Pulling strings

A young craftsman masters old skills for making music pay. Because in this business you can’t afford to fiddle around.
By Edward Martin

 

Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood took root in the horse-and-buggy 1890s, but now cars on their way downtown flash past the old houses along shady East 7th Street. In one of those houses, though, time is marked on a different clock. Tim Donley, who makes and repairs violins, says not much has changed about them in 200 years. Sometimes when he finishes a job, he’ll say to himself: There, that should hold it for another century.

“You never really own a violin,” he says. “It’s like land. You take care of it for a while, and it gives you some service. And then when you die, you pass it along to somebody else.” At Donley Violins, he and six employees repair, rebuild and sell violins, violas, cellos, basses and bows. They also sell instruments that they’ve restored or that customers have left on consignment — prices might range from $300 to $20,000 or more. That’s business. Passion pays less, but satisfaction has no price. That’s why Donley makes violins.

He’s a mechanical engineer by training — Virginia Tech, Class of ’94 — and an accomplished player of old mountain music. When his fiddle needed work, he would take it to a shop in Richmond. For nine years, while attending college and working, he apprenticed there.

Donley, 33, and a friend opened a shop in Charlotte in 2000 but ran out of space by the end of 2002. He moved a few blocks and set to work, using techniques that Antonio Stradivari, the legendary 18th-century violin maker, would find familiar. The process is slow — timeless. Donley recently was making two instruments, probably his output for this year. His touch will be felt in shadings of balance or tone but not in radical new design. “The violin has been pretty static for the past 200 years.” Nature has a hand before he makes his first cut. His violins typically have maple sides, back and neck and a spruce top. The wood might come from Vermont or Bosnia-Herzegovina — cold climates where short seasons produce dense growth rings. Fingerboards and pegs are of hard ebony.

Using a mold, Donley coaxes the heated woods into the instrument’s complex shapes. He carves the neck’s graceful scroll and the delicate f-holes of the top. Violins still rely on simple ebony friction pegs for tuning the strings. “The peg box is maple, which is a softer wood. Occasionally — every hundred years or so — you might have to fill the holes and make new ones.” Strings, wound from silver and other materials, are one of the few concessions to modern technology —Stradivari used animal gut. The last step is varnishing the wood.

Donley has never calculated exactly how long it takes to build a violin: probably a hundred hours or more, spread over months. Custom-made ones like his might sell for $3,000 to $6,000. When he’s finished, customers can test their instruments in his trial room — sofa, straight-backed chair, paintings on the walls. He tells them to take their time.