Wood, Design, and Varnish
I think that most builders tend to over-stress the importance of
wood selection when it comes to building a violin. I have found
through years of work and experimentation that almost any
piece of wood can be carved to provide a great sound. This
involves determining the best arching shape, height, and wood
thicknesses for a particular piece of wood. Once you find ways of
taking these factors into account you will have great flexibility
when it comes to your ability to different types of spruce and
maple. Unfortunately the practice of making exact copies of old violins is a too common practice in modern violin
shops. By making an exact copy of an old violin, the maker is forcing themselves to use an arch that might be totally
unsuitable for the piece of wood they are using.

I take a more freehand approach to violin making than other modern builders. I never force myself to copy the
arches off of an old violin, I have spent years of experimenting so that I will know how to arch a piece of wood. I have
no need to copy someone else's work and hope that it ends up sounding decent. When I build a new violin I know
even before it is strung up and played what kind of tone it will have and how responsive it will feel.

Like I said above I do not make exact copies of old violins. I feel this is a good way to make a moderately acceptable
violin but that it is only a violinmaker's crutch. For hundreds of years makers have copied old violins and time has
shown that the copies just do not match up to the originals. That said I do build violins that are based on the designs
of Stradivari, Guarneri and others but I never carry this too far. When I build a Guarneri del Gesu model violin it
will show the influence of Guarneri but I will take liberty in the arches and other tone producing parts in order to be
sure that I will produce a violin to my tone standards.
No matter what model of violin I am working on it will always be
fitted with a scroll of my own personal pattern. The scroll of a
violin is one of a maker's trademarks, every builder will carve
them slightly differently. Because of this, I feel that I should
always use my own scroll design on my violins. I have no
intention of making my instruments look exactly like a
Stradivari or Guarneri so I feel that I should keep my
personality as strongly attached to my work as possible so I
never copy someone else's scrolls.

When I build a violin based on an old instrument it will be built
on a mold that follows the same dimensions and outline as the
original instrument. It will also have f-holes reminiscent of the
original work. So it will look like a Strad model or a Guarneri
model but still be unique and distinctive.

I have molds to build violins of a 1715 Stradivari model, a 1742
Guarneri model, a 1732 Bergonzi model, my own personal
models, and I will build an Amati mold if someone would like a
violin of that look, say for a baroque period instrument.
For violas I am very flexible in design. At the moment I only have a mold for a 16.5" viola of my own pattern but I
know that viola players like a wide range of sizes depending on what they are comfortable with so I will build violas
of any size required even if it means designing a new mold from scratch.

For my viola backs I like to use poplar for its light weight in these larger instruments. Poplar however does have a
plain look so if you would like a flamed maple back that is no problem and it will sound fine too.

For baroque style tenor violas I use the 1664 Andrea Guarneri tenor in the
National Music Museum as my
inspiration. This instrument is in an unaltered state so it serves as an ideal starting point for building a period

For cellos I have use a Stradivari pattern as well as a model of my own which has the same dimensions as a
Stradivari cello. For the backs of the cellos I can use either poplar or flamed maple. Both will make a fine sounding
instrument but the poplar is much easier for me to carve so I charge less for it.

My varnish is a recipe that uses colored pine resin as the colorant. This pine resin is colored through a process that
I found about six years ago. Wood samples that I varnished back then show the same color as when new showing
that this varnish will hold its color over time. There is some initial fading in the first few weeks but after that the
color is stable. The two orange violins in this picture were varnished four or five years ago and were kept on the wall
to check for fading but the color did not fade.
To learn how I cook my varnish look here.
I begin varnishing my violins by applying a
amber colored ground of my own recipe.
This ground renders to outer layers of the
maple transparent and gives the maple a
nice warm glow under lighting. Next I
apply a colorless oil varnish to keep the
colored resin from contacting the wood.
Then layers of colored resin are applied as
a spirit varnish until a yellow or orange
color is achieved. Then I apply another
coat of colorless oil varnish. If a deeper
orange color or red-brown is desired I
apply another coat of colored spirit
varnish followed by colorless oil varnish.
William Johnston

1 903 461-8742