I have always existed with music. Music is inside me and drives me. Yet my whole life has been working with my hands, and I have always felt the need, and the ability, to be a maker of things. I suppose I have been stubborn enough to do what I need to do even when, as a Zoology graduate, life could have steered me in other directions.
A violin conforms to a pattern. It must follow the detailed specifications defined over hundreds of years with absolute precision. I must shape it, assemble it and tune it in accordance with centuries of craftsmen before me. Nevertheless, its sound will have some nuance that is entirely of itself. It has its own timbre and character.
I have done my “journeymanship”, learning from experts at the Cambridge Violin Making School, at the Royal Academy, as an apprentice in Wales, and at the University of Leeds. I have acquired knowledge and practical experience. I continue to make and to play, even though the making stiffens the hands and makes the playing difficult for a while.
People bring me their violins to repair. Because of the making process, it is not difficult to take a violin apart. The old violin has a story, and its sound changes over time. Re-necking is a tough job. The sawing, stretching and pulling may seem violent, but it is all done with the utmost care, and the sound it makes talks to me. I will become a small part of its history, which goes long before and long beyond me. It has made music before and will make music again – perhaps better!
Violin making needs tenacity, skill, the right tools and infinite patience. I start by creating an outline of the body. I work alone. It is a private, preoccupying and concentrated task. I am my own judge and set my standards high. You could not take apart one of my violins without knowing it was my work. I am never frustrated. Every moment, of choice, I would be at my bench, working.
The body is shaped entirely from a plank of wood, following prescribed patterns and measurements. The wood is from a specialist dealer, totally dry, with no movement. I jigsaw the outline, then carve, first the top, and then the base. The two pieces which make up the top of the body are fitted using a rub-joint process, wood against wood until there is a perfect fit.
I work with the sharpest of tools. There is no sanding, simply drawing-blades, and exquisitely made planes of all sizes down to a length less than my thumb. Such tools are works of art in themselves. I make the tools which make the instruments which make the music.
I make notes constantly. I read articles and keep everything neat and clean.
Inlaying the outer shape – ‘purfling’ – adds strength as well as beauty.
Then I work on the ribs, jigsawed and thinned to 3 or 4 millimetres.
The neck is shaped, push-fitted and held with warm glue, clamped and held as it cools. It is animal glue, water-soluble and not harsh. There is no tension; every piece of a violin can be taken apart and rebuilt. Then the setting up, tapping and listening, comparing, adjusting. Everything is according to the design, and everything has a purpose. Then comes the varnish, twenty or thirty coats of it.