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Science helps to recraft a violin masterpiece

Stradivarius violins are so prized that their name is synonymous with perfection. Three Minnesota men say they have come close to re-creating that ideal using a mix of modern technology and old-school artistry.

Dr. Steve Sirr, a radiologist from Minnetonka, Minn., teamed with two St. Paul violinmakers, John Waddle and Steve Rossow, to make replicas of a 308-year-old violin known as the Betts Strad, owned by the Library of Congress. Sirr, who works at FirstLight Health System in Mora, Minn., took nearly 1,000 CT scans -- the same kind doctors use to examine tissue in a noninvasive way -- of the instrument to make three-dimensional records of its innards and to measure wood density.

"The scans are like a virtual dissection of the instrument without ever having to take it apart," Sirr said.

Rossow, who's handy with more than violins, designed and built a CNC (computer numerical control) machine that meticulously measured and carved wooden parts chosen from Waddle's stock -- spruce for the top plate, maple for the back, just like the original.

Waddle, a luthier (those who make stringed instruments), finished and assembled the carved parts, carefully bending ribs to match those of the original, and then varnished it.

The unlikely trio -- Sirr, the doctor with a sense of whimsy; Waddle, the dry-witted, seen-it-all master of his craft, and Rossow, the young, arty techie -- get together every Friday at Waddle's shop, which occupies half of a duplex on St. Clair Avenue. Their ultimate goal may be to sell the reproductions they've taught themselves to make, but they seem motivated more by the journey of discovery, the challenge of fitting different pieces of a puzzle together.

Sirr, 62, hit on the idea of scanning violins in 1989, while working at Hennepin County Medical Center. He often brought his instrument to the hospital to practice during downtime. One day, in a rush to get to surgery, he set his violin down on top of the CT machine. Later, it occurred to him to try scanning it.

"I thought a violin was a shell of wood surrounding air, but there was a lot more anatomy than I realized," he said. "Like people, they have a wide range of variations. They can be fat or skinny, athletic-looking or couch potatoes. Just as the scans help diagnose diseases in people, they can show flaws in violins that aren't visible to the human eye."

He took the scans to Waddle, from whom he had bought his first violin, without telling him that the images were from the insides of a violin. After a few minutes, Waddle was seeing things in violins he never had before.

In the years since then, Sirr figures that he has scanned about 600 violins, a few dozen of which were built before the mid-18th century. As interest has grown in both medical and musical circles, he has given presentations nationwide. Waddle invited another accomplished local luthier, Bill Scott of Golden Valley, to make his own Strad copy, using Sirr's scans and some of Rossow's carved parts, bringing the total number completed to three.

The three partners got permission to scan and copy the Betts when it was brought to an annual violinmakers' convention in Ohio last June. Since it's worth several million dollars, the fancy fiddle traveled there from D.C. via armored car, with a security detail.

Many of the violins made by Antonio Stradivari in Cremona, Italy, especially those crafted during his "golden period" of 1700 to 1725, are OVER 7 LNsvalued at several million dollars -- well out of reach for almost every musician in the world. The three partners say their replicas are accurate to within one-tenth of a millimeter, and hope they'll be considered the next best thing.