String Instrument Making

Traditionally, the French word 'lutherie,' used in both French and English, denotes the art of building bowed string instruments - violin, violas, cellos, and double-basses - and the bows themselves.
Traditionally, the French word 'lutherie,' used in both French and English, denotes the art of building bowed string instruments - violin, violas, cellos, and double-basses - and the bows themselves.

String Instrument Making

Traditionally, the French word 'lutherie,' used in both French and English, denotes the art of building bowed string instruments - violin, violas, cellos, and double-basses - and the bows themselves. By extension, it includes the building of other instruments: the viol family and plucked-string instruments such as the guitar, lute, and mandolin. "Luthier" is the name given to a person who is devoted to building, maintaining, and repairing these instruments. This entry deals with instruments of the violin family. The EMC entries Guitar; Instruments: medieval, renaissance, and baroque; and Lute provide information on the principal builders of other string instruments in Canada.

String instrument building is both an art and a science, and its principles and laws have been defined over the centuries, culminating in a 'golden age' in 18th-century Italy, chiefly in Cremona, with three famous names: Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari. In addition to Cremona, other cities - Naples, Venice, and Milan in Italy, Paris and Mirecourt in France, and Mittenwald in Germany - subsequently acquired reputations as centres for string instrument building. Besides the professional makers who learned their skills through apprenticeship with masters or, more recently, in schools for instrument building, self-taught amateurs occasionally have acquired mastery of the art.

Early Canadian Luthiers

In Canada numerous luthiers have belonged in the amateur category but have remained little known, in part because records were not kept. As early as 1930 the Toronto firm of R.S. Williams & Sons contemplated compiling a dictionary of Canadian string instrument builders and for this purpose had gathered information on several hundred amateur luthiers, some of whose dates went back as far as 1750. The following were among those who worked in Canada in the early part of the 20th century.

James Croft came to Winnipeg from England after training at Hill in London, and began making violins in 1915. He was succeeded by his son Henry James Croft. August(e) Delivet, b Mirecourt 1861 d 1928, was a recognized Parisian luthier who made several instruments for R.S. Williams in Toronto (1920-7). James Dyer was a respected violin maker whose instruments have been owned by professional musicians, although he did not pursue a full time career as a luthier until after 1950.

Sid Engen moved to Canada from Norway at an early age and set up shop in Dauphin, Manitoba where he began making violins in 1919. His copies of instruments by Stradivari and Guarneri won prizes at exhibitions in the US. Peter Murray Bell b Owen Sound, Ont in 1879, settled in Calgary at the beginning of the 20th century, and his instruments enjoyed a considerable reputation. In Vancouver, 'Doc' (Warren Fulton) Porter began building instruments ca 1920. By 1980 he had made more than 100 violins.

George Heinl worked 1920-6 in Ottawa and later opened his own establishment in Toronto, where he was succeeded by his son and two grandsons. George Kindness, a former Williams employee opened his own shop in Toronto in 1921. William Knaggs worked in Toronto 1888-1920. He allegedly won a prize at an exhibition in Paris in 1900.

Violin Making in Quebec

The presence of a violin in Quebec City as early as 1645 is documented. Someone, probably Martin Boutet, played it at a wedding. The inventories increased by some 20 violins and as many viols after the demise of the French Regime. Although the types of wood required for their construction - fir, spruce, and maple - were found in abundance in Canada, only a single trace has come down to us of the building here of such an instrument. In 1705, a middle-class merchant from Quebec, Dominique Bergeron, commissioned a bass viol from Noël Levasseur, sculptor and ornamentalist (La Vie musicale, p. 353-356).

It may be supposed that amateurs managed to build many of the instruments used for accompanying social dancing and other entertainments. In 1788 in Quebec City F.-H. Glackemeyer advertised that he repaired guitars and sold strings and bridges. Around 1820 Pierre-Olivier Lyonnais learned from the bandmaster Adam Schott how to make violins and was the first in a line of string instrument builders of this name, the last of whom died in 1921. History has preserved few names of luthiers from this period. At L'Assomption, near Montreal, Pierre Martel, the grandfather of Oscar Martel, built violins, two of which were said to have been displayed in Paris in 1877, earning him considerable praise (Coup d'oeil sur les arts en Nouvelle-France, 1941). Oscar's father was also a string instrument builder. Augustin Lavallée (father of Calixa Lavallée) and his son Charles are believed to have built some 150 violins in the second half of the 19th century. In 1879 the senior Lavallée successfully restored a valuable Guarnerius belonging to Frantz Jehin-Prume, after it had been severely damaged in an accident. Trefflé R. Gervais, born in Quebec in 1863, went to Boston in 1877 as an employee of Gould & Sons and subsequently produced many highly prized instruments. Gould also trained T.-O. Dionne, who in 1890 opened a workshop in Montreal where he in turn trained his successor, Rosario Forget.

However, it was the Bayeur brothers, Rosario and Albert, who first attracted international attention to Canadian string instrument building when a violin of theirs belonging to Claude Champagne placed sixth in a competition assessing tone quality in Paris in 1921. Camille Couture also won bronze medals at Wembley, England, in 1924 and 1925. The following were active in Montreal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Adolphe Blanchette (known particularly for his bows), D.-H. Dansereau, J.-H. Davignon, Ovide Richer, and Hormisdas Saint-Cyr. After 1930 and into the second half of the century in Montréal the names of Jean Gobeil, Cyrice Martin (father of the violinist Lucien Martin), Napoléon Rhéaume, Antoine Robichaud, Edward Rusnac, and Anton Wilfer deserve mention. In Quebec City Charles-Lévis Laterreur (b St-Isidore, Dorchester, near Quebec City, 23 May 1904) built some 70 violins and 200 guitars. In 1968 a bursary from the Ministère des Affaires culturelles du Québec (MACQ) enabled him to perfect his skills in Europe with master builders. Léonard Otis of Chicoutimi received a bursary from the MACQ in the late 1970s. Maurice Prince from St-Boniface, Man, built violins that were praised by Menuhin, Szeryng, and Francescatti. In Moncton ca 1920 Joseph LeBlanc built for his son Arthur LeBlanc two violins that are preserved in the museum of the University of Moncton.

École Nationale de Lutherie

Italian-born Sylvio de Lellis (1923-1998) came to Canada in 1964 and lived in Québec City from 1971 to 1980. In 1979 the MACQ granted him a subsidy to open a school for string instrument building, the first in Canada; the École de Lutherie Artistique du Noroît (ÉLAN), founded in Québec City in 1983, was an offshoot of this project.

In 1984, two Cégeps, (in Limoilou near Québec City) and Old Montréal were selected for specialized arts education, and in1989, a Diplôme d'Études Collégiales (DEC) in Technical crafts was developed by the Québec Ministry of Education with a luthier option at Limoilou.

After ÉLAN withdrew from collegial training in the mid 1990s, the Centre de formation et de consultation en métiers d'art (CFCMA) took over and founded the École Nationale de Lutherie, in 1997, which has remained the only institution in Canada that offers a 3 year DEC programme in the discipline. Beginning in 2005, the Cégep du Vieux Montréal offered a program in guitar making in collaboration with l'école-atelier Bruand.

The school aims to respond to the needs of its graduates and professional luthiers in Québec by offering a range of other services such as access to space and equipment, research support, master classes and conferences.

Among those who have taught at the school have been Jean-François Raffin. Raffin had studied at Mirecourt with French masters Étienne Vatelot and Bérnard Millant, with whom he later co-authored Les Tourtes et les archetiers francais de 1750 1950. His students have included Louis Bégin, André Lavoie, Richard Compartino, and Hubert Chanon.

Luthiers across Canada

The following is an alphabetical list with brief descriptions of some string instrument and bow makers who have been active in Canada in the later half of the 20th century and into the 21st. Some were trained abroad and brought their skills to Canada: others were born and trained here.

Louis Bégin, bow maker, b Montréal 27 Apr 1947, studied guitar and viola da gamba before turning to bow making. He studied with Jean-Yves Matter (Québec), Gilles Duhaut (France), William Salchow (New York), and Rodney Mohr (Lexington). He began making bows in 1987 and has specialized in period bows.

Clayton S. Boudreau, violin maker, b Rockland, Ont, 11 Apr 1931, was self-taught. He opened a shop in Fredericton, NB, in 1983. By 1999 he had made a fair number of bows.

Peter Chandler, instrument maker, b 1 Nov 1928, d 26 Jan 2007, was self-taught. Born in England, Chandler settled in Ilderton, Ont, as a farmer, and took up string instrument making and repairs in retirement. He made double basses (including a collapsible model), vertical violas, harps, and other instruments. He wrote the book So ...You want to make a Double Bass, that includes detailed plans and diagrams. (2001).

Hubert Chanon, violin and bow maker, b Mâcon, France, 6 Oct 1957, studied violin and bow making and restoration in Lyons and New York before establishing his shop, the Atelier de Lutherie, in 1985 in Sherbrooke. In 2012, he continued to make violins and bows for violin, viola, and cello.

Pierre Charette, violin maker, b Sudbury, Ont, 16 Jul 1956, studied 1976-80 at the Scuola Internazionale di Liuteria in Cremona, Italy, and has studied restoration with various US and European experts. In 1981 he established a shop in Montréal, where he made and repaired violins, violas, and cellos. In 1997 he began working with Hélène Cossette who specialized in varnish. In 2012, Charrette & Cossette Luthiers in Montréal continued their work, also making viols.

Jean-Pierre Demontigny, violin maker, b St-Louis-de-France, Que, 3 Jun 1948, established a shop in Trois-Rivières in 1980. By 2012, his shop Lutherie de Monti, dealt in the restoration, sale, and repair of all string instruments and bows, as well as mandolins, guitars and accordions.

Otto Erdesz, (1917-2000), a Hungarian maker who had practised in Israel, established a shop in Toronto in 1975 and later one in Niagara Falls, NY. He earned special renown for his "cutaway" violas, and was a major influence on many Canadian luthiers including John Newton and David Prentice. He was at one time married to violist Rifka Golani.

André Gadoury, luthier, b Montréal 14 Dec 1940, developed an interest in violin making through is uncle Raymond Tétreault and his grandfather Louis Tétreault, both luthiers. He made his first instrument in 1983, but pursued mechanical engineering as his primary career. In 1997, on retirement, he devoted himself full time to his passion, specialising in violins and violas.

Mario Gendron, bow maker, b Amqui, Que, 11 Sep 1958, was mainly self taught and influenced by Antoine Robichaud and Peter Mach. At his shop in Montréal, he initially focussed on bows, but by 2012, with over 30 years of experience in the field, he has expanded to include lutes and bowed viols.

James Ham, b Augusta, Georgia 1949, was primarily self-taught. He moved to Victoria BC in 1972 to pursue instrument repair and open his first shop. He came into the public eye when he made a bass for Gary Karr on commission in 1995. A member of the American Federation of Violin and Bowmakers, Ham has made a gamba model double bass, Balsa wood instruments, and has written articles on instrument making. In 2012 he has continued working at his home studio in Victoria.

Brian Hoover, violin maker, b Victoria, BC, 1949, played double bass professionally before studying violin making. He graduated from the Chicago School of Violinmaking in 1986, and worked for Gerald Stanick for four years at the Vancouver Violin Shop. In 1991 he opened his own shop The Village Violin Maker in the Greater Vancouver area, where he built and repaired all instruments of the violin family. In 2008 he became involved in drumming, wellness and TaKeTiNa.

Reid Hudson, bow maker, b Toronto 21 Sep 1952, apprenticed with Joseph Kun in the mid-1970s and took a study tour in Cremona in 1976. He had a shop in Eganville, Ont, 1977-80 before moving to Vancouver Island. In 1992, the Canadian Museum of Civilization acquired one of his bows for their collection. In 2012, Hudson continued to make quality bows used by musicians in Canada, the USA, Europe, Scandinavia and the Far East.

Leif Karlsson, violin maker, b Stockholm 28 Jul 1943, apprenticed in Stockholm 1959-67 with Bengt Lindholm, studied in 1967 in Mittenwald, West Germany, and worked for Arnold Dolmetsch Ltd in Surrey, England, 1969-72, where he made lutes and viols. He joined Ealing Strings in London in 1972 and in 1974 moved to Canada. In 1980 he worked in the shop of Roland Wiklund in Sweden. He opened his own shop in 1983 in Calgary.

Joseph Kun, violin and bow maker, b Košice, Czechoslovakia, 13 Apr 1930, d Ottawa 8 Apr 1996, apprenticed in Košice under Vladimir Pribyl 1948-53 and practised violin and bow making part-time 1953-68 while teaching violin at the Czechoslovakian State Conservatory (he graduated as a violinist from the latter in 1956). He moved to Canada in 1968 and opened a shop in Ottawa. Kun won several international prizes for his instruments and bows. He developed the Kun shoulder rest, which in 2012, continued to be sold and marketed from the Ottawa shop.

Mario Lamarre, violin maker, b Notre-Dame-des-Laurentides, Que, 21 Feb 1956, studied wood sculpture before turning to violin making with Sylvio de Lellis, and taught (1980-6) at the Atelier École de Lutherie Artistique., which later became the École de Lutherie Artistique du Noroît. In addition to building and repairing violins, violas, cellos and double basses, Lamarre has developed his own style and introduced innovations in his instrument-making such as beautifully carved scrolls and a double bass with a removable neck. In 2012 he has continued working in his Montréal shop.

Ivo Loerakker, violin maker, b Haarlem, Holland, 6 May 1951, graduated from the Mittenwald school of violin making in 1973, moved to Canada in 1974 to work for Claude Fougerolle in Montréal, and opened his own shop in Montréal in 1977. He moved to St-Barthélémy, Que. in 1982, where he continued to work in 2012. He has participated in exhibitions and competitions in Canada and abroad, and is a member of the American Federation of Violin and Bowmakers.

Peter Jaroslav Mach, violin maker, b Brezce, Czechoslovakia, 8 Jun 1945, worked as a pattern maker for an engineering firm and studied violin making part-time in Czechoslovakia before moving to Canada (1969) and worked under Joseph Kun (1975-6). He won Canada Council grants to attend the Scuola Internazionale di Liuteria in Cremona 1976-80. After graduating he returned to Canada in 1980 and opened a shop in Aylmer, Que. He has made and repaired all instruments and bows of the violin family. In 1997 he developed the Mach One shoulder rest for violin and viola, and ten years later another model, the M-07 - entirely made in Canada.

Piet (Peter) Molenaar, opened a workshop in Toronto in 1951.

Rino Righele, luthier, b (St Caterina) Schio, Italy, 8 Aug 1942, trained as a machinist and draftsman in Italy before becoming a self-taught violin maker. In 1978, he established a shop in Vancouver where he made and repaired violins, violas, cellos and bows. Righele has made a hybrid five string violin/viola at his shop, where he continued to work in 2012.

Jules Saint-Michel (Gyula Szentmihaly), violin maker, b Budapest 14 Jun 1933, first studied medicine and moved to Canada after the 1956 Hungarian revolution. He studied under Antoine Robichaud and researched the varnish of old Italian instruments. At his shop in Montréal, established in 1972, he made modern instruments of the violin family. In 2012, the shop remained on Ontario St West. Over the years, services expanded to include an Economuseum that presented exhibits on the evolution of violin making in Québec and the history of some instruments in his collection.

Jean-Benoît Stensland and Thérèse Girard have operated a shop together in Montréal. Stensland, violin maker, b 1 Jan 1960, studied privately with Jules Saint-Michel and Antoine Robichaud. Girard, violin and bow maker, b 28 July 1958, also studied with Saint-Michel, has studied bow making in Cremona, and has made period bows. Both graduated from Scuola Internazionale di Liuteria in Cremona in 1984. In 2012, J.B. Stensland & T Girard was located on Ste Catherine St W in Montréal. By that time, Stensland had made more than 350 instruments. Girard specialized in bow frogs and buttons. Both have examples of their work in the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Michael Vann, bow maker, b Lisse, Holland, 28 Jun 1940, moved to Canada in 1953 and trained with William Salchow in New York. He made a quartet of bows presented to the Colorado Quartet for winning the Banff International String Quartet Competition in 1983. He worked in Edmonton for a time, but later operated his shop, Vann Bowed Instruments, on Gabriola Island, BC. Vann has won international awards for his bows which are used by esteemed performers worldwide. He has remained active in 2012.

Bernard (Phillip) Walke, bow maker, b Toronto 2 Aug 1952, studied biology at the University of Guelph (BSC, 1976). He apprenticed with Peter Mach 1980-1; in 1982 he opened his own shop in Toronto where he made copies of important post-Tourte bows. He settled in Ottawa in 1984, and began private research into historical bows for the violin and viola da gamba families. In 2012 he continued to make early and modern bows for violin, viola, cello, and bass. Bernard has often collaborated with his brother Gregory. G. Walke enrolled in the Welsh School of Violin Making and Repair (GB) 1979-82, and furthered his studies in Europe. He returned to work in Canada and opened a shop in Paisley, Ont in 1988 with his wife, luthier Sibylle Ruppert.

Wilder & Davis Luthiers, violin and bow makers, established a shop in 1991 in Montréal. Richard Davis, b Seattle, Wash, 15 Apr 1954, trained at the Chicago School of Violinmaking 1982-6 and apprenticed for five years with Roland Feller in San Francisco. Tom Wilder, b Toronto 9 Jan 1958, also studied at the Chicago School, apprenticed with Hans Weisshaar in Los Angeles, worked in shops in Paris, Seoul and Toronto, and specialized in restoration. In 1994 Davis returned to the US but Wilder maintained the shop and the name. In 2002, he opened a branch in Canmore, Alberta, which in 2007 relocated near the Banff Centre for the Arts.

Dominik Zuchowicz b Winnipeg 26 Mar 1949, d Ottawa 8 Feb 2011, has made over 300 instruments in the viol and violin families.

Distinguished violin and bow makers in Canada in 2012 have included Stephen Marvin, David Tamblyn, Quentin Playfair, Masa and Miki Inocuchi (who also make "cornerless" models) (Toronto), Trevor Ewart (Kitchener), Olivier Perot (Montréal), Jaak Liivoja-Lorius, Greg Dahms (Ottawa), Pierre Bouteiller (Gatineau, Que) and many others too numerous to mention.

With a diminishing world supply of fine wood for superior instruments, the use of carbon fibre for bows and instruments has become an option in the 21st century, however most have been manufactured in the USA.

See also The Violinmakers Association of British Columbia

Further Reading

  • Bachmann, Alberto. An Encyclopedia of the Violin (New York and London 1925; New York 1966)

    Massicotte, É.-Z. 'Violons et luthiers,' Le bulletin de recherches historiques, vol 41, Apr 1935

    Royer, Henri. 'Lutherie à Québec,' R Saint-Grégoire (Mar 1951)

    Henley, William ed. Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers (Brighton, England, 1959-60) also 1973 edition

    Vannes, René. Dictionnaire universal des luthiers (Brussels 1972)

    Bardsley, Alice. 'Violin making an art,' Atlantic Advocate (Oct 1973)

    Colgrass, Ulla. 'Violinmaker scoffs at "Stradivarius sauce",' Music, Mar-Apr 1979

    Potvin, Gilles'.Bowed string instrument making in Canada: a sparse history,' Musicanada, 48, May 1982

    Huot, Cécile. Si mon violon m'était conté (Montreal 1988)

    L'ÉLAN, publication of the École de lutherie artistique du Noroît, Winter 1989-

    Begin, Carmelle, and Nebel, Constance. Opus: The Making of Musical Instruments in Canada (Hull 1992)

    Curtain, Joseph. "Chip off the old block," (Otto Erdesz Remembered), The Strad, Nov 2000

    Chandler, Peter. So. . . You Want to Make a Double Bass (Ilderton, Ont 2001)

    Picard, Guylaine. 'Martel, Pierre,' Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol 12

    Gallat-Morin, Élisabeth and Pinson, Jean-Pierre. La Vie musicale en Nouvelle-France (Quebec, 2003)

    Saskia Latendresse, and Claire Godin "Le violoncelle et le luthier," La Scena Musicale vol 8, 3 apr 2003

    Picard, Isabelle. "L'école nationale de la lutherie," La Scena Musicale vol 10, 2 Nov 2004

    Taglabue, John. "Etienne Vatelot: taking life by the strings," New York Times, 2 Dec 2005

    My Space - a peak into lutherie workshops around the world.. Interview with Mario Lamarre, The Strad, March 2011

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