Tag Archives: Grancino

Honest, but Fancy Wood. Tenor Viola da Gamba after Grancino.

The back for the original Grancino attributed instrument is of a very plain, honest Italian Poplar.

Plain, honest, working class!

Milanese makers were certainly not choosy about their wood selection, as a general rule. The plainest of materials however can have spectacular tonal qualities, and even be superior to highly figured woods. However for the past two centuries, great judgement has been unfairly passed upon makers for their wood selection. In Hamma’s  exhaustive tome, Meister Italienische Geigenbaukunst, he often writes, “poor choice of wood” – usually when confronted with such plain Jane backs as above. This is, in my mind, a great error, as choosing wood materials solely based upon optical qualities would be a huge mistake.

It may surprise you, that most luthiers do just this! The most expensive wood is usually tiger striped, flamed maple. WHY? The reverse should actually be the case, with the greatest sounding wood priced highest, not the tone wood with the most attractive optical qualities.

Describing sound with words will invariably involve metaphor. This is true not only with sound, but with other subjective experience, such as taste, and smell. Wittgenstein was eternally annoyed by the lack of ‘atomic truth’ in language, and even went so far as to postulate that all philosophical  problems, at their source throughout history are really simply semantic disconnections, or the inability to verify private experience. For example, describe the sensation when you see the colors, blue, and white, together. Can you? How would you begin to do so? More importantly, how can you verify that your subjective description is the same as mine?

When describing wines, liquors, cigars, and luxury items, reviewers often use seemingly wild and unlikely metaphors! This carries over into perfumery as well, as when describing the experience of scent, the only reference to a material other than the one being experienced, seems to suffice in communicating subtle differences. What makes a GREAT perfume differ from an ordinary terrible one that your grandmother uses?

Can you combine seaweed and jasmine alcohol tincture? YES!

So in sound it is basically the same. How do we describe the sound of a great instrument with words? How can we make a judgment about the quality of wood, just by looking at it? Think about it! It’s actually quite ridiculous.

I will try and describe the sound I am seeking.




and yet with a  sharp, clear, crisp and response! Thus the cedar top.

Sapele is a wood with often wild variations in grain density, so the interior reflecting surface with variations in hardness, should give when combined with high, dramatic arching, the beginning foundation for my tonal dreams. Sapele also has very dense, rugged, almost stubborn areas, and in other places, much looser, less dense medullary rays. So in essence when put into vibration, the plate is confused, if you will allow me that metaphor.

What would one give to be in front of Michel Colichon at the very moment he first put his hands upon Cedrela Oderata or, Cigar box Cedar, a.k.a. Spanish Cedar. The moniker comes most certainly from the Odori of the wood, which blossoms and is magnified greatly when carved. Cedrela is actually related to the mahogany family of woods, however, is infinitely softer, and lighter in weight. Colichon without question had a very strong intuitive force in imagining the tonal capabilities of this unique material, as he used it for the tops of his instruments, not only the back and ribs.  A completely radical experiment in the history of lutherie. His intuition proved correct. All of the Viols  made entirely of Cedrela are famous for their very fine tone.

On the lower left bout, highly dense, concentrated grain.

My choice for the back, commonly known as Sapele, not only reflects the dream of sound, but is a humble, honest, Mahogany. One can see how grain density can display large variations even among the same tree, in different areas.  It is of the same family, (Meliaceae) as true Mahogany, however this does little to clarify, as the general generic use of the term Mahogany covers hundreds of species, very different from one another.

The name Sapele has quite interesting origins, as its derived of the port city of Sapele in Nigeria, where the wood is most often exported from.where there is a preponderance of the tree. African Timber and Plywood (AT&P), a division of the United Africa Company had a factory at this location where the wood, along with Triplochiton scleroxylon, Obeche, mahogany, and Khaya were processed into timber which was then exported from the Port of Sapele worldwide.

The name of the city itself is said to be an anglicization of the Urhobo word Uriapele, commemorating a local deity. It is believed the British colonial authorities changed the name of the then hamlet to Sapele as it was easier to pronounce.

Sapele is not an  expensive wood. Even the highly figured, antique and rare slabs  in my workshop are priced the same as plain, straight-grained planks. The resonance and ringing qualities of this wood however are fantastic.

So, in moving forward in the spirit of the Milanese makers, the use of it is a polite nod towards their traditions, and in my mind, perfectly fitting for an inspired instrument based upon the humble original. One notes that each plank has different ringing and note qualities as well, though subtle, based upon oon the swirling, galaxy-like figurines present in the grain.

So then, why use Sapele?

Let us play with the following thought experiment: Imagine yourself in a chamber in which all surfaces are covered in ceramic tile, hence, like a large bathroom. Now imagine you have been given the magical power to change the composition of the surfaces. In the ceramic room, sounds from your voice reflect very quickly back to the ear, and the timbre of sound is something easily imaged. Now you change the surface commotion to steel, tin, or brass. The sound reflection changes as does the actual timbre and character of sound. A softer surface such as leather, would dampen the sound, and even softer such as foam insulation, would kill the reverberation entirely.

The back surface of musical instruments perform a double duty as vibrating boards and reflecting surface (as in our imaginary room above) which returns the sound through the F-holes to the listening ear. So the back material for every instrument will have a wide differentiation even among the same species of wood, i.e common maple used for the majority of violin family instruments produced today. Sapele can often display wild differentiations in both density, hardness, and grain distribution, hence its potential as a partial dampening material provides the luthier with a unique challenge and opportunity for expression and control of the reflecting surface.

If one were to begin with a very specific tonal dream in the mind, and move forward using every possible variant which strives to complete and make real the fantasy of sound, then alternative woods make not only absolute sense, but become essential.



Of Humble Orgins. The Tenor Viola da Gamba of fratelli G.B and Francesco Grancino

 Purchased at auction by Jose Vazquez for the collection, this Tenor Viola da Gamba converted to a violoncello bore the telltale signs which easily gave away its original origins. Signs of the filled six pegholes are not always as clear as this on antique instruments. In this case we have a smoking gun. After some consultation and correspondence with the new owner, I began to look more closely at high resolution photos sent to me, it became apparent that the plates may have been reduced at the center joint in order to accommodate  the new cello bridge with more narrow feet, while still maintaining bass bar clearance for the bridge foot.

The top bout has as a result a rather pinched appearance, as if it were squeezed together uncomfortably.

G.Battista Grancino tenor gamba scroll head

One notes when looking closely also, a certain sense of urgency in the outline of this scroll head. The throat, desperately shallow, almost as if an afterthought, reflects a very rapid system of rasping out the original outline. Nevertheless, the scroll retains a certain elegance, the original inspiration being of Amatise orgins. In fact, when looking  closely,   this instrument reflects in all of its facets a musician’s need for good working tools without luxurious embellishments.

The technique of painting on the purfling instead of inlaying is actually quite common through all schools of Continental Lutherie, as well as in the British Isles, and thus paints a very clear and certain picture of the modest means in which it must have come to life.

The discernment  of a Grancino family attribution, while at first troublesome, becomes clear with the painted purfling. This could only have been done by the The Brothers’ Grancino, Francesco and Giovanni, who were the sons of Andrea. Francesco worked from c.1660-1670s. A few instruments bear his original label.  Giovanni Battista and his brother produced quickly executed instruments often with a sense of urgency.  The plain materials, also speak of the general Milanese tradition of using trade woods.

Although the instrument would seem incongruent with  Renaissance ideas about Neoplatonic beauty and qualities of human temperament one must remember both the later date of its construction, as well as the limited patronage of the makers. I have decided to widen the center only slightly (2cm), thus allowing space for the wider bridge feet.

Copying such plain materials would seem a bit pedantic. In contrast, I have decided to embellish the instrument with profuse ornamentation on the corpus, neck and pegbox. As if a fantasy exploration of a reality where the Brothers Grancino had the patronage and financial freedom which they undoubtedly deserved.

Viols with violin shaped outlines in the Italianate tradition offer a unique opportunity for expression of feeling and sound.  In contrast to the English tradition of bent top instruments, both plates will be arched, adding to the possibility of total control of sound. The rather heavy Blackwood scroll will provide a counterbalance in weight ratios, as well as optically matching the palates of maroon hues of the corpus.

Grancino tenor gamba cedar topTenor viola da gamba

*Jose Vazquez tragically passed away during the construction of this instrument.  He has been a kind friend for over more than a decade, providing countless details of any instruments in the collection at a moments notice. It should be noted that in addition to his stellar talent as a Gambist and conservator  of beautiful instruments, he was incredibly funny, and unboundedly generous. During my early years as a rather vagabond violin dealer in Vienna, he was a friend among many foes.  This instrument will bear a dedication to him internally in ink in honor of his memory.

More chapters on the construction of this instrument soon to come. Stay tuned.