking in my family and combined with a love for music, it seemed a perfect match for me. I went to work with a violin maker when I was 13 years old and then studied further in Europe at a violin making school and worked again for other violin makers.
I’m still fascinated by making violins, honing my craft and producing instruments that excite great musicians!
Q. 2. How do you like working with wood as a material?
One question I often get asked is, “you must play violin?” Of course I do, but most of my day is spent working with wood. Personally I love this material and always have. Sometimes I work with wood that is 200 years old or have a perfect new piece of wood. Both are special and are hard to find. These materials deserve my respect and push me to do my best work.
I enjoy selecting the wood when I start making a violin, viola or cello. To imagine the possibilities and what kind of instrument the wood could be made into. It’s an enjoyable step in the process of making.
Q. 3. What is it about the acoustic properties of wood that make it suitable for string instruments?
Spruce is used in violins, guitars and pianos. It is a light, strong and resonate wood and seems acoustically well suited for instruments. Violins were originally designed (around 1550 in Italy) and made with the woods readily available. So the design was paired with the types of wood that the craftsmen had at hand. Spruce was used for the front of the violin and maple for the back, sides and neck. It’s not an accident that these woods work well. The violin was designed for them!
Not all spruce and maple is suitable though. The wood density is important and I measure the density of all my wood when choosing it. For example, for the European spruce, I select spruce ranging from .35grams/cm3 to .39gram/cm3. This is fairly light for spruce and the lighter wood generally sounds better for the violins I make.
Also I prefer the grain to be narrow in the centre of the violin, where the bridge and strings are. The narrow grains gives more support to this region where the pressure from the strings is greatest. Towards the edges of the violin, I like the spruce grains to be wider and this gives more flexibility to this area. So the wood is already giving me the type of flexibility and structure I’m looking for in my violins.
Q. 4. What kind of wood do you use to make violins? Where do you purchase the wood and why? What characteristics in the wood do you look for? What other factors do you consider when purchasing wood?
I mostly use Bosnian maple and European or Canadian spruce. I purchase this wood in Germany, Italy and British Columbia from violin wood dealers (wood cutters). They cut the wood correctly with the grain and carefully air dry it. The best wood is sorted for professional violinmakers and the rest is sold to violin factories. So when I select my wood, it has already gone through a pre-selection process. Even though, I still look through hundreds of pieces of wood to choose the best with the right density, grains and appearance. Generally I might select 2% of the wood I look through and reject the other 98%.
For the appearance of the wood – often I have a customer ask me to copy a particular old violin. For example, I was asked to copy the violin belonging to violinist Pinchas Zukerman, which was made in 1742 by Joseph Guarneri. So the first task was to find wood that visually matched. The maple on the original violin has a strong tiger stripe pattern, or flamed pattern, in the wood. So I searched for maple with the same pattern and eventually found a near perfect match.
Q. 5. How long does it take to make one violin? One cello?
It takes me about 4-5 weeks to do the woodwork and make a violin. Then while I make the next instrument, I varnish the violin. The varnishing can take about 2 months. For cellos, the woodwork takes about 7-8 weeks. It’s also worth mentioning that typical violin varnish is made from spruce tree sap mixed with oil. The rosin for the bow is also made from carefully processed spruce sap. So this species of tree is very important for violin makers and violinists!
When I was younger and living in Europe, I worked for another violin maker. In that workshop, I was expected to make a viola in 3 weeks and cello in 5 weeks. These days I take my time and work a little slower!
Q. 6. Who purchases your instruments?
Members of the National Arts Centre and the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra have purchased my violins, violas and cellos. So professional musicians looking for an affordable and great sounding instrument make up many of my clients. I also sell to talented students and some keen amateur players. My instruments are played all over Canada and also in Europe.
Q. 7. Brazilwood, also known as “Pernambuco,” is Brazil’s official native tree. What is it about Brazilwood’s qualities and acoustic properties that made it so valuable for making violin bows?
Personally I don’t make bows. It’s a different profession within my craft, so not exactly my area of expertise. But one of the special properties of Pernambuco wood is that it can be bent into a curve using heat and it will keep this shape for decades. This is how the curve in the bow is made. Most woods will eventually return to their original shape over time or warp over time. It also has right amount of density, strength, flexibility and spring for a good bow. Bow makers must also be careful to select good Pernambuco wood. Just like violin wood, there is plenty of poor quality wood and they have to sort through it and make a good choice.
Q. 8. Today’s global demand for violin bows, as well as habitat destruction, has pushed the tree species Pernambuco almost to extinction. What has been the response by bow makers around the world?
The demand for bows has not pushed the tree species Pernambuco almost to extinction. Many years ago, Pernambuco was commercially harvested and imported to Europe to produce a red dye for the cloth industry. As a result of this intense exploitation, Pernambuco was already in steep decline by the 18th century. Today farming and a general demand for hardwoods continues to put pressure on the rainforest habitat.
In 1999 a small group of bow makers met at a Paris café to discuss their growing concerns about the Pernambuco tree. They realised if nothing was done, their traditional craft would be in jeopardy. They formed an organization called the ‘International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative’ – IPCI. Since then, working with Brazilian Government agencies, hundreds of thousands of Pernambuco seedlings have been planted. Nearly $500,000 has been donated by bow makers and violin shops to support IPCI and their education and planting initiatives.
Q. 9. How does the threatened status of the Pernambuco tree species affect your decision to sell violin bows?
I still sell bows. Since Pernambuco comes from Brazil, I sell bows made in Brazil from a company that has a successful replanting program in the Brazilian rainforest. They sometimes use recycled old wood for the bows as well. So I feel good about selling these bows. A number of European bow makers have gone to Brazil to train young bow makers there, further supporting the efforts of Brazilian bow makers.
I don’t sell Chinese Pernambuco bows though. I assume that any Chinese Pernambuco bow was made from wood illegally cut from the rainforest and has been smuggled from Brazil. There are now tight regulations on exporting the raw Pernambuco lumber. When I’ve asked Chinese bow making workshops about their wood supply, they can’t answer where they buy their wood. So I prefer to support the Brazilian, European and Canadian bow makers.
Q. 10. Finally, do you have a favourite tree in Ottawa? If so, what species of trees is it and where is it located?
I love the Arboretum with their willow trees. Willow is also a wood we use in violins. Seeing the trees reminds me of where my wood comes from, how long it takes to grow and how special it is.