Q&A with the Florian Leonhard Fine Violins Team

In our recent Q&A session, we welcomed all questions regarding anything to do with authentication, making and restoration, and the response across social media channels was great! So, if you’re interested in violin making, expertise and restoration and would like a true insight into our world, see below for expert answers from our Florian Leonhard London and New York teams!

I understand the sound box is typically the only truly original part of, say, instruments like Stradivari and Guarneri. That said, who does make the revised necks of these instruments, and are such new pieces critical to the sound of the world’s great violins?

It is sadly true that many old instruments have lost some of their original components, but today we still have, thankfully, many Strads and other great old Italian instruments that are original in all their major parts.

What we mean by that is that the front (table), back, sides (ribs) and scroll are all original. The neck is, as you mention, often replaced (ideally by trained luthiers), and this is necessary as the neck wears down over the years or as the player’s demands change.

The main reason for the first neck grafts was the alteration of neck angles that came with the change from gut strings to steel/wound strings – the angle could be made steeper, which made the violin much more powerful as demanded by concertos starting from the Romantic era. The neck and fingerboard don’t affect the sound as such, although having them at the optimal angles, from the best materials, with appropriate measurements, etc. is important to optimising an instrument’s playability and therefore, sound.

How would you determine if a restoration is not appropriate? For example, if the instrument is worth less than the cost of restoration, or if the instrument is not worth restoring at all. What defines the line?

Often, this one can be a decision for the client or insurance company to make! It also depends on the value of the instrument (be it monetary/historical/cultural/sentimental).

We don’t have a hard and fast rule of repair cost as a proportion of the value of the instrument, but for an insurance company an instrument is usually considered ‘written off’ if the cost of the repairs and the loss of value are equal to or greater than the sum it’s insured for.

Is there a way of creating a cello with a rich and full sound, without affecting its playability?

This is a very difficult one to answer without seeing the cello. We would advise starting with taking the cello to a trusted luthier so that they can evaluate the set-up.

We might start with a sound adjustment. It’s crucial to check how much tension is on the sound post, and then if necessary, its position or length can be altered, or sometimes the post replaced altogether. If that doesn’t solve the problem, we’d suggest alterations to the set-up (bridge, tailpiece, tailgut, strings). Otherwise there are numerous restorations that can have a huge impact on sound, e.g. neck set, arching correction, patches, etc.

So basically, the world is your oyster! But if you have a luthier you know and trust, see what they suggest after examining the cello in person.

Do you use traditional methods of making a violin/true copy? Or if not, to what extent do you use modern technology when it comes to copying work?

We certainly use mostly traditional methods, including methods developed in restoration practice. The whole process of making a true copy is still done by hand in our workshop, although with that said, technology allows us to use UV lamps and microscopes to examine the originals we’re copying.

Do you research the specific glues used by the old masters; does it vary on each violin that you copy?

The glue used today is still largely the same as it has been for centuries, made from animal skin or bone.

What do you think of modern equipment like testing soundwaves and dendro in violin making? How much can I expect to pay for a Florian Leonhard cello commission?

We do sometimes make use of sound radiation measurements in new making, but not dendrochronology (although we do make note of how old our wood is).

The price of cello true copies would depend on the exact requirements, so please get in touch directly via our website contact form for more details.

What varnish do you use on your instruments, and do you create your own varnish?

Thanks for your question. We use resin-oil varnish and yes, we make it ourselves!

Obviously, there are massive tonal variations from instrument to instrument so generalisation is very difficult. Although, what would be the general tonal differences one might hear between a Guadagnini and a Stradivarius?

Oh dear, that is a difficult one! As you say, generalisation (even within each distinct period of each of these makers’ outputs) is problematic, even prior to considering who is playing the violin, the strings, the set-up etc., all of which have unlimited effects on the sound.

The common comparison is between Guarneri and Stradivari, where people often describe the del Gesù sound as being more round and deep, and the Strad sound a more shimmering, ‘golden’ soprano.

This is also, of course, a generalisation, because examples by both can be capable of fantastic colors and sound quality.

Guadagnini found his own ‘expression’ of model, which is roughly based on a Stradivari idea, but the way the ground and varnish affect the wood is quite different. Within Guadagnini’s output, there are the main periods of making in Parma, Piacenza, Milan and Turin. In Stradivari’s instruments are his early, Long Pattern, Golden Period and Late phases. Within the output of both makers are limitless variances and cross-references, as these makers experimented in the pursuit of perfection.

So, in short, it is just too difficult to say! What we could say is that within a given period of the maker’s output, we would expect to see tonal characteristics particular to the model of the violin.

Can I buy one of your exact copies that you have already made? And for a bow, do I absolutely need to have the documents for the ivory tip when at airports?

There is a bit of a waiting list for our copies, which is currently just over one year. Therefore, currently all of these violins are sold before they are completed. However, we occasionally have a violin in the workshop which hasn’t yet been collected, so please do get in touch if you’d like to try one.

We usually ask for a deposit to secure a violin, and we don’t take full payment until you’re completely happy (usually an understatement) with your new instrument. As for bows, in certain countries it is problematic to travel with any ivory, so we would certainly recommend travelling with documents, or taking a bow that doesn’t have any protected materials when you are travelling anywhere with restrictions.

How do you authenticate a violin without a label?

Good question! You need a trained and experienced eye that is able, after many years of study, to compare the various features to a reference example that would indeed have had an original label.

It is a slightly different discipline to violinmaking (which is also an expertise), and it requires an ability to memorise a huge number of different instruments and cross-reference between them.

You’re quite right that at some point the expert must have studied a reference example, with an original label (or full documented provenance) that is correct, but it is not necessary to have a correct label in every violin in order to allow authentication.

How does one become a violin “expert”?

This question is a bit like ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall Practice’!

Expertise is something that is built gradually with experience. Florian developed his expertise working at Hills, where he had the opportunity to see hundreds of ‘reference examples’ and study them in great detail (taking copious notes which form part of our archive today!).

This is ideally combined with a photographic memory that allows you to compare previous examples you’ve studied with whatever you’re looking at. A bit like becoming a great musician, it takes complete dedication over many, many years. Being passionate and deeply interested in violins is also a prerequisite to keep you focused!

Any thoughts on how to get into the business of violin making as a career?

Beyond work experience with a local luthier, we would recommend enrolling on one of the violin making courses. Many of our colleagues started as joiners before looking for a different but related challenge. Florian began by fixing his mother’s violin and asking lots of questions when they visited their local luthier!

What music do you all like to listen to while working?

This can be a source of disagreements in the workshop! Tastes range from Baroque to Jazz, so it’s usually a case of compromising and taking turns… Whenever our clients/friends release a new recording we like to have a listen to that, so recently we’ve enjoyed Tessa Lark, Mari Samuelsen and Sheku’s Elgar recording with the LSO/Sir Simon Rattle which has recently been released!

Does antiquing an instrument almost always make the instrument sound better as opposed to a new un-antiqued, varnished violin?

This is something which is fiercely debated! Everything can make a difference to the sound, and we take pains to study every detail of the best examples in order to understand and replicate them. But perhaps you’ll have to come and try our true copies to see whether you think it’s better or worse than un-antiqued!