master violin and viola case maker
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Case shells: high-tech plastic vs. wood laminate.
Two respected magazines, Strings (USA) and Music Teacher (UK) have recently published almost simultaneous articles extolling the virtues of violin and viola cases with shells made out of plastic (ABS, carbon fiber, fiberglass, etc.), while basically dismissing wood laminate to the old-school of thought where, and I quote, “heavier is more protective” (sic).
As a professional case maker for the past thirty years I find it questionable - in principle - that some people think they know enough about case shell materials to make such judgments and influence other people’s choices, simply because they play the violin too.
I mean, how many of those who write the Ultimate Guide to Purchasing a Case have any notion about the kinematics and the studies of Bela Barenyi? Or how about the fields of plasticity and elasticity within a system defined by continuum mechanics, i.e. the stress of deformable structures? How about the thermal conduction characteristics of materials used for shell construction, or the study of the air mass contained within a closed case? Yes, all this is necessary study for a superior product.
And, for those authors, how many of them have at least interviewed various case makers on these subjects? (Or violin repairers…). My guess? Zero, and yet they give you advice on what case to buy.
During a 2-year research project I made extensive experimentation with these so-called "high-tech" materials: carbon fiber, fiberglass, Kevlar, sandwich construction, etc.. My assistants and I built well over 120 prototype and test cases for evaluation. The shells themselves were engineered and provided by a company specialized in the field. In the end, weighing pros and cons, I decided upon the basis of my test results that wood laminate was (and is) a superior material for violin and viola case construction.
Now if you listen to all the hype about plastic cases, the first thing they tell you is that thanks to all of this wonderful technology they are lighter and stronger. Well – surprise - they are not. One of the most famous and advertised oblong violin cases of this variety weighs, with music pocket and according to their own website, 2.8 kg. or 6.2 lbs..
That’s not so light at all. In fact, the supposed lightness derives uniquely from the fact that the case has no protective cover! There are in fact several case makers who are able to craft wood laminate cases - with cover - that weigh considerably less than that, while offering greater measured crush resistance. Musafia makes the new Lievissima model which only 1.9 kg. So up to here the score is: wood - 2, plastic - 0.
Properly designed and built wood laminate cases also offer better thermal insulation and don’t bounce, subjecting your violin to excessive G-force, if by mistake you drop it or your strap breaks. If you leave a laminate case near a light bulb it won’t melt, and the integral protective cover can be replaced in the future allowing you to keep the case longer, a long-term savings. To make a case air-tight, one of the selling points of these products, is a mistake because it will become a pressure cooker if left near a heat source or in the sun. So by this yardstick, the score that tallies up to is: wood - 7, plastic - 0.
So why all the hype about these plastic cases? I suspect that the deal is – as always – corporate profits. It costs less for a machine to stamp out a plastic shell than to have a highly-skilled worker spend a couple of hours crafting one out of specially milled materials to millimetrical tolerances. It’s also a whole lot easier to industrialize a plastic product, just invest in more molds and machines, and you can make hundreds and even thousands of them.
Of course then it’s up to the marketing people to creatively convince us that plastic cases are better. Plastic is more modern and high-tech than wood, it’s cool, it’s got stripes, it’s the future, etc., and they do that through the purchase of advertising space by the square foot and sponsoring infomercials. But if Boeing uses a certain material to build a 787 Dreamliner, does it necessarily follow that you can make a good violin case out of it?
Here’s the acid test. The totality of recognized high-end violin and viola case makers today all still exclusively use wood laminate for their top-range case shells, meaning it could truly be that it actually is a superior material for this purpose. Cost obviously isn’t the issue. These makers can’t all be retrogrades stuck in the past, clinging to dusty old traditions.
So think about it: if we were all to buy into such absolutes like “new is better” without rational criticism, Stradivari would be “old school” and there’s a good chance we’d be playing plastic, multicolored violin-shaped-objects.
As always, thank you for your attention, and feel free to comment!
Dimitri Musafia, December 16, 2012
“The only source of knowledge is experience" - Albert Einstein
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