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Maker of Violins, Violas and Cellos

The Birth of a Violin:

the creation of a commissioned instrument

By Ida Washington of Weybridge, Vermont

The original article submitted to Vermont Life Magazine which published a shortened version in the spring issue of 2005

Click here to see photos of Ida's violin in progress

    Up in the hills of Glover, Vermont, Thurmond Knight works in a wood-heated shop making fine violins, violas, and cellos.  But he has not always been a violin maker.  Before taking up this career, he lived in the town of Randolph where he was known for many years as Dr. Knight, a popular and very busy family physician who specialized in natural childbirth.  There too, when not delivering babies, he could often be found playing his beloved cello.

    The change from doctor to craftsman began with the development of a bad split in his cello, a problem which led him to the summer workshop at the University of New Hampshire, where the art of making and repairing stringed instruments is taught by Karl Roy, Master Violin Maker of Mittenwald, Germany.  Intrigued by the processes he observed there, Thurmond decided to enter the course with the goal of handling any future repairs to his own instrument himself.  Over time the making of fine instruments grew to hold a special fascination for him, and he found that the combination of hands trained as a physician combined with a deep love of music gave him unique qualifications for the work.  Every summer he would return to the workshop until he was an assistant in the course, and then ready to set out on his own.   

    Turning away from medicine with its unpredictable hours and stresses, Thurmond opened a small violin repair business in Montpelier.  I met him there in a search for good violin strings, and we fell into conversation over a quotation on his wall from the great German author Goethe.  I was recently retired from teaching college German, and he wondered if I would be interested in translating a book by Karl Roy about the seventeenth century violin maker Jakob Stainer.  Stainer's violins, prized for their sweet tone, are now almost priceless and can be seen in museums, including the Smithsonian in Washington DC, where in a room full of old instruments they stand out for their beauty and for the interesting carved gargoyle heads in the place of the usual scroll.  The translation proceeded and my desire for a violin like the ones I was writing about grew.   

    Meanwhile Thurmond had moved his violin making to more spacious quarters in Glover, Vermont, far up in the Northeast Kingdom.  I placed a formal order for a violin, one with a head like one shown in the Stainer biography.      

I Place An Order for A Violin

    It was December of the year 2000 when a letter arrived: I've been working on your Stainer violin - have carved the scroll lion's head and she looks cute!   

    That was the beginning of my new violin, the realization of a long held dream for me, and a new venture for violin maker Thurmond Knight.    

    As a youngster I had been taken to see the violin collection in the Smithsonian Museum, where you can look through a glass window at the priceless Stradivari, Guaneri, and Stainer violins, many with wonderful gargoyle heads in place of scrolls.  With childish confidence I had predicted, "Someday I'm going to have a violin with a head instead of a scroll like those violins in there."  

                            Now, almost seventy years later, my violin was beginning to take shape, 

                            and I was to have a unique experience in following its construction 

                            step by step through the magic technology of email and digital camera pictures.   

    I had a special request about the head on the violin.  So many of the gargoyle heads looked sour and cross, and I wanted a cheerful face at the end of my fingerboard.  As an amateur violinist I am sensitive about the sour notes I play and didn't want my own violin to scold me for them!  So, at my request, Thurmond had carved a delightful little lioness with her tongue stuck out in a mischievous grin.   

    Due to the press of other work, it was several months after that first message before work on the violin commenced again, but in July I received this email: I sensed you were thinking about your violin the last couple days, and I have been planning the next stage of construction, the purfling [inlaid edge line] and edge work.  I had your violin in my hands several times in the last two days - helps me to plan when I have my hands on the wood.   

Progress Began in Earnest

    In September progress began in earnest.  With the neck and scroll complete, it was time for the top and back plates.  Thurmond emailed on September 12th with before and after pictures that he had spent the day contouring the outside of the back and scraping it smooth,  The next day, he reported: Got the back completely done with the arching today, and got a good start on the channeling and sinking around the top.  Heading back out to the shop tonight to get more done on your top.  Best to do the work in shadows at night.   

    The next day brought a question for me.  The email read: Tomorrow I thin the wood from the inside so the plates will be hollow, and this tuning of the plates will determine the sound quality.  What do you want for sound?  Something dark and a little viola-like?  Bright and cheery?  Soprano, tenor or baritone voice???  Please let me know what you are interested in and I will graduate [thin] the plates accordingly.   

    What a choice!  However, I remembered a viola in his shop with a particularly lovely tone and suggested that, if he could translate that tone violin-ward and give me a contralto voice, I'd be delighted.  When he said a day later that he had worked most of the day graduating the plates and tuning them, I had another question: "How can you tune violin plates with no strings attached?"   

    The answer, by the next day's email: Each plate has a dominant tone when tapped.  The plates are tuned to each other, usually with the back plate 1/2 to 1 whole step above the top plate.  For instance, many of Stradivari's violin top plates were tuned to F or F# below middle C.  Well, that was a new idea to me!   

    By the evening of September 16th, Thurmond could report: Today I carved the two F-holes and then cut and fit and glued in the bass bar.  Tomorrow I will carve down the bass bar, then finish the edging of the back, and glue it to the rib assembly.  With any luck, I will have time to remove the mould from the rib assembly, glue in the top linings, and then glue the top in place!  The 17th, 18th and 19th were busy days, as the violin took final shape.  The body was joined together, the ebony fingerboard carved and fitted to the neck, the neck heel and the mortise for the neck in the body carved and then glued and clamped in place.  Thurmond reported happily at 11:32 a.m. on September 21st: The violin began humming as soon as the neck went on!  I'm sure she'll be singing joyfully very soon.   

Violin Completed in the White

    That evening at 6:45 p.m. came the news: Your lovely violin is completed in white.  I spent the entire day and into this evening to complete it.  Will begin varnishing first thing in the am. . . . She is absolutely beautiful!  Can't wait for you to see her.  I'll get the varnishing done as soon as possible.   

     Thurmond was as good as his word.  At 7:53 the next morning he reported: I couldn't wait.  I put the first 5 coats on last night so it would be dry enough this morning to begin the water color layers.  Two or three layers of water color should suffice for the golden ground coats, then two layers of seedlac and mastic in ethanol for hard protective layers.  After that as many color coats of spirit varnish as it takes to give it adequate color, usually about 12 to 15.  Then two or three layers of clear coat of spirit varnish.  After that a day to polish out and smooth the varnish.  Then all the set up business, including peg fitting, sound post, end button, tailpiece, strings and bridge, chin rest and so forth.   

    After the work started, I received this further report: I have several coats of sealer on, covered by three coats water color, covered by two coats of spirit ground composed of mastic and seedlac (or gumlac).  This bequeaths the wonderful golden tone over which the colored varnish will be placed.  This gold will peek out from under the color varnish and give the instrument the beautiful gold highlights as is seen on Strad and other Cremonese instruments.   

     I learned more about the technicalities of varnishing the next day, September 23rd, when Thurmond sent me this report: I managed to put three more layers of varnish on today.  Fortunately the spirit varnish dries quickly enough, and this warm weather has helped in that effort.  I place the first layer on at first light, which here is adequate around 7 to 7:30 am.  Then the next layer at 1 pm, then the last layer at 6 pm, just after the sun has set and the western sky facing my varnish table skylight is still quite light.  Each layer begins with softening the badger hair brush in ethanol.  Then I very carefully sand, with 400 sandpaper, the entire surface of the violin and remove any debris with the point of a sharp knife.  Then I scrape away any dark streaks of varnish left by the brush during the previous application of varnish, dust off the instrument, and I am ready.  The varnish dish is uncovered and the varnish stirred carefully to ascertain if it is too thick, and to check on the adequacy of the color.  I then pour a small amount of clear spirit varnish (which I think I made about 10 years ago) into the colored varnish already in the dish, and add very small amounts of dry pigment to the solution, stirring until I get the right color mix.  I use 4 dry colors to produce my brown: black, red, yellow and blue.  Then usually a small amount of ethanol is added to thin the varnish so it will brush on more easily, and finally I add about 5 ml of lavender oil to facilitate brushing on without sticking to the previously added layer of varnish.  After everything is thoroughly mixed, I apply the layer of varnish, starting with the scroll and pegbox, then work down to the ribs, neck heel, top and finally the back.  

     Spirit varnish is the trickiest to apply because the ethanol in the varnish causes the previous layers to go into solution and stick to the brush.  Because of this, I can only brush over any one particular area of the violin once and only once.  If there is any overlap, then streaking occurs and must be dealt with after all is dry.  The brushing on must take place very rapidly to reduce brush drag against the previous layer, and because the varnish begins drying immediately after applied.  By the time I get to the back to apply varnish, the scroll and ribs are already semi-dry.  The reason for the spirit varnish, which many Cremonese used (making their spirits from wine) is that you can produce marvelous colors with incredible depth.  It is also important that each layer is very very thin, so as not to dampen the sound production of the instrument.  Also, spirit varnish dries very quickly, so you can varnish an instrument in about 1/4 of the time it takes to varnish with oil varnish.   

     I will need all three applications of varnish tomorrow, which will make a total of 9 layers.  Then I will have to make a judgment as to how many more will be needed to give the instrument its warm golden-brown luster.   

The Effect of Varnish on Tone

    To a question of mine about the effect of varnish on the tone of an instrument, I received this answer: Yes, the varnish has a lot to do with refining the tone.  Just set up and play a violin in the white, then varnish it and you'll see what the difference is.  The white violin has a more raw, raucous sound, but can still be beautiful.  The varnish tones it down a little bit and gives it a different quality of sound that is difficult to put into mere words.   

     We had had a very dry September, but on September 25th the rains came and continued for several days.  Thurmond wrote me that he had to interrupt the varnishing until the world dried out a little: With 82% humidity in the shop, and pouring rain outside all day long, I could not put on any varnish today.  Spirit varnish does not work in high humidity.  We'll see what tomorrow brings.  Keep your fingers crossed!   

    Finally, on October 2nd, things began to move again, and we were almost done.  I received this report: I have finished all the varnish coats and got a very good day in of polishing down to smooth everything and give the varnish depth.  Your little lady is looking beautiful if I may say so.  My apprentices have been tripping over each other to hold and admire her.  I've got another 1/2 day of polishing after about 4 hours this morning.  Have glued the fingerboard in place.  Tomorrow in the am I will cut and fit pegs, sound post, bridge, and string her up.  There will be some tweaking involved over a couple of days, and then she is yours to play!     

She Sang Her First Song

     It was Friday, October 5th, when I got this final ecstatic note: She sang her first song at 7:15 last night, and has been singing intermittently today, depending on when I had time to play her.  She is full throated to say the least!  A gorgeous tone.  I get warm fuzzies just playing her.  It was love at first note! Can't wait for you to play her.

By the hands of this doctor-turned-violin-maker another beautiful baby violin had been lovingly brought into the world.   

    It was several days later when my schedule finally permitted the three hour drive from Weybridge to Glover to meet my new violin in person.  Snow lay around the workshop as we drove up, but inside instruments in various stages of manufacture and repair filled the room, and it was warm and comfortable.  

                            My violin turned out to be even more lovely than its pictures.  A bow across

                       the strings convinced me that our relationship was going to be a very satisfying one.

    The instructions from Thurmond, reminiscent of those to a mother bringing a new baby home from the hospital, were to spend as much time with her as I could.  This would ensure her best development.  A technical reason lay back of this advice, however, for as the violin matured and aged, her wood fibers would be loosened and shaped with the vibrations of her sound, until her tone grew richer, fuller, and even more beautiful than at first.

    It was easy advice to follow, for in the weeks and months since I brought her home, my lioness-headed violin has given me ever greater pleasure.  Her beautiful voice is often lifted in song, and it is rapidly maturing into a rich and moving contralto that carries its warmth from the deepest even up to the highest notes.  She is indeed a rare treasure.

                                                        Ida H. Washington                                         Weybridge, Vermont 

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