Though I’m interested in all types of viols, I’m currently focused on the late 16th through late
17th century English instruments and the small number of French viols made with "bent fronts” or tops.
These were made usually by bending 5 thinned, narrow strips of spruce to form the complex, arched shape of the front, being joined and finally carefully planed and smoothed to the final shape and thickness, requiring the removal of minimal amounts of wood. This is unlike most later types of viol construction and almost all the violin family instruments which have fronts made from two thick "book matched" wedges joined in the center and then carved with gouges and then planes to their final shape and thicknesses.
This type of construction was only identified with certainty in surviving instruments about 40 years ago but is now well documented. Nothing was written down as to tell us exactly why this method of construction was used but bending and assembling strips of bent wood was a fairly common technique used in those days, barrel and ship making being obvious examples and was
also in use in the construction of other instruments, like the backs of lutes.
-Below, the center 3 "staves" which form the majority of the front, bent to shape and then
Was this method used because wood wide enough for two piece tops was more rare and expensive or were the makers of these instruments so skilled at the art of bending and joining pieces of wood that it was actually less work than carving from thick wedges? Was it to economize, where 2 or even 3 bent fronts could be made from the same amount of wood needed for a single front, fully carved from 2 wedges?
Or did they understand that from an engineering point of view, this is a very important feature? The wood fibers of the front follow through the complex, curving shapes, almost as if it had grown that way, making it stronger than a fully carved top which has areas of "run out" …places where the fibers are are not parallel to shapes of the arching, passing in one side and out the other, which weakens it and requires more thickness to achieve the same strength.
The natural virtue of the design allows for making the tops thinner and lighter than a fully carved one and is capable of making durable, resilient tops that when part of a well made instrument, are resonant and responsive and that ultimately, have their own characteristic sound.
There are many other elements that combine to make a successful instrument and of course,
all of those must be done well as the final "setup" of the viol, including the right string types and gauges chosen for the desired tone and response. But It was a design that must have been well appreciated, for whatever reason, as it was used by all the best known makers of it's day.
Once the top pieces are joined and the final shape and thickness achieved, strips of linen or vellum are glued on the underside of the top and inside the viol body to reinforce all the joints before finally closing the box.