Neil Campbell’s ‘Caol Ila’ violin combines his love of instrument making and elements of the whisky-making nation

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Based in Scotland, Neil Campbell is a luthier who makes violins out of alternative materials, including his Harris Tweed violin. Combining his love of violin making and whisky, his latest creation is crafted from a whisky barrel from the Caol Ila distillery.

On a recent visit to the Isle of Islay, home of several famous whisky distilleries, Campbell sampled ‘a beautiful whisky,’ the 18-year-old Caol Ila. When he returned home with the idea to make a violin from a whisky barrel, he visited a local yard that sells barrels, and chanced upon one from the Caol Ila distillery.

’I found out that Caol Ila means “the Sound of Islay” meaning the stretch of water between Islay and the mainland,’ said Campbell. ’But what if a violin was made form a Caol Ila barrel? It too would qualify for the name “Sound of Islay”.’

Campbell set about breaking up the barrel and preparing the wood to use. To his initial dismay, a moisture metre on the staves revealed the moisture content to be 40 per cent. However, after leaving the wood overnight, the moisture reading had dropped to ten per cent. ’I realised that the “moisture” was in fact cask-strength whisky at 65 percent ABV,’ said Campbell. ‘It had evaporated. The “Angel’s Share” as it’s known.’

Campbell described working with the whisky barrel as a real joy. ’It’s good quality quarter sawn timber and being saturated with whisky, every time it’s cut the most amazing fumes fill the workshop.’

The ribs and back of the violin are made from the whisky barrel, while the belly is crafted from 100-year-old spruce salvaged from an old school building

’I really wanted to make the instrument look like a barrel so instead of a two-piece back and belly I jointed eight pieces. Prior to jointing I stained the joint edges to highlight not hide the joints creating a barrel look.’

In addition to the Caol Ila barrel, Campbell used a hip flask for the tailpin and tailpin block. The front and back plates are made from several strips of spruce and oak to visually mimic a barrel.

‘I didn’t obsess about the odd tool mark. When I overworked the wood and finish it started to lose its identity.’

Other materials included in keeping with the violin’s Scottish theme are Harris Tweed and Berberis tailpiece, plus red deer antler for the saddle and nut.

’Having spent hundreds of hours reading about varnishes, grounds, tap tones and graduations I’m almost disappointed to say that in spite of doing nearly everything wrong it sounds amazing,’ said Campbell ’It has a dark but quite raspy tone, it’s loud and good to play. I was on the Isle of Harris recently and took this one to play. It always gets a laugh.’

What do you think of the ’Caol Ila’ violin? Let Neil know your thoughts at

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