Years in the making: The silent thrill of being a luthier

Luthier Jonathan Vacanti emulates the masters of violin making in his own designs. Photo: John Robinson Luthier Jonathan Vacanti emulates the masters of violin making in his own designs. Photo: John Robinson

The first thing I sensed after stepping inside Vacanti Violins on Fourth Street was a hush like I’d entered a shrine or a place of worship. The walls are lined with gleaming, caramel colored violins and the workshop area appointed with knives, planes, gouges, and scrapers of every shape and angle. Essence of varnish, wood, and natural oils permeates the air.

Jonathan Vacanti is one of a very few luthiers (makers of stringed instruments) in the area, and the only one currently doing business in Charlottesville. He is a keeper of a meticulous and precise craft that requires skills best learned through apprenticeship, and bound by methods unchanged for centuries.

“I took the old-fashioned route,” said Vicanti, with a nod to his apprenticeships and over 1,000 restorations. “Now you can go through school, but the apprenticing system is how it was always done—living and working with a master.” Vacanti began his journey of apprenticeship in 1995 at the highly reputable Reuning & Son in Boston, and then alongside violinmaker Andranik Gaybaryan, whose clients include the master violinist for the Boston Symphony and the concertmaster of the Boston Pops.

A luthier’s work may include guitars, mandolins, lutes, dulcimers, and bowed instruments. Most practitioners focus on one instrument, and Vacanti’s is the violin. To move up from apprentice, students work for years on restorations and eventually graduate to their own pieces. The craft is stoic, requiring patience and an occupational loneliness akin to that of a researcher or writer. It takes years to master the skill and science of lutherie, and, more concretely, the creation of 10 violins before you are considered a pro.

Because most pieces take at least a month to create, the luthier must be fueled by a steady passion for the instrument and the art form. Antonio Stradivari, the world’s most famous luthier was also one of the most prolific, creating over 1,000 violins in his career and giving them such a unique sonic quality that scientists and craftsman alike have been chasing their mystique for centuries.

Vacanti builds instruments based on famous designs, and his restoration focuses on pieces built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Stradavarius form is the epitome of design for luthiers. “My violins are patterned on the 1709 Antonio Stradivari and 1735 Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu —two of the finest violins from the golden period of violinmaking in Italy 1650-1750,” said Vacanti. “However, every violin I make has a character that makes it recognizable as a Vacanti, especially the handmade varnish.”

The common ingredients of a master’s violin are the same today as they were centuries ago, sourced by necessity from forest materials. The glue that bonds the wooden body together is derived from boiled rabbit hide (animal activists will want to avoid this line of work), the varnish comes from tree sap and linseed oil, the shellac from “bug poop,” and bows are made of horse hair. Such is the source of the sweet leathery aroma that wafts through Vacanti’s shop.

When it was time to hang his own shingle, Vacanti chose Charlottesville for its vibrant classical music community and noticeable absence of luthiers. Since opening in January 2012, Vacanti Violins has been well-received. “Lots of the students and players used to drive all the way to D.C.,” he said. “Their violins come to me neglected because people didn’t want to make that trip.”

As they line the wall in soldier-like formation, Vacanti refers to his violins individually, holding them gently, personifying them through their backstories and unique traits. Ironically, he does not play the violin himself. His hands form them with millimeter-perfect precision, from humble materials, into shapes conceived five centuries ago by Italian masters. It is up to the trained musician, though, to make these violins sing.

“My reward is knowing that I help bring music into people’s lives,” Vacanti said. “Playing a musical instrument can be one of the most enjoyable experiences in our lives.”

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