Is it okay to widen the f-hole of a violin?
February 1, 2011 2:37 PM   Subscribe

Is it okay to whittle a violin f-hole a sliver bigger to fit a rattlesnake rattle in there? Will I break my fiddle?

Or, uh, have you done this before?

I'm trying to pick the fiddle back up again. The one I had 6 years ago had a rattlesnake rattle in it. Which I liked. I just picked up a rattle, and am scrutinizing my fiddle for size ... can I just take a whittling knife and make an f-hole a teensy bit larger? How much does/would this affect the sound? Right or left f-hole?
posted by circle_b to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Seeing where you live (hey homie) I would recommend taking it by the String Stop on Railroad Ave, or calling David Kerr Violins in Portland to get advice on this.
posted by Danf at 2:52 PM on February 1, 2011

I'm not sure how that would work, since anything rolling around in the instrument could knock down the soundpost, which is on the right. The bass bar is right next to the left f-hole, so that's not ideal for cutting either. What might be possible is taking the actual top off, although you'd have to take that to a professional, and I'm not sure how much it would cost.
posted by Busoni at 3:01 PM on February 1, 2011

I know knothing about this, but would you mind telling me the purpose of having it in there? Does it affect the sound at all, or is it part of some fiddle folklore? Neat.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 3:27 PM on February 1, 2011

I took violin (and music theory, as well) in high school in 1981. I hated violin but loved the music theory; I eventually turned this knowledge into useful information related to vocal performances and gave up the violin a few years later.

But, let's get back to your question...

While I am not an expert in the field and cannot really give you the specifics; I do know that the shape, size and number of 'holes' in the face of any stringed instrument are very important to the sound. Specifically on a violin, these 'f-holes' as they are called (because of their shape), are specifically spaced in relation to other parts of the violin and any changes to their position and shape can make far-reaching changes to the vibratory pattern of the sound wave. The string's tension and the vibratory qualities of same may create the base sound wave, but the interior layout and placement of the various parts of the violin (or any other stringed instument) can effect the pitch, timbre, and harmonic properties of that sound wave.

The void behind the face or top of these instruments acts as a 'resonating chamber' to add to the beauty and richness of the sound in all (and more) of these properties. Any changes to any of those three properties will change the sound in one or more of many possible ways.

Your best bet is to verify this with a luthier and save yourself from destroying your instrument's unique sound.
posted by schade at 3:44 PM on February 1, 2011

It is so mice will stay away. My mom had one in her hundred-year-old fiddle. I think they put them in when fresh, though, and they are softer.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:45 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

It seems like you could save a lot of trouble by just getting a smaller rattle.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:25 PM on February 1, 2011

I am not a fiddler or a luthier, but I do research in musical acoustics, specifically of acoustical (non-electrically amplified) musical instruments. Take that for what it's worth. :)

Is it okay to whittle a violin f-hole a sliver bigger to fit a rattlesnake rattle in there?

It's your violin, you can do what you want with it. Personally, if it's a student-model factory-made instrument, I say go for it. If it's a hand built one-of-a-kind, I would be severely hesitant.

Will I break my fiddle?

Probably not. If you decide to go through with this, I would go very slowly and take off extremely small slivers followed by sanding the shaved part.

Or, uh, have you done this before?

No, never. Seriously, why are you taking my advice? :)

... can I just take a whittling knife and make an f-hole a teensy bit larger?

You can, but depending on the grain of the top plate, it may be easier just to sand it down.

How much does/would this affect the sound?

Ah, finally something I'm somewhat qualified to answer! :) To a rough approximation the size of the f-holes are directly related to the frequencies of the air modes of the cavity of the instrument. The most important mode is the lowest frequency mode, usually referred to as the Helmholtz mode. The dependence of the frequency of the Helmholtz mode on the size of the f-hole is proportional to the square-root of the area of the f-hole (assuming all other things remain constant.) So, if you make the size of the f-hole larger, you will (tend to) increase this frequency. But the Helmholtz frequency is also inversely proportional to the volume of the air cavity. Since you plan on putting a rattlesnake rattle in there, you are effectively decreasing the volume of the air in the cavity. This effectively also raises the frequency of the Helmholtz mode.

How much that effects the sound is tough to say. Again, if it's a student-model (or most any factory made) instrument then it is basically a copy of a Stradivarius, except without any fine-tuning of any of the modes. Since very little effort goes into tuning the modes with this type of violin you have little to risk by shifting the modes around a little bit.

A skilled luthier will put considerable effort into tuning the modes of the top and back plates, and bringing them in line with the air modes of the cavity. In that case, you would be more likely to significantly change the frequency response of the instrument. I would be hesitant to tweak the f-holes of an instrument that a luthier built.

The reality is that the frequency response of the instrument is tied to the playability of the instrument. So how it sounds in the end is related to those two factors, plus the players skill.

(And this rough analysis says nothing about what the rattle might actually do, of which I have no idea. I've never even heard of this.)

Right or left f-hole?

I'm pretty sure it wouldn't matter. Perhaps the bass side, since the bass bar will provide a bit of reinforcement.
posted by achmorrison at 6:26 PM on February 1, 2011 [8 favorites]

Thanks achmorrison for explaining what makes a factory Strad copy not as good as the Strad they're copying, I always kind of wondered...

Running with oneirodynia's knowledge, maybe you could steam the rattle to soften it?
posted by aimedwander at 6:34 PM on February 1, 2011

Today I learned that people put rattlesnake rattles inside fiddles, and the word "luthier." This is an amazing question with top-notch answers.

I will second the motion to sand rather than carve the opening larger if you decide to go that route - smoother and more finished-looking line.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:23 PM on February 1, 2011

thanks everyone! :) you should all be marked as good answers. thanks especially, achmorrison, I would have never thought about a fiddle acting as a Helmholtz resonator!

So .... I went ahead and did it, used a brand new exacto knife to shave down one of the holes a scraping at a time, then wiggled the rattle in there. I think I should have broken off a couple of beads from the rattle, it doesn't buzz too easily, but I'm happy!

some thoughts having done it: 1. the grain of the fiddle runs up and down and I think made it easier to take away miniscule shavings in the lengthwise direction of the f-hole. I'm now really curious to see other fiddles and see if the grain of the wood runs the same way. 2. the varnish got a little bit cracked, did not shave as easily. 3. 400 grit and higher sandpaper is your friend. 4. you can't type "f-hole" this many times and not giggle.

I don't notice any difference with the playing, but I also play the banjo, so my musical ability/ear is questionable.

thanks again! as usual, AskMe is awesome and informative.
posted by circle_b at 5:29 AM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Glad to help in any small way.

As for the grain of the top plate, all violins will have the grain generally oriented in the same way. What can vary from instrument to instrument is how the grain at the f-hole lines up with the opening of the f-hole.

Happy fiddling!
posted by achmorrison at 6:01 AM on February 2, 2011

I'd like to know more on this mouse-repellent thing (if that wasn't a joke). By what mechanism is this purported to discourage mice? Scent? A static violin couldn't make the rattle rattle. And what were the conditions whereby people's fiddles were in peril of mice infestation? Did they not have A.) cases, or B.) a wall to hang them on, or something?

OP (or anyone else who knows someone who's put a rattle in a violin), where did you learn it from, why did they do it, and what do you do it? I'm curious. ("I think it's bad-ass to have a rattlesnake rattle in my violin" is a perfectly acceptable answer)
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 10:06 AM on February 2, 2011

huh? so mice will stay away? can't you just keep the violin in a case? Can someone explain?
posted by kenliu at 10:17 AM on February 5, 2011

I'd like to know more on this mouse-repellent thing (if that wasn't a joke).

No, it's not a joke. Supposedly the smell keeps them away. Though if you google you can find other folk reasons why people put rattles in their fiddles and mandolins. Bill Monroe said he had a rattle in his mandolin to keep the spiders out; he also once told someone it was for the special sound it made when he played.

can't you just keep the violin in a case?

Not everyone who had a violin a hundred years ago had a case for it. Some people kept their instruments hung on a wall or up on a shelf. Nor would a case keep out a determined mouse.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:47 PM on February 6, 2011

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