Building a carbon fibre violin

27 August 2009

The use of carbon fibre in violin making is not new; the doyenne of violin acoustics Carleen Hutchins, along with aeroplane / carbon fibre manufacturers, Hercules, had made a carbon fibre violin front for an ordinary wooden body. Their findings were published in 1975, but no instruments were ever made.

Around 2000, an advert for a carbon fibre cello appeared in The Strad magazine. Violas, violins and double basses have since been added to the range.

About that time, talking with Professor Chris Rudd (now a Pro Vice Chancellor) we discussed the possibility of making a carbon fibre violin. Circumstances delayed this, but when John Dominy was appointed to the Polymer Composites Group, the idea crystallised into a Group Development Project for 4th year students at Nottingham University.

As the project also included a design element, a summer student, Luke Forward, using a 'Strad' poster of del Gesu's Lord Wilton 1742 violin, produced a CAD-CAM program to allow accurate moulds to be made of the front. Recognising the inherent difficulties of cutting carbon fibre, design license was allowed to produce f-holes resembling del Gesu's whilst removing the intricacies. The initial front was a carbon fibre laminate with a balsa wood sandwich. From the project's point of view, there were practical curing processes to be examined alongside matching stiffness characteristics and an examination of the plates response in Chladni tests.

A wooden bass bar was added and the front was mounted on a Sacconi Strad back, ribs etc. It was this that produced the banjo-like effect when played. Another plate was chosen, on the basis of Chladni plate tests, for trial on the standard wooden back. This second trial was very successful and was included in a local BBC news broadcast.

John Dominy was subsequently interviewed for BBC Radio4, Material World and the instrument was played by Jennifer Pike, who said "it plays well and easily", but feels it needs some fine tuning. Those who stand away from the instrument whilst played, recognise its strong projection both inside and outside.

It has to be understood that this is still 'Work in progress', with a degree of fine tuning to be done, before a marketable instrument is available. For the students involved, their persistence and hard work paid off when two of the group were awarded 1st class degrees.

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