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Beginning Luthier


BigFryMan
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Hi guys,

 

I am very new around here, but have been lurking around researching for the last couple of months and I am very thankful for the abundance of information that can be found!

I am becoming very interested in the art of luthier-ing (if that's a word). I won't give you too much back story, but I thought the best way to get started was to have a crack at building a violin and I'll soon see if that's something that's within my patience or skill level. I've ordered an Alard poster from the Strad magazine and also started collecting some gouges and building clamps.

I was wondering if most of the luthiers here are self trained or whether it is valuable to get a formal education? 

 

Right now I have a desk job and do most of my project work late at night, but shortly I'll be moving from Sydney to Whistler (in Canada) for two years and will only be working part time so this will be a great time for me to re-skill and possibly develop a new career.

 

I'd love to hear any thoughts or advice on getting started and whether being a luthier is even a viable career these days. Can most people stay afloat or is it only the brilliant that can afford to eat?

 

Thanks again.

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If you are not working with anyone who knows how to make a violin, start with a violin kit first.  You can grab one from eBay, International Violins, or Steward-MacDonald.

 

EDIT: violin-making is pretty crowded.  You have to be very good before you can make a living just making violins.  Many luthiers that I know do repairs and dealing workshop/factory students instruments for most of their income.

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With the easy availability of very decent Chinese instruments, and a glut of violin makers, breaking into the sales market would be tough! Keep your day job! As for the repair market, it would be very difficult to get into that market without proper education on proper methods and techniques. You can do this with summer workshops, but plan on several years of workshops to really get to know the different aspects. You could try to get an "entry level" job in an established shop. You could also try to get an apprenticeship with a good luthier (tough to get into that). I've been working on this for several years, and I don't make a living at it. Again, KEEP YOUR DAY JOB.

 

If you want to try to build one on your own, get a very good book, and figure on more than "a few gouges and building clamps" to get the job done ($$$).

 

This may sound sexist, but another alternative is to marry a rich spouse.  :P

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Keep your day job! ...

 

...This may sound sexist, but another alternative is to marry a rich spouse.  :P

There ya go!

Making a full-time living as a maker is pretty close to a pipe-dream. I know really good and established makers who need to supplement their income with everything from repairs, to setting up and selling factory instruments, to instrument rentals.

 

Marrying a rich spouse isn't really sexist, since both genders (or are there four or five categories now?) do it on occasion. ;)

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Welcome to the fun.


 


We certainly live in times where a beginner—even at home with little personal support— has so much information which wasn't readily available 50 years ago, or before.


 


There are as many ways of learning as there are learners.  To keep it simple, I think you can do nicely by getting support here and getting and using the Strobel "Useful Measurements" and the Johnson, Courtnall "The Art of Violin Making."  And a few posters with the measurements and arching line-drawings.  This doesn't mean that there isn't much more to be learned and developed, but you can definitely do it with just this much information.  Having Maestronet is icing on the cake and very good icing at that.  And so is Michael Darnton's "violinmag. com"


 


Of course if you can find someone who will help in person, great.  But the value of that help will depend on the person. 


 


As for earning a living, that depends on how good a maker gets.  There is lots of competition and lots of talent out there.  So, IMO, you'd be wise to not expect too much too soon.  And the more you can develop your concepts of workmanship and sound and playability, the better.  That, IMO, is harder and takes longer to acquire than just making a usable violin.


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How are your hand tool skills?

 

Can you set up and sharpen a block plane? Can you sharpen a knife? How about a gouge? Can you make a very good joint with a hand plane and glue it together with hot hide glue?

 

Go for the basics. Don't try to make a joint by sanding 2 pieces of wood until they "fit", or use a sanding jig to "fit" the feet of a bridge. 

 

The Courtnall and Johnson book is a must, for a start. It's not, by a long shot, the only way, but it is a method that will work.

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Hi guys, thanks for all the answers already, lots of food for thought.

 

duane88 - I was just thinking I'd need to learn how to sharpen tools properly. My hand tool skills are basic, so I will have to develop there a lot. Do you mean a butt joint or joining two bookmatched pieces of maple for a violin back or something like that?

 

FiddleDoug and DavidBurgess - ships sailed on that one, already married! Planning to keep the day job and develop this as a hobby. It seems all my life plans end up as pipe dreams haha. Doing repairs and bits and pieces wouldn't be terrible for me. I'm already trying to develop my skills in the guitar department replacing frets, doing setups, etc... but the violin is my real passion musically.

 

Rue - Cheers, I'm looking forward to Canada, my wife and I honeymooned around BC and Alberta last year and we loved it.

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I am a amateur weekend violin repairer. I suggest you be a woodworker first then a violin maker. 

Fine woodworking magazine online is a good place to start learning. You can buy your fine woodwork hand tool set

(dovetail handsaw, block plane, scraper ...) and start building a dovetail box.  If you can build dovetail boxes with precision (near perfect dovetail jointing), you can start working on violins. The reason I don't suggest to start with violin is there's very low error tolerance in violin making. 

Tone wood are expensive and one small mismatch can ruin the violin.

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If you have good hand tool skills you have a bit of a jump start on many beginners, but you should be prepared for doing a lot of embarrassing work before you feel proud of anything.  That period may last for years, several instruments.  My teacher would often advise me to "treat them like etudes."  to prevent me from obsessing over things rather than moving on and learning a lesson.  

 

The two most important things that a luthier needs are excellent hand tool skills and a keen eye for violins.  You will often need to rely on the ears of your customers because so much of the sound is subjective.  I recall Chris Reuning advising (in reference to developing an eye for violin identification) "Try not to even look at bad violins because it hurts you."  I think that is partially true of other aspects of repair as well.  It's really hard to learn from photos and articles alone, and it's problematic if the image in your mind's eye is something far below the standard that we are striving for.  You should seek out mentoring from someone with a traditional background and visit high end shops and museums when you can.  Some shops are happy to let you sit with a Strad for an hour and study it.  Consider some of the summer workshops if you don't want to go to violin making school.  Keep in mind that there are many methods, but Maestronet can be a good sounding board for ideas.

 

The most likely way to make a living is probably working on the cheap stuff because there is a lot of that sort of work to be had.  It will be a long time before anyone should trust you with a nice violin if you don't have prior experience.  Reading articles is no substitute for bench time, and without learning good methodology you may develop some bad habits and do some damage in the process.  

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The most likely way to make a living is probably working on the cheap stuff because there is a lot of that sort of work to be had.  It will be a long time before anyone should trust you with a nice violin if you don't have prior experience.  Reading articles is no substitute for bench time, and without learning good methodology you may develop some bad habits and do some damage in the process.  

 

This is Good Advice, MaestronetLurker...

There often is lots of work on the cheaper stuff, having to do with school instruments - and student instruments especially.

So - working for a music store in a large(er) city, doing string repairs, or working for a school district directly, can be had very often.

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 I recall Chris Reuning advising (in reference to developing an eye for violin identification) "Try not to even look at bad violins because it hurts you."    

LOL, At the last VSA conference in Baltimore Chris Reuning was giving a talk on identifying violins.  In addition to notable violins that were there on display, he asked for violins from the audience.  If memory serves, the first violin he held up and said (after a quick look at the back) "I have no idea what this is".  The next violin he said "Try not to even look at bad violins because it hurts you."  From my position in the audience I wasn't able to tell whether my violin was the first or the second. :o  :D

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 The reason I don't suggest to start with violin is there's very low error tolerance in violin making. 

Tone wood are expensive and one small mismatch can ruin the violin.

On the other hand, you are going to make mistakes; if you're going to develop those specific skills, why not work right from the start at building a violin. Use cheap wood until you're confident enough in your work before using the expensive stuff.

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Hi BigFryGuy,

   On the lower mainland  (that's the populated part of SW BC) we have the Violin Makers Association of BC.  The club has a long history (back to 1957).  Currently membership is down from what it was in the 80's but we have some active members.  Most of our members are self-taught.  The club has resources such as books, basic patterns, and endless amounts of advice.  Please contact me for further details.  The club meets monthly in Vancouver (about 1.5 hours from Whistler) and the website is here, only recently put up.  

   My advice is to learn from someone who knows what they are doing.  I worked with an established luthier over the period of year to make my first instrument, it saved me years of trial and error and imparted an eye for precision and quality.  Decide if you want to be a hand-crafter, or 'power-carver'.  Follow a good book like Johnson & Courtnall's "The Art of Violin Making" (hand-crafter style), but its almost impossible to substitute books and videos for someone who can show you and give you feedback in the moment.

 

Thanks

Stephen

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In terms of tools you have a world of information on here but Ill help a fellow newbie out with brands.

 

Chisels and gouges -

 

2 cherries (the unpolished version preferably) and not the "violin makers set" they sell, it's overkill!

Do not buy marples and the likes or anything that comes with plastic handles no matter who tells you they're great, you're trying to make violins not ripping off ceramic tiles from kitchen floors -_-)

 

Water Stones - King, 300, 800, 1200 grit, if you can afford it get a honing stone from them also.

 

If you cannot afford water stones get yourself a dead flat plate (marble or glass) and some sandpaper :)

 

Planes = Lie Nelson or veritas, if you cannot afford it then get yourself a stanley block plane and switch the blade out. Have them check for flatness!

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On the other hand, you are going to make mistakes; if you're going to develop those specific skills, why not work right from the start at building a violin. Use cheap wood until you're confident enough in your work before using the expensive stuff.

 

I second this. The only way to learn violin-making is to make violins. :D

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"I suggest you be a woodworker first then a violin maker. Fine woodworking magazine online is a good place to start learning. You can buy your fine woodwork hand tool set

(dovetail handsaw, block plane, scraper ...) and start building a dovetail box. If you can build dovetail boxes with precision (near perfect dovetail jointing), you can start working on violins. The reason I don't suggest to start with violin is there's very low error tolerance in violin making.

Tone wood are expensive and one small mismatch can ruin the violin."

I'm a woodworker and a luthier, and I don't think that being a woodworker is a necessary prerequesite for being a luthier. If I were to pick a good prerequisite, I would say precision machinist.

"The most likely way to make a living is probably working on the cheap stuff because there is a lot of that sort of work to be had. It will be a long time before anyone should trust you with a nice violin if you don't have prior experience. Reading articles is no substitute for bench time, and without learning good methodology you may develop some bad habits and do some damage in the process."

The only problem with that is that a beginning luthier may not recognize the difference between something really cheap, and poorly made, and a real gem in the rough. Lots of very good instruments have been ruined by garage luthiers.

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From Johnson & Courtnall, here is the list of basic tools:

 

Some of the common woodworking tools needed
are as follows:
Workbench
Woodworking vice (I used this one clamped to benches, coffee tables, and parts of hotels for my first instrument, I liked the jaws with wood to prevent marring)
Tenon or dovetail saw (any fine saw pull saw)
Coping saw (less necessary if you choose to use a scroll saw)
Fretsaw
Smoothing plane (less necessary)
Jointer plane (less necessary)
Block plane (crucial)
Chisels (just a few are all that's needed)
Files (regular sized and fine files are needed)
Rasps (less necessary)
Oil or water stones (a single 1200 grit Diamond (used with water) will be sufficient)
Slip stones (can improvise with leather and honing component over wood)
Honing guide (crucial)
Hand drill and bits (make sure your bits are brad point regardless of whether you use hand or electric drills / a pin vise wilt bits is useful for putting the holes for strings in pegs)
Steel rule
Straightedge
Square (woodworker's) - maybe a T-Square for layout, french curves are also useful in places
Square (engineer's)
Adjustable bevel
Marking gauge
'C' clamps (assorted sizes)
Rules
Scriber
Dividers
 
The specialized tools are:
Electric bending iron and strap (some people try to fab these out of steel pipe and a propane torch)
Thicknessing caliper (you can make one of these with a gage and your own wooden form)
Vernier caliper
Purfling marker (bought or fabricated)
Purfling pick (bought or fabricated)
Long-reach clamps (bought or fabricated)
Gouges (Pfeil or two cherries/Hirsch)
Spool clamps (bought or fabricated)
Thumb planes 
'F' hole cutters
Scrapers (assorted shapes) and burnisher
Peg-hole reamer
Peg shaper (bought or fabricated)
Knives
Soundpost setter
Machine tools (you don't need any but the most handy will be a scroll saw and a drill press)

 

You'll end up making jigs and tools of other sorts as you go.

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Guys, thank you so much for all the advice!

Stephen Churchill, thanks for the list, I've actually started a list myself and trying to work out what I can get cheap/secondhand without scimping on quality. Also, I'd be very keen to come along to one of your violin makers association meets. My wife and I are likely moving in August, so I'll check the website again closer to the date.

Just built a little leather honing strip out of an old belt and got a hold of a course and fine oilstone and also have ordered a whetstone. 

I do have all the basic woodworking skills, so I'm pretty keen to get started and start building to get my feet wet.

My 'Alard' poster just turned up this week so I am planning on building my inside mould this weekend from 16mm ply I have sitting at home. I didn't realise how uneven the overhang on the back and belly was on the Alard until I saw the poster. I think I'll just average it out for the most part as I can only guess that Del Gesu didn't intend to give the instrument uneven sides. Anyhow, for a first instrument I don't think It's really going to matter.

Another first question, do people usually scrape the sides to thickness or use a plane? I did some practice sides last week and it was hard for the plane not to grab on some of the grain.  

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I was wondering if most of the luthiers here are self trained or whether it is valuable to get a formal education? 

...

I'd love to hear any thoughts or advice on getting started and whether being a luthier is even a viable career these days. Can most people stay afloat or is it only the brilliant that can afford to eat?

 

I'll add my vote with the others who said to keep the dayjob.  That's what I did until I could afford to build violins and have no income from it.

 

If you are really completely committed to being a maker (which you don't appear to be), the most reliable path appear to be a formal education, followed by many years working at a large shop, and then with enough connections and reputation you can strike out on your own.

 

For me, that's not an option, so I have been mostly self-trained, but picking up as much as I can from MN, a few workshops, VSA and VMAAI conventions, etc.  And books, mostly the Courtnal & Johnson book.

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Another first question, do people usually scrape the sides to thickness or use a plane? I did some practice sides last week and it was hard for the plane not to grab on some of the grain.  

 

You'll find there are six ways to do everything in violin making.  I use a block plane (razor sharp) and follow with a scraper plane.  This is where good 'craftmanship' comes in.  If you tools are not perfectly sharp you'll take longer, do worse work, and frustrate yourself.  Sharpening is your first skill :)

Also note that he grain will pull out more in one direction then another so flip it around and plane from the other direction.  I try to get one side perfectly even and flat and then thin from the other side. 

There are lots of pictures of the making of my first violin on my website, see below.

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