This is a common question. Truth be told, there are three main regional contenders in the luthier industry: Europe, America, and China.
What you will find is that European and American wood will be the highest cost, but not always the best quality. The real determining factor in the quality of the lumber alone is the growing conditions of the tree, and its rate of growth as a result. The best lumber for tone woods are fully matured trees that had a steady and slow rate of growth. Such specimens are usually found at high altitude forests.
High altitudes limit yearly growth in addition to toughening up the tree to survive the cold climate. In addition, a more consistent climate with less temperature fluctuations allow for a steady growth rate, and as a result, more consistent wood grains.
The European Alps are a fine example of such geography. It’s important to note that China has forests in identical condition and is the main reason why Chinese sourced lumber can match or exceed the quality of Euro and American counterparts. The only discrepancy compared to European forests is the particular species of spruce, picea abies that was sourced by the greats including Stradivari are not native to China.
Tightness of Grains
Spruce wood has a distinctive vertical grain structure; the closer and finer the lines, the older and slower growing the tree. As a result, you get a more elastic wood cell structure which makes a more resonant soundboard or top plate of the violin.
Consistent Grain Spacing
Faster growing and younger trees tend to have a mix of tight and wider grains. The most sought after is the whole top to feature the same fine level of grain spacing. Such wood typically comes from trees over 200 years old! Because of limited resources going against demand, the more common and best alternative is the finest grain spacing located at the center of the violin where the most significant string vibrations travel from the bridge into the violin body. Some of the finest tonewoods with consistent spacing and a natural aging of 20+ years cost the luthier over $1K!
Factors that contribute to a fine quality violin are...
- Age of the tree when harvested
- Growth pattern
- Aging time and aging method/conditions
- Quality of workmanship
- Final adjustments
In the end, the violin quality is really the sum of its parts in addition to how it was made. The final adjustments of an instrument are an essential step and play a vital role in the overall performance and sound of the instrument. A improper or total lack of an adjustment is liken to a Ferrari with flat tires; it can certainly move, but not to its full potential.