Born in Argentina, Lucas Javier Fabro is a 27 year old luthier working in Cremona, who studied first as a chemical engineer then won a scholarship to Cremona’s Scuola Internazionale di Liuteria to study instrument making.  He prides himself in understanding all the technical processes which go into creating a great violin and he makes around 8 a year. He even knows the whereabouts of most of his instruments and gets to see them from time to time as the musicians who commissioned them often become friends. 

Lucas Javier Fabro © Alison Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Lucas Javier Fabro
© Alison Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

Few people these days use dried bugs to give the varnish of their violins that distinctive red hue, but Lucas Javier Fabro prefers the evenness of sound and stability of colour that the cochineal dye affords. So he crushes his own. As I talk to the Cremona based luthier, this isn't the only thing that distinguishes his instruments.

We meet on a wood stand at Mondomusica, the only Italian exhibition of instrument makers, where luthiers go to buy everything they need for their craft. They pick over the woods they prefer, rosins for their varnish, the pegs and, most importantly, the bridges.

In his high-ceilinged workshop, he offers me a choice of 58 varieties of tea and enthuses as we discuss the merits of the jasmine, giving me time to look around. Among the workbenches that line the room, the one that catches my eye is 400 years old. Above it, the hand tools of his trade are neatly slotted. I learn from him there are three different woods that are used on every instrument: maple for the back, sides and neck, spruce for the top and ebony for the fingerboard. In Lucas’ view the very best maple comes from the forests of Croatia – and that's the stand on which we met.

The wood he looked at today was cut down around one or two years ago and has been naturally seasoned to dry it slowly. But he can't use it yet, as he will have to wait at least five more years: his studio contains lots of wood, all carefully catalogued for use. This isn't a business for impatient people, nor is it one where you can be too frugal with the wood you buy. By the way, the wood needed for the top of the instrument first has to be split lengthways so that the finished product will consist of two perfect halves, matching in sheen, brightness and evenness of sound. 

Lucas at work with a reed © Alison Karlin | Bachtrack
Lucas at work with a reed
© Alison Karlin | Bachtrack

I watch him as he demonstrates how he gouges the wood with one of his many hand tools, see the marks left by the tool and how he then smooths the marks with constantly finer hand tools until he finishes not with sandpaper but with a reed which “cuts the hairs of the wood rather than dampening them as sandpaper would do.” These reeds have been used for hundreds of years by the fine makers of Cremona.

As Lucas talks on excitedly, I learn that different violin makers have very different opinions on the amount of arching the should give to a particular violin body. Factories have violin bodies coming off the machines at a tremendous rate, each one with exactly the same degree of arching, but if that is the only measurement they take, Lucas asserts that only one in a thousand violins they make will sound good because every piece of wood is of different density. As a trained chemical engineer as well as a luthier, Lucas measures their density before calculating the correct degree of arching for each body. He  explains that arching has always been very important – from the time of Amati whose violins were crafted to create a beautiful round, warm sound that didn't project hugely (with archings up to 20mm at their higher point). Nowadays some makers opt for a relatively low level of arching (up to 14 mm on the back) to gain some power on their violins, but this loses some richness. 

The amount of arching and relative thickness of the wood turn out to be very important. Low arching and a lower thickness of the wood used for the body contribute to a brighter sound: when the violin is new, this might flatter the performer, but carries that the disadvantage that the violin's sound will deteriorate over time. Lucas' instruments are built for the long haul. The sound will take longer to open initially: the instrument will need many hours of playing before its performance will improve, but then the richness and roundness of the sound will win out. The strings come into the equation here too, with some choices offering excellent projection, principally for use with the lower arched models, while other strings give better colour.

The violin's passport of authenticity © Alison Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
The violin's passport of authenticity
© Alison Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

Finally, the bridge of each violin has to be taken very seriously indeed: Lucas reckons it may contribute 35% of the overall sound. His first appointment at the show was to the Milo Stamm bridge stand where their tiny pieces of wood cost around 25 euros each. He knows that he must pick the best bridges they offer and he sifts through drawers of bridges choosing exactly the type he is looking for. Only one in every ten he looks at may match his exacting specification, so he starts early.

Others buy their varnish ready made here: Lucas does not, because he makes his own. When his violin is complete, he gives it 30 coats of from his secret recipe and finally the violin is ready to travel to its eagerly waiting buyer, with its own passport of authenticity to point out all its identifying marks.