Violin Making: A Hundred Year Old Craft

by Khloe Meitz

In a T-shirt and a pair of denim shorts held in place by elastic suspenders, the craftsman leaned over a small wooden desk. His work was illuminated by the soft sheen of daylight that streamed through the nearby window. His brow was furrowed in concentration, his lips pursing occasionally as his mind made delicate calculations  – each with the potential to add or detract hundreds of dollars from the end product. In the hands of Edward Maday of Woodmere, Long Island, the 56-year-old father of two, a viol de gamba — a stringed instrument, relative to the violin — was being born.

With every stroke of the file across the wood a light breath of sawdust flew, or a smooth shaving of wood curled free, easy as butter, of the instrument’s thin face. That’s all it was right now, a face. One plank of wood, only a couple millimeters thick and a couple of inches across, the instrument’s face has already taken on a shape familiar to anyone who has seen a member of its class. Violins, violas, cellos, basses and viol de gambas all follow a similar shape, though they vary in size, sound, and necessary technique.

Although Maday is primarily a Violin and Viol de gamba maker, he has experience shaping them all.

“I don’t really like to do repairs,” he said with a sigh. “I’ll do it for our friends – if someone calls me up I’ll say yeah sure, come over. And I’ll repair any of the instruments I’ve made, of course. But really I just like to make the instruments.”

A bass lies on its back on a workshop table, awaiting the time he has to seal a crack. A box of three-sided, faceless instruments-to-be awaits his will. A cabinet full of glossy, finished pieces seems to give hope to all the stacks of maple, spruce, and countless other breeds with countless other sound variations, that one day they, too will be something.

That’s part of what Maday said he loves best about his job: that everything he touches will “be something.” Something he can pick up and play and get to know.

“That’s part of the excitement,” Maday said. “I like making them, but I love playing them when I’ve finished and hearing what they sound like. Each one’s a little different.”

It was the playing them, and then the wondering how they made their sound, that first drew to Maday to making violins. He was in third grade when the music teacher came into the class and showed the kids the instruments. Maday said the violin caught his attention from the beginning. He began taking lessons, learning with a passion, but it was the drive to know what science made the violin work that drove him to begin shaping them himself.

He read many books on the subject, often going to the library and checking out all he could on the instruments. But like many tinkerers, the building started with the taking apart.

Old violins and violas, found at yard sales or antique shops, were gifted to him by family members. In his hands they would be stripped down, dissembled, disemboweled and inspected. And then some of them would be put back together again.

It was trial and error, but by the age of 15, with a little help from a father who was a woodworker, though not an instrument-maker, Maday was a self-taught violin craftsman.

From there he eventually finessed his work and learned even more by working under Vincent O’Brien, a master violinmaker in New Hyde Park and thanks to the aid of the professionals Maday met along the way including Olga Bloom, his violin teacher for a time.

“Every violin I did, she would critique it.” Maday said. “She had couple of very fine instruments herself and she would show them to me.”

There are many cabinets in Maday’s small workshop — most of them made by Maday himself, thanks to the woodworking legacy his father passed on to Maday and his brothers. The one behind his primary workbench is stuffed with wood wedges, waiting to be used – but also, the pictures of his children, Elizabeth, 13, and Eddie, 12. They are both musicians, a fact Maday shares with a small smile.

Neither plays the violin, however. Elizabeth is a fan of the electric guitar and the trombone, while Eddie plays the double bass and electric bass.

He hasn’t yet, but Maday intends on one day making a bass for his son to play on.

Until then, Maday continues making violins and experimenting with the viola de amore, a large Viola relative with complex string arrangements. Although the market for them has grown somewhat, the viola de amore is still a fairly rare instrument without much of a large market. The one he has made, with its water-like accents and a head as its scroll, still sits in his shop. He said he may never sell it.

“That’s why I’m proud to be a small shop violinmaker.” Maday said, comparing his own one-man workshop to the factory-like settings many large instrument retailers have turned to for mass-produced instruments. “I have the freedom to experiment and try new things. I have the freedom to change what I’m doing and find a better way to do it.”

For Maday, the advent of instrument retailers who sell such mass-produced instruments rather than buying them off of makers like himself, has had a similar affect of super-stores on almost every craft they have taken over: a loss of variety, a decrease in craftsmanship, and perhaps most disappointingly to Maday, a loss of that human touch.

“The flaw [of machine-made instruments] is that it’s non-human.” Maday said, pointing out that even the antique violins held as ideals today were not perfect. One measurement might be slightly larger or smaller than the other, and it all added to the instruments character and sound. “There is imperfection in every instance.”

But despite the traditional “issues” of being self-employed: having to deal with health insurance and retirement, Maday said he loves his work and wouldn’t trade it.

Where he once made 20 instruments a year, Maday now makes between five and 10, working on them slower and paying more attention to the details he is still learning to ever fine-tune. Most of his work is commissioned, though, so marketing the instruments once he’s finished with them is not a huge issue.

“When they come in to try the instrument, and I’m the only one who’s tried it before them, it’s very exciting. They’re trembling, I’m trembling – It’s like a birthday party where you just got the best birthday gift ever.”