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A second fiddle of note
Author: Engela Duvenage
Published: 04/08/2021

Wood scientists at Stellenbosch University (SU) have done it again: they have helped to craft another violin from indigenous African trees. It is only the second such instrument in the world. The work was completed with the help of a luthier from Durbanville in the Cape.  

Knysna Blackwood from the Dalbergia melanoxylon tree, was used for the front cover. The back is made of Hardpear (Olinia ventos), an evergreen forest tree found from the Cape to KwaZulu-Natal. The wood was provided by Stander Houtwerke in Knysna. West African Sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum) wood, which is becoming popular in making guitars, was used for the ribs and neck. The fingerboard is of a reddish Candlewood. This species of tree is found from the Cape Peninsula to KwaZulu-Natal.

The new violin does not have the typical gleam of a violin, because the team decided not to varnish it. Rather, it was treated with beeswax and turmeric, a secret recipe of luthier Hadley Duminy from Durbanville who assembled the different parts.

“My 10-year old daughter Alexandra plays it daily. It has a full sound and is a bit softer than the first one. I think it works perfectly for jazz, but classical music sounds good as well," explains project leader Prof Martina Meincken, a materials scientist of the Department of Forestry and Wood Science at Stellenbosch University (SU).

As a materials scientist, she regularly characterises the properties of wood-based materials used in a wide range of applications, such as buildings, furniture and as energy source.

The two violins form part of a wider research project which has been running since 2019. It seeks to understand the acoustic properties of indigenous wood species. One of the first steps in the project was for an honours student in Wood Science, Keenan Nefdt, to evaluate which indigenous wood species are suitable to be used as tone-woods. Such wood possesses certain tonal properties and is therefore suitable for the making of acoustic stringed instruments.

The violin-making exercise also serves as a training project for final year students in BSc Wood Science, as it provides them with first-hand experience in programming and using the computerised numerical control (CNC) cutting machine in the Department of Forestry and Wood Science.

A first research paper has already been submitted to a journal, on research completed in collaboration with colleagues Prof Thomas Niesler of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Dr Gerhard Roux of the Department of Music. It compares the sound differences between the first African wood violin that was made last year from scratch by professional luthier Hannes Jacobs, and another that he crafted from traditional types of tone-wood. Gretna Heynike, an honours violin student from the Department of Music, supplied the control violin and played both instruments for the recordings that were analysed.

“Gretna is also Alexandra's violin teacher, and together they are now working on some duets that they can perform on the two African violins, hopefully once lockdown is over," says Prof Meincken.

“I chose violins because they are the most difficult shaped among all string instruments. Everything is curved in every possible direction. A guitar, for instance, just has a flat plate.

The first violin was crafted last year by Jacobs, an experienced luthier from Pretoria,. Its front is of yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius), the back, ribs and neck of West African Sapele wood and accessories such as the fingerboard and chinrest of commercially available ebony.

This instrument showed that the making of violins and other orchestral string instruments need not be confined to traditional types of wood, such as spruce or maple. Guitars, for instance are made from all sorts of wood, including Sapele.

Work on the second one started in 2020 during the first lockdown stages. It is a 3/4 violin and smaller than the first, as Prof Meincken wanted one that her violin-playing daughter could play. She therefore privately funded much of the work.

Neither of the luthiers that she worked with had moulds or jigs in the right size – but that did not stop her. It was decided to make the mould and all the violin parts in house in the Department of Forestry and Wood Science.

Prof Meincken made the mould, around which the ribs are formed, while two BSc Wood Science students, Michiel Rust and Mario Liebenberg started on the plates, neck and a fingerboard as part of their final year project. Among others they had to programme the shapes of the various sections into a 3D construction software program, to be cut by the CNC machine.

Even with the help of technology, things were not all plain sailing. Days of manual labour followed during which Prof Meincken ensured that the various sections were of the right dimensions.

Too many cooks nearly spoilt the broth and caused luthier Hadley Duminy some serious stress when he began assembling the different pieces.

“The problem was that we all worked in parallel and that the pieces didn't exactly fit onto each other. He had to do a lot of fitting and cutting away of the wood in places. Because of this nobody really expected that the violin would sound like much at all, but surprisingly it doesn't sound half bad at all," says Prof Meincken.

The first notes that Duminy played on it were those of a cheerful Bourree dance by Johan Sebastian Bach.

“We will not build any more violins, but I hope to replace all the ebony parts in the first violin with accessories made from indigenous wood. Four final year BSc Wood Science students – Jean-Ryno Muller, Arno Schwarz, Mikal Theron and Rovenco Visagie - are currently assigned to the project to each complete a specific piece. I hope they will this time be more successful at programming the CNC machine so that the shapes are cut perfectly, so that no manual reworking is required."