Derek McCormick’s Violin Blog

Making a violin and other violin-related topics


Tree rings copy

This is a cross section of a spruce tree felled in the Jura mountains in 1999 (I have cut out a section from about 1850-1940 so that it fits legibly on the page). The pale rings represent growth in the spring and summer of each year and the dark rings represent the slowing down and stoppping of growth in autumn and early winter (there is no growth at all in the depths of winter). In this picture we can see a very small amount of spring/summer growth in 1980 (A), indicating that conditions were unfavourable for growth in that year. Contrast that with 1969 when Jura spruce enjoyed a really good summer. It is this variation in ring width from year to year that is vital in dendrochronology - if ring width was virtually the same each year we could get no information from the tree. You can see a very bad series of summers in the Jura between 1835-1840 (C). At (D) we can seen a few years of very rapid growth which is characteristic of all trees during the first few years of life.

Dendrochronology is a scientific technique which allows us to determine with great precision the age of a piece of wood by analysis of the pattern of annual growth rings. The width of these rings is influenced by year-to-year variation in environmental factors such as temperature and rainfall. The history of the tree is encoded in the pattern of rings. We can break the code and determine the dates of a piece of wood of unknown comparing its ring pattern with ‘reference chronologies’ developed from tree samples of known felling date. Both visual and computer-based statistical analyses are used to establish the dates of the unknown sample.

The application of dendrochronology to members of the violin family has been pioneered initially by Professor Peter Klein in Germany, and later by John Topham in England with whom I have been fortunate to collaborate on a number of research projects.  Professor Grissino-Meyer gives a comprehensive survey of dendrochronology and its appplications in his Ultimate Tree-Ring Web Page.  Our research has produced interesting results which have been published in a number of scientific journals and magazines.

In summary;

(1)    We established reliable dating procedures which have been successfully applied to English violins of the 17th and 18th century.
(2)    We extended this work to the classical Italian school of Cremona which includes the great masters such as Stradivari and the Guarneri and Amati families.
(3)   We provided evidence to support the view that the celebrated and controversial ‘Messiah’ violin is the work of Stradivari.
(4)   We demonstrated that, contrary to expectation, the great masters such as Stradivari and Guarneri did not consider that long seasoning of wood is essential In some cases their wood was used within 2-3 years of felling.
(5)   We found that in contrast to modern makers, the classical masters did not take great care to match the spruce on the bass and treble sides of the violin front.

Some relevant publications:
1. Topham J. and McCormick D. The Ring Saga. The Strad, 108: 404-411, 1997.
2. Topham J. and McCormick D. A dendrochronological investigation of British instruments of the violin family. Journal of Archaeological Science, 25; 1149-1157, 1998.
3. Topham J. and McCormick D. A dendrochronological of stringed instruments of the Cremonese School (1666-1757) including the ‘Messiah’ violin attributed to Antonio Stradivari. Journal of Archaeological Science, 27; 183-192, 2000.
4. Topham J. and McCormick D. The Dating Game. The Strad, 112: 846-851, 2001.


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