I 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 experimented with materials and methods. It was a stimulating international cultural exchange that benefited each of us.