The art of luthierie: crafting the perfect note

By Angela Long

Published July 26 2016

It’s nine o’clock in the morning and the luthiers are already busy. Curls of wood shavings litter the floor. Sets of carving tools crowd the tables.

“We’re here from seven to seven” says advanced musical instrument construction student Chris Garner here from July 11 to 15 at the Haliburton School of Art and Design.

The luthiers – makers of stringed instruments such as violins or guitars – don’t want to waste any time. Depending on skill level it can take hundreds of hours to construct an instrument that sounds as good as it looks.

Garner who has made five violins a cello a double bass a fiddle and a steel string guitar needs at least 300 hours including varnishing to construct a violin. But time isn’t important to the retired Dafasco steel employee from Oakville.

“It’s about the joy of building it” he says.

Garner discovered this joy 14 years ago at his company’s Health and Safety Days. It was there he saw a booth advertising instrument making as healthy hobby and a way to relieve stress. A course pamphlet for HSAD summer courses sat on the table along with a cello a mandolin and a banjo. Their maker student Russell Moore plucked a few strings. Garner signed up.

Now Moore Garner and 10 others form the core of what’s become a yearly tradition. Since 2003 the students ranging in ages from 35 to 70 (“I’m near the end of the age scale” says Garner) have constructed enough instruments to form a string orchestra.

Instructor Philip Davis – a musical instrument construction teacher since 1980 at OCAD and HSAD since 1997 – says the advanced class which always has a wait-list has become “like a club.” The first day is filled with hugging and exchanging news he says. But it doesn’t take long before the overhead work lights switch on and talk turns to bouts ribbing arching purfling.

Sketches unfurl across Garner’s desk.

“Strad designs” he says. The 17th century designs of Antonio Stradivari – known as the greatest violin maker of all time – are a luthier’s gold standard.

An original Stradivarius violin and there are an estimated 650 still in existence can go for as much as $16 million.

“Why invent the wheel when there are classical instruments you can copy?” Garner says.

But copying is the furthest thing from describing what goes on in Room 7 of HSAD’s main campus.
“This is definitely an art form” says Davis.

Davis has met students usually in the beginner class who want what he calls “assembly line construction with a musical instrument at the end.” While Davis understands this desire he says it’s “a struggle” to teach.

Jeff Kirke a student who first met Davis in the early ‘90s at OCAD leafs through a sheaf of Strad designs with his teacher. They speak quietly conspiring about minuscule notations angles tone.

“I don’t know of anyone else doing this kind of work in Canada” Kirke says. “Phil has a rare kind of teaching style.”

It’s a style that gives students freedom to find their inner artist says Kirke the artist he never found as a child.

“At this stage making an instrument becomes sculptural” he says. “It goes beyond measuring and cutting.”

To go beyond the technical requires a certain type of passion. Wendy Evenden has been filing the same dime-sized piece of wood for hours trying to “match the grain lines and medullary rays” to fix a hole on the front panel of her violin.

Brian Riley whose harp was completed in last year’s class and deemed “wonderful” by Maureen McKay a former harpist for the New York Symphony and faculty member of the Royal Conservatory of Music admires his classmate’s patience.

“Handmade instruments are not perfect” he says. “But their imperfection becomes a feature.”
Ken Loney of the Haliburton Amateur Luthiers’ Organization caresses the front panel of his arched-top guitar stroking the grain.

“Instruments are made from trees” he says “and trees aren’t perfect.”

Trees aren’t perfect but there are perfect trees for making instruments. Anyone passionate about instrument making covets a select handful of species. They seek out the heights of the Italian Alps the temperate rainforests of Canada’s northwest coast the jungles of Bolivia.

Master tree picker Lorenzo Pellegrini can find the perfect “Stradivarius tree” out of thousands in Switzerland’s Risoud Forest. In an interview with BBC News Pellegrini says violin trees should grow “slowly slowly slowly.” Age weather moon position all “help to craft the warmest fullest tones” creating a piece of wood that will best conduct sound waves.

Sound waves and wood and the touch of the luthier all conspire to create what Garner calls “voice” – the ultimate expression of his creation. He touches the scroll of his violin’s neck carved to mimic the spiral of a nautilus. He touches its back its front.

“I love the shape” he says. “The curve of the waist.”

He loves its ribs belly neck cheeks eye. For a violin is much more than back panel and front slapped together with glue – it has a body says Garner. A soul.

Garner talks of shavings “singing” as they fly from the alpine spruce.

The first time their creations are played by professionals (something Davis ensures happens when his students complete an instrument) it can move Garner to tears.

“Last year when Terry Facklam’s violin was played there wasn’t a dry eye in the house” he says.
Garner picks up a scalpel-like knife incising a thread-sized groove where the inlay will rest.
“I have to stop every now and again because my heart is racing” he says.

Garner is not alone. Hearts all over the room are racing with the adrenaline of creating something that could outlive them by hundreds of years.

Many of the students in “the club” are united by this shot at immortality.

After a career that began as a machinist and ended as an IT specialist Russell Moore who has been taking this course for 17 years was looking for something more tangible in life.

“Computers all that stuff is so temporary. When I retired I wanted to make something I could touch something useful that would last long after I was gone” he says.

Moore has constructed six mandolins two cellos two violas three guitars and is currently making a mandola – the ancestor of the smaller mandolin.

In the student lounge Moore fires up a computer. The sound of mandolin playing fills the room.
Moore’s website – Yeshua Mandolins: Home of the Golden Horseshoe Luthiers – features five of the students who meet every Monday in Oakville to hone the skills taught by Davis.
“That’s me playing” says Moore.

Terry Facklam’s latest violin hangs in the centre of the lounge drying between coats of varnish. The coat of linseed oil and natural resins based on the same 14th-century recipe Stradivari would have used gleams in the late morning light.

Facklam stands beneath looking up at the future.