Many thanks to Flora Selwyn, editor of St. Andrews in Focus for providing us with her interview of Fife craftsman Alan McGeoch.
Alan McGeoch is always being asked -- about making a violin
Q. What is the violin made of?
A. Nearly the whole violin is made of wood and most of this is sycamore (acer pseudoplatanus), generally known as maple if it comes from Europe. It comes in delightful variants with beautiful figuration, and I often source it from Scottish and English woodlands. The front (belly) wood is slow-growing high-altitude spruce, chosen for its straight grain, strength, and fast transmission of sound. Most fittings are now made from ebony from sustainable forests, often in Africa. All violins are assembled with hot hide glue which allows a reversible bond.
Q. How do you make a violin, and how long does it take?
A. All my instruments are individually made with hand tools, physical effort, and patience. The pleasure in this is incredible, and there is a challenge, too, as wood is an unpredictable, natural material. First I decide on the model to suit my client’s requirements, make appropriate templates, and an internal mould. The process of selecting the wood to make a harmonious visual match and tonal success is a great pleasure too; some clients like to share in this and follow their instrument to completion. Spruce blocks are glued to inserts in the mould to provide reinforcement. Carefully matched rib wood is planed to a thickness of 1mm – not much more than a credit card. Briefly heated on a bending iron, it is fitted to the blocks then glued into place. With the completed rib unit set safely aside, the wood for the front and back plates is prepared. The selected, seasoned wedges are split or sawn then joined as in ‘book-matching’ with a traditional rub-joint. This is done by applying hot hide glue and rubbing the surfaces together till they ‘grab’. Suction holds the joint together and, amazingly, no clamps are required. After the perimeter is traced and cut, the plates are handcarved to the designed shape. Arching guides are used to ensure accuracy, which confers great strength and desired tonal attributes on the instrument. After scraping I prepare and inlay a band of decorative purfling just inside the edges of both plates. Next the plate interiors are carved out to a thickness of 3mm and less. Finely tuned to meet the tonal criteria for the model, they ensure quick response on all strings. The sound holes are drawn on the front and cut out. These serve a function, mainly to ensure free vibration around the bridge and allow vibrating air to move in and out. A bass bar is fitted to support the bridge and strings. The scroll and neck are then carved and the instrument assembled, soundpost positioned and the first magical notes played. It may take 120 hours or more to reach this point. I always enjoy ‘playing in’ the instrument, making adjustments to increase playability and maximise tone. Visiting professionals test my instruments to the limit and further adjustment is made on their recommendations. Finally, the fingerboard is removed to allow smoothing of all exterior parts, the surfaces coated with a protective and coloured ‘ground’, then oil varnish applied in extremely thin layers to build up the desired texture and colour. Madder root can give a stunning, authentic finish. Only when all the varnish is dry and hard can the instrument be polished to the desired sheen. After re-assembly there are further adjustments to the set-up ensuring the instrument plays easily and is responsive from new. All in all it takes upwards of 160 hours for each instrument. Violas take a little more, and cellos at least twice as long.
Q. Why handmade?
A. A handmade instrument is an individual artistic vehicle for your expression as a player. As I work with the wood, every piece of which is unique, I find that it may suggest certain tonal possibilities and desirable qualities which I try to enhance for the player’s benefit. A machine can’t do this. Visually, machine-made instruments can appear neat and precise, but handmade violins have a human quality flowing from the maker’s hands and toolcraft. Carving much more selectively than a machine, as a musician I can respond to the changing pitch and resonance of the parts – the more acute the maker’s musical ear, the better. The parts vibrate freely giving a quicker response to the player’s bow. Machines tend to leave the wood fairly thick and chunky, whereas hand carving makes a lighter, more responsive instrument, while retaining the strength that comes of traditional hand construction methods.
Q. Who benefits from a handmade instrument?
A. This is not for the young beginner, as commitment and care of instruments must be established first. However, beyond a certain level of skill, most players will find that they enjoy playing, and want to practise more, because they prefer the tone, power and response. So promising young players and aspiring students can have their prospects considerably enhanced. Many professionals buy a new handmade violin as a second instrument, only to find they use it for more performances than their much more costly, fragile, and sometimes temperamental, old master. Amateurs can also enjoy the sheer pleasure of owning and playing such an instrument. Welldesigned violins are versatile and equally good for classical and folk playing.
Q. Why do you make violins?
A. The pleasure of creating an instrument, and giving it a voice to sing, is hard to quantify.
Q. Have you discovered the secrets of Stradivarius?
A. Not yet, but you will be first to know if ever I do!
Q. What is on your instrument label?
A. ‘Alan McGeoch, St Andrews’, the year and instrument number.
Alan McGeoch is a professional maker of violins, violas, and cellos, with instruments available now and to order - recently he exhibited violins and a viola in London. He is available for talks and demonstrations.
Alan McGeoch lives and works in St Andrews and can be contacted on 07890 435 439 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org