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Labour of Love

I had the opportunity earlier this year of observing Luthier and master craftsman, James Beatley, at work.

Below are some of the images I took (click on them for the bigger versions) and some questions that James was also kind enough to answer for me to give us a better insight into the process that sees him produce such exceptional instruments at his workshop in his home in Stoneybatter.

What drove you to make your first instrument?

When I was in  my early 20s, I  was playing the tenor banjo. I  had heard about the short scale banjo, which would be better suited to my style of playing. Back then (pre Internet) it was very difficult to find one in Ireland. After a few years searching with no luck I decided to make one. This was a journey which took me three years to complete – the main problem was sourcing  materials. Now it is so easy just Google.

What finally inspired you to make the jump from mechanical engineering to become a full-time Luthier?

There are lots of reasons. Having been making instruments for about 15 years as a hobby I desired to take the making to a higher level. I  wanted to learn more about restoration of instruments too. My job with the ESB  had  undergone a massive restructuring, which would have left me at the same level  until retirement. It was time to go.

How would you describe your working process when making an instrument?

Almost all the instruments I make are after classical Italian makers from Anno 1700.  I  make the instruments  in the same method and use the same tools as were used then. Nothing really has changed except sometimes I would use some modern tools, both mechanical and electronic, to make more exact measurements.  For example, when making a front or back of a violin you would be most concerned with the stiffness of the finished piece, both across the grain and with the grain. I  like to think of this as a stiffness rather than a flexibility. Whatever stiffness you decide on will be  the biggest contributor to the overall sonority of the instruments. Normally this stiffness is felt in the hands by twisting and pressing on the wood and listening to the tap tones. You can guess a tap tone very easily to within a semitone. For example if  I  want the wood to ring at F# I can  be fairly accurate, but the difference could be as much as 15hz from one to another. By using a sine wave generator you can be exact in matching your front and back. Carleen Hutchings (1911-2009) was an American violin maker and pioneer in plate tuning. In the 1950s she  wrote a scientific paper on violin plate tuning using Eiginmodes and Chladni patterns.

What parts of the process you enjoy the most?

It might be easier to answer what parts I least enjoy. This would be the initial preparation of the  wood – flattening  and preparing the centre joints for glueing and squaring up the neck block. After this initial work is done it is a slow labour of love. On completion the setting up and playing of the instrument for the first time is very satisfying.

What are the most challenging aspects?

I think any Luthier will agree with me that varnishing is the most challenging and difficult part of the whole process to master. The problems here are their is only one  good supplier of ready-made varnish for the violin family of instruments and this maker’s varnish does not meet all of the desired qualities. So most makers who know what is required will try to make their own. Personally, I  have experimented with recipes for about 16 years. The varnish  I’m using now and for the last four years is working really well for me.

What is it about the violin that makes it such a special instrument?

I  think because it is  so close to the human voice makes it universally used in all genres of music. Anyone who has tried to learn the violin will tell you it is very demanding and difficult to learn. The fun of learning is in the challenge and you can take it to what ever level you desire. From a physics point of view their are many scientific papers written about how the violin works, they are all probably a little bit right and many disagree and contradict each other , ut one thing is for sure – the violin is a very inefficient  instrument as most of the energy put into the playing is lost in damping etc  90% of what you hear can be directly  attributed to the musician and the rest to the instrument.

Does making instruments give you a different perspective when playing them?

Not really, being a  maker or not  one can appreciate a good instrument. If  I  pick up an instrument which does not work so well or is set up badly  I  won’t want to play it. The same goes for anyone.

Is each instrument unique and, if so, how?

Yes, no two instruments are the same.  Each will have it own voice and  aesthetic values. Making two violins of the same model when finished there are many anomalies between both. No two pieces of wood are the same or have the same acoustic attributes. Every single part of the instrument has an acoustical contribution. The scroll size and design. The density of the fingerboard will have an acoustic resonance which will effect the body mode, which should match the air mode. The overall set up – type of pegs used the bridge blank, tailpiece etc every part has its own acoustic value.  This is why we make to tap tones and not measurements.

Do you feel you are still learning all the time?

Yes  sometimes even doing a job you have done many times before their is a ‘light bulb’ moment. Recently there has been the publication of a book, Restoration and Conservation of Stringed Instruments. This is a collaboration of all the best makers and restorers from around the world.  It’s a massive volume. Since  I  bought it every time I undertake a repair I consult the book to see how other makers approach a particular task.  Often I will adapt my method with ideas from this book.

Whose work are you most influenced or inspired by?

Giussepe Guarneri del Gesú is my favourite maker. There is a beautiful freeness of the use of his tools, evident by the tool marks in his work. These marks also contribute to the aesthetic beauty of his instruments. The purfling of his instruments is poorly executed, but all these little aspects add to the overall aesthetic beauty. His ideas on design for acoustic value were revolutionary at the time. My preference in making is to make my instruments have an aesthetic desirability as well as being of good sonority. The challenge in making an instrument look new and precise is a bit boring for me.

Do you strive for perfection?

You might ask ‘what is perfection?’ If  I am making a copy of a classical Italian instrument I will have to do every repair which has been done to a violin which could be over 300-years-old.  I  will do all these repairs with the greatest of care so yes I strive for perfection. On the other hand. I  may be asked to make a violin as new, but  I must admit to have softened the corners and the eyes of the scroll and rounding off the inside  top of the peg box to give some character to the instrument otherwise I feel the instrument looks boring… am I striving for perfection?!

Do you feel your instruments will form a large part of your legacy? And do you ever think about that?

I do believe I am making good instruments, so good instruments usually fall into the hand of good musicians who look  after them well. My instruments could be around for several hundred years and just like Thomas Perry( 1744-1818), a Dublin maker,  I also brand-stamp my instruments. This stamp will always be there and will be a point of topic. On the other hand, I  had a life-changing moment recently when my computer hard drive gave up without warning. I  lost 18 years of collected data on all the instruments I have made. This would be an archive for future makers or anyone interested. My computer was just out of warranty and  I  had  a back-up hard drive for about six weeks, which I had not used.  Also all my  images of customer repairs and all of my  business advertising, accounts etc were gone. My initial reaction was ‘Fu… k’ , but then  I thought if I had suddenly died in the morning ‘so what’. Would it matter about my life’s long work? I  guess it only matters to me.