The violin is the most modern embodiment of stringed musical instruments played with a bow. Like the guitar and other plucked string instruments, bowed instruments date from antiquity. Although its precise origins are not completely understood, it is probable that the violin evolved during the mid-16th century in Northern Italy. In addition to perhaps being the maker of the first true violins, Andrea Amati (ca. 1500-1577) was the patriarch of the Cremona school of violin making.
During the next 150 years, other members of the Amati family and their followers, who included Antonio Stradivari and Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri , brought the violin to its highest level of perfection both as a musical instrument and as a work of art.
During the 17th century, violin making spread to all of the other countries of Europe and, in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the rest of the world. Although violins have been and are being turned out in large numbers by factories in Europe and Asia, most fine violins are handmade by individual craftsmen using essentially the same methods employed by classical Italian makers several hundred years ago.
Most of the tools required for violin making are the same as those used for most types of hand woodworking and carving: planes, chisels, gouges, knives, saws, and scrapers. In addition, a few specialized tools are needed. These include a thickness caliper, small curved bottom "thumb" planes, purfling groove cutter, peg hole reamer and matching peg shaver, bending iron, clamps of various types, and patterns. Many violin makers take pride in making some of their own tools. Indeed, one of the keys to success as a violin maker is developing the skills associated with making, using, and maintaining sharp edged tools.
The back, sides (ribs), and neck of the violin are most often made of matching quarter-sawn (cut along the radius of the log) maple. There are many species of maple, growing in different parts of the world, which are suitable. The criteria for selection include the straightness of the grain, the density and the figure of the wood, all of which contribute to the tonal characteristics and visual beauty of the finished instrument. The top of the violin is made of quarter-sawn spruce. The internal parts of the violin—the corner and end blocks and the linings—are usually made of spruce or willow, while purfling can be made of many different woods and/or "fiber" (thick paper or cardboard). The fingerboard is made of ebony, the bridge is maple, and the other fittings (pegs, tailpiece, chin rest) are ebony, rosewood, or boxwood. Rather than making these items from scratch, they are usually purchased in a finished or semi-finished form and customized or installed by the maker.
The Manufacturing Process
It is likely that fine violins will continue to be handmade in the manner described above. However, there is a long history of experiments with new designs and materials of construction. Recent products of this are violins made of synthetic materials such as plastic. Some of these have solid bodies, while others are of a traditional design using synthetic materials for some parts.
There are also electric violins, in which the vibrations of the strings are converted to an electrical signal by a pick-up or microphone, which is then amplified and output to a speaker or computer interface. There are a number of such "high tech" instruments on the market today; they are mainly used to play jazz and popular music. In the realm of classical music, the traditional violin is by far the dominant choice.