Through the years, specific woods have been the basis of fine acoustic and electric stringed instruments. Sitka spruce, Brazilian rosewood and swamp ash were just some woods that have been used to achieve excellent sounding instruments, all of which are endangered today. If you were to name an all-time excellent sounding stringed instrument, one made by Stradivarius always comes first to mind, especially if you’re an orchestral string player. While it was once assumed that it was the ice-age spruce found in the 17th century that imparted the one-of-a-king sound, new evidence shows it may be something different.
New research by an international team lead by Hwan-Ching Tai at National Taiwan University has confirmed that renowned violin maker Antonio Stradivari and other instrument makers of his day treated their instruments with a unique blend of chemicals that produced their unique sound.
The Secret Is. . .
The findings show that borax, zinc, copper and alum, along with lime water, was used to treat the wood planks before they were shaped into an instrument. This was originally done to prevent worms from eating away the wood since worm infestations were widespread at that time, but it was then discovered that the chemicals actually imparted a sweeter tone and made the wood harder as well.
This was obviously kept a close-held secret since this was the days before patents, and the formula was never written down.
For many years it was thought that it was the type of varnish used at the time that imparted the tone, but the varnish recipes were never a secret. It has since be found that the varnish is not a critical element in an instrument’s tone from that time period.
It’s been estimated that Stradivari (1644 –1737) made about 1,200 violins in his lifetime and sold them only to wealthy customers. Today, there are about 600 Stradivari violins remaining. Stradivarius instruments have consistently sold for millions of dollars with the most expensive selling in 2022 for $20 million.