Violin solo

Clerkenwell has historically been associated with craftsmanship, a tradition that still endures in EC1.

As a new book celebrates the makers of the 21st century, Katie Treggiden meets Andreas Hudelmayer and learns how a violin is made.

In a modest workshop overlooking historic Clerkenwell, Andreas Hudelmayer uses the classical Italian method to handmake violins, violas and cellos for musicians around the world.

“I’m right on the Green overlooking a historic court building [the Old Sessions House],” he says at his base in Craft Central. Hudelmayer points out that it’s important for him to be accessible to his international clientele, which makes Clerkenwell the perfect location.

He has played the cello since he was eight and planned to study music, but also enjoyed woodwork. “I suddenly had the idea of combining the two to become a violin maker,” he says. “I had no idea what was involved, but I had a few years to find out.”

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A dedicated student, Hudelmayer painstakingly made his own set of ‘f-hole cutters’ – tools used to create the sound-holes that resemble the letter f on the front of a violin – and they should last him a lifetime. His hard work paid off and he’s now a busy luthier (a maker of stringed instruments) for professional musicians.

When clients commission an instrument, the first decision is the model. Most models date back to 17th or 18th century Italy. “Understanding the differences and finding the right combinations of outline, archings, thicknessing, and f-hole placement is a lifelong task,” says Hudelmayer.

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‘Subtle changes make every violin different’

He starts by cutting out the back and front of the violin. The back is made from two pieces of maple, planed flat and glued together with such accuracy that you can’t see the join. He cuts thin ribs for the sides, bends them over hot steam, and builds them into a flexible structure around a mould. Then he carves the ‘arching’ out of the outside and the ‘hollowing’ out of the inside back plates using gouges and planes.

“The precise shape is important to how the violin will sound,” he says. “I do use templates, but a lot of it is done by eye.” He tunes them by tapping the back to listen to the sound and using a computer to analyse it.

Next, he carves the scroll (the decoratively carved end of the neck) with a chisel, and heuses the cutters to make the ‘f-holes’ in the scroll. Then he varnishes and antiques the instruments.

“I enjoy that part,” he says. “The varnish really brings out the ‘flames’ – the grain of the wood.” Finally, he adds the sound post and bridge and makes them playable. The whole process takes about two months for each instrument.

“It is all about attention to detail and making the elements work together,” Hudelmayer says. “Subtle changes make every violin different. I’m really proud that my instruments are out there making
people happy. There is a lot of satisfaction in making a musical instrument, but the biggest satisfaction is in hearing a really good musician playing it.”

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“Makers of East London” (Hoxton Mini Press) by Katie Treggiden and photographs by Charlotte Schreiber is out now