Stringed instrument making
The making of stringed instruments, also known as ‘luthiery’.
This craft uses exotic hardwoods – please read our ethical sourcing statement.
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||16th century|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||300-400|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||51-100|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
Bowed stringed instrument making, more commonly violin making encompasses all members of the violin family, including violas, violoncellos, double basses and their bows. Owing to the survivability of these instruments over hundreds of years, an important part of the craft community is violin restoration. Generally speaking it is expected that a restorer will have trained as a violin maker in the first place, in order to understand how the instruments are constructed, and many practitioners do both. Restorers naturally fit within the definition of ‘violin maker’ and there is no meaningful distinction between the two disciplines among the craft community.
Because of the relatively late mass-popularity of the guitar in the 20th century, popular designs for contemporary making are based around automated processes of manufacture, so that even genuinely hand made guitars are nevertheless informed by production processes that do not exist in the consideration of older bowed instruments. Although there is an affinity between the two crafts, it seems prudent to consider them separately.
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 throughsisout 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 its 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-century up to the modern day has consistently produced a small number of instrument makers ranking amongst the most respected internationally. However, given the British traditions for amateur music making in the eighteenth century, many instrument makers in Britain worked towards this economy instead. 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. Since the 1970s British courses have attracted a large number of foreign students with significant contingents from France and Germany. As a result, British influence in the violin making world is disproportionately high, with many leading makers from around the world owing their training to this country. 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 its 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.
Violins, violas, cellos and double basses are all made to traditions that are directly related to Northern Italian renaissance ideals that spread to Britain in the sixteenth century, but historically makers have asserted their own individuality to the point that epochs and regional styles are recognisable, as well as characteristics that allow identification of an individual maker. Each area of the UK would have had its own identity, although styles and models are now international.
The viola da gamba, though an Italian concept, developed in Spain from the Vihuela da Mano and Vihuela da Arco and in England in the mid-sixteenth century, possibly in musical response to the Reformation, and continued to play a strong part in English music up until the early eighteenth century. There are approximately 300 surviving instruments from this period, more than half of which are in museums. In order to preserve the tradition pursued by England’s greatest composers of the Renaissance and early baroque, these instruments continue to be copied in support of the early music movement. The importance of the stringed instrument course at West Dean College for preserving this tradition is extremely high.
There is a high risk to all instrument making for the Early Music market, because of a loss of courses that have a focus on them. In particular, the former London College of Furniture. In the 1970s and 1980s Britain led the way in terms of the Early Music movement, and resultantly saw a boom in demand for these instruments, which has subsided in recent years although a strong core tradition exists. Although it may be argued that violin or guitar making provides the basic craft training to produce these instruments, coupled with scholarly articles and museum specimens for reference, the tradition of experience and knowledge necessary to make functioning instruments is at grave risk.
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.
violin making (currently viable)
viola making (currently viable)
violoncello making (currently viable)
double bass making (currently viable)
viola de gamba making (currently viable)
guitar making (currently viable) – there has never been much of a history of guitar making in the UK, at least not for the past 100 years. Classical guitar making (and subsequently steel string) probably only dates back to the 1940s. In the 1970s there were only a handful of self-taught guitar makers; today there are over a hundred. Many makers today have studied at college but have not been trained in a commercial setting. College is often only the starting point of a long learning process, and some people leave college without the full set of skills needed to make guitars – the proper training tends to start 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’.
hair dressing (bow hair)
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
Training issues: The cost of taking on an apprentice is prohibitive, especially when most makers are sole traders
- The RAB Trust helps support student violin makers by offering work experience placements and financial grants.
- West Dean College
- Newark College
- Glasgow Clyde
Craftspeople currently known
Some practitioners combine making with restoration and dealing in antique instruments
Benjamin Hebbert, Chairman, The British Violin Making Association