Workshop generously hosted by Wilhelm Geigenbau AG in Suhr
It was more then a decade ago, that I had to replace a worn out fingerboard on a beautiful Parisian violin made by Auguste Sébastien Phillipe Bernardel père. At the time, it was a special honour for me to work on that violin and my boss told me to choose a fine piece of ebony for it.
I noticed that not one piece of our great stock had a similarly fine structure, all of our pieces showed bigger pores. I learned to accept that the super dense stuff is not available anymore. When I came across a particularly nice old board that had become too thin and narrow over decades of use, I restored it by adding height and width with strips of more ordinary pieces of ebony and stuck it on some of my own violins. Thanks to the black colour, resulting joints are generally invisible.
In 2011 the Swiss violin making association tion under the chair of Mark Wilhelm and John-Eric Traelness raised awareness in the trade with regards to the overexploitation of Ebony in Macassar. Now, in 2018 one replacement product is already on the marked and two more, equally developed in Switzerland, are in prototype stage and started to be tested on the first instruments last year.
Corene is aready on the market. We did not test it, as it’s developer, John-Eric Traelness, could not make it to our conference. The two materials we did test and compare with ebony were the densified spruce and the composite fingerboard. Let me start with the spruce.
A group of scientists from the ETH and EMPA in Zürich have managed to work out a recipe by which they can compress spruce to the same density range around 1.2 which is three times it’s natural density and similar to that of ebony. The surprising thing is that it is relatively stable, it can be planed beautifully and that it’s shavings feel healthy - the cuts to a clean, somewhat waxy finish. During the process it changes to a pleasing golden brown colour. They gave now formed a spin-off called Swiss Wood Solutions and have managed to secure a Horizon grant from the EU funding which will secure their funding for the next four years.
So far, every single fingerboard out of Swiss Ebony is a prototype, compressed with slightly altered recipe and made by hand at Wilhelm Geigenbau in Suhr. The one on my violin I made my self, the first strokes have been fought on film by the Swiss TV the video clip broadcasted on the Swiss TV as you can see here:
The composite fingerboard developed by Andreas Hellinge is a completely different beast. He had been making fingerboards with a balsa carbon core and an ebony cover for nearly ten years and, together with the members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and J&A Beare in London has now come up with a new board featuring a special surface. It will be called the Hill fingerboard. The core is still made of balsa wood and it is reinforced by linen fibres on either side for stability. The sides are covered with blackened maple, as is the visible part of the underside. The surface layer is made up of many thin strips of wood glued together with polyurethane. The stripes run parallel to the strings and do embrace the string when it is pushed down by the player.
Last week I played, listened and analysed my violin with both of these alternative fingerboards and the traditional ebony one and am really thrilled to say, that in my view , both improve the playability of this specific violin!
It is early days, but I can not refrain from sharing my observations: Both fingerboards improved response and articulation. The composite fingerboard in particular helps the left hand and enables a gentler pressure - once the player reached the note, the finger can relax a tad more then normal. I get the feeling, that ebony is really not an ideal pair with the modern metal wound strings. It is as if playability benefits notably from a less slippery surface!
In terms of sound, my violin gained in clarity with the composite fingerboard whereas it sounded rounder, more compact and balanced with the densified spruce.
But, please, listen your self to the three excerpts played by Lisa Oberg and recorded at Wilhlem Geigenbau with a microphone set to one meter distance from the violin. If you do want to let me know your preference or that you are undecided, I am pleased to receive your vote via email!
And the colour? I find the golden brown of the densified spruce beautiful, but will need to have it black in order to get non biased feed back.
Only time will tell how these new materials will behave over the years in the busy hands of an active player.