Scientists Learns Secrets of Strad Violin

Nagyvary believes the wood used by Stradivari was soaked for a long time before it was carved, and again that could have been an inadvertent blessing.

"There is a lot of historical evidence that all the logs [used for woodworking] came down the waterway, and they were stored in the Bay of Venice, sometimes for a very long period of time," Nagyvary says.

He says he has experimented with logs that have been stored in water and found them superior in every way for violin construction.

"The sound is clearer, the weight is lighter," he says.

Many other factors also figured into Stradivari's success, Nagyvary says. But in the final analysis, the old master had another ace up his sleeve.

He knew merchandizing, Nagyvary says.

"He sold his violins only to kings and dukes and bishops," he says. "They were maintained by the best repairmen. They were adjusted regularly. They were always played by good players."

More than just building a better violin, "he invented the violin as an investment property," Nagyvary says. One key factor in determining the value of a Strad today is simply who owned it in the past, so there is more at work here than craftsmanship.

That all may sound a bit blasphemous, but if turning out a better violin is just a matter of craftsmanship, why can't more people do it? There are many experts who can carve wood to a remarkable level of precision, yet few claim to match the quality of a Strad.

Creating Close Matches

Nagyvary himself has become a successful violin maker, using the techniques he believes made the Stradivarius something really special. His violins sell for up to $15,000 and have won endorsements from violinists in some of the world's leading orchestras. That's one way he has supported his research.

But is he a "genius?"

"My best violin was made with a computer-directed carving machine," he says. "I'm no genius." Still, according to some experts, he turns out a heck of a fiddle.

During the recent symposium in Texas, noted violinist Zina Schiff played both a Stradivarius and a violin made by Nagyvary, switching back and forth throughout the concert. She said later she doubted that anyone there could tell the difference.

"It certainly can equal the power and the beautiful sounds of the 300-year-old instrument," she said of the Nagyvary violin.

By the way, nothing in Nagyvary's research should diminish Antonio Stradivari. He is considered the designer of the modern violin, and in the right hands, one of his instruments can still make a strong man weep.

Two and a half centuries later, we're still trying to figure out how he did it.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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