Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Violin Makers, Their Books and Libraries

So a Guy Walks into an Airport...

This story begins several months ago and several thousand miles away, one evening in the San Juan, Puerto Rico airport. As with most stories, and especially my fitful tales, there is a circuitous trail that eventually leads to something rather out of the ordinary. Not because it has anything to do with me, but because it has to do with two people who have the most anomalous interest in the Alphorn. You don't get it yet? Let me begin with the story...

After a delightful trip to Puerto Rico on business, I was ready for take-off on a Delta Airways flight to Chicago, via Atlanta. As the plane taxied and then pushed the jet-engines to full throttle, the airplane barreled down the runway like an over-designed soapbox made of aluminum and tin cans. All of a sudden, the brakes were applied and our little gelatin and ossuary bodies flung forward into an immediate stop. The plane was actually just about to lift from the earth, yet gravity held her to her proper place: on the ground. The plane had some sort of malfunction, more serious than anything Janet Jackson could have burned into your eyes. And we were to be grounded for at least 4 hours. Another turn for take-off, another malfunction, and the passengers were de-planed. We waited in a massive line for several hours, in order to secure flight re-booking and vouchers for food and hotels. And it was in this line that a conversation was struck with a woman from Chicago, who was on business herself in Puerto Rico. "J." and I ended up chatting for quite a long time (several hours in fact) and continued our conversation about Chicago, gardening, birds, our friends and spouses, among many other topics. But somehow music came up. And at one point the infamous and now fateful Swiss term "Alphorn" floated from one of our voice boxes, and the rest is history. You see, I have been writing a Sonata Trio for Alphorn, Flute, and 'Cello for some friends of mine to play; and "J." had a very good friend, who not only was an accomplished musician and player of the Alphorn, but an instrument maker, who is actually in the process of building his own Alphorn! It just also happens that this friend is the Co-Director of the Chicago School of Violin Making in Skokie, IL. By now, our several hour conversation transitioned to an airport restaurant, courtesy of Delta airlines. Over Cuban food in the old restaurant situated next to the airport AND a cock fighting ring (really--they have these places in Puerto Rico...and they're legal!) in San Juan, "J." said "Oh, you need to meet my friend Fred Thompson." Now, of course, like you, I imagined that "J." was good friends with Law and Order star and sneeze-brief presidential candidate Fred Thompson, but it was for naught. It was even better! Mr. Thompson was a delightfully poised man, who is soft-spoken and thoughtful. So when I finally met Mr. Thompson, our afternoon and early evening was quite an event.

As you can probably see from the first photograph above, the skill and precision needed for the art of violin making is high. This first image is of a violin in the part of the construction process, where the maker is tracing, then carving out the space for the inlay. This serves two purposes: decorative and prevention of cracks on the maple and spruce faces of the instrument. The instrument at the right is used to dig out the tracing where the inlay will be inserted. Mr. Thompson gave me a tour of the school, which included this stop to watch a student create this portion of the violin.

Perfecting an Old Craft

Violin making is an old art (or, perhaps for some it is a "craft.") Either way, it is something that requires skill and patience. As Mr. Thompson led me through the darkened studies of the Violin Making School, I snapped a few photos of the process, including the initial framing of the instrument's sideboards. I must admit, I am not always using the most exact terminologies for the parts of the violin, but if I would ever go to this prestigious school, I'd be able to whip out the most refined vernacular of violin-speak you ever did hear.

In the next image, I have captured one of the students at the school tracing out three violins, which he was making at one time. Here he is finely carving the scroll of one of the violins. Two other scrolls sit patiently on the desk to his right, while the bodies of three nascent violins stand side-right, waiting for his masterful technique to perfect them.

Some Methods

In another room, we see some of the drafting tables, where students continue their specialized training and day-to-day skills of violin making.

On the wall of the same room seen in the previous photo, you will find outlines of stringed instruments for tracing on wood. These larger cutouts are 'cello markings. Note on the desk that there are cutouts of a violin and viola along with piles of wood shavings.

In the room which contains a piano and the library (which I will speak of next), students practice each other's newly constructed instruments. But they also take classes in acoustics and design. On the chalkboard at left, one might see the cryptic designs of a guest lecturer, who was a specialist in these fields; note how much "math" is involved in the acoustic construction of the instrument!

Library of the Chicago School of Violin Making (CSVM)

Now, of course, I must not dally. Here is the core of the school! Well, surely for my tastes and for the purpose of this blog. Almost every specialized institution I visit has some sort of library or reading center or room. So it is of little surprise that the Chicago School of Violin Making had its own library. And it was a fine little collection, probably of just about a thousand books. But the question is: how many books can there be on violin making out there?

The great value in the library, like any library, comes from such items as journals and periodicals. Here we have a fine collection of "The Strad" journal. I must say with a little color in my cheeks: "what a cool title!" Car magazines could never get away with such a finely crafted title. Like "The Rolls." That sounds cheap and gross, frankly.

Here is a wider view of the largest portion of the Violin Making school's collection. As you can see, there are instruments everywhere.

Varnish and Drying Room

The varnish room is where (obviously) the violins and other instruments go after they have been
constructed. Most of the instruments take on a soluble varnish (not in oil, because of the heat needed to conduct that process). And a variety of colors may be chosen. The founder of the School, who is now retired, was a great master violin maker from Korea, who trained in Germany, before coming to Chicago. Below is one of his famed varnish recipes (in Korean), which Mr. Thompson had put on a scroll and hung in the varnish room for all to marvel at!

Building a Double Bass in Your Spare Time

The curriculum of the School consists of making no less than 7 stringed instruments, which may consist of violins, violas, and 'cellos. But in the rare case, the directors allow for the advanced student to test their skills on a "side project," such as this: a double-bass. According to Mr. Thompson, a (or "the") bass player from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was invited down recently to let Mr. Thompson and a student trace out his double bass. Above is a sketch with thickness levels. Below is the bottom portion of the bass, still being built.

Rare Books At the Violin School

Perhaps remaining true to these articles, I could not give up the opportunity to photograph the School's "Rare Book Room," which is clearly an antic of one or some of the students at the school; for there were no "rare" books in this room that I could find. And so, there you have it. An adventure into one of Chicago's lesser known spots of intrigue and interest. A place where books reside, but even more, an artistic locale that is continuing an old craft through thorough training. And there just happened to be some darn good tomes sharing the space. Below is the front door to the school: the door which I entered and left from. After I left this fine place, after my tours and discussions about violin making, music, and books, I went with Mr. Thompson to see the Alphorn he had purchased some years ago from the famed Ernst Nussbaum in Switzerland. He also showed me two books on the history of the Alphorn (in German). The evening passed, and we ended up at a Mexican restaurant with "J." (from the beginning of the story) and their families. Salsa, chips, refried beans, awls, varnishes, violin-making Alphorn lovers, and books!? What more could you ask for!? Oh, yes, of course, ...a cold cerveza (i.e. beer--for you non-Spanish-drinkers).


  1. Again, another unique and delightfully interesting tour. Thanks for the ride. Can't wait to see where you take your readers next...

  2. Well fiddle-dee-dee!! Neat post on violin making. I never really gave it much thought but am really impressed that there is an actual school that teaches this wonderful craft. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Ah yes! Salsa, beans, cold beer, Alphorns and books! Really, what more could you ask for? Neat!

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  6. violins are living art pieces, no 2 are ever the same.