Making a Violin: I Choose the Wood

20140211_055112 I’ve never had a relationship with wood before.  Don’t get me wrong. I love wood. I knock on it for luck, hug a tree in the wilderness, admire a lovely piece of furniture, but I haven’t loved it like a wood worker loves it.  There is a specialty wood store in town and my husband took me there as if it was a field trip.  He stood in front of the wood displays as if they were pieces of art.  I stood next to him and nodded my appreciation, but I didn’t see what he saw.  I didn’t understand. But now I have an inkling.  Textiles, clay, paint, words, have been the tools of my creative expression.  Wood, not so much.  Wood existed in nature, and wood existed in ready made furniture.  When unfinished furniture stores became popular I first realized that the wood needed to be stained or painted, that it didn’t come that way out of the tree, kind of like discovering that chocolate milk doesn’t come from chocolate cows.

 Picking the wood was a whole process in itself. I found the maple I wanted to use with no problem.   But the top, the spruce was more difficult.  So many factors.  Do I want bright or do I want sweet and warm? Is the grain straight all the way through?  I had narrowed my choice down to two, but one of the pieces was still in its wedge form, it hadn’t been cut yet, so I couldn’t hear it ring.  The other one, had a nice tone when I tapped on it, but I was drawn to the grain on the thick one and I wanted to hear it sing. I spent almost an hour and we had to put it aside and wait. Brian will cut it so that I can hear the ring.  Not that that really means anything, there is so much more, but I want to hear the ring and then I’ll know.

So we cut the one piece that was still in the wedge and still I couldn’t choose.  I held the wood as I was shown and tapped on it.  It rang. The wood sang. I tapped on the other piece. It too sang. A different sound, but still resonant.  Which one would sound best with the bottom I had chosen. I couldn’t decide.  I couldn’t see into the future. Which one. Eeny meeny minty mo.   In the end it was the feel of the wood as I gouged a piece of it.  Brian said,  “which one do you want to work with.  So I went for the one that carved in a way that felt comfortable to me. Not right or wrong or better, just good for me.  It’s so interesting, this subjective choosing.  I wanted Brian to make the choice for me, “which would you choose?” I asked, but he wouldn’t tell me. “They’re both good.”

And still, with all this planning and theorizing about what the wood will end up sounding like, no one knows.  It is truly like the birth of a child. I hold the wood up to the light and try to see the future. But I can’t.  So much can go wrong.  I could end up with a pretty lump of varnished wood that has no sound, no soul.  Or I could end up with something sublime. 

Making a Violin: Ribs, linings and a bit of Uh Oh


Ribs around mold with linings glued and clamped

Ribs around mold with linings glued and clamped

This blogging thing definitely requires consistency, which I don’t seem to have had.  So we are now fast forwarding a bit. Brian had me make a practice back but I didn’t want to write about the practice part, I was waiting for the real thing, as if practice is not real. Or maybe I didn’t want to overstay my blogging welcome.   But here I am, I’ve now been out of practice mode for over a month and I haven’t written a thing. This is where writing block meets wood working.  More of a happy alliteration than anything else.

The ribs are now bent around the mold.  We thinned them on a machine to 1.1 millimeters.  So thin, that I was afraid to breathe on them, amazing that something so thin and delicate supports the instrument. The ribs are bent around a hot iron like machine.   There are six pieces to the ribs.  It’s an awkward process because you don’t want to overbend them, the whole idea is to get the flow of the shape.   Heat allows the thin wood to soften enough so that it can be molded and shaped, but then once it cools it goes back to its more rigid form.  It’s tricky and delicate and the iron is hot and it’s easy to get burned.  Brian bent the center curves but let me play with the outside ones.  I put a drop of water on the wood and heard the sizzle and then as I’m holding the wood against the iron with a metal strap that I hold onto tight I felt the give.  As ifs the wood let out a deep sign and relaxed, it was at that point that I pulled the metal strap around the curve of the iron.  Not too much.  We then placed the rib around the mold.  I forgot the blocks. I’d spent the past few weeks cutting the blocks.  The blocks fit in the mold and the ribs are glued to the blocks.  Brian picked out some perfect pieces of wood for the blocks and I had to square that and then measure them to a precise height.  He pulled out one perfect piece that he said he’d been carrying around for over 10 years.  Maybe longer. A long time to have a block of wood sit around. It was beautiful and all I had to do was keep it square and sand it to the correct height. 

Square isn’t something that seems to work well with me.  It was supposed to be idiot proof. The rotating sand paper was already square to the base plate. All I had to do was hold it evenly and let the rotation do the work.  I blame it on being short.  That’s the only rational reason I can think of as to why I couldn’t actually just hold the block steady.  The machine was too high, it was awkward. I pushed just ever so slightly against the top, not holding it even and what happened?  A fraction of a millimeter. That’s all it takes, a hundredth of a millimeter and I had sanded the block at an angle. An angle that was enough off square to relegate that piece of wood that Brian had been saving for just such an occasion, that piece of wood that now would not fulfill it’s destiny, it would never become a cornerstone of a violin. 

So that was the blocks, but now I was on the ribs.  So much of this process is about flow, it is all  line and visual beauty.  I watch Brian as he helps me bend the ribs.  He pushes and prods the wood to get the perfect flow.  He says, “see, it’s not quite right there,” and I look at where he’s pointing. I nod. Of course I nod, I don’t want to seem like an idiot, but I do not completely see.  My eye is not truly trained, but when he takes the rib and flattens it out a bit on one of the curves, then I see. I understand. The eye just knows that this is a restful curve. This is a powerful curve. This is a curve that will withstand sour notes and hours of repetition to get the sound just right. This is a curve that will cradle the baby to sleep, that will hold the future.

And then it cracks.  The final push into place and I hear it.  The malleable wood had hardened again and it didn’t want to be coaxed or pushed or cajoled, so it cracked. Crack.  Say it over and over again, crack.  A firecracker, a crack in the armor, the crack of dawn, a crack in the rib.  Brian said not to worry, it happens all the time, we had extra ribs to thin and bend.  But it was my first time and I didn’t want it to happen to me.

I came back the next week and we had an extra piece of wood to use.  We cut it to size and bent it.  It seemed so promising, and once again just before it was in place, crack.   As loud and deafening as a crack of thunder, that small little crack in the wood reverberating through the small studio.  We only had one piece left. One piece that matched the other ribs perfectly, one piece already thinned to its’ impossible thinness.  We held our collective breath.  It held. 

Then there are the liners.  I was worried about the thinness of the ribs, how easy it would be to poke a hole through them, but I needn’t have worried.  There is a set of shadow ribs, made of willow and not quite as thin.  These, too, are bent and fitted next to the ribs. 

I have to back up a bit.  Because I don’t think I’ve mentioned the mold.  The mold is just that.  It is in the shape of the violin and the ribs are bent around it and glued to the blocks that are lightly glued to the mold.  The ribs are bent around the mold and the linings are attached to the ribs but they don’t cover the total rib, they are attached above and below the mold, so that when the mold is removed at the end the linings will not meet in the middle. There will be a gap that is still impossibly thin all around the middle.

I love the linings.  I love the stability and security they create.  There is strength and elegance in the curves and the structure.



Making A Violin: How it Began


First of all I want to tell the story of how this crazy journey began.  Of course, being a writer it starts with a story. Or the hope of a story.    I was in story discovery mode, finding my way, finding my characters, searching for their story and I found that one of them was making a violin. Hmmmmm. Not sure how I ended up at that storyline, but go with the gifts.  So being the good little researcher that I am,  I promptly went online and watched some videos and ordered a few books about making a violin.  but I still didn’t know what it felt like. I wanted to feel what it like to make an instrument.  I called a local violin maker (luthier) and asked him if he could teach me how to make a violin.  A bit naïve of me, as if it was something we could knock off in a weekend.  He said, no, he didn’t do that, he didn’t take on people who wanted to make just one instrument, he only took on apprentices who were getting into the trade.  Then I called TEMPLATEANDMOLDanother gentleman in town who makes violins and also repairs them. He said he’d be willing to talk about it.  So my husband and I went to his studio. I’ve had him do repairs on my fiddle, so I knew the man. A crusty grumpy kind of fellow.  Codger would describe him.

He took us to his garage which was filled with bits of violins, pieces of wood and fiddles that had been taken apart.

I wanted to take the process from the ground up, to actually start with the wedge and carve it to the final shape. He pulled out some pieces of wood that were almost finished, more like working from a kit and told me we could start from these. Then he began a long lecture about varnishes which I didn’t completely follow given that he was getting pretty technical.  Then he stopped for a moment and looked at me.  Why aren’t you taking notes?  You know,” he said,”  I don’t believe in women’s’ lib.”

I’m 62 years old and he is probably 75. I had no idea why he said that. Maybe because I wasn’t taking notes; or because I didn’t understand varnish, or because I just wanted to make a fiddle.  Oh great. A grumpy misogynist. If I couldn’t find anyone else I would have worked with him, but his process wasn’t what I was looking for. I didn’t really know what I was looking for.  One day I just thought instruments came from stores, and the next I wanted to make one. I had never even made a plain box out of wood.  I’ve always been afraid of wood, afraid of the tools that woodworkers use.

“If I get three people who want to learn I’ll start a class, but in the mean time you might want to call……” and he gave me the name of someone else.

I didn’t want to wait for him to gather the number of people needed. I wanted to start yesterday.  I’ll do anything to avoid actually writing a novel.  I’ll take on a whole new career if need be, or so it seems.

At this point I was also doing some mental arithmetic about the likelihood of a town the size I lived in having three fiddle makers.  I called the name I was given. He was not easy to get ahold of. I left several messages and no one called me back. I was beginning to think that this wasn’t going to be quite as easy as I thought.  Finally I got the callback and I gave my pitch and John (I really can’t remember his name) said he’d be game to take it on but he thought that I was really interested in what someone named Brian Lisus was doing.  So, there I was on my 4th person. So much for third time the charm, but 4 worked and I found Brian.  Brian had recently moved from South Africa and he has been making violins for over 30 years and he also takes on students.


I went to his studio. To be fair, he is no longer in Santa Barbara, so the statistics of the number of violin makers in a small town was not destroyed.  He is 45 minutes away.  When you live in Santa Barbara a trip of 45 minutes back into the Ojai valley is a major excursion.  People commute from Ojai to Santa Barbara all the time but Santa Barbara is one of those towns that suck you in and then you don’t ever leave, not by choice, not without kicking and screaming as if to leave is to leave paradise, to leave the Eden of Eden.

But Ojai is a paradise, too, of sorts.  A quiet mountain town of artists and artisans and spiritual pilgrimages. Brian rents a small studio.  He is a master.  His instruments sing and I am so incredibly honored to have found him.

Why I Write

I was recently asked to write an essay titled Why I Write.  This is the result.


This is one of those questions that drive me crazy.  Really, it’s one of those questions that make me stare at the blank screen and wish it would go away.  I have never been any good at self analysis. I’m not comfortable talking about myself. I prefer to tell my characters stories, not mine.  I feel as if whatever I type sounds pretentious. Because ultimately this is the questions of why do we do anything that we love?  Especially those things that highlight our weaknesses, that put us in the vulnerable position of being judged or failing. Why do I play golf when the stupid ball won’t go into the hole no matter how much I will it to?  Why do I play my fiddle when it would be so much nicer to just sit and listen to a brilliant musician who makes the instrument and the music come together in a perfect marriage rather than a relationship on the way to a therapist? Why do I paint pictures that stack up in the closet until it’s time to reuse the canvas? Why, why, why?  I don’t know.  I often wonder why the things I do for enjoyment are frequently not enjoyable. I don’t think I’m a glutton for punishment.  But, the fact is I prefer to try my hand at something and fail miserably rather than sit around and watch other people do it well.  So what is it that I love? It’s the challenge, it’s the process, and it’s the discovery. I am in love with the process of discovery.


When I was in second grade I wrote a story about my life as a chair.  I imagined what it would be like to have all different people sit in me, fat people, skinny people, babies whose feet barely touched the floor, and restless kids who kicked my legs with abandon.   I wish I still had that story.  I don’t really remember all the details, and I’m probably remembering it as way more profound than it was, but I do know that the seed for why I write was planted back then in those early years.  I write to discover.  I write to discover places, I write to discover individual people and I write to discover the heart of humanity. That sounds big.  It almost scares me it’s so big.  But I’ll go on, because as I said it’s about discovery. This right here, right now, is the discovery of me.  Not easy.  I’ve never found myself too fascinating a subject. But what more is there?


I write to play, I write to challenge myself, and I write to slow myself down.  (Ahhh. I think I’ve found the kernel. Now it is time to hold it over the fire and watch it pop.) Slowing down, taking the time, listening.  This is the hardest part of the writing process, of any process; to slow myself down enough so that I am completely in the truth of the moment. Sanford Meisner was an acting coach who said, (and I’m paraphrasing) that acting is behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances.  It is the same with writing and storytelling. The characters are imaginary and they are placed in imaginary circumstances, but it is my job, my task, my joy to find the truth, to write what I see, not what I think I see.  In my world writing and painting are deeply connected.  The words are my brushes. When I paint I struggle to capture the values of colors, the subtle changes as one object interplays with another, as the light combines with the shape. Writing is really no different, except the palette is emotion and sound and meaning, not color.


And of course, through all this I am attempting to tell a story.  It is easy to become so enamored with the beauty of my flowing prose, with my finely drawn rendition of a character, but that is not what writing is about for me.  Ultimately it is the story. We love stories, sitting around the campfire or in front of the big screen. It is the stories that pull us forward. It is the story that gets us thinking, that takes us out of ourselves and into the characters, so that we experience their lives.  We shine a light on a moment in time, on a sequence of events that make us bigger than we are.  And there is the most incredible satisfaction in knowing that someone has read something I’ve written and enjoyed it.  Maybe because I feel that I have connected, even if I never meet the person, never talk to them about what they read and why it moved them, but I feel as if once the story is out there, I am out there as well. I am meeting people. I am on an adventure.  When my kids were young we had a favorite book that we read called Paddle to the Sea. It was about a little wooden canoe that a child had placed in one of the Great Lakes and we followed it as it made its way to the sea.  When I put a story out into the world it is like that little canoe.  I don’t know where it goes.  I only sense that the adventure is possible, that my story itself becomes a story and I find that very satisfying.


So I’m back to the original question. Why do I write?   I don’t know if I’ll ever know the answer.  I have a definite love hate relationship with the process. I ask myself all the time, why am I doing this?  But I continue.  And in the end I can only come to the conclusion that I write because I can’t not write.  Hopefully this doesn’t sound too pretentious  but I write because on the deepest level it fulfills a need in me: a need to tell a story, a need to understand, a need to connect, and a need to make people smile.


The Demise of the Love Letter

This morning I became concerned about the future of history. Perhaps I am not alone and others have thought this, but I realized that we are in the midst of a mass extinction. In one generation the classic bundle of love letters wrapped in a pink ribbon on fading parchment has been relegated to the annals of myth.  No more will future historians find treasure tucked into boxes in attics or in secret compartments of antique furniture.  Five Hundred Years into the future how will the love affairs real and imagined of the human heart be discovered. How long will our descendants keep the semi secret text messages and e-mails and blogs so that future historians can search for bits and pieces of ideas that haven’t made it into the official history book.

How much of what we discover is based on serendipity by digging in the physical stuff of our past.  By deciphering the flowing script that fades on the shadows of tear stained paper.  I cannot see the future.  I cannot change the inevitability of our bits and bytes but I can wonder what type of history will be written, what stories of heroes past will be told.

To Blog or Blob

Many people have told me that the best time to write in a journal is the moment that I awaken in the morning. They say that is the time to reach over, open the journal and write. It is the one moment during the day of semi-conscious thought before the intellect takes over and smashes the nascent pearls of inner honesty into dust. So this morning I reached over opened my journal and thought, I have to write my blob. That was the exact thought. It’s time to blob.
I knew something wasn’t right, but my discriminating brain had not yet kicked in. Besides, I was supposed to be getting in touch with my deep profound self, with the present moment, and I wasn’t supposed to question the thoughts, just let them go, write them true and sweet. But, there was still a niggling feeling that I’d gotten something fundamentally wrong. And then I realized what it was. It was the blob. Something about a blob that didn’t fit. A blob is something unformed, amorphous, without boundary, without identity. I didn’t think I had one. At least not that I remembered. But I must if I was supposed to write it. Write my blob. So I continued to pen my random unformed thoughts onto the page. And then I stopped. There was a hint of dawn outside my window. My dog had not yet responded to the waking day, but he would soon. My husband snored. My thoughts were more coherent. I looked down at the handwritten page. It had the look of words written, but not many were recognizable to me as such. And then I realized. It was true. Everything they’d said about those early waking moments being glimpses into the deepest recesses of consciousness were all true.

I had thought blob, and here was the proof. I had written a blob.