Violin, Viola and Cello Traditions Continued
Handmade in Oregon violin-family instruments; viola, cello, bass, five-string fiddle.
For those of you who don’t know me, an introduction:
I have lived in Oregon for over sixty years; in the Portland area for the last 55 (as of Summer 2021).
My training as a luthier has been mostly informal, as I did not begin lutherie until I was in my mid-forties. I could not afford to drop everything and run off to school, as I had a family, a job, and a home to maintain. Therefore, much of my training came from books, initially.
- The Johnson-Courtnall book, The Art of Violin Making, helped, in conjunction with posters from “The Strad” magazine.
- Ray Doerr’s Violin Maker’s Handbook provided good information.
- Henry Strobel’s books (all of them) provided very helpful instruction. Mr. Strobel gave helpful tips, as well, in person. He lived only two hours away, and I pestered him with telephone calls as well as personal visits. His books teach traditional methods, in a very practical format.
- The Weisshaar-Shipman book, Violin Restoration, has been helpful, but I did not get that until much later.
As I first began reading Henry Strobel’s books, his statement that “…the best way to learn is to get a job in a violin-repair shop…” only frustrated me. I thought “Who would hire me, with zero experience?” So I bought 70 broken and neglected instruments on eBay, including some factory seconds, as well as about 60 bows, and practiced repairing them. My wife was patient and supportive, as the clutter of instruments piled up, but the pile gradually got smaller. I repaired and sold them for very low prices, counting the expenses and time as tuition and schooling.
Occasionally, I was asked to do repairs for other people, resurrecting old (cheap) family fiddles, to their delight. I would really rather just make new instruments now, but repair is part of lutherie, as well, and I welcome the chance to make an instrument sing again.
A violin-maker friend, Jake Jelley, was a major source of kind encouragement, and he gave me many tools and materials as well. His generosity and friendly encouragement are probably a key reason I kept working at learning this craft. Another such friend was Sam Compton, now deceased. After building my first instrument, I attended (at Jake’s urging) the following:
- Six weeks of Ed Campbell’s workshops in Tucson, AZ
- Eight weekends with Michael Klein in Murphy, OR (This is where I first came in contact with the “Lanini” model viola.)
- Two weeks of Michael Darnton’s workshops in Claremont, CA
- One week at Oberlin set-up workshop, in Oberlin, OH
- One week at Lynn Hannings’ bow repair workshop in Eureka, CA
- One week at Paul Schuback’s set-up workshop, in Eureka, CA
- Around 40 hours, piecemeal, over a period of two years, receiving personal coaching from Paul Schuback in his shop, in Portland, OR.
This last was the most valuable of all, as it afforded the opportunity to be corrected as needed (much needed), rather than getting a brief exposure to a concept, then applying it as best I could for an extended period, only to discover much later that I really had not understood it at all. The hardest thing for me was to learn to see. I am still trying to learn this. Paul has been a long-suffering mentor, in this regard.
When I first decided to build a bass, I had no one to whom to turn for help, as few luthiers want to build basses. I found three books: one by Harry Wake: “To Build a Double Bass”, but it was not as much help as I needed. Then I found “So You Want to Make a Double Bass” by Peter Chandler. That gave me the confidence to begin, and, partway through the project I found Chuck Traeger’s book, “Setup and Repair of the Double Bass for Optimum Sound” That book had a wealth of information on repair and setup that helped greatly. I received further encouragement and help from the bass luthiers on “Talkbass.com” (David Wiebe and Bob Branstetter in particular). Paul Schuback was encouraging, as well, but he simply does not build basses, nor does he intend to do so. They are bulky, time-consuming, expensive to build, and do not pay as well as violins. I like them anyway. 🙂 My first bass was modeled after a bass by William Tarr. My next Bass was supposed to be a “Panormo”-inspired model, from Peter Chandler’s plans, but with five strings to obviate the necessity of an extension to reach the low B…. After that, I was hoping to develop my own bass designs (as I have been doing with violas).
Instead, I went on a long hiatus from bass-making, and only now (2017) am building my second bass, one of my own design. (Finally completed in 2020!)
My first cello was made in 2011, using Henry Strobel’s book, Cello-making, Step-by-Step, along with the poster (from The Strad magazine) of the 1712 Davidov cello. I had some coaching from a friend in South Africa, Jacob van Soelen, who is an excellent friend and mentor, as well as a great luthier. It was a very satisfying build: the instrument is very responsive, and plays very well. My second was the same model, but using a one-piece back from local maple. (see the blog posts) If anything, it is even better than the first one. I hope to build more of them in the future. I have a smaller cello plan attributed to Rugieri, and one smaller yet (7/8 size) by Strobel. I intend to try a violincello piccolo (5-strings) soon. I also want to make a cello modelled after the Montagnana “Sleeping Beauty”. But another “Davidov” will soon be on the way .
Five-string fiddles; (five-string violins)
My first five-string fiddle was completed Valentine’s day 2012. This was an interesting build, too. It plays well, but as I had never played one before, I was not sure what I thought of the genre. 🙂 I am getting used to it, now, and the sound is good. Several professional players have played it, and liked it…so I guess it’s a winner. Ultimately, the professional fiddler who had suggested I build it ( a year earlier) was so pleased with it that he bought it. So I felt compelled to go and build another 5-string violin…you can see it in the Chronology or the galleries–it is even better. 🙂 At least one violist has complained that I did not have a 5-string viola, so that will probably happen this summer (2017) as well. It is already begun, in fact, as is the next five-string fiddle. The second one sold even more quickly, so I guess I need to get going on more 5 string fiddles. (#3 -#6 are on the blog posts, and the Chronology page.) I have made six of them now (as of 2016) and they get better every time, so that is encouraging. (I also have been building the five-string violas, in several sizes.)
Traditions Continue, though the World may Change.
It is good to remember that while an individual maker may be old and well-established or relatively new, the violin design, itself, has remained essentially unchanged for 400 years. The chain of teachers and students extends from every living maker back to the makers of 16th century Europe. We all share those roots. Amati, Stradivari, Guarneri, Bergonzi, Guadagnini, Scarampella, Maggini, Stainer and their colleagues all are related in the “Violin family”, and, collectively, have fathered the makers of today, regardless of the “bloodline”.
Though I am a relatively new and unknown maker, my instruments are good instruments, all individually handmade by me, and they play very well. My prices are lower because I am still somewhat unknown. I do take trade-ins, though I hope to just sell my new instruments. My goal is to continue to improve my making skills, become a well-known maker, and to eventually (hopefully) specialize in violas and basses, though I hope to make occasional violins and celli, as well. Probably some handmade 5-string bluegrass fiddles, too. 🙂 Whatever shows the most demand will get the most attention. (Currently, in 2020, it is looking as though the Five-String market is most open to me.)