was born in Beatrice, Nebraska, a small town south of the state capitol, Lincoln. My parents were active choral singers and they wanted their children to have the musical training and opportunities that they were unable to enjoy. My three sisters and I got music lessons and each played more than one instrument. I started out learning to play piano and beyond that, my choice of another instrument to play went from not feeling comfortable with the violin after trying it, to trying the cello and not really connecting with it, to seeing a bass for the first time in sixth grade and suddenly realizing I wanted to play it.
My father's family business was a lumberyard, started by my great grandfather. As a young boy, I grew up playing in the J. G. Wiebe Lumberyard and being around the fresh smell of lumber. My father, Oscar Wiebe, was interested in fine woods and their finishing, and I developed my interest in it by listening to him talk about his love of wood. My parents bought me an older, inexpensive bass to play in the 10th grade which had essentially been painted over its original varnish with brown paint. I started wondering if I could improve it by taking off the paint and returning it to something approximating original. I consulted with a violin repairman, Mark Pierce, in nearby Lincoln, Nebraska for advice and asked him about refinishing the bass. He guessed that even with my inexperience, I probably couldn't make it any worse and maybe it would actually be improved. I began the refinishing process with Mr. Pierce as my advisor on the project and also drew on the additional advice of my father and other friends who were refinishers of antique furniture to guide me. It ended up really looking much better with its honey maple colored satin varnish from the hardware store . This got my interest started in string instrument repair.
In 1970, a year before I left for Mittenwald, Germany to attend the violinmaking school there, I began working to improve my German language skills, which I had grown up speaking and hearing in my family, in anticipation of actually going to school there. By then, I had begun my undergraduate studies as a Music Major in Double Bass performance at the Univeristy of Missouri, Columbia, which I left to study violinmaking.
Training to become a violinmaker in Mittenwald, Germany at the Staatliche Fachschule für Geigenbau was a very exciting time. Getting there made it my first trip to Europe. The German language I had studied was more oriented to the northern German speaking accent, so when I finally arrived in Mittenwald, which is on the southern most border with Austria, I was surprised to hear the language sounding so different, even at times, not understandable. Over time I learned the Bavarian sound of the language. My master at the school was Alois Hornsteiner. My friends in the school included Martin Bouette, Andrea Gaffino, Pierre Jacquier, Andreas Kaegi, Taro Kinoshita, Camilla Kurti, Christine Marmy, Tom Metzler, Francis Morris, Peter and Wendy Moes, among many others, all of whom have gone on the become respected professionals in the international violinmaking community. Living there during my training offered me opportunities to do some traveling around Europe, including a bicycle trip across Germany from south to north. Traveling through numerous European countries was a mind-expanding experience, broadening my understanding of different cultures and people.
After returning to the United States following my violinmaking training in Mittenwald, I opened a very small shop in my hometown of Beatrice, where I started taking in some violin, viola, cello, and bass repairs. It was discouraging to work on the poor quality and low level of most of the instruments that came into my shop. For one thing, I wasn't trained to do repairs. Gradually I realized - making new instruments with beautiful wood, everything pristine and clean, was much more what I wanted to do. In Mittenwald, we had been taught to make new instruments, while being told that we should never try to make a living making them and should focus only on repairs. I wanted to try to make new instruments instead of repairing them. In this small shop, I made around 15 new instruments, including starting a bass.
After working in Beatrice for three years, I wanted to have my shop in my home for the convenience of being able to work more around the clock whenever I wanted to, so I looked for a suitable house that would be able to contain both shop and home. I found a run-down Victorian house in the small town of David City, Nebraska, about 100 miles from my hometown and moved my home and workshop into there. My workbenches were in what had been the living room, I had floor to ceiling storage shelving in the former dining room, and a large bandsaw in the former laundry room at the back of the house. After several years of outgrowing the house and becoming weary of the constant dust and woodshavings all over the house, I built a new workshop in the backyard. Originally, I had conceived of only staying in David City for a few years before moving on to greener pastures but as it turned out, I ended up living and working there for 27 years. Over the course of those years, my desire to restore this landmark house back to its original beauty required extensive ongoing work to the outside, as well as the inside.
Isolation can be an element of the lifestyle of independent violinmakers. In my Nebraska location, I felt deprived of collegial contact. Violinmaker friends encouraged me to attend the Oberlin Violinmaking Workshop in the summer to get back into the active scene of contemporary violinmaking. This workshop is a high level gathering of professional violinmakers from around the world who come together with their violinmaking projects and tools, and everyone works together on their individual instruments in a large space. Another welcome bonus of this setting is the social aspect of working and living with colleagues and friends in the business. I went there first in the summer of 1999 and found it very stimulating and inspiring. Attending this workshop gave my work an infusion of new ideas, some improved methods and a new insight into the human element of our violinmaking world. Since then, I have gone back several years and made many new friends.
One of the friends I made there came from the bowmaking workshop which runs concurrently with the violinmaking workshop. It was because of meeting the bowmaker Susan Lipkins that I ultimately moved my home, workshop and business to my current location of Woodstock, New York [see the section "About Susan Lipkins"].
I moved here to Woodstock in 2002 and a year later we broke ground to build an addition to the house in Woodstock, which now contains the entire workshop and wood storage. Sue and I share this shop where we work together daily. In this new workshop, there is now space for a friend to use an extra bench and comfortably spread out to work. In the last part of the year 2005, the Norwegian violinmaker, Jacob von der Lippe came to Woodstock with his family for four months, which allowed us to work together. Jacob has a thriving business in Oslo, Norway, received his training in Cremona, Italy, and we met at the Oberlin Violinmaking Workshop some years ago. During his stay here, he and I each made a cello side by side and exchanged ideas about methods and enjoyed discussions about construction concepts, instrument design ideas, and aspects of acoustical principles. We also made varnishes together and experiemented with materials and methods. It was a stimulating international cultural exchange that benefited each of us.
Woodstock, New York
hen people ask where I live and I say in Woodstock, New York, the question that often follows is, "Is that THE Woodstock?", famous for the Rock Concert? Yes, this is the one, the one in which many, many rock 'n' roll stars lived, including Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. It was that famous rock concert festival and the documentaries about it, the groundbreaking rock music that came out of Woodstock prior to the big concert and the subsequent afterglow which has made Woodstock, New York famous around the world. What is often overlooked in our popular culture's obsession with Rock and Roll music is that Woodstock had been an artist's colony for a long time before the rock 'n' rollers and hippies showed up, and has been one for well over a century. It has long been a haven for artists, painters, sculptors, writers, poets, theater and dance, jazz music and of course, last but certainly not least, classical chamber music.
Surprisingly few people know that the oldest summer chamber music festival in America is the Maverick Chamber Music Festival founded here in 1915. While this summer series goes largely unknown outside our region, it is is very well known on the inside of the chamber music scene, among the high and mighty of professional chamber music ensembles such as string quartets and trios, many of whom have played here at one time or another. The festival consists of concerts offered every weekend from mid June through mid September. Concerts take place on Saturday evenings at 6 pm., and Sundays at 3 pm. For example, the 2006 season presented the American, Borromeo, Brentano, Miami, Pacifica, Shanghai, St. Lawrence, Rosetti, and Tokyo String Quartets. Soloists included Zuill Bailey, Frederick Chiu, Felix Fan, Livia Sohn, Joshua Rifkin, and local jazz bass great, Dave Holland, among others. Please visit www.maverickconcerts.org for further information.
The concerts are presented in the Maverick Theater, a barn built by Hervey White and a group of volunteer artists in 1916 and was recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Hervey White wanted to create an environment that was free to any and all to perform music and present theater. The structure itself is very rustic and strictly a summer venue. Almost immediately it became the summer home to many of the finest string players from New York, who played concert after concert of chamber music every weekend on a very high level, much the same as other well known New England summer chamber music festivals. During those early years, Woodstock was a summer haven for numerous New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra players, looking to go to a cooler location away from the heat of the city. There is more history about Maverick to be found on the link to the Maverick Concerts website shown above. Additionally, an increasingly popular and ever more famous Woodstock Film Festival takes place in October and is an exciting happening bringing brand new films, film lovers and famous actors to town for a week. Visit www.woodstockfilmfestival.com for more information.
Woodstock is situated in the Catskill Mountains. The village has a permanent population of around 5,000 people and an equal number of weekenders, mainly from New York City. Woodstock has long been an escape for New Yorkers in the summer who wanted to seek cooler weather and get away from the sweltering heat and unrelenting noise of the city. Some of the earliest chamber music participants traveled to Woodstock by sailing up on the Hudson river on great river steamships and getting off at Kingston. The slight increase in altitude from Kingston to Woodstock makes it just a bit cooler here in the summer. As a tourist destination, Woodstock offers many intriguing shops and numerous interesting restaurants. There are many fine art galleries, including the well known Woodstock Center for Photography. Woodstock has managed to maintain a relatively homey and charming appearance, when compared with some more glitzy tourist towns, such as Aspen or Santa Fe. It is said that numerous celebrities have chosen to have homes in the Catskills and Woodstock because of the relaxed, casual, unhurried, blue jeans atmosphere Please plan to come for a visit sometime. If you are also planning to visit my workshop, please make an appointment first by calling 845-679-4453 or writing me an e-mail.
Back to the Top of the Page
DRIVING DIRECTIONS to
Woodstock, New York
oodstock is located a comfortable two-hour drive north of the New York City near the Hudson River, off of the New York State Thruway I-87. Woodstock is only 8 miles or about 10 minutes from the New York State Thruway.
When traveling to Woodstock from from New York City or from the south on I-87, the New York State Thruway, please use exit No. 19 for Kingston/Woodstock and follow the signs. After exiting the tollbooth, bear right onto Rt. 28 West to Pine Hill. Drive on Rt. 28 for approximately 5 miles until reaching a very well-marked sign for Woodstock, indicating a right turn onto Rt. 375. Follow Rt. 375 for about 3 miles until reaching a T intersection and stop sign at Rt. 212, which will be at the edge of the village. Turn left and follow 212 into the center of the village.
Woodstock is about one hour south of the capitol of New York State, Albany. When traveling from the north, please use exit 20 on the NY State Thruway I-87 marked as Saugerties/Woodstock and follow the signs. After exiting the tollbooth, make an immediate left turn towards Rt. 212, which is nearby at the stoplight. At Rt. 212, turn right and follow it for about 10 miles all the way into the village of Woodstock.
DRIVING DIRECTIONS to
The Workshops of David Wiebe and Susan Lipkins
As Rt. 212 comes into the village of Woodstock, it rises up a hill and in the very center is the village green. Immediately before the green, make the right turn onto Rock City Road and follow it for 1/2 mile to the 4-way stop on Glasco Turnpike. Make a sharp left onto Glasco and count 4 houses on the right, the 4th being your destination. The address is 2290 and the number is displayed next to the front door of the house. The house can be recognized by its lavender color paint and attached barn in natural pine siding with a yellow door, which is the workshop.
everal years ago, I wanted to acquire a ball joint swivel vise to hold violin plates for arching work after having tried one at the Oberlin Summer Violinmaking Workshop. After considering it for a while, I decided to design one which would have more capability than the smaller ones I had seen and tried, one large enough for cello making. I developed a design with drawings and gave a detailed written description to prototype fabricator. His interpretation of my design and specifications came out so ruggedly built that it became obvious that this unit would also be easily capable of handling bass parts during the making of a bass. And thus was born the Monsterballvise. As shown in the photos of it, the floor model is operated with foot pedals which develop gripping power on the ball of the ball joint by means of hydraulic pressure. One pedal releases the gripping pressure allowing the positioned object to be repositioned and with 3 or 4 quick pumps on the other foot pedal, the gripping pressure is reapplied thus locking-in the selected position to hold whatever projects have been attached to the top attachment plate. The system is quite simple but unique enough to have been awarded a patent by the Unites States Patent Office.
Subsequently, resulting from requests, a bench top version has been developed which is operated with a lever. A quarter turn of the lever in either direction will effect the position locking and unlocking on the Monsterballvise benchtop model.
Additional mechanical clamping systems are currently under development and will be tested and eventually also manufactured.
Semmel Enterprises is the company which manufactures the family of Monsterballvise products. Please visit our website:
http://www.monsterballvise.com for a much more detailed explanation and contact information.
Making Jon's Bass
s a former bass player, I have a special place in my heart for the lowest voice of any ensemble and the largest instrument with the deepest voice. Althought I do not play very much anymore, I continue to have urges to play and every few years, have felt compelled to make another bass. For violinmakers, there is a great deal to be learned acoustically from the double-bass. Historically, basses were seldom made by the very greatest of makers. Basses use up inordinant amounts of wood and varnish, not to mention the enormous amount of energy required to make one. Consequently, many basses were made by possibly slightly less skilled makers and often rudimentary wood workers and furniture makers. So the style of basses ranges from the comically peculiar basses resembling crude folk art made by those who seemingly barely understand what they were making to the wonderfully elegant, though briskly made basses by professional makers who had to rush through the job to get it done before starvation set in but clearly knew what they were doing. This latter style is very inspirational because it shows great skill, used with abandon and often results in a very free spirited kind of style.
The sheer size of a bass, awkwardness in working it, the space required, the wood required, the tooling-up necessary to make it, all these factors work against most professional violinmakers and, in this case, my peers and colleagues ever wanting to make a bass. It can be a daunting project but it can also be wonderfully sporting and exhilarating to make a bass. There is even derision directed at basses and those who make them. Perhaps some of that is based in the history of lesser workers having been relegated to making and repairing basses. However for myself, I have always railed against that. It has been my strongly held belief that every great maker of our era should make a bass or two in their lives and contribute their best effort to this part of our field. Most are very far from receptive.
As I would finish a bass and have it in my possession, surprisingly, someone would ask to buy it. I reasoned that I could always make myself another bass later so I would sell it. After making 5 other basses, the one pictured in this series was the first in which I was officially commissioned to make the bass. Jon Lane came to me, tried my guitar-shaped [cornerless] bass and asked me to make him a more standard bass with violin corners. Below are some selected images of the bass in various stages of progress, both before and after it was finished. While I have always enjoyed the free spirited approach to the bass style, often with many tool marks and somewhat rough construction, I work more towards a style that gives each step a bit more refinement and spend time giving care to details. I prefer to make a bass to the same level of quality as a violin or cello. For that reason, it probably takes me longer to make a bass than most bassmakers .
Jon's bass was made over the course of some months during the winter of 2002. Some selected images of the progress are available to view below.
The Trouble With Color
ne of the most elusive endeavors for me has been to try to photograph my instruments lit correctly to get the real-life color of the varnish to truly come through the photo. Early on in my working career, I was strongly influenced by photographs of great instruments and used those as my guides for the color direction of my varnish. What else did I have? I had no access to real Strads and Guarneris. Of course, I had heard that people such as Charles Beare were extremely particular about how well photographs of great instruments resembled their real versions, such that one of his books was apparently delayed in publishing by having the photo plates reprinted until he was satisfied they were right. Still I underestimated how much difference that could make.
As a violinmaker, who for many years lived far away from the more concentrated populations of great Italian instruments, I believe I, as well as many of my colleagues of that time, relied upon photographs to show us how those instruments looked. It was my belief that if I could make my instruments look just like the photographs, then they would be close to resembling classical style. Increased exposure to these real "flesh and blood" [wood and varnish] instruments over the years, when I held them in my hands and saw more of the real thing, led me to better understand the serious and dramatic differences. As the author of "Classical Italian Oil Varnish", Geary Baese wryly observed, "The eye is a treacherous organ!" And so I began to relearn what I thought I knew.
My own personal experience grew from the practice of having my finished instruments professionally photographed. This process taught me a great deal over time, as we strove to find the way to get the lighting to reproduce an accurate image of the original. As I began photographing my own instruments outside of a photographic studio, I struggled with my inability to reproduce an accurate representation of the "in-person" color that I perceived when holding the instrument myself. After a considerable number of attempts to achieve the natural color, it became apparent that the most realistic color was obtained by using natural light. The trouble with that is the best way to photograph an instrument is with specially aimed lights coming from a steep angle at the side to minimize the reflection from the rise and fall of the archings. As far as I know, there simply is no good way to control natural light to accomplish a well lit instrument photo. Of course, many complex filters are available for cameras to try to compensate in the exposure to the film what the artificial light creates. Digital cameras have settings which are supposed to compensate but while the result is an improvement, is still not the look of the real thing in person.
Below are three instruments which are photographed in both natural light and artificial light using no filters on the camera - a viola, a cello, and a bass. The images on the left are lit with an artificial light and those on the right are lit with natural light. I bring all this up because when viewing photos of instruments, it can be so deceptive to try to preceive the actual color of the varnish of an instrument from the image. If you had seen a photo of the original and were presented in person with the original, in some cases, you might not recognize it. Perhaps in comparing the images of each instrument side by side below, it will offer some insight for future viewing, which will enhance the viewer's ability to be more discerning. Many of the images in my casual snapshot gallery were lit with halogen lamps, thus causing them to appear redder [or oranger] than in person. Halogen lamps are touted as having extremely neutral and very white light. I do like them very much for my work but they still show the varnish much redder in a photo than it looks in person in natural light. It is something additional to consider when viewing photos of instruments and even helpful to consider when viewing real instruments and holding them.
A Bad Break
his area is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. Enter only if you feel quite brave.
he point of showing this is to remind you that there is usually a way to make things whole again, even when it seems out of the realm of possibility at the time. God forbid anyone should have such an experience, and fortunately, this seldom happens to anyone. However, occasionally, an accident can occur with an instrument and it can be heart wrenching for the owner. This series of snapshots shows a cello owned by Roy Harran. He had left it backstage, and consciously and carefully well out of the way of any traffic. Still, someone found their way into this area and tripped, falling down on the cello. He was traumatized by this dreadful situation and we all hope we never have to see this.
Had this been a Strad cello, it would have been repaired by an extremely skilled restorer, who would have been able to make every crack invisible or very nearly so. Painstaking work of this kind is very expensive. However, on an instrument from a living maker, either the maker can repair the damage or make a replacement part. In this case, and two other such cases, I elected to simply make a new top for the instrument. To unify the final result, I removed the majority of the varnish from the rest of the instrument and then varnished the new top along with the rest to tie it all together visually. This outcome gave the owner back his instrument, once again restored to whole and with no loss of value.
Click to Enlarge Pictures
Copyright ©2006 David Wiebe, Violinmaker