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Violin Varnish and Sealers

Violin Varnish and Sealers

by Graham Caldersmith

Originally published as Guild of American Luthiers Data Sheet #276, 1984, and Big Red Book of American Luthierie Volume One, 2000



Probably more unsubstantiated speculation has been written about violin varnish, its effects on the instrument, and the quest for the “lost” Cremonese recipe than about any other of the subtleties of the violin and its behavior.

It is true that those who have examined enough violins to appreciate the variety of varnishing systems employed by different makers in different ages cannot but admire the clear golden-brown varnish sometimes grading to a deep red that characterizes 17th–18th century Cremonese instruments. It is also true that varnish preparation and application techniques changed to more durable and convenient ones towards the end of the 18th century when faster drying oil and spirit varnishes were developed to meet the needs of the growing furniture trade, arguably at the expense of transparency and lucidity. So while bearing in mind that the early Cremonese varnishes were not unique to the violin trade, since they appear on fine furniture and wooden ornaments of the same period, we may reasonably inquire as to how important the varnishing techniques used by the Cremonese Masters were to the excellence of the violins they produced. Were the advantages of Cremonese varnishing merely passive, in that they preserved good violins into sublime maturity, or were they also active, conditioning the wood for optimal acoustical behavior?

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Dissolving the Mysteries

Dissolving the Mysteries

by Graham Caldersmith

previously published in Guild of American Luthiers Quarterly Volume 10, #4, 1982 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2001



We live in confusing times where progress in understanding the natural world, and in manipulating nature to our advantage has spawned an ever-changing technological environment that seems beyond our own control, and even beyond our comprehension in its scale and complexity. We are beginning to see organized reaction against technological excess, and movements towards simpler ways of living. Most luthiers are aware that the practical and traditional practice of lutherie is being analyzed and even supplemented by scientific methods, and some feel that the dignity and integrity of the traditions are therefore threatened as we redefine and dissolve the mysteries of lutherie.

I would argue that the greatest system of lutherie to date, the Renaissance-Baroque school of violin making emerged in times of devastating plague and recurring war, when the orthodoxy of creation and nature was being challenged by Galileo and Copernicus in centers not far from Brescia, Cremona, and southern Germany. In fact we know that because the centers of Baroque violin making lay on the trade routes through which the latest news in science, art, and technology flowed with trade merchandise. The great masters of lutherie would have been exposed to new concepts in vibration, pitch, and wave motion which they would find difficult to ignore in their experience of wood vibration at the workbench. How they dealt with it is not recorded, but that they produced unsurpassed masterpieces in bowed instruments is undisputed.

Contemporary luthiers live in times of social upheaval, war, and pollution, but also with a growing body of knowledge about the function of the instruments they make. It remains to be seen how we will react to this environment, but already we have seen a variety of new designs for the guitar, and the vital interaction of luthiers with pioneering guitarists.

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In Memoriam: Graham Caldersmith

In Memoriam: Graham Caldersmith

November 26, 1943 – October 5, 2019

by Juan Oscar Azaret

Originally published in American Lutherie #140, 2020

 

As the devastating 2019/2020 Australian bush fires raged on and the world was filled with news and images of the relentless infernos, I started to wonder about the well-being of my friend in lutherie, Graham Caldersmith, and his partner, Angela MacPherson. I’d had the good fortune to spend a day at their home/workshop/bistro in Comboyne, New South Wales, in August of 2017 (see AL#132). This magical day was full of adventure: the trip to the Comboyne Plateau, warm hospitality on the part of Graham and Angela, and a wealth of education in the few hours I spent there.

In January of this year I was getting ready to e-mail Graham to ask about the state of the bush fires in the Comboyne area, when I got an e-mail from my friend Gila Eban, who had been having similar thoughts. In her attempts to contact Graham, she had learned of his passing in October of 2019. I was greatly saddened by this news and felt compelled to share some thoughts in memoriam.

Both photos courtesy of Angela MacPherson
Mem-Caldersmith-02

In time I was able to get on the phone with Angela. She and Graham had recently moved away from the rural hamlet of Comboyne to the seaside town of North Haven some 44km to the East. Angela was most gracious to chat for quite some time and catch me up with the last two-plus years since my visit as well as educate me a bit on Graham’s life.

Coincidentally, I had just received the latest issue of Acoustics Today where the cover and feature article were dedicated to the life of Carleen Hutchins. I thought of Graham and the parallels in these two lives. Both started their careers as science teachers. Both played stringed instruments and taught themselves lutherie early in life. Both became fascinated by the science and craft of the violin family, and for Graham, also the guitar family. Both were influenced by noted scientists; Frederick Saunders and Daniel Haines in the case of Carleen, Neville Fletcher and Erik Jansson in the case of Graham. They both took on the challenge of lifelong search for the fundamentals of acoustics in lutherie, sharing their findings through many scholarly articles and lectures. And they each evolved a family of proportional instruments to cover the orchestral range — Carleen’s violin octet, and Graham guitar quintet.

Of course, Graham and Carleen’s paths did cross. In 1982, Graham travelled to the USA to work with Carleen on various aspects of violin performance and participate in the Conference of the Catgut Acoustical Society in DeKalb, Illinois. Carleen was a founding member of the Catgut Acoustical Society dating back to 1963, and membership has included the top music acousticians from around the world; names such as Benade, Fletcher, Hutchins, Meyer, Saunders, and Rossing. Graham contributed no fewer than thirteen articles to the society, starting in 1977. The proceedings of the Catgut Acoustical Society are now digitized and available from the Stanford Musical Acoustics Research Library.

While still in the northern hemisphere in 1982, Graham also attended the GAL Convention in Estes Park, Colorado. Later that year he contributed his first publication to American Lutherie — “Dissolving the Mysteries,” a title which, in his AL#2 (1985) article, “Radiation from Lower Guitar Modes” Graham describes as “perhaps presumptuous.” A longtime member and supporter of the Guild, Graham contributed several other stellar articles. In his AL#41 (1995) article, “The Guitar Family Continued,” he comes full circle from the work introduced in AL#18 (1989) “Towards a Classic Guitar Family,” and details the status of what has become a major contribution to the world of guitar lutherie and performance — a proportional guitar family quintet covering the orchestral range. In my AL#132 (2017) article, I attempt to summarize Graham’s thoughts on the guitar family during our visit in his Comboyne workshop. On a less formal note, in AL#8 (1986) Graham and fellow Australian luthier Jim Williams document a “beer and jawbone” discussion with Greg Smallman which offers a fascinating look at Greg’s thinking during the early years preceding the first sale of a Smallman guitar to John Williams in 1981.

Graham was a luthier of the highest caliber, crafting over 200 guitars, 116 violins, 60 violas, and 38 cellos, but he was also an academic and a researcher. He held a masters in aerophysics from the Australian National University in Canberra with focus on fluid dynamics. While working as a laboratory manager and physics tutor, he started independent research into musical acoustics, and in 1977 began formal studies in acoustics under Neville Fletcher at the University of New England in Armidale and later with Erik Jansson in Stockholm. He was awarded several grants and research fellowships including from the Australian Council on Research, a Churchill Fellowship, ANU, and in 2016 was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his service to musical instrument making. His work is documented, not only in American Lutherie and Catgut Acoustical Society Journal, but also Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Journal of the Violin Society of America, Journal of Guitar Acoustics, The Strad, Acustica, and others.

It is indeed rare to find an individual with the commitment and tenacity to earn his/her living as a craftsperson while at the same time researching the craft’s relations to science and making these findings available to the world. In my discussions with Angela, she mentioned that Graham considered the evolution of a proportional guitar family and the introduction of native Australian woods to lutherie as his greatest professional achievements. Graham researched, and was a strong advocate of, the use of King William pine, Australian blackwood, and Australian paulownia, among others, for the construction of guitars and violin-family instruments.

I knew Graham through the lens of his lutherie and scientific work, but in my discussions with Angela I learned a bit about Graham as a man. I learned of his days as a folk musician; his participation in theater; his love of poetry and contribution to it from the humorous perspective; his love of nature; his fix-anything, jack-of-all-trades skills; his days as a volunteer fire fighter; his work as a sound/light stage technician. I dare not attempt to comment on these aspects of Graham’s life, but Angela graciously provided some photos which hopefully will be illustrative. They will be posted in the “web extras” section of this issue on the GAL website, along with links to many of his publications.

Graham Caldersmith was born on November 26, 1943, in Sydney. He lived and worked in Canberra, Kendall, Comboyne, and North Haven. He passed away on October 5, 2019, in Wauchope after a five-year battle with multiple myeloma; suspected, but not confirmed, as being due to exposure to the chemicals of the lutherie trade. He is survived in his immediate family by an older brother, and by his partner Angela MacPherson. I am honored to have known Graham and met Angela, and to have had the opportunity to write these few words.

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In Memoriam: Frederick Thomas Dickens

In Memoriam: Frederick Thomas Dickens

1935 – 2000

by Pauline Dickens, James Jones, and Graham Caldersmith

Originally published in American #71, 2002 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Six, 2013

Frederick Thomas Dickens was born January 10, 1935 in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and died November 8, 2000 in Lynchburg, Virginia. He served in the Navy and attended Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now USL) in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he graduated with a degree in physics. He went to work for Western Electric at Bell Laboratories in Whippany, New Jersey, in 1960, then worked for AT&T/Bell Labs from 1962 until his retirement in 1987. He was married and had two children.

From early childhood Fred was always taking things apart and rebuilding them: crystal sets, model airplanes and boats, small engines, large engines, bicycles, motorbikes, air rifles, most anything that had plenty of parts. In later years, he continued to take things apart and reassemble them or build new and improved ones. His crystal set was replaced by powerful shortwave radios, the model airplanes and boats got larger and more sophisticated, the small engines became single-cylinder miniature hit-and-miss ones. The large engines were built to fit into the motorcycle frames that he constructed and competed on in observed trials. The air rifles became more powerful and accurate, and Fred built all parts on his lathe and milling machine, even to checkering the stocks. His latest pistol was used to shoot uncooked pasta at carpenter bees feeding on the house. The bicycle evolved into an elaborate recumbent design that he was working on when he died.

While at Bell Labs he worked in the Power Supply Department building power supplies for the transatlantic cable. His power supplies were also found in many of AT&T’s telephones. He received the Distinguished Technical Staff Award for Sustained Achievement in 1984.

He first got interested in instrument building in 1966 when he built his first guitar. He took apart an old guitar he had purchased in Mexico when he was twelve to study the construction. He began keeping detailed records with guitar #15 in 1968, using red cedar for the top. Ever the stickler for words, he wrote, “The cedar will be called ‘Egyptian Dragoon Brown Spruce’ from the Aswan Dam Preserve.” He began making his fretboards out of black phenol fiber because he felt that the phenol was more stable than ebony. He began making his own rosettes in 1969. He also constructed a banjo in that year.

The part of guitar construction that he enjoyed most was carving the neck, especially the heel. One of my fondest memories is of watching him as he worked on the mahogany to create a beautiful sculpture, which he would decorate with a beautifully finished, singing body.

In 1975 Fred began a series of experiments (which he would continue until his death) to make “various acoustic measurements on the guitar and its parts.” The object of the experiments was “to determine the response vs. frequency of the instrument and its various parts in an effort to set the various resonances at their ideal positions.” Using a special sound room which he built, he did experiments to: determine the effect of the height of the sides of a standard classical guitar on air resonance frequency; test different strutting patterns on the backs and tops of guitars including Cartesian, circular, lattice, traditional, and X bracing; study the effect of soundposts in guitars; chart the air modes of his and others’ guitars; study the relationship between the Helmholtz resonance and volume; and test a new bridge design using graphite-reinforced epoxy which he called his “magic bridge.”

In 1977 Fred attended the 9th International Conference on Acoustics in Madrid where he presented a paper, “Tuning the Eigenmodes of Free Violin and Guitar Plates by Chladni Patterns” with Carleen Hutchins. He wrote for the CAS Newsletter but refused to submit articles unless he was 100% certain of the data. He also gave lectures at local colleges in New Jersey.

In his lifetime Fred built ninety-four classical guitars, four steel string guitars, a flamenco guitar, a banjo, and a harpsichord soundboard. Trying to understand plate tuning in the guitar was his life’s goal.

— Pauline Dickens

Fred Dickens at the 1992 GAL Convention after attending the free plate tuning demonstration by Carleen Hutchins. Photo by Dale Blindheim.

Although an excellent craftsman, Fred viewed instrument making (or the making of anything else for that matter) as a vehicle to understanding the science and principles behind the result. He constantly strove to understand the physics, and the nature of materials and their interaction. The search was always more important than the product, although the guitar was most often the chosen teacher. As a result, Fred was the work in progress. Understanding the universe was his goal.

Fred had little tolerance for ignorance masquerading as knowledge. Half-baked theories were always exposed to the light of his more rigorous testing. I was very fortunate to make Fred’s acquaintance shortly after he and his wife moved to Virginia. Our mutual interest in instrument making and his willingness to teach some of those scientific principles I had neglected to consider contributed to a friendship now sorely missed. Fred’s gift was his willingness to patiently share what he had learned with those willing to listen. I only wish more makers would have had the opportunity to learn from
his experience and example.

— James Jones

When I began music acoustics research in 1970 I was intrigued by articles written by Fred T. Dickens, which combined an honest, homey style with advanced ideas on guitar behavior. I began writing to Fred, and in 1982 during a research tour of the USA, we stayed some days with Fred and Pauline. Their company was relaxing and humanizing after intense work and travel. We shared notions of guitars and violin physics, methods of working advanced instruments, the nature of those involved in such a rare field of endeavor, and the big questions: life, the universe, and everything. We ate and drank with Fred and Pauline and became friends.

Fred was an honest, practical man. His work at the Bell Laboratories was respected because of his integrity with results. He was meticulous in research and true with his friends. His marriage to Pauline was caring and creative, and their love for each other was unmistakable. I admire them both and wish Pauline comfort and peace in her loss of a wonderful husband.

— Graham Caldersmith