How to Become a Violin Maker

Becoming a luthier isn’t easy. It takes years of dedication and hard work simply to learn how to use the tools. Attention to detail is imperative, and you need to make your hands carve out minutia close to perfection. For those who want to do so professionally, getting the necessary training is an even larger challenge. However, it’s not insurmountable.

Outside of the Chicago School of Violin Making.

Rebecca Elliott and Fredric Thompson, co-directors and former students of the Chicago School of Violin Making, are living proof that given the right amount of determination and love for craftsmanship, most anyone can become a violin maker.

Elliott and Thompson sat with Reverb to discuss a little more about what inspired them to begin crafting violins, what drew them to the Chicago School, and what being a violin maker is really about.

Motivation

Elliott and Thompson came to violin making through a love of both music and craftsmanship, but you don’t have to be a violin player, or even a musician, to develop your skill as a violin maker.

Elliott was a violin player prior to her time at CSVM, though she says she was not playing at the symphony orchestral level. She began in elementary school, continued through college and earned a degree in music therapy, and worked in the field before finally pursuing violin making.

Thompson studied music in college as a trombone player; he found violin making through a love of woodworking and being in the right place at the right time, meeting violin makers who sparked his interest in the craft while he performed with an orchestra in Mexico.

Finding a Master

Attending a school means finding a mentor as well as peers.

Going to school is likely your best bet at developing the skills to build professionally, but until the relatively recent past, people chose to travel to Europe to study because there were so few schools in the United States. CSVM is one of only a handful of schools in the U.S. dedicated fully to teaching. It was founded in 1975 as the Kenneth Warren & Son School of Violin Making and has been under the direction of Master Violin Maker Tschu Ho Lee since its inception.

“One of the reasons the school started was that it was very difficult for someone who wanted to learn to find a maker who would train them,” explains Elliott. “I had no real tool experience. It was probably one of the most difficult things I had to do. I understood what I was supposed to do, but my hands didn’t necessarily do it right away. It takes an incredible amount of concentration. People who come with some experience might have a little bit of a head start, but often they’re unlearning.”

Learning the Tools

At a school like the CSVM, woodworking experience isn’t required and the entire first year of the three-year experience is spent solely on honing your tool skills.

Building your fine tool skills is imperative to violin making.

“You actually don’t complete an instrument until well into your second year,” Elliott explains. Even coming in with prior woodworking experience doesn’t exempt you from the mandatory skill-building year — and you wouldn’t want it to, says Thompson. “I had done a fair amount of woodworking before I came to school but nothing on such a refined and minute scale,” he says. Simply learning how to sharpen tools may not be the most exhilarating experience in the world, but it’s a necessary one.

From there, you can dive into the true world of violin-making, which takes precision, patience and creativity, within strict parameters.

Learning the Craft

Shaping the body of a violin.

Most schools will require a minimum number of completed builds in order to graduate; CSVM requires seven. “I made four violins, two violas and one cello,” Thompson says. While Thompson varied the string instruments he crafted, Elliott stuck with violins. And, of course, building takes time, particularly for students.

“It may take six months or longer to build their first body. When they complete the final program in three years, the final test is that they have to build an instrument without varnish in six weeks,” Elliott says. Building professionally puts a different spin on your build time, too. “If you’re building strictly by hand, it probably ranges from three to four weeks, and you’re usually working on several at one time.”

Personal Touch

As you get more comfortable crafting, your builds will begin to take on personal qualities all their own. With violins, there can’t be the dimensional variability that’s found in violas and cellos — even a difference of 1/4” in length is seen as sizable — but there are other places where personal touches and artistic evolution come into play.

A student at CSVM works on a build.

In order to differentiate her work from machine-made instruments, Elliott says she enjoys seeing tool marks in her and others’ work. “I’ve found that I’m leaving more of the wood texture evident, and I’m changing my arching a little bit to get a little more interesting rather than this generic arch shape.”

As a violin-maker comes into his or her own, certain individual differences become apparent in both character and creative process. For instance, Thompson says, “I developed a few shortcuts to make certain steps easier. That’s something that people generally start to incorporate in their building after they leave school.” He also references certain parts of the violin that tend to demonstrate individual differences between makers.

“The things I think really set instruments apart are the more personalized parts of them, like the carving of the scroll. That’s something that really shows the maker’s skill with the tools,” he continues.

Students spend a lot of time doing up-close detail work at CSVM.

Some makers also find ways to take the skills they’ve learned and apply them to the process of building other instruments, though there can be some complications. Thompson relates the story of building a bass.

“It was a group project, and I had never made a bass myself. I set the neck and that was kind of arduous. Everything is so vastly larger than a violin or even a cello — I mean, we use the same techniques, but it was really a very different kind of process.”

Fretted instruments, such as mandolins, also can be difficult if the builder maker is only familiar with violin-family instruments, Thompson says. “I’m sure to someone who’s built guitars, the fretting is not that intimidating, but I’ve built quite a few instruments and have never dealt with those issues before,” he says. It actually prompted him to purchase a fingerboard with pre-cut fret slots.

Professional Life

Modern technology and the ease of travel have changed up the professional world of violin making a fair amount. Where there once were stylistic schools, many violin-makers have found a certain kind of homogenization. In a world where everyone can see anybody’s work, it’s hard for many to stop borrowing methodologies and ideas. Thompson describes it as a universal style. “Materials can be transported pretty quickly,” Elliott says. “There’s so much movement of people and trading.”

Experimenting with different varnishes is just part of the process.

The job market for violin makers also can be tough, and many graduates will find themselves doing repair work rather than building. “Right out of school,” says Elliott, “the job market is for repair and restoration, maintenance of instruments.” Thankfully, schools are catching on and incorporating classes into their programs that prepare students for this kind of work.

“We’ve added a term of instruction, repair, setup and instrument adjustment. We’ve dubbed it the ‘Shop Readiness’ course,” says Thompson. This is to supplement the experience they would typically get working in shops. “A lot of the high-end violin dealers have closed their shops because they want to save money. They don’t want to pay benefits to repairmen, so they farm out the work to subcontractors and don’t really have time to train people to the extent that they used to.” Thanks to courses like this, students can find themselves with an abundance of knowledge regarding string instruments as well as the skill to find repair jobs.

A broader look at just one of the CSVM workshops.

The sheer amount of training, the intensity of sharpening fine tool skills, the necessity of attention to detail, and the frequent difficulty of the real world job market all make building violins admirable undertaking. But those that do it build for the love of the craft, the exhilaration they feel when they complete an instrument, and the hours that pass like minutes when they’re carving a scroll or setting a neck. Becoming a violin maker is a gutsy decision, and one not to be taken lightly, but with dedication and hard work it can lead to incredibly fulfilling hobbies or careers.

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Photo by John Gagen

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