Master Violin Makers May Have Manipulated Wood, Colorado State University Research Finds

Great Italian luthiers Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu may have chemically manipulated the wood used to make their exquisite violins, according to research conducted at Colorado State University. The findings, researchers said, could inspire a more chemically-based process when making modern violins.

An analysis of maple wood shavings taken from stringed instruments created by the great Italian masters has shown that chemical treatments such as oxidation and hydrolysis were used when Guarneri created a violin in 1741 and, to a lesser extent, a violin created by Stradivari in 1717, said Joseph DiVerdi, visiting scientist in Department of Chemistry at Colorado State. DiVerdi took on the research project at the request of Colorado State chemistry Professor Gary Maciel, whose laboratory is internationally known for nuclear magnetic resonance work.

The findings were published in the November edition of the journal "Nature." The research was conducted in part with Texas A&M University and Brigham Young University.

Samples were taken from the violins, a cello created by Stradivari in 1731, another violin made by Gand-Bernardel of Paris in the 1840s and a viola made by Henry Jay of London in 1769. The shavings, obtained from the interior of the instruments’ back plates while repairing cracks, were compared to samples taken recently from trees in Bosnia and Central Europe. A nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer was used to determine the chemical composition of each sample.

DiVerdi found close similarities between the Stradivari and Guarneri violins which stood out as evidence of a chemical treatment. However, a sample from the Stradivari cello was only slightly different than the samples from old the French and English instruments and a sample taken from a Bosnian maple tree, which was baked and boiled. Therefore, only in the case of the two violins can DiVerdi make a case for chemical manipulation; any observed changes in the other instruments may have simply come from centuries of aging.

"These instruments have been studied by every generation since they were created, and each generation has new technology at its disposal," DiVerdi said. "We are essentially detectives searching for clues to uncover the methods used by these great master luthiers. Many potential chemical treatments could have come from substances readily available at the time, such as potash mixed with water to create an alkaline bath."

DiVerdi suggested the changes found in the violins may have come from a regional practice of wood preservation that affected the mechanical and acoustical properties of the wood.