One of only a handful of maker-musicians in England, Graham Vincent sources a variety of British timbers to produce extraordinary violins. Forestry Journal spoke to him about his process.

THE unique selling point of luthier Graham Vincent is ‘traditional making: ecological thinking’, specifically using reclaimed and locally sourced British timbers. One violin he played featured a front plate carved from a spruce shelf that once hung on his kitchen wall. More recently, he carved a back plate from apple timbers that grew in an orchard three miles away from his Somerset workshop.

Along with sourcing new timbers and completing three violins between gigs and a 21-day tour with his folk duo ‘Mitchell and Vincent’, he somehow finds the time to speak to Forestry Journal.

Graham has the same easy manner evident in the many ‘making of’ videos on his YouTube channel. He has, he thinks, built 43 violins, each containing 75 pieces of finely tooled timber and weighing a delicate 350–450 grammes.

 Graham in his workshop.Graham in his workshop. (Image: FJ/supplied)

“The most important thing,“ he says, “is that they are tools on which you make music. To do their job really well, there are a number of timber requirements.”
Resonance: “The wood must be resonant and not absorb sound.” He taps a drawer side of Western pine (USA). “This wood has a ring to it. This is really important. If it goes ‘thud’ it will always absorb the energy you put into it.”

Density: “Too light and the timber is generally not strong enough. Too heavy and violins tend not to work above a certain weight.“

Grain: “The timber must have an attractive grain. Potential buyers need to fall in love with a violin when they pick it up.”

One of a handful of traditional maker-musicians in England, Graham’s converted tractor shed workshop contains bandsaws, drills, sanders and drying timbers. “95 per cent of my work is done with hand tools: hand saws; chisels; scrapers; gouges for carving scrolls; tiny hand planes for shaping the fronts and backs; a range of short-bladed incredibly fine and devilishly sharp knives for cutting ‘f’ holes and for carving the neck and heel.”

Making a violin body begins with the rib garland (side). Timber lengths 250 mm by 30 mm wide are shaved down to 1.1–1.3 mm, then worked against a heated aluminium block for bending by hand.

Front and back ‘plates’ are sawn from planks to reflect the approximate size and shape of the rib garland. Softwood fronts (generally spruce) and hardwood backs are then carved and hollowed (arched) down to a delicate 3 mm thickness.
Supported internally by blocks of softwood and a bass bar (cut from the same softwood board), the plates are glued to the rib garland with gelatine or a vegan substitute, fast-setting heat-resistant aliphatic resin. 

 A back plate of figured ash, sawn thirty years ago on the English/Welsh borders, sourced from eBay.A back plate of figured ash, sawn thirty years ago on the English/Welsh borders, sourced from eBay. (Image: FJ/supplied)

Ebony is ‘traditionally’ used to create a violin’s fingerboard and tailpiece. “I don’t use rainforest timbers. Ebony is rare and controlled by the CITES agreement.”

Early substitutes included torrefying timber with a similar grain pattern, “taking it most of the way to being charcoal by heating it for six hours in an old oven and using a vacuum chamber to fill the grain with a low viscosity epoxy. The result was something jet black and tough with a good grain pattern. Now, I use a material made for kitchen worktops and building cladding, a multi-layer laminated cardboard set in a resin matrix, effectively black paper set in epoxy. It does amazingly well.”

‘Vincent’ violins are finished with a homemade varnish, boiled linseed oil and pine rosin (the hardened pine sap violinists use on bows). The initial curing in a UV light box takes four to five days. Hardening carries on for years.

Of sourcing softwood he says, “We don’t grow hard softwoods in this country. I tend to scavenge for softwood I like the look of – old beams, the stair treads of a staircase ripped out of a house built in the 19th century in Yeovil. The spruce treads would have been imported when they were still clear-cutting virgin forests for timber. In one tread, I counted 290 years of growth rings. Dating the timber like that, you value it far more.”

Sourcing hardwoods for the three violins currently in progress, he found rare Birdseye maple and (French) pear hardwoods at Yandle & Sons in Martock. For a violin with a mellower, darker sound, he sourced figured ash planks (sawn 30 years ago on the English/Welsh border) from eBay.

Graham realised early on that not all hardwoods are created resonantly equal. Selecting an attractive piece of maple, “I thought the resonance would be fine. It wasn’t. It was an important lesson.” Conversely, five violins made with fronts of Yeovil stair treads create rich, ringing tones. “The last piece had a big knot (placed under the fingerboard) but I was determined to use it. It was so resonant, sounding something like a xylophone. Because of that (sound) quirk, I made the front and back flatter than normal. It turned out to be an exceptional violin.”

Owner/player David Shepherd of folk group Blowzabella agrees.

Now 59, Graham began playing guitar as a child and subsequently with bands at school. Training as a luthier at the London College of Furniture (now part of Guildhall University), he went into furniture design, architectural joinery and house design. Qualifying as an architectural technologist, he set up his own practice in 2000.

“In 2001, my daughter wanted to learn the violin. We used the Suzuki method, learning together by ear.”

To improve his violin playing Graham joined a ceilidh band, meeting guitarist David Mitchell (also a luthier). Frustrated at not playing live more often, in 2011 they formed folk duo ‘Mitchell and Vincent’, going on to support UK folk artists Kate Rusby and Ralph McTell and playing the Glastonbury Festival (Green Futures) three years running. “For a musician, playing Glastonbury Festival is on the bucket list. They were all joyful experiences.”

While learning the violin, Graham started repairing them. Finishing his first violin in 2014 following a skills refresher workshop at Halsway Manor (National Centre for Folk Arts), he became a full-time violin maker in 2019. “Luthiers develop an appreciation for design in very specific ways. Architecture gave me a broader feel for form and shape.” Architecture may also have influenced how and where he sources recycled timbers.

In an average year, Graham’s finished violins contain less than 6 kg of timber.

Violins hanging.Violins hanging. (Image: FJ/supplied)

Buying locally by the plank is expensive, but given the requirements, it is worth it.

The apple wood that grew in an orchard three miles away came from local eco-community Tinkers Bubble. “The planks, sawn nine years ago on their steam-powered sawmill, were delivered to my door on a horse and cart.” He also bought the ash and cherry planks currently seasoning in the workshop. “How long timbers season for is open to debate. Stradivarius was happy to use wood three years old. Nowadays, most makers leave it for (at least) ten.”

Inspired by 18th-century British maker Benjamin Banks, who was in turn inspired by Nicola Amati (possible teacher of Stradivarius), Graham spent six months in 2020 honing his violin-making skills. “To learn a new piece of music, you play it over and over. I tried that with making, working on a batch of ten violins, carving ten scrolls one after the other to move my skills forward. I began by carving one a day. By the end, it was two.” He likes “working quickly, with really sharp tools,” to create “crisp, clean, deliberate cuts. I like people being able to see the individual gauge marks flowing nicely one into the other.” 

A violin comprises 75 pieces of timber.A violin comprises 75 pieces of timber. (Image: FJ/supplied)

The applewood violin (one of two) took 3.5 weeks to complete. It was auctioned to raise funds for EDP, a charity supporting those whose lives have been affected by substance misuse. His own violin, with kitchen spruce shelf front plate, had such a rich sound that a fellow folk musician declared that they had to have it.

With ‘Mitchell and Vincent’ bookings returning to pre-pandemic levels, audiences attending gigs this summer and aboard the Queen Mary II (as it sails to New York and back to the Norwegian fjords), will hear the dark and thoughtful tones of a violin Graham made four years ago out of reclaimed spruce and English sycamore, his favourite hardwood. “Fairly similar to the ‘traditional’ maple used in most violins, sycamore has a slightly irregular appearance and is lovely to work.”

With three violins to finish and timber to source, our conversation finishes with a question, Graham asking, “If anyone has any really nice bits of indigenous ash, sweet chestnut or sycamore, can they get in touch? I haven’t used sweet chestnut before. It’s a fairly light timber that I think could work quite well.”