The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Stringed instrument making

 

The making of stringed instruments, also known as ‘luthiery’.

 

Status Currently viable
Craft category  Instruments
Historic area of significance  UK
Area currently practised  UK
Origin in the UK  16th century
Minimum no. of craftspeople required  1-5
Current no. of trainees  51-100
Current no. of skilled craftspeople  1000+
Current total no. of craftspeople  1000+

 

History

Instrument making in the UK has ancient roots, the earliest British-made instruments that survive are the Sutton Hoo Lyre made in the 6th-7th century, and the 14th century Warwick Castle Citole from the 14th century, one of the most significant masterpieces of medieval European decorative art. It is, in other words as strong a part of the fabric of British society as any other element of art and culture. In the sixteenth-century Henry VIII became a significant patron of music, bringing both musicians and instrument makers to London from all over Renaissance Europe, establishing an independent British school that rivalled Renaissance centres such as Venice and Brescia. The Bassano family came to London from Venice in 1538 as makers and musicians of all kinds of instruments and were given the living quarters of the Charterhouse as their lodgings and workplace as part of significant royal patronage making wind and string instruments, that in turn were purchased by royal and ducal courts throughout Europe as part of international diplomatic trade. John Rose, an Englishman working in an Anglo-Venetian tradition established his workshop under Royal patronage at Bridewell Palace and by the 1560s his instruments were ‘famed as moche in Italy as in his native contery’.

Throughout modern history, stringed instrument making has followed musical culture in general, and although the most famous centres of stringed instrument making were in Italy, demand for instruments in Britain followed the general theme of musical culture. In the late sixteenth-century, up until the 1720s English performers on the viola da gamba were the most famous in Europe, and English viols became the most sought after to the point that German and French and even Italian makers largely replicated the English tradition of making up until the end of the eighteenth century. In the case of violin making, the sheer richness of musical culture through the centuries with composers such as Handel and Haydn coming to England means that an internationally renowned group of musicians constantly brought the very best instruments with them. The result is that English makers have always competed with the very highest European standards and in turn has produced a very compelling tradition of it’s own. Robert Cuthbert and Thomas Urquhart in the late seventeenth-century astutely copied Cremonese violins by the Amati family in order to provide instruments that were compelling within circles of the court of Charles II, and Daniel Parker by the 1710-20 period was the only maker in Europe to emulate Stradivari during Stradivari’s lifetime. These traditions set the scene for the centuries up to the modern day, and the constant interaction with antique Cremonese instruments (the Cremonese tradition died in the 1740s) means that the upper end of the British tradition has always produced some of the most compelling instruments in professional musical use.

British violin making of the eighteenth-cenutry up to the modern day has a mixed reputation owing to an abnormally high demand for amateur music making that led – in turn – to lesser quality instruments being made in large number. By the end of the nineteenth-century rising living standards amongst the working classes led to a huge expansion of the number of amateur makers applying their manufacturing and engineering skills to the craft of violin making. The result is that for the few top-class professionally made instruments, there are dozens of other instruments that were either never intended for professional use, or made from rudimentary instructions, such as Edward Heron-Allen’s Violin Making as it is and was, which influence the overall reputation of British making, as opposed to that of other countries where there were fewer makers all producing instruments to high professional standards.

In recent years professional training in violin making has come from the London College of Furniture (which has undergone several identities, latterly London Metropolitan University), The Welsh School of Violin Making, and Leeds College of Music, but these programs have all closed down. South Thames College (formerly Merton College) provides a course that is focussed on instrument repair, West Dean College has a small program focused on preserving the English tradition of viola da gamba making, and Newark School of Violin Making is the principal training ground for professional violin makers with a student body coming from many parts of the world. British making at it’s best includes some of the finest makers in Europe, but it is also important to appreciate that general repair and maintenance of violins produced at all levels can only be achieved successfully by repairers who fully understand the principles of violin making. As a result, the importance of violin making in Britain lies not only in the craft for it’s own sake, but for the way that it enables musical education and musical culture more generally. In the case of guitar making, the same principles apply. In both cases, and the specialist skills to setup and maintain violins or guitars are essential for musical culture, even if for a craftsman whose job is to maintain and repair manufactured goods.

 

Techniques

Two groups of instruments, although some can be a combination of the two:

  • those that are made from bent wood
  • those that are carved from a thick piece of wood

The techniques for stringed instrument making are very different from furniture making and carpentry in general. Skill in bending wood to make the sides of the instruments are very specific, whilst the craftsman has to develop a sculptural eye to work with the curves of the back and the belly, as well as very specific knowledge of the acoustic properties of wood in order to create the best outcome for each instrument. The limitations of many instruments made in the early twentieth-century from a more engineering-orientated approach to violin making emphasise the extent to which the ‘art’ and ‘science’ of making plays a role in producing an excellent instrument over the simple following of an engineering blue-print. For these reasons it does not necessarily follow that a good woodworker can turn their hand to instrument making and expect highly professional results, and a long process of specific training is required to become a proficient instrument maker.

 

Local forms

Each area of the UK would have had its own identity, although styles and models are now international.

The viola da gamba is the only instrument where a particularly British heritage is of special significance to world heritage, and the importance of the stringed instrument making course at West Dean College for preserving this tradition is extremely high. Guitar making largely aspires to Spanish and American models of instruments that have now become an internationally important standard, meanwhile British schools of violin making largely follow the Italian – specifically Cremonese – styles of the early eighteenth century. Nevertheless, in both instances the importance of the craft existing within larger musical communities in Britain is very important, both in terms of how the craft of instrument making benefits musical performance and creativity in general, and how this provides the much needed skills of repair and maintenance for many thousands of professional and amateur musicians.

 

Sub-crafts

Sub-crafts

  • violin making (least concern): there is a lot of cross over between violin making, viola making and cello making, although some people do specialise
  • viola making (least concern): there is a lot of cross over between violin making, viola making and cello making, although some people do specialise
  • cello making (least concern): there is a lot of cross over between violin making, viola making and cello making, although some people do specialise
  • double bass making
  • gamba making
  • guitar making (least concern): There has never been much of a history of guitar making in the UK, at least not for the past 100 years. In the 1970s there were 3 self-taught guitar makers; today there are hundreds. Many makers today have studied at college but have not been trained by professional makers. College is only the starting point of a long learning process, and most people leave college without the full set of skills needed to make guitars – the proper training starts once someone is in full time work. There is not nearly enough work for the quantity of college graduates – and even with hundreds of thousands of guitars, there isn’t a need for a great number of ‘guitar techs’.

Allied crafts

  • string making
  • hair dressing (bow hair)
  • varnish making
  • wood specialists

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Many practitioners work alone (challenging)
  • Training issues: College is only the starting point of a long learning process, and most people leave college without the full set of skills needed to make stringed instruments – the proper training starts once someone is in full time work, and it is essential that a college graduate gets a job alongside an experienced maker
  • Training issues: The seventeenth/eighteenth century method of making instruments is no longer taught in any of the UK colleges
  • Training issues:The numbers of students required to make courses in colleges financially viable means that courses have either closed, or are taking on too many students which has a detrimental effect on the quality of the training.
  • Dilution of skills: There are almost too many makers and it is hard to know their quality
  • Dilution of skills: Repair work is the bread and butter work of violin making and what sustains the craft, but repair and making are quite different
  • Market issues: The loss of orchestras and cuts to arts funding mean that many people can’t afford British made handmade instruments
  • Training issues: The cost of taking on an apprentice is prohibitive, especially when most makers are sole traders
  • Supply of raw materials: As of 2 January 2017 all species of rosewood and some species of bubinga have been added to the CITES endangered list and a permit is required to export any items containing any species of rosewood. This may affect tool makers, stringed instrument makers and furniture makers.

 

Support organisations

Craftspeople currently known

Other information

Some practitioners combine making with restoration and dealing in antique instruments

 

References