Michael Parker

Self-taught violin makers

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Hello, everyone! I've been reading the Pegbox for some time, and I decided to join. My question is:  Are there many successful self-taught violin makers? I'm not able to attend a lutherie school, but I love playing the instrument as well as trying to learn to build it. Any advice for a self-taught maker?

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I was in your shoes maybe 8 years ago. I thought I could teach myself how to make a violin through the Courtnall book. I gave it a shot and learned a lot, but the violin was horrendous. Then I found a professional violin maker (not going to name names here) who was willing to teach me. He told me on day one that I need to forget everything that I thought I knew, and do exactly what he does, with the exact tools that he used. I've been at it for a very long time. I've made high quality, professional level violins under his tutelage. I realized there was no way I would have gotten to this level if I didn't have instruction from an expert. There's too many nuances in building a violin to be able to teach yourself from a book, in my humble opinion. Well, that is, if you're going to build one well. My other opinion is that if you're not going to do it right, then it's not really worth doing it at all because it is an enormous investment in time and money. I've spent at least 40 thousand dollars between tools, lessons, wood, ect. Maybe more. So, my advice, for what it's worth, is to find an excellent luthier, and commit yourself to the lifestyle of violin making. It really is a life long commitment if you're going to do it right. I think of it like having kids. Once you have them, you have them.

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If you’re not a member of the VSA, I’d encourage you to become one. Attending the annual conventions can be an endless source of insight and helpful information. If you have an instrument that you’re working on, show it to as many makers as you can in the new making forum and take good notes—there’s a wealth of knowledge and experience there. 

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Most famous self taught violin maker is no less than Giovanni Battista Guadagnini. However he was already trained as woodworker before. 

Basically I agree with TedN. Just fumbling around with a book on your bench doesn't bring good results. You need an instructor, even if it is only once a while.

Additionally it is always helpful to get the opinion of other makers. 

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TedN,

of course your first violin was "horrendous"! Everybodys first violin is rather unusuable, i'd think. But to go to the other extreme: copying another makers method, even down to using his exact tools like you say you did .. well .. grrrrrrrr!

I'm a self taught maker with some success. (Admittedly, I had woodworking skills already when I started on fiddles.) Of course I didn't do it in total isolation. Fiddle/violin making is something very traditional and one will have to bow to that fact to have success with the players. But I think I learned better by doing mistakes and learning from them, than I would have learned if I should have followed some other maker slavishly, being told "this works - this don't work", and probably not always get a good answer why. (Grrr.. we're all different.)

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I think the most important thing I learned from a teacher was what is "good enough".  When I started, after making one by myself,  I would present her with something I thought was close to perfect and she would say "you're starting to get there".... not even getting there but starting to get there!  The second most important thing was sharpness.

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If you mean successful as in making instruments recognized by other luthiers as being of professional quality then you almost certainly need to have some instruction from a professional. There are some very talented people who have done well with minimal training but I can't think of any who have done well with none.

Violin making is both simple and complicated. Simple in that a properly trained and skilled wood worker can learn to make the individual parts and pieces and put them together to make a violin shaped object in a period of months.. Complicated in that making an instrument that has artistic individuality and which functions well as a musical instrument is something most makers take years to accomplish if they even do so at all. Lest you misunderstand what I mean by trained woodworker I mean past the point where tool sharpening and maintenance are more than routine chores and planing up accurate, squared boards by hand and joining them together neatly is equally routine as well as simple carving and veneer work.

If you are thinking of violin making as a career and intend to make a living at it then I would suggest that the easiest, most direct route is to attend and graduate from one of the better schools before committing at least 3 more years to working in a good shop to learn repair and restoration techniques as well as seeing good instruments to copy in the course of developing a style of your own.  Business and marketing courses would also be very useful as just doing good work will not guarantee financial success. 

Good luck.

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Many self-taught violin makers had wood working skills before starting.  One whom I know was a skilled cabinet maker before beginning violin making.  She used the books by Henry Strobel to get started and she did get pointers from excellent makers though was never seriously taught by or apprenticed to anyone.  She made instruments that functioned reasonably well and were appreciated by local amateur players but her making career never really took off.

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I would suggest it depends on your definition of success .If success means winning the applause and recognition of the world most renowned players and makers you may never reach this level of success,but if success means having an enjoyable fulfilling livelihood by building a decent playable fiddle ,than you can be successful. I attest to the latter.    The best to you,    Henry

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I agree with Nathan. Violin making is an extremely competitive business, and not even everyone who is well-trained and really good manages to sell everything they make, or make a living at it.

If you're thinking of it as a challenging and interesting hobby, great.

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21 hours ago, Michael Parker said:

Are there many successful self-taught violin makers?

A lot depends on your definition of "successful" and "self-taught".

I am mostly self-taught, in that I didn't attend any full-time school or latch onto a professional maker for intensive training.  However, that doesn't mean totally self-taught.  Getting information from elsewhere is needed... books, VSA, local violinmaking groups like VMAAI, etc., Maestronet, attending workshops, competitions, conventions, and seeking out advice from respected makers.  I would suggest diving in and making one or two instruments (which you can't expect to be great) so that you will be able to absorb the finer points of making from those who know, and so you  will have the foundation to know what questions to ask.

As for "successful", I have met my definition of that.  At this point, I could probably make a modest living at it, although it has taken 10+ years and some lucky contacts to get here.  Your experience may be different.  Individual skills, capabilities, and determination are also critical, in my opinion.

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41 minutes ago, David Burgess said:

If you're thinking of it as a challenging and interesting hobby, great.

i think this sums it up for me B)

it's all about the journey ..

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If you do it as a hobby without a mentor of any kind, it will be years before you begin to have the slightest idea of what you are doing. (Maybe I'm just dense?)  You may be making objects that look sort of like violins, and they WILL play, and astonish your friends; but not many others.

 If you have a full time job, like me, 1-2 hours a day isn't the recipe for skill. That will cause you to be  completely into what you are doing, but then you won't remember what you did.  I suppose if you made only one pattern of violin,  you could get better faster if you had a real good copy sitting right in front of you.  If you are like me, and like to make different models, sometimes even from pictures without a plan,  you may learn more about design and arching.  You may not pull it off, but you should learn something.

I learn something new just about every day.   It is great fun, and about as mentally,  and artistically stimulating as anything I can think of. It requires a tremendous amount of skill. Many different skills. Maybe building a kit car without a kit would be similar.

Ah, a Porsche 356 clone?  No, I don't have time for that. 

Be forewarned.  It is very addicting.   

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My dad held a night-school for ametuer violin-makers for at least fortyish years non stop, every Tuesday evening. It was a very varied group, which over the years quite practically included his accountant, bank manager, car mechanic, doctor, dentist, my schoolteacher, and just about any professional one could possibly ever need. It also gave him the oportunity to use all sorts of power tools, and still claim to his customers that he had no power tools in his workshop. The abilities (and ambitions) of the attendees ranged all the way from really talented, to some where one had to be carefull that they didn’t injure themselves. I think making new violins is a legitimate hobby, after all one only does violence to a lump of wood. Repairing antique violins is less legitimate though, since one would be changing (or worse obliterating) someone elses intelectual effort.

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I've observed many apparent amateurs periodically posing questions on this forum, such as how to fill voids in purfling channels, or what size gouge to use for this or that, and I wonder how many questions come to their mind between those posts, that they hesitate to ask.  Just imagine the amount of knowledge that would be exchanged between two luthiers sitting and working side by side eight hours a day- just through small-talk, observation, and casual conversation.  There is no comparison.  The real question is, will this be a part-time hobby, or do you want to make this your vocation?  Either option is O.K.  Now, back to that bird-house.

 

 

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I recall Ed Campbell claiming he was self taught, but I'm not exactly sure exactly what path he took.

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Here is a time-tested recipe: How To Make A Small Fortune in Lutherie? Always begin with a large fortune...works every time!

Fred(violguy)

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1 hour ago, deans said:

I recall Ed Campbell claiming he was self taught, but I'm not exactly sure exactly what path he took.

Read my post here. He was the "inspiration" for much of those cockamamie ideas I listed. Many of us who started under his tutelage had to relearn making the right way. He was a nice guy but had different notions about violin making. A year ago I threw out an autographed set of his "Little Red Books" because they were loaded with wrong ideas. In his defense, I will say he had some great ideas but then drove them into oblivion with exaggerated extrapolations. Sorry if this post offends some of his friends. 

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Why read books when we now have Youtube ?

I have never made a violin, nor do I intend to, but for relaxation I watch Davide Sora making violins.

Its hard to imagine that any living mortal could be more of a perfectionist than he is, and some of his videos are quite detailed.

What I have learned watching him is sharpen your tools, and then sharpen them again.

And patience, lots and lots of it. :)

 

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I am self-taught, but had early music and woodworking training. A tough way. 

Many makers were self-taugh or received no formal training, they were mostly musicians or falegnami (woodworkers). Of coarse formal training is important, but some makers made good violins without formal training.

A good number of makers we love today had no teachers.  Life in Italy was hard, and they had to struggle to survive working as a violin maker, player, cooper, teacher, etc. The following list of self taught makers or "diletanti" speaks for itself:

Sergio Peresson

Otello Bignami

Romolo Parmeggiani

Gaetano Pareschi

Alberto Guerra

Giuseppe Pedrazzini

Celeste Faroti;

Luigi Bertelli

Andrea Cortese

Gaetano Chiocchi

Valentino de Zorzi (an important florentine maker that started making violins when he was 40 years old!)

Anibal Fagnola

Emidio Celani

Howard Needham said me he is a self-taught maker too.

Some say Lorenzo Storioni had no master too, as well as Giuseppe Rocca.

The ever increasing prices of their instruments is a question of market, and after some decades, market disregards formal training.

In general, biographies will not mention "self-taught" directly, but just mention that  the maker "got some advice from the Bisiachs..."

Listen to David Burges, it is a nice hobby, but a tough profession.

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3 hours ago, Michael_Molnar said:

Read my post here. He was the "inspiration" for much of those cockamamie ideas I listed. Many of us who started under his tutelage had to relearn making the right way. He was a nice guy but had different notions about violin making. A year ago I threw out an autographed set of his "Little Red Books" because they were loaded with wrong ideas. In his defense, I will say he had some great ideas but then drove them into oblivion with exaggerated extrapolations. Sorry if this post offends some of his friends. 

You wont offend me....yes that guy had some funny ideas. But I do own one of his fiddles, from the 70s, and Ive seen several others. IMO they hold up well against the current makers.

I believe the theories and pseudo-science ended up to really have no effect, but a good eye, good hands, and a reasonably good model won out. 

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