So many foolish notions are current regarding the manufacture of strings, and, even among violinists, ignorance on this subject so largely prevails, that an extract from Mr. Ed. Heron Allen’s chapter on strings should prove interesting.
“Strings for the violin and nearly all other stringed instruments,” says Mr. Allen, “are composed of the small intestines of sheep, and have been so composed, as Mersennus very justly remarks, ever since the time of the ancient Egyptians. The best intestines are those of lambs which have lived on dry, mountainous pastures; and it is said that the best lambs are those from the province of Berry, and from some parts of Germany, and that they are at their best for the purpose of string-making in the month of September, which is the string-making month in each year.
“The intestine used is composed of three membranes, the external and the mucous membranes, both of which are removed as useless, and a third which is inclosed between these: the muscular or fibrous membrane, which is used in the manufacture of fiddle-strings. The intestines are fetched direct from the butcher’s, and, while the carcasses are still warm, are detached by workmen specially employed for the purpose, and by whom they are at once stretched upon an inclined plane and scraped with a knife-blade, so as to clean and empty them of all foreign substances, grease, etc. This must be done quickly, while the intestines are yet warm, for they would otherwise be hopelessly colored by the cooling matters. After this operation the intestines are tied up in bundles and placed in vessels to carry them to the manufactory, where they are tied in bundles of ten, and placed in cold water from twelve to fifteen hours. This may be done in a running stream or in a vat of spring- water, slightly corrected with carbonate of soda. After this they are immersed four or five hours in tepid running water. These soakings produce a slight fermentation, which aids the separation of the fibrous from the mucous membranes: an operation performed by scraping the intestines with a split cane on a slightly-inclined slab, down which constantly runs a current of water. The internal membranes run off into a trough and are used as manure, the external are used for racquets, whips, and other rougher articles composed of gut. The fibrous membranes, separated in bundles of about ten, are now placed in stone jars to soak for three or four hours in potassa lye (or ammoniacal solution, which is preferable), whose strength must be most carefully apportioned to the work to be done. At the end of this time they are carefully rubbed through the first finger (protected by a gutta-percha glove) and the thumb (armed with a copper thimble) of the left hand. By this means are removed any of the fragments of the two superfluous membranes which may have escaped the first scraping. This operation is generally repeated, at intervals of two hours, three times during the day, and after each repetition they are placed in a similar stone jar of solution of permanganate of potassa. At the fourth repetition they are not replaced into the same solution, but are dipped into a weak solution of sulphuric acid. These operations are repeated for two or three days, the strength of the solution used being always similarly increased.
“The guts are now sufficiently cleansed to be sorted and, if necessary, split. They are sorted by experienced workmen into qualities, lengths, thicknesses, and strengths, so that each may be devoted to its proper uses and tones. As the guts, in their natural state, are not sufficiently uniform in diameter, they often require to be split into long threads by means of a knife specially prepared for the purpose, and these threads are then placed in a jar with their thick and thin ends set alternately.
“The next operation is the spinning, which is performed on a frame about three times as long as a fiddle. Two, three, or more fibers (according to the string required to be made) are taken and set alternately, that is, the thick end of one opposite the thin end of another. The usual number apportioned to the strings of a violin are as follows: For the E-string, 3 to 4 fine threads; for the A, 3 to 4 strong ones; for the D, 6 to 7 strong ones.
“At one end of the frame is a little wheel, the center or axle of which bears two hooks; at the other end are little fixed pegs. The guts selected are fixed to a peg which is set in one hook of the wheel, are carried to the other end of the frame, twisted round a fixed peg, brought back to the other end and fixed to the other hook of the wheel by still another peg. This wheel is rapidly revolved by a multiplying fly-wheel, and the guts are thus twisted into a fiddle-string, the fingers being passed along it meanwhile to prevent the formation of inequalities… . The strings are then placed in a sulphuring chamber, which is hermetically sealed and left for the night, during which time they become bleached by the action of the sulphurous-acid gas. The next morning, if it does not rain, they are exposed to the air till nearly dry, when they are again moistened, twisted on the frame, and replaced in the sulphur-bath. This operation is repeated, according to the size of the string, during a period of from two to eight days. The strings are then thoroughly rubbed and polished in order to get rid of all inequalities, grease, or other foreign particles… . When the requisite polish has been obtained, the strings are carefully wiped and lightly moistened with olive-oil, after which they are thoroughly dried. This is accomplished when, on loosening the pegs, the strings do not contract. The strings are now cut from the frames, close to the pegs, and rolled into coils as we see them in commerce, after which they are made up into bundles of either fifteen or thirty.”