Passionately building violins from scratch is very similar in many regards to raising children. Both parent and maker share dreams and aspirations for their new born child and nascent instrument. In parenting, especially after the formative years, and toward the time of early adolescence and beyond, it is critical to get the balance right between strict parenting and allowing the child to feel his or her own way. That balance is not to be found in a book somewhere but rather a feel one gets from daily observation. And obviously that balance can change from day to day and child to child. It is likewise with what we do. Some might think that a violin maker has complete control over the outcome of his creation. Well that certainly is possible but that approach almost certainly will lead to an impassioned instrument. Building a violin with character and personality certainly requires following strict guidelines past down over hundreds of years. At the same time however, one must be flexible, allowing information gained from taking minute measurements and general observation to change perhaps only ever so slightly the intended path one originally had in mind. Or in some cases not so inconsequential at all. Perhaps in a mild way it is like writing a good piece of fiction. One begins with a general plotline or strict structure whatever the case may be. But soon after the story begins to unfold it can take a life of its own and the writer is merely along for the ride. That would be extreme in our profession but certainly many times along the way each piece of wood has its say in how the whole thing unfolds.
Although my second violin is not quite complete, one or two more clear coats of varnishing to go followed by reassembling the finger board, tail piece, pegs, setting the bridge etc., there is a substantial difference between it and opus I, Chiaro di luna. She is mysterious looking, a friend to the shadows of twilight, of sunlight flickering through the heavy branches in nearby oaks. Or of moonlight reflecting off a fresh blanket of snow. She is at home along side an elegant table cloth, a deep burgundy candle and a rich, heavy bodied cabernet. She is quirky as one might expect from ones first try; visually mostly. Audibly she has a robust lower register, a stubborn sounding open A that quickly dissipates as one climbs up the finger board, a seventh position sweetness more than making up for first position deficiencies. Her "E" is brilliant as it should be. Under light bow she is neither meek nor boisterous, but most certainly shines under a very heavy bow in a high ceiling hall. She is not for sale. Those that follow her most certainly will be more "traditional" in makeup and fetch a greater price, but she is my first born and will always be near to my heart.
In spite of initial intentions to make mere subtle changes, opus II is a different beast altogether. She is stout with pronounced edging and overhanging plates. Her arching is certainly more prominent than Chiaro's but by no means high. Her top grain lines are elegantly narrow and straight. Her maple back is strikingly but not grotesquely flamed. From the little time under the bow prior to varnishing, her tone seems very even G to E, no stubborn A like Chiaro and is louder under light bowing. I am confident that like her sister, she will shine under aggressive bowing projecting quite a presence. Though again it wasn't my early intention, her varnish is a blazing amber color, not unlike a midsummer sun that I think will match her personality. Her sister is somewhat subdued, she should be a tiger!
A very well respected local luthier gave me some sensible advice a few years back just as I was first starting up in this line of work. He told me don't waste your money on high quality materials for your first few instruments. You'll be making a lot of mistakes that are better made on less expensive wood. I didn't take his advice. He was right in one regard however. There sure are a lot of mistakes waiting to happen around every corner in just about every aspect of violin making. But I just couldn't see investing over two hundred and fifty hours on something other than the best wood I could get my hands on. Most of the mistakes to be made building a violin aren't fatal anyway. They may greatly set you back time wise and try your patience. Most can be corrected with limited lasting cosmetic effect. One mistake however is truly fatal and can be easily avoided from the outset; using inferior raw materials. It is impossible for me to say this too many times. I will never substitute inferior materials for ones I know to be truly better. Thanks to the internet, the best materials worldwide are a mouse click away and a few days shipping. What does this all mean? It is by no means guaranteed that a great instrument will be the result of fine ingredients. Indeed I have much to learn in my twenty year journey. My opus II is a quality instrument that should be a nice fit for a serious student on his or her way to a music school degree. It most probably is not suitable for a concertmaster of a fine professional orchestra. But that is very well for now. I have eighteen more years and many exceptionally fine violins in me for that.
- William S. Walsman