By Greg Olwell
Luthier Andrew Carruthers on his journey as a violin maker and leap to graphic design
As I walk toward a mid-century ranch house about an hour north of San Francisco, loud scratching sounds come from the garage. I follow the sounds through the back door of a converted garage that serves as the workshop of violin maker Andrew Carruthers.
Each crack is a different problem and when it’s combined with things like top shrinkage, you end up innovating, taking risks, and making something new.
Inside, I find the lean, bespectacled maker using a large wood-handled gouge to shave curlicues of Lombardy poplar from a cello back. The smell of varnish and freshly cut wood fills the Santa Rosa, California, shop, and hundreds of shavings cover the workbench and floor—evidence that the award-winning luthier has spent a rigorous morning working on a cello for a customer.
The 59-year-old violin maker and restorer has been making a lot of cellos since winning a silver medal for tone at the 2014 Violin Society of America competition for a Rugeri-model cello made with a poplar back. While violin makers are typically limited by market demand and sound and to use only spruce tops and maple backs, Andrew Carruthers is really exploring the tonal and visual opportunities of woods like poplar and willow, woods that used to be popular among makers and are now being rediscovered.
Cellos, in particular, have a long history of being made with a more diverse selection of woods than other members of the violin family. “Maple is it on violins, but the benefits of different woods are more tangible on cellos,” he says in the accent he retains from growing up in Bampton, Oxfordshire, England. (Bampton is the town used as the setting of the fictional village in the popular series Downton Abbey.) He adds, “Different woods can make cellos have different sounds and different looks. Lighter woods, like poplar, tend to be warmer, more colorful, and more responsive because there is less mass. Heavier woods [like maple] tend to be more focused and brilliant.”
Like his 2014 award-winning cello, the one he’s working on the day of my visit is based on a Rugeri, a model that Carruthers favors for its comfortable size and the warm tone it produces. “Rugeri made quite a lot of cellos with a plain wood back and a light-colored varnish. They must have looked boring when they were first made, but now they have patina from scratches.” It’s an aged, textured look that continues to inspire.
Carruthers opened his own shop in Santa Rosa in 1996 and moved to his current location in 2014. The garage that became his workshop was one of the property’s selling points, in part because the robust electrical system installed by the previous owners (who used the garage as a marijuana grow house) provided Carruthers with ample electricity when he modernized the space for lighting and tool needs.
The violins and violas hanging in a glass display case near the door and several instruments in progress around the shop show that he stays busy making all of the instruments in the violin family. But cellos hold a special place in his heart. “It’s always been more [about making and repairing] cellos for me,” he says, adding, “I like cellos and when I was at Bein & Fushi, I was working with a cello guy.”
He begins to tell me about his background studying violin making at the now-defunct Welsh School of Violin Making and Repair and the following years working under the guidance of Russell Wagner at the influential Bein & Fushi shop in Chicago, when, as if on cue, a UPS delivery driver walks in with a large box.
An East Coast dealer sent a beautiful two-centuries-old Forster cello to Carruthers for evaluation and possible restoration.
Restoration is a prominent and challenging portion of his work, one that he limits to the trade. The different skills needed for the challenges of restoration call for a very different approach from that of building instruments.
For Carruthers, restoration is an opportunity to see nice, old instruments and glean practical ideas about how they should be made—and to see what fails and why. “Restoration also helps with antiquing,” he says. Antiquing freshly made instruments is a process that violin makers often struggle with, from the idea of purposefully disfiguring a new fiddle to the challenge of knowing how many dings to add or how much varnish to remove. Restoring antique instruments helps Carruthers know “what’s reasonable and what isn’t. It also helps to develop your eye for color and texture.”
Restoration doesn’t just help with his work creating a convincingly aged appearance for new instruments. Each instrument in need of restoration presents unique challenges that require problem solving and developing innovative techniques. “Each crack is a different problem, and when it’s combined with things like top shrinkage, you end up innovating, taking risks, and making something new.”
Though he spends a lot of time building and restoring cellos, we’re surrounded not only by tools and instruments for making and restoring violins, but also by several of the other design-intensive projects he pursues, including photography and graphic design.
His long-term interest in photography and graphic design shows on his website, which embraces the traditional approach of serving as an online catalog of the maker’s work, yet expands on the galleries of instrument photos. Carruthers and his website designer came up with a platform that allows the violin maker to express himself with a regularly updated—and lushly illustrated—blog about making and restoration, as well as a shop that features items he’s designed away from his chisels and scrapers.
As he tells it, “I like taking photographs and the blog is almost an excuse to take photos.” It’s one that he hopes will give readers an idea about what he likes about his job, and a window into his experience. Still, sharing his thoughts online wasn’t something that came easily to this easy-going but somewhat shy luthier.
“I grew up pre-Facebook, before everyone started putting everything about themselves out there in public; plus I’m English, as well!” [Laughs.]
His interest in using Adobe Illustrator to create graphic designs eventually grew into hand-carving blocks he uses to make T-shirts. Some of his designs twist famous icons to be more violin-centric, like his “Bridge ’n’ Cross Bows” take on the skull-and-crossbones pirate flag, and the “Rosie the Fiddler” design, which places a violin and bow in the hands of the famous illustrated World War II shipyard worker. Since this linocut printing is more of a pastime for Carruthers, he sells the items under a separate section of his website, Violinalia.
As different as block-printing T-shirts and making violins may outwardly seem, Carruthers sees an important connection between the two crafts: Making each violin or T-shirt is a performance that creates something unique. “One of the things I like about violin making is the repetition. In printmaking or ceramics, it comes out slightly different each time and it’s these variations on a theme that are so valuable,” he says. Given the obsession many have with the fine variations of Stradivari’s corners over his long career or the dramatic changes of Guarneri’s late-period violins, it’s easy to see how these unique traits are just as important in making violins.
“There are two different kinds of making: factory and experimental making,” he says, clarifying his point, adding, “all makers are different, but one of the things I have a hard time doing is controlling myself to do the same thing every time. I like to experiment, so I wouldn’t want to do it the same way every time.
“It’s like playing music—the performance is different every time.”
Before I leave him to return to scraping the cello’s back, he leads me to the spacious backyard, with a wood storage shed in the rear corner and large California black walnut and oak trees shading the yard.
A recently varnished violin, modeled after the “ex-Kochanski” Guarneri del Gesù, hangs from one of the towering trees, its shades of gold, yellow, red, and amber glowing as it gently rotates in the February sun; its colors changing as much as one handmade instrument or print does from the next on Carruthers’ bench.