Musician to Maker: One Violinist’s Journey into Lutherie

A guest post from Credo alum Nathan Giglierano (‘10, ‘11)

The starting point for making an instrument, blocks of maple and spruce. From left to right: neck block, ribs, back, face.

The starting point for making an instrument, blocks of maple and spruce. From left to right: neck block, ribs, back, face.

Have you ever wanted to make your own instrument? Ever wondered what’s going on behind the scenes that allows your instrument to sing? Learning to build string instruments is a daunting task, full of minute details and complex theories. However, the reward of playing on an instrument you built yourself is unbeatable. In this article, I will share how I learned to build violins and violas and make some recommendations for those interested in learning more about instrument making or are interested in building their own.

After two degrees in violin performance, I decided a few years ago that I was going to build a violin on my own. I watched every video I could find about violin making, read every online article, and eventually found the book that I needed to get started. It was a bit expensive, but according to my sources it was the must-have resource for making a violin from start to finish. The day that The Art of Violin Making came in the mail, I read it cover to cover.

Making a good violin really comes down to one thing: executing many discrete steps to a high degree of accuracy. That means practice. My first violin attempt was eventually abandoned as I learned the ins and outs of each step the hard way. I made countless mistakes, but each time I took meticulous notes on what happened so that I could learn and do better the next time.

The viola I made for Gillian just before applying the varnish.

The viola I made for Gillian just before applying the varnish.

While developing the skills I needed to make my first instrument from scratch, I also learned about repair and restoration. Luckily for me, my wife is a public school orchestra teacher. The school instruments always seemed to be breaking, instruments limping along sadly until she could scrounge up enough repair money. I gained many hours of experience repairing, patching, gluing, resetting, and revarnishing those overly-loved instruments.

Eventually, I did what I probably should have done from the start. I worked on a partially completed instrument from a kit. Many of the difficult steps were already done, but the graduation of the plates was still unfinished. I re-graduated, varnished, and set up that violin, and in the end, it sounded pretty good.

Flush with that success, I made my first violin from blocks of wood. It took me about three months, with a fairly busy teaching and concert schedule. The day that I was able to set it up and finally play it for the first time was incredible. The sound was beautiful and full-bodied and has grown more pleasing with each day I play it. Now, I use it to teach my students and plan to take it abroad for a concert tour later this year. Since that first instrument, I have made several others, including a viola for Gillian. Now, I’m hooked.

What would I recommend if you want to try your hand at making an instrument? Start by playing around with an unvarnished, or kit instrument. That way, you can see if you like it with a much smaller investment of time, money, and tools. Finding a mentor is another great way to learn, though depending on where you live may not be an option. If you know making instruments is what you really want to do and really want to do it right, there are some great violin-making schools both in the states and abroad.

Here are some resources I’ve found helpful-

For a general idea of what goes into making string instruments, I love this video of Brian Lisus making a string quartet. (Bonus: if you like cats there are few playing in his shop.)

Michael Darnton has a great slideshow of him making a viola with informative captions

The youtube channel maestro-Kimon has great step-by-step videos making a violin (Note: as of this writing the series is not yet complete but it is still a great resource.)

Makingtheviolin.com is a great free step-by-step guide to building a violin. It has a lot of specific information and some printable templates.

Instruments mentioned in the article. From left to right: Gillian's 'Da Salo' inspired viola, first violin made from scratch, violin I made from a kit.

Instruments mentioned in the article. From left to right: Gillian's 'Da Salo' inspired viola, first violin made from scratch, violin I made from a kit.

If you want to play around without spending too much money:

Buy one of these less expensive instrument kits.

Read this article to get an idea about plate graduation.

Or check out these tools:

Caliper (or this one)

Scraper

Thumb Plane

Varnish supplies with DVD

If you are serious, these books are valuable resources:

The Art of Violin Making by Chris Johnson & Roy Courtnall

Violin Making Step By Step by Henry Strobel

Viola Making Step by Step by Henry Strobel (note, this also cross-references Violin Making Step By Step, so you need both)

Cello Making Step by Step by Henry Strobel (note, this also cross-references Violin Making Step By Step, so you need both)

There is also the Southern California violin Maker’s Workshop, which takes place during the summer, and a number of violin making schools, including:

Chicago School of Violin Making

Violin Making School of America (Salt Lake City)

International School of Violin Making (Cremona, Italy)

Credo Office