The longer I make instruments, the more I am convinced that it is the character of the maker which gives character to an instrument. Some of this is expressed by design and by conscious decision, in the choice of the wood and the model, etc, but more importantly it is the maker’s conception and attention that determine the qualities of the finished instrument. To use a musical analogy, it is not just the difference in technique, but the artistic interpretation which differentiates one person’s performance from another. To allow that flow of intention to come through in my work, I always try to do the parts of the instrument which are most important for the tone in one movement, as if it were a recording done in one take. Because this phase includes most of the work on the body of the instrument, much of the visual character of the instrument is created at the same time.
It is this way of working which makes each instrument unique, but at the same time roots it in the family of instruments that I have made. Whether the sound [and the look] of a particular instrument suits an individual musician is totally dependent on whether it gels with their own intention and style of playing, and the only way to find out is to play it. This is why I prefer not to make on commission, but make instruments that I want to make and then let each player find out if it is going to work for them.
My introduction to instrument making came when I was still at school, my enthusiastic woodwork teacher recognising my interest in both music and woodwork. After school I was accepted at the Newark School of Violin Making, where besides learning the basics of violin making and repairing, I became interested in the recognition of instruments made by the old masters, and their differing styles of work.
On qualifying in 1982, I moved to north Germany to join the workshop of Geigenbau Machold in Bremen, which had a worldwide reputation for restoration work. Besides learning the finer points of fitting up, tonal adjustments and restoration, I had the opportunity to work on and study many of the classical Italian instruments which passed through the shop. Studying these instruments made me realise that it was not an absolute precision of execution but the expression of intent, combining an understanding of shape, proportion, and a mastery of technique which made them so special, both visually and tonally. It was this understanding which I determined to make the basis of my own work.
In 1985, I returned to England and settled in York, where I quickly became busy with repair work, a useful but nonetheless awkward interruption to making new instruments. I also had lessons in Alexander Technique which completely altered my physical relationship with making instruments.
In 1996 we moved to rural north Shropshire. Since then I have been free to concentrate solely on making new instruments, which are played by discerning professionals and amateurs throughout this country and abroad.
In the Workshop
Although the end result of my work is the music that someone else will produce on one of my instruments, for much of my working life I am at the work bench, focussed on my work, visualising the shape I aim to produce, reaching for the next tool that will continue the process.
Using hand tools is fundamental to what I do, because for an instrument to have character, the tools must easily transmit the intention of the violin maker, just as an instrument and bow communicate the musicality of a musician. Using the right tools, tools that would be familiar to the classical Italian makers, does not have to be laborious; it is not a limitation. Indeed, it is the key to allowing the work to grow in purposeful and fluid movements, so the shapes emerge naturally, balancing precision and panache, accuracy and artistry.
The essence of a violin, viola or cello is flowing lines, a combination of lightness and strength, of flexibility and resistance. This is most evident in the archings of back and belly, which whilst being quintessentially sculptural also define the sound of the instrument. Creating the archings is therefore a stage that can’t be rushed, but with light wooden scrub planes the work goes swiftly enough, as they glide round the curves, revealing the emergent arching, shaving by shaving. Nonetheless, this is work which demands attention, it is the work for the morning when the light is good and the mind is sharp.
Once the archings are scraped to their final shape, it is then that the inherent characteristics of the wood come to the fore, as the plates are thinned on the inside. Some wood is flexible, some is heavy, some light, some strong; so I twist the plates and prod them, weigh them and tap them to hear how they resonate, removing a little bit more perhaps, until they reach the ideal thickness where they are still strong but flexible, yielding yet resilient.
As the making progresses, a similar sense of balance needs to be found again and again, when shaping the bass bar, cutting the bridge or finishing the neck. Then comes the slightly anxious moment when the strings are put on for the first time. Some instruments show their true colours from the very beginning and work straight away, but although gratifying, I know not to trust this completely as later they will usually need some adjustment. Then there are others which seem rebellious and awkward at first. Again, I don’t take this to heart, as experience has shown me that some time being played and adjusted can turn them into very good instruments. Only after some weeks do I really know how my work has turned out, when an instrument is mature enough for general consumption.
Then the day comes when someone realises that this instrument is the one for them. Although I relish my work at the bench, hearing one of my instruments being played is the thrilling culmination of all that I do. It is only then that my creation gets to live its own life, to fulfil its potential; and in the process, help another musician to realise their own aspirations.
I'm happy to talk about instruments anytime, whether you're a professional, student or a keen amateur. Call me to talk through what you're looking for.