Ottawa Symphony Orchestra: Charline Dequincey makes music with a 3D printer

Charlien Dequincey at work on one of the OSO's 3D printed instruments.

Charline Dequincey is a maker of violins, violas and cellos. She shapes them by hand out of wood.

It started when she was 13 and playing the viola in her home region of Franche-Comté. She was chatting with her teacher who told her there was a school for instrument makers that was accepting students at 15 years of age. The school was in Mirecourt, in the Vosges Mountains near the border with Germany. The town is known for lace-making and instrument-making. The tradition of instrument making there dates back to the 16th century when there were dozens of makers living in the area.

Her parents are crafts people. They restore old pieces and study old techniques. So the idea of making instruments was appealing.

So, “I grew up with wood all over the house,” she said in an interview. Her mother had tried to interest her daughter in one of her passions, lace-making, but it didn’t appeal to Charline as a career.

But she did want to use her hands so she picked up a plane and headed to school.

After graduation from her program she got a job in Canada as an instrument restorer with Guy Harrison, who is an award-winning violin maker and luthier who lives and works in Ottawa.

She said she accepted the job with Harrison because they both had the same sense of the need for precision, hard work and curiosity about new ways to improve the craft. Curiosity is important because that led her to a unique project with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra. But more about that a bit later.

A few years ago, she decided to set up her own practice as a violin maker. But she still works with Harrison as a restorer.

She says she is still in the beginning stages of her professional career as a maker. She does make instruments and sell them. And restoring also pays the bills. She is entering competitions as well.

In fact, when this interview took place Dequincey was adjusting a traditional antiqued cello with feedback from Ottawa musician Raphael Weinroth-Browne in preparation for an instrument makers’ competition she has entered. When she came to Canada, she did bring a cello with her, made as her graduation project at Mirecourt, and it was for sale in a store. Weinroth-Browne saw it and he bought it to use while he was a student.”

Two years ago, Liz Barron, the former general manager of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra approached Charline with an idea to make a 3D printed instrument that would be played in concert.

At the time, Dequincey was investigating 3D printing as a way to make tools. In her spare time she likes to rebuild old tools such as planes.

Barron was asking about where she could find plans to be used in making 3D instruments.

Charline suggested, instead, putting an instrument into a CAT Scan and using the images that the scanner producers.

“That’s what we did. I had a violin.” That was in essence the beginning of the OSO’s 3D String Theory Project.

Using the CAT Scan was an easier way to capture the complexity of the instrument, she said. The violin, for example, has curves throughout and it would be very hard to just “draw it” in a computer, she added.

They did not scan a viola. They simply used the violin shape and enlarged some parts and changed some proportions to fit the viola’s profile. Dequincey got more hands-on when it came to finishing the necks of the instruments being used.

There are now four finished violins and four violas. Two of the violas have been fitted with cello strings to allow them to play a lower register. All will be played at a concert on Nov. 4 at City Hall in Ottawa.

But there were challenges in making these instruments. For example, time was spent figuring out a way to stiffen the neck of the instruments. This required a change to the finger bars to make the necks more rigid, she said. The necks were too flexible with the printed material alone. The material is essentially a white plastic like material.

To make the instruments, the team did as much work as they possibly could on a computer, with Dequincey directing a designer.

“It was a very challenging project. We didn’t really know where we were going to go. But I thought we could make it work.

“I have a curious nature and I like to understand how things work,” she said, explaining the appeal of the project to her. Even though humans have been making violins for centuries, she said, “we are still studying it. There are so many parameters that make the difference in sound.

“I wanted to see if we could get enough consistency using the material we used.” It was possible, she said, to make adjustments and see how they would impact the sound of the instrument.

She believes more work needs to be done to reach that consistency.

For her, she says she would rather touch the instruments with her hands, in part because 3D has limitations. It operates on three axes, while a violin operates on many more.

As well, the material itself was very different to work with as compared to wood, she said.

“Wood is stiff and fairly light. The material for the 3D printed instruments was very flexible and very heavy, as heavy as ebony. This material was the opposite of what you might pick,” she said.

That forced adjustments. She made the various pieces of the instruments thinner. And she used a honeycomb pattern inside the outer layers of the material. This was a design available on the printers used. This too reduces the weight but it made it more flexible at the same time. So they experimented to find the right balance for the instruments when the strings were finally in place.

They also printed the instruments in pieces and assembled them later instead of having each one printed whole, she said. This too would allow for adjustments.

“I had to play them when they were done” because she was doing the set-up of the instruments to prepare them for a performance. She said was pleased by the sound.

All summer she has been receiving the white instruments with the black necks. The last ones arrived in early September. And, finally, she has heard the music being played on Sunday Nov. 4 in rehearsal.

“It was nice. It wasn’t as different a sound as I was expecting. But I suspect it was because we kept a fairly traditional set up on them.

“We picked the material that had the most resonance and had more power. The sound has more harmonies and resonance,” she said. “I think it has more complexity towards the upper range of sound. It is because of the nature of the material. When you tapped the individual plates there was more ring and it has a sort of echo in it.”

3D String Theory
Ottawa Symphony Orchestra
Where: Ottawa City Hall
When: Nov. 4. The music starts at 11:30 a.m. with chamber music by J.S. Bach. 3D String Theory concert in Jean Pigott Hall begins at 12:30 p.m.
Tickets and more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.