ORANGE, Calif. — The white placard nailed to the entrance of Roger Foster's violin workshop is small but intimidating: "Entree des Artistes." One step farther and you're sharing the room with Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati, the Italian masters who perfected their instruments between the 16th and 18th centuries.
They peer over Foster's shoulder as he measures, whittles and listens. They've been watching for centuries — the materials and techniques of fine violin making have remained largely unchanged since Stradivari's time.
Some of today's makers were born into a family trade; many others stumbled into the field as a second career or midlife hobby. Yet even as the art has quietly resisted automation and mass production, contemporary makers say their field is flourishing.
"This breed of maker is as good as it's ever been," said Foster, who owns Foster's Violin Shop in Orange. "This business is safe."
Most musicians can't afford the six- and seven-figure prices of aged Italian violins. This means serious students and even professionals are buying new instruments crafted in the ways of the old masters. Teachers pass methods, supplies and tools to their apprentices, creating an inheritance that links generations of makers.
"You can work with great people," said Stephen Davy, owner of Stephen R. Davy Violins in Laguna Beach, Calif. "Most of us learned right at the bench."
Only a few signs of modernity — overhead track lighting, a cordless phone, a TV — distinguish Foster's workshop from what Stradivari's might have looked like: Small curlicues of wood shavings blanket the floor. Glass vials of inky amber varnish line the back table. Incomplete instruments wait patiently for their tailpieces or fingerboards.
A painstaking craft
Foster disappears into another room and returns cradling a rough block of spruce that has traveled across an ocean and 200 years. The wood he uses is at least 15 years old. Foster prefers Hungarian or German maple and spruce from Northern Italy. When he buys wood, he counts the number of grains per inch and scrutinizes how the wood has been cut from the tree. Even the smallest imperfections can later choke an instrument's voice.
He works first with the maple, soaking millimeter-thick strips of the wood in water and using a bending iron to shape them around a mold to form the sides of the instrument. He uses another template to trace the instrument's top plate. This flat piece of spruce must then be carved, one sliver at a time, into a landscape of almost imperceptible peaks and valleys — a 2.6-millimeter dimple here, a 2.9-millimeter dip there. He draws a brass-handled plane across the center of the plate, squinting through telescopic lenses clipped to his glasses. One impossibly thin ribbon of wood curls up on the work table.
After a few more scrapes, Foster measures his progress using a pair of calipers. But he depends most on a tedious dialogue between himself and the violin. He taps the plate with his knuckle and listens closely to the tone. If the wood doesn't ring true to his ear, he scrapes away a few more fractions of a millimeter.
"This is the part where the maker determines the sound," Foster explains. "Only experience can help here."
Violin making is an exercise in minutiae. Foster cuts a groove along the sides to inlay the purfling, a 1-1/2-millimeter-wide strip of ebony. In machine-made instruments, this delicate trim is painted. But Foster sets the purfling in place with a thin coat of glue made from animal hide.
He carves the scroll, the curly top of the instrument, and glues the remaining pieces of the violin together. The instrument then gets at least 10 coats of varnish, an alcohol-based mixture of tree resins and gums.
Foster's varnish formulas, like all his other methods, have been perfected over time. Now 54, he opened his shop in 1979. He can't remember exactly how many instruments he's made in his lifetime; he estimates 30 or 40.
That number includes a few that didn't sing properly and were taken apart. But Foster remembers three that found their way to Carnegie Hall. And there's one whose scroll he carved into the face of a young girl, a gift for his daughter's 15th birthday.
Each violin takes 200 hours of work and up to a year for the varnish to cure the wood. It's a finger-numbing, eye-straining process. Foster apprenticed with Long Beach, Calif., maker Lewis Main for five years, observing for several hours twice a week and practicing at his workbench in his one-bedroom apartment.
"It takes forever," Foster said. "You can't get young people to go with the flow. It's a matter of watching and asking questions later."
Even so, learning opportunities are widely available. Aspiring American makers can attend the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City or continuing education classes, including a summer program at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
"Violin making is such an open society now that you can ask anybody in the business," said Kevin Smith, president of the Southern California Association of Violin Making, which has 350 members.
Foster is slowly teaching his assistant of nine years, Debbie Lemmi. They work side by side, mostly in silence. Maybe there aren't enough words to explain how to coax some of the world's most beautiful sounds out of a 100-year-old slab of Hungarian maple.
"I get it up here," Foster said, tapping his forehead. "It's a practiced art."