The world of work is undergoing a fundamental transformation. After muscle power was successively replaced by machines starting in the 18th century, the substitution of human cognition now follows.

Hardly a day goes by without people talking or writing in the media about the major upcoming changes as a result of the fourth industrial revolution. Digitization is advancing inexorably at an ever faster pace. Like a river that grows stronger, it seems to take hold of all areas of life and carry them along. It is said that in the very near future, artificial intelligences could change the world of work in particular from the ground up.

But there are professions that seem like Gallic villages in this turbulent change of civilization and, at first glance, don’t quite want to fit into today’s world. The centuries-old craft of violin making is one such profession where bits and bytes seem to have little relevance.

Today we want to find out from Thomas van der Heyd whether this is true. He is one of Germany’s best-known violin makers and enjoys an excellent reputation among professional musicians.

What inspired you to become a violin maker?

I have actually always enjoyed working with my hands. It’s just in my blood. Through various internships in my youth, I then learned to love the material wood. Wood is a fascinating material that nature offers us. Warm, rich in color, rich in odor, hard or soft – an incredibly characterful natural material that can be worked in the most diverse ways.

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How does one become a violin maker?

In Germany, many prospective violin makers are apprenticed to a company for three years and attend a vocational school at the same time, where they are taught the necessary theoretical knowledge. You learn there, in addition to the proper handling of tools and expert processing of wood, many important basics. For example, in music, history and art. Likewise, mathematics and physics crop up from time to time in the training, because a good understanding of acoustics is very important in instrument making.

The special focus of the apprenticeship is the learning of professional drawing. Both in analog paper form and digitally with modern CAD programs. At the end of the apprenticeship, you then take your journeyman’s examination before the Chamber of Commerce.

As an alternative to an apprenticeship, students can attend the state vocational school for instrument making in Mittenwald. The duration of the training there is three and a half years, but the admission criteria are extremely demanding. Those who nevertheless meet the high requirements and receive a positive one from the school must be prepared for an intensive training period.

After passing their final examinations, many German journeymen then go to France or Italy for the time being in order to become acquainted with the violin making skills there. Both countries, along with Germany, are among the leading nations in violin making. Later, once you have built up a certain amount of experience as a journeyman, it is possible to qualify as a master craftsman and graduate musical instrument maker.

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What skills should a young violin maker have for the Bring profession?

I think a good prerequisite is if someone has already been playing a string instrument for a few years. Violin making is much more than just craftsmanship. A good ear, musicality and a high level of manual dexterity are absolutely required in this profession.

You should be able to handle tools and like to do so. In addition, instrument making requires particularly good fine motor skills, since many manual operations can only be performed with a great deal of dexterity.

In addition to the aforementioned musical background, an exceptionally good spatial imagination and an interest in physical and chemical processes are also an advantage.

As a violin maker, can you actually make other stringed instruments?

Yes, indeed! Violin makers also work with violas, cellos, double basses, viole d`amore, viols and historical fiddles. So generally with all instruments from the baroque period.

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What makes a good violin maker?

It’s complex. I think in the first place is the craftsmanship. And in all areas of violin and bow making. A good violin maker is well versed in the techniques of baroque construction and can independently design, make, repair or restore instruments. You don’t just have to be good at working with wood. If you have a good spatial imagination and an eye for design, you already have two important basic prerequisites.

You should also be reasonably proficient at drawing by hand in order to draft sketches and blueprints manually. In this respect, the profession of violin maker is similar to that of architect. Both disciplines require mathematical and physical knowledge to understand the statics of stringed instruments.

Furthermore, chemistry plays a not insignificant role. After all, when working with paints and primers, you need to be knowledgeable about their structure, formulations and correct application. Once the instrument is finished, you should be able to tune it properly.

No less important are the skills of bow making. This is often underestimated. Bows are no less complex and require a lot of craftsmanship. A good luthier must understand the interaction of instrument and bow in detail.

Now we have only talked about the basic requirements. In addition, sound theoretical expertise is required. Even during the training period, a lot of background knowledge is imparted, which is later crucial for the correct evaluation of instruments, among other things. In other words, historical knowledge about the time in which the instruments were created and what makes the special construction types of the regions.

Another important point, which in my opinion separates good luthiers from less good luthiers, is the cooperation with customers. As trivial as that may sound. This is about listening and understanding. Before starting a project, it is important to find out what the customer’s sonic expectations are. Only when you have a picture of these can you craft them.

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Do you play the violin or any other instrument regularly yourself?

When I do, I tend to play the cello. But unfortunately I don’t manage to do it regularly, because time simply doesn’t allow it.

How has the craft of violin making changed in recent years?

Similar to other craft products, the majority of instruments available on the market today are mass-produced. This is not a new trend, however, but began in the early industrial age. The first copy mills existed as early as 1900 to make the most exact replicas of famous stringed instruments. CNC machines have been used for this purpose for about 20 years. With the help of special software programs (CAD), the components are first either completely redesigned on the computer or the components of historical instruments are simply scanned. Based on the specifications of the 3D model, the required components are then precisely machined out of a piece of wood by a computer-controlled milling machine. For example, pre-milling of camber saves a lot of time and reduces production costs.

In traditional workshops, however, such machines are used rather rarely, because CNC milling machines not infrequently tear the thin wood at the interfaces, and this in turn has a negative effect on the sound of the instrument.

Even if modern machines can already do many things better and faster than humans – they still cannot replace numerous skills of traditional instrument making. For example, they lack the sense to correctly recognize different hardnesses of a wood. Without this intuition, the machine cannot respond to the different finishing thicknesses. In addition, a machine cannot assess specific and static conditions of an instrument. This is particularly crucial in the high-priced segment.

Modern measuring techniques, on the other hand, have become indispensable. Modern technologies are used in both new construction and restoration to ideally match instruments. Personally, I also consider this to be imperative. Today, dendrochronological examination, radiocarbon methods and chemical analysis are used in expert opinions to determine the age of instruments.

Apart from the production processes, however, it is primarily the production locations that have changed, because today instruments come primarily from Asia.

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How do "off the shelf" instruments differ from handmade instruments?

A lot has happened in mass production over the years and the machines used in production today are much better than they were just a few decades ago. Of course, this also affects the quality of the end products. This has generally increased significantly and allows even beginners with a small budget to acquire a solid school instrument.

Nevertheless, it must be clearly stated that in mass production everything is produced according to a pattern, which pushes these instruments to their limits early on. In the manufactories there, various workers work on the instruments in an assembly-line fashion. From this point of view, it is also manual work. Because devices that spit out finished violins do not yet exist.

High-quality instruments for professional musicians continue to be handmade in many hours of work and are specially adapted to the needs of customers. In the construction of a master violin, only the finest types of wood are used, which have been seasoned for many years and are later decisive for the special sound of an instrument. As well as the varnishes used, which play a significant role in the acoustics of the instrument. Here, each violin maker uses its own unique recipes.

You have three young children - would you advise them to become violin makers?

No! I always say: Learn something good, otherwise you’ll end up like me (grins)!

But seriously – violin making is a very beautiful and diverse profession that means a lifetime of development. The individual areas of expertise are inexhaustibly extensive. Violin making is more a passion than a profession. A clear separation of work and private life is not possible and conceivable for me. If my children want to choose a life-long demanding and fulfilling career, then definitely yes. In general, I would be happy to pass on my knowledge, passion and experience from this profession to my children. However, my children are free people and should be free to make their career choice accordingly in order to find their passion.

Is it possible to make a good living from violin making?

During the apprenticeship period, earnings are rather low. Without any support, be it from your parents or with Bafög, you can only make ends meet with a part-time job. Later, with increasing expertise, it becomes more financially rewarding. Of course, it depends very much on personal development and lasts differently for everyone. It can take several years before you can make a good living from your chosen profession.

Often, young violin makers want to become self-employed as quickly as possible and set up their own workshop. I understand that well, it’s just that many people vastly underestimate this step. Suddenly you have to do everything on your own and are responsible for every step. From new construction to restoration, consulting and finally trading. It is very difficult to find good employees who have the necessary expertise and can effectively take over tasks. We work with very valuable instruments. If these were damaged by a lack of expertise, we would have a problem. Damage caused by improper handling is not paid for by insurance.

That’s why I know many luthiers who, like me, spend 60 or more hours a week in the workshop themselves. During the day we often advise customers while at night, when peace has returned, we do the actual handiwork. Even on weekends and holidays.

What does the future of violin making look like?

I personally believe that violin making will become much more technical. The measuring techniques used today are constantly being improved, which helps us both in new construction but also in restoration. In addition, there are topics such as 3D printing. But augmented reality or even virtual reality could also perhaps find their way into our everyday working lives in just a few years. I have been observing this for some time with architects, engineers or medical professionals and can also imagine it in instrument making.

As far as the market for classical instruments itself is concerned, I am quite optimistic about the future. For a while it was said that the enthusiasm for classical music might gradually die out. However, I do not see any signs of this so far. In this respect, I consider violin making to be a relatively secure industry with good prospects for the future.

Conclusion by Kevin Klockzin

At its core a craft, violin making is an art form that combines both tradition and innovation. Violin makers combine skilled craftsmanship, aesthetic sensibility and a deep understanding of music to create instruments that not only impress visually, but also offer unique sound experiences. The profession requires patience, precision and a deep passion for music. In our fast-paced times, violin making remains an admirable profession that expresses the fascination for the stringed instrument in each handmade piece.

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