Stellenbosch University’s African wood violin project hits all the right notes

Alexandra Niesler, daughter of Stellenbosch University wood scientist Prof Martina Meincken, regularly plays the violin. Her parents co-funded the wood violin project. Picture: Martina Meincken

Alexandra Niesler, daughter of Stellenbosch University wood scientist Prof Martina Meincken, regularly plays the violin. Her parents co-funded the wood violin project. Picture: Martina Meincken

Published Aug 12, 2021


Cape Town - Wood scientists at Stellenbosch University (SU) have helped to craft another violin from indigenous African trees. It is only the second such instrument in the world and was completed with the help of a luthier from Durbanville.

Knysna Blackwood from the Dalbergia melanoxylon tree, was used for the front cover. The back is made of Hard pear (Olinia ventos), an evergreen forest tree found from the Cape to KwaZulu-Natal. The wood was provided by Stander Houtwerke in Knysna. West African Sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum) wood, which is becoming popular in making guitars, was used for the ribs and neck. The fingerboard is of a reddish Candlewood. This species of tree is found from the Cape Peninsula to KwaZulu-Natal.

The new violin does not have the typical gleam of a violin, because the team decided not to varnish it. Rather, it was treated with beeswax and turmeric, a secret recipe of luthier Hadley Duminy from Durbanville who assembled the different parts.

“My ten-year old daughter Alexandra plays it daily. It has a full sound and is a bit softer than the first one. I think it works perfectly for jazz, but classical music sounds good as well,” explains project leader Prof Martina Meincken, a materials scientist of the Department of Forestry and Wood Science at SU.

The two violins form part of a wider research project which has been running since 2019. It seeks to understand the acoustic properties of indigenous wood species.

One of the first steps in the project was for an honours student in Wood Science, Keenan Nefdt, to evaluate which indigenous wood species are suitable to be used as tone-woods.

The violin-making exercise also serves as a training project for final year students in BSc Wood Science, as it provides them with first-hand experience in programming and using the computerised numerical control (CNC) cutting machine.

A first research paper has already been submitted to a journal, on research completed in collaboration with colleagues Prof Thomas Niesler of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Dr Gerhard Roux of the Department of Music. It compares the sound differences between the first African wood violin that was made last year from scratch by professional luthier, Hannes Jacobs, and another that he crafted from traditional types of tone-wood. Gretna Heynike, an honours violin student from the Department of Music, supplied the control violin and played both instruments for the recordings that were analysed.

“Gretna is also Alexandra’s violin teacher, and together they are now working on some duets that they can perform on the two African violins, hopefully once lockdown is over,” said Meincken.

The first violin was crafted last year by Jacobs, an experienced luthier from Pretoria. Its front is of yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius), the back, ribs and neck of West African Sapele wood and accessories such as the fingerboard and chinrest of commercially available ebony.

This instrument showed that the making of violins and other orchestral string instruments need not be confined to traditional types of wood, such as spruce or maple.

Work on the second one started in 2020 during the first lockdown stages. It is a 3/4 violin and smaller than the first, as Meincken wanted one that her violin-playing daughter could play. She therefore privately funded much of the work.

Neither of the luthiers that she worked with had moulds or jigs in the right size – but that did not stop her. It was decided to make the mould and all the violin parts in-house in the Department of Forestry and Wood Science.

Meincken made the mould, around which the ribs are formed, while two BSc Wood Science students, Michiel Rust and Mario Liebenberg started on the plates, neck and a fingerboard as part of their final year project. Among others they had to programme the shapes of the various sections into a 3D construction software programme, to be cut by the CNC machine.

Days of manual labour followed during which Meincken ensured that the various sections were of the right dimensions.

“The problem was that we all worked in parallel and that the pieces didn't exactly fit onto each other. Because of this nobody really expected that the violin would sound like much at all, but surprisingly it doesn't sound half bad at all,” said Meincken.

The first notes that Duminy played on it were those of a cheerful Bourree dance by Johan Sebastian Bach.

“We will not build any more violins, but I hope to replace all the ebony parts in the first violin with accessories made from indigenous wood. Four final year BSc Wood Science students – Jean-Ryno Muller, Arno Schwarz, Mikal Theron and Rovenco Visagie - are currently assigned to the project to each complete a specific piece.”

Cape Times

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