My underlying philosophy encompassing every aspect of violin making can be summed up in five words; singular commitment to exceptional craftsmanship. I believe these five words succinctly define the difference between a fine violin made by hand and one mass produced by assembly line in a dispassionate factory setting.
Singular commitment to exceptional craftsmanship: This is marked by extraordinary, distinctive and individual commitment, beginning with the selection of the raw materials, continuing through the construction phase and culminating in the exquisite layering and blending of the highest quality finishes available.
A fine hand crafted violin requires a minimum of one hundred and fifty hours to complete. Tens of hours more is not uncommon especially if there is any special inlaying, engraving or antiquing to the finish. A time commitment of this magnitude naturally influences in a positive way all aspects of the building process. It would be foolhardy to put so much time into a work only to skimp on materials or mindlessly sleepwalk through the various steps along the way. Handcrafting a violin from scratch is a serious endeavor. Perhaps building only one, just for the sake of completing a wood working marathon might invite one to cut some serious corners in the process. But when crafting stringed instruments is either a vocation or avocation, the success of which being so heavily dependent on reputation, it stands to reason that every possible care would be taken to ensure a prosperous outcome.
Up to this point I have primarily focused on differences of intent. Beyond that there are great differences in the construction process itself. Briefly stated factory violins are primarily built along a single blueprint, each one identical to the next in every dimension. They are built with computerized routers, sanders and the like to produce exact copies of intended instruments. Because time reduction which equates to increased profits is the guiding principle in this process, the resulting speed of each production step leads to instrument parts erring on the side of overbuilt. This is fine if you are building rock retaining walls or luxury cars, not so much with violins however.
Violins are made out of wood. The qualities of wood, its density, elasticity and stiffness vary greatly from tree to tree, even from one side to another on the same tree. These qualities have a direct relationship to the sound or tone that the finished violin will have. In determining the thickness of the top and bottom "plates" (spruce top, maple bottom) of a violin to produce a desired tone or playability it is absolutely essential to test for these properties and adjust your work accordingly. None of this would ever be done at the factory. A Cadillac is a very fine automobile built with luxury and comfort in mind. These same attributes that produce comfort however are not beneficial to racing or extreme handling. A fine violin needs to be much more like a Ferrari.
Finally in appearance a factory fiddle resembles a piece of furniture dipped in a vat of high gloss polyurethane. Maybe dipped two or three times for good measure. In actuality they are machine sprayed with dyed varnish. This results in adequate if not over-adequate protection of wood but often further diminishes what little tone it had to begin with, and in looks produces a very homogenized glow.
In contrast, a hand crafted violin will likely have many very thin layers of clear varnish applied carefully by brush with light sanding between coats, followed by coats of either multicolored varnish or extremely thin coats of oil paint applied skillfully by hand. This is followed by multiple thin coats of clear varnish and eventually hand buffing or polishing. The result of these efforts in professional hands produces an instrument whose inner tonal beauty and dexterity is matched by an equally mysterious and multi- layered depth of elegant character.
The difference between a violin born in a dispassionate factory and one fashioned skillfully by hand is one of intent, of selection of raw materials, of applying flexible construction techniques depending on wood properties and of outward beauty that emanates deep from within. It is the difference between building and assembling mass produced parts for a profit and hand building with a singular commitment to exceptional craftsmanship.
- William S. Walsman