Making Matters: The simplest machine

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The humble wedge is a stalwart of the luthier’s workshop. Joseph Campanella Cleary examines some of the myriad ways they improve the quality of life for craftspeople

In a world of technological progress, the violin maker’s workshop is an oasis of simplicity and elegance. Among the tools that connect the luthier’s work to antiquity is the wedge, one of six ‘simple machines’ that can exert pressure from feather-light to crushing, in the service of repair, restoration and making new violin-family instruments. 

Sometimes the wedge is the tool, for example a knife, plane iron, chisel or gouge. The angle of the blade determines the use and application of force. The smaller angle of a well-sharpened knife gives the luthier control over cutting a chamfer or shaping an edge – the tool cleaves the wood easily with a low input force. A larger angle, like that of the stout-bladed froe, requires a correspondingly larger application of force, which is delivered with a mallet or beater, dividing the wood along the weakest plane perpendicular to the growth rings. Other ‘wedges as tools’ serve to hold the work, especially when the wood is not yet flat, square or perfectly dimensional. A properly shaped wedge is often the least complex solution to difficult problems. Making one wedge often yields another of a smaller but related dimension, which can be kept for later use. A compound wedge expands usability by covering two distance ranges, and it can be used in a variety of contexts. 

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