Violin Making: The Art of Purfling


What is "purfling"? Purfling refers to the process of carving grooves on the front and back plates of a violin, and then inlaying strips of alternating black and white wood into these grooves. These strips are carefully glued into place, forming a decorative border that encircles the violin's outline.

Materials for Purfling

In general, purfling is visually characterized by strips of wood with black on the outer edges and white in the center. It is crafted by gluing together black strips of wood on the sides and a white strip of wood in the middle. Modern purfling typically employs ebony for the black strips on the sides and maple for the central white strip.

In the ancient history of violins, there used to be subtle differences in purfling techniques and materials. In the times when purfling materials were homemade, violin makers often sourced materials locally. Remarkably, merely by examining the purfling, it was possible to discern the violin's place of origin.

Most classical Italian violin makers, especially those from the local Cremona region, had the practice of dyeing pearwood black and using willow wood as the central strip, which they glued together to create the purfling.

Others, such as the violin makers from the Montagnana municipality in Venice, used only three strips, hammering them into the carved channels. Dutch violin makers frequently employed whalebone, which would turn yellowish due to fading black dye, presenting a beautiful spectrum-like appearance.

The Functions of Violin Purfling

More Beautiful:

Elegant and intricate purfling highlights the graceful contours of the violin, also reflecting the artistic style of the luthier.

Minimizing Environmental Impact:

Violins are influenced by temperature and humidity in their natural environment. Due to the principle of expansion and contraction, violins without purfling are prone to cracking, especially the spruce top. Purfling in violins acts as a cushioning element during temperature changes, preventing cracks.

Providing Protection:

Violins are delicate and fragile instruments that can sustain damage or cracks upon impact. Purfling serves as a buffer, cushioning the front and back plates from potential damage during impacts.

Easy Repairs:

Violins with purfling are less likely to suffer damage to their front and back plates. This reduces the impact during repair work. This has been well-validated in the restoration of antique violins. If an antique violin with intact front and back plates only has damaged corners, repair work can be limited to those areas, minimizing the overall impact on the instrument.

The art style of purfling

The art style of purfling on violins is a challenging aspect to replicate perfectly, with each luthier having their distinctive approach. For instance, renowned violin masters Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri each have their unique styles.

In the case of Antonio Stradivari, the purfling lines are noticeably oriented towards the lower part of the violin's corners.

For Giuseppe Guarneri, the orientation of the purfling lines is towards the center of the violin's corners.

Are violins without real purfling considered rubbish?

Currently, there are violins with simulated purfling that aren't genuine, but rather drawn on. Such violins tend to be more affordable and often of lower quality.

This is especially the case with student violins. When purchasing a violin, you might notice instruments with similar appearances but varying prices, such as some costing less than $100 and others around $300. The price differences are for specific reasons—sometimes due to the wood used, or the craftsmanship involved, such as purfling. Hence, it's not advisable to buy overly cheap violins, excluding purely decorative purposes.

Of course, at times you might encounter expensive violins with drawn purfling as well. To discern this, careful consideration is needed. Since the top plate of a violin is more vulnerable to damage than the back, some luthiers might use real purfling on the front plate while simulating it on the back, to minimize the impact on the instrument's quality.

So, how can you determine whether purfling is genuine or not? The method is simple: observe whether the grain pattern of the purfling's white part matches the wood grain of the front plate or back. If they match, it might be drawn on.

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