We do know how we can increase the wood quality and reduce the need for chemicals. Here in the Austrian and Bavarian Alps, we have plentiful quality wood growing to build healthy and lasting homes. Right now, more trees grow in our forests than we are currently using.
I never met an instrument maker who wanted to use fast-grown wood which was harvested in spring. They only consider the best and mature trees which have grown in high altitudes and were harvested at the right time.
The violin-makers often find their way back to our saw mill and look for violin wood. Sometimes they leave with a really good piece and are 'over the moon'.
As a forester, I was lucky enough to work with some violin builders in my region. We often went out to look for the perfect sounding tree. For days we would search without much success. Then finally when we did find the one perfect tree, we felt exhilarated and blessed. After carefully noting down its coordinates, it was scheduled to be harvested at waning/new moon in Capricorn.
Following Stradivari's Footsteps
To build violins, cellos and guitars, instrument builders manufacture ultra-thin, very fine wooden lids. They need to vibrate freely without tensions, remain stable and not crack and of course sound great. These are the very particular requirements in order for the wood to be used.
The type of wood, its grain structure and the way we use it, all have an influence on the finished product. For the instrument builder, even the growth directions in one and the same tree are important. When building a house though, it is enough to look for trees that have grown in their natural environment.
Even though both alphorns were carved out of the same wood, their sound was markedly different.
The instrument builder needed to make one of the alphorns several centimeters shorter to match the pitch of the other horn.
Sounds created with wooden instruments help us recognize the subtle interactions of wood fiber and vibration. The air column which swings 'against the grain' of wood sounds different to the one which swings with the grain.
He used a device which guaranteed him identical radius, wall thickness and shape of both instruments. The only difference between both alphorns was: one horn's direction of blowing into was from the root to the crown and the other was from the crown to the root.
When he trialed both instruments for the first time, he was perplexed! The pitch of the instruments was markedly different!
An alphorn builder from 'Salzburg' told me the following story. He found a large wooden post which fulfilled all his prerequisites and demands for building an alphorn. Good wood like this is very rare and he wanted to build two alphorns out of it.
Indeed, he manufactured an identical shaped twin alphorn pair from the same tree.
The Distinct Twins
Some woodworkers try to keep things simple and say dismissively: "Spruce is spruce, there is no big difference." However, individual differences between trees are caused by their individual location, composure of forest soil and climate. Those factors have quite a large influence on the growth and behavior of the trees' fiber and structure, even in one and the same tree.
Only if you offered a 100 times its weight in gold, you might be lucky and be able to buy such a violin”. Craftsmen, who had no advanced technology at their disposal, were able to make spruce timber a 100 times more expensive than gold. It is not just the material value that counts. Such an exceptional instrument becomes priceless for all human cultures, since its sound will continue to provide joy to many generations of music lovers for centuries.
Of course, Dr. Thoma had no idea. “Look” - the luthiers said - “a violin like this weighs about 470 grams. If you wanted to pay for it with the equivalent of its weight in gold, you would be laughed out of court. If you wanted to pay 10 times as much in gold, you would be laughed at as well.
Two worlds began to collide in his mind. On the one hand, his technocratic, engineering education, and on the other one was scientifically unexplained, ancient and traditional knowledge. When he shared his thoughts in a conversation, one of the luthiers asked if he knew what the added value was when creating such a violin.
He began to realize that there was more to wood than he had been taught at the universities. He was moved to the point that he couldn't stop thinking about it. He was trying to understand how it was possible. The luthiers had no technology, no measuring instruments, just their intuition, tradition, and old knowledge carried over from generation to generation - and they created such an incredible instrument out of a piece of wood.
To express their gratitude to Dr. Thoma and his family, they came to play a small violin concert in front of his house, in the middle of the forest. Mr. Thoma loved trees and the forest, but he wasn't especially romantic about them. However, the sound of his trees coming from the violin introduced him to a new world.
With time, Dr. Thoma forgot about this interesting experience. A year passed, and the luthiers came to knock on his door again. However, this time they did not come for wood. Usually, wood for violins must be seasoned for at least 10 years before it is used.
The luthiers spent days knocking on trees and listening to their sounds, and finally after a few days, they came to Dr. Thoma full of joy. They found a large spruce tree that could may be suitable. They were delighted with what they found, so the tree was cut down and taken away to be made into a violin.
A tree like this only grew in a specific places; high in the mountains but resting within wind-sheltered coves. The grain structure of such a tree is particularly fine and even. A wind-blown tree results in an unstable structure which are unwanted in violins.
Out of a 1,000,000 spruce trees, they needed to find the one tree that would be ideal for the creation of a violin. There was no device or machine that could identify such a tree but only human senses, intuition and a small amount of knowledge in soil science.
Dr. Thoma was surprised that no one has ever mentioned this during his education of forestry. Curious and intrigued, he decided to help them in their quest. When they went out to the woods the next day, he learned that the wood specifically used for violins was something extraordinary.
Unexpectedly one day, two men knocked on the door of the forester Dr. Thoma’s house. They introduced themselves as violin makers also referred to as luthiers. They asked for help in finding the right wood to create new instruments. It turned out that old luthier masters used to build the most perfect violins with wood from trees growing in the Karwendel Hills.
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