Red Wing: carving a violin

Scraping to find tone
The finger-sized scratches on the back of this violin in the making were made from finger planes. Each layer of wood removed can change the pitch and resonance of the finished product.
MPR photo/Marc Sanchez

John Reed teaches arch top instrument building at Minnesota State College/Southeast Technical. Give him about 9 months, and you will walk out of his shop with a violin, cello, viola, or mandolin that you made with your very own hands.

Reed's shop is actually at his home, across the street from the college. It's filled with cutters, scrapers, and sanders in a myriad of different sizes and shapes.

Equisetum (AKA snake grass), one of the more interesting "tools" in Reed's shop, is more likely to be found in a vase than along side finger planers and razor blades. The tube-like chutes of this plant are lined with small ridges that are perfect for smoothing out the edges of an instrument. Whenever he needs to re-stock, Reed goes down to the river and picks a few new stalks.

Reed uses traditional power tools to cut wood wedges, usually maple or spruce, into more manageable sizes, but most of the work is done by hand. He says, "all the carving is done by hand. [he doesn't] use routers or c and c machines... to shape the instrument. The first thing the students need to know is how the shape was made, and get that into their hands and their mind."

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