“Violin maker” is a broader term than it appears at first. Violin makers of course also make cellos, violas and even the occasional bass. (Bass makers on the other hand are a much more principled breed and tend to stick to their own instrument – you know where you are with a bass maker). “Violin maker” also covers violin repairman or woman, violin restorer and violin adjuster. Some violin makers stray a little further from the bench to become a violin dealer, appraiser, expert or connoisseur. Over the years I’ve tried most of the violin maker subtitles that have to do with instruments and tools, and I’ve tended to stay away from the expert / dealer end of the trade.
Almost thirty years ago, when I had the sudden inspiration to become a violin maker, I took the title literally and I imagined myself doing nothing but making instruments all day long…forever. After graduating violin school, I spent a year making instruments and selling them at irresistibly low prices. Not long after that, my wife and I were struck by another inspiration and started a family. As sole breadwinner, I altered course slightly and went into restoration because the income was more predictable, however as soon as the bills were covered I continued to make new instruments. In the last few years, the kids graduated college and my financial obligations eased. I had forgotten my original ambition, but about two years ago I realized that I hadn’t done any restoration for several months and there was still a little money in the bank! It was time for me to take a second try at becoming a full-time Violin maker.
It’s been a long road getting here, but I in no way regret the time that I put into learning and practicing restoration. I enjoyed the problem solving and I got a lot of satisfaction from contributing to maintaining the world’s stringed instrument heritage. Besides that, the skills and insights that I’ve gained through working with old instruments, seeing what has worked and what to avoid, has led to a richer understanding of my craft. Perhaps some of that comes out in my new instruments.
Besides personal finances and an apparent uptick in the economy in general, there are several things that make it easier to go full time at this point in my career. As a maker you need to hit a certain “critical mass” of good reliable instruments being played out in the world. Musicians are necessarily gregarious, and they have a lot of down time between rehearsals and performances to talk about their interests, word gets around and a positive reputation is everything. On top of that, experience as a maker counts for a lot. As long as you are fully engaged with your craft, the quality of your instruments will continue to improve until they more or less sell themselves.
What it’s like
Not everything has been as I had imagined. As a full time maker the first thing that you have to learn is how “eat like a snake”. Income comes in large chunks but at un-nervingly irregular intervals. I used to think that working full time I would produce significantly more instruments, but it hasn’t worked that way. There are other demands on my time: apart from general admin that just seems to grow by itself year after year, I need to put more time into sales and marketing. At the bench I find that I am spending longer over details, and I tend to pursue any curiosities that come up in the making process. So I’m still continually experimenting with tonal questions, violin-making procedures, and varnishing and finishing techniques. I used to believe that at some point I would figure everything out, and from then on I would simply keep on producing the perfect violin that would satisfy everybody. Lucky for me real life is more interesting than that, and that vision of perfection attained is in fact part of an ever receding horizon. The more you learn, the more you see that you want to learn.