What it’s like to be a…Violin maker
by Derek Lim
This article appeared originally in Time Out Singapore.
Being a violin maker is a very specialised occupation. How did you start? When I was a teenager in my student times in Yugoslavia, I had a problem with my viola. I tried to fix it on my own and found it interesting. One of my violin teachers who made – and still makes – violins introduced me, but it still remained a hobby. It was only when I did my national service, in 1985, that I studied it seriously and finally decided to be a violin maker in 1987. I apprenticed in Paris for three years, from 1990, and then moved to Asia.
How long does it take to make an instruent?
It can take me between two months and two years to make one instrument, but a full-time maker [Sabo is also an instrument restorer] who only builds instruments can make between eight and 12 instruments a year. Where do you get the wood to make them? The structure, hardness, age and how nice the wood looks visually are all choices I have to make. The back plates, ribs, neck and scroll are made from maple; and the top plate, base bar and other parts are made from spruce, the Christmas tree. The best maple comes from Bosnia and the best spruce comes from the Austrian part of the Alps. The trees are probably about 200 years old.
That sounds like a lot of wood. Are you concerned about the environmental impact of your trade?
No, not really. The amount of wood I’m using is very little. And the species I use are not regulated ones. Even if a violin maker made 500 instruments in his lifetime, in terms of cubic metres, it’s small. A lot of wood comes recycled from old buildings when they are demolished. Some makers even buy the houses just for that. After cutting down the tree I have to dry the wood for five to ten years, though I have pieces that have been dried for 80 years. If I took wood from a building, I might be able to use it straightaway.
So you don’t see violin makers using material other than wood, then?
Lately, makers have been using carbon fibre. Some of this material is very good, but the ones I’ve seen weren’t impressive in terms of sound when I tested them.
What are the most common requests when you’re designing a violin?
There are some standards I have to follow, but there always options for the customer. For example, the size of the instrument – for a smaller-sized lady with a smaller hand, I could make a 7/8th size instrument, or for someone with shorter fingers, something with a shorter string length. Or with the Stradivarius or Guarneri model, the colour of the varnish. For example, why not a green violin? Or a red one.
In the movie The Red Violin, the maker paints the violin with varnish made from her blood.
It’s a very good story, but everyone cuts their hand in the kitchen from time to time. When the blood dries, it isn’t red any more.
You haven’t had to kill anyone making an instrument, then?
No, not yet.
Who’s the maker you most admire?
Definitely Stradivarius, because of the individuality of each violin. Everyone tries to copy a Strad. Either that, or a Guarneri. There are not many other choices. I’ve only made my first Guarneri model this year, after 50 instruments.
Does making your instrument look like a Strad make it sound like a Strad?
That would be nice! But things are much more complex than that. You can copy physically the dimensions, length and thickness of each instrument, but it’s impossible to get the same kind of wood. Even the direction that a piece of wood faces – north or south, whether or not it faces the sun – makes a big difference to how the violin sounds. So even if you copied a Strad completely, it would sound quite different.
If you heard your own violin, could you identify it?
Yes. Musicians who know my work will recognise it without reading the label inside. It’s the greatest pleasure to hear my own instruments on stage. You do restoration work, too.
What’s the oldest instrument you’ve restored?
I’ve had the pleasure to work with the ‘Mischa Elman’ Stradivarius violin and Pablo Casals’ Strad cello. I’ve also been maintaining a Strad violin in Singapore for a musician since 2004, which I’m in regular contact with. It’s a very troublesome enjoyment, because this instrument is very sensitive to adjustment – each one can take hours.
Do you make any instruments other than those with strings?
No, because I don’t know anything about them. Already bow-making is a different profession. I made one, and it was the first and last – the work-flow and details are all different. It’s not my thing.
Why have you chosen Singapore for this line of work?
I come from a troubled part of the world, and have no intentions of moving back [to Yugoslavia]. I was in Taiwan for a few years and did think of moving to Paris, but I decided to stay here. I love Singapore.
You can find Istvan Sabo at Le Diapason, #02-44 Waterloo Centre, 261 Waterloo St (9873 7354). MRT: Bugis