By Patrick Sullivan
After more than 35 years together, it’s no surprise to see a married couple finishing each other’s sentences. But Sigrun Seifert and Joseph Grubaugh are just as likely to finish each other’s instruments. Laboring side-by-side in their 900-square-foot workshop in northern California, the two luthiers have made and restored hundreds of instruments together in a trade that’s often considered a solitary pursuit. The partnership between these two skilled makers is based on respect, a profound knowledge of each other’s skills—and a lot of playful banter.
“It’s like a pas de deux,” Seifert explains. “After so many years, you don’t even have to talk to know that your partner is going to be right there where you need them. We’re like one brain with four hands.”
“Well, one and a half brains,” says Grubaugh.
“Wait—who’s the half?” Seifert asks with a chuckle.
“We ask each other’s opinion, sometimes really not getting the answer that we’re hoping for.”
Both were talented makers before they met. Seifert studied violin making in Mittenwald, Germany, while Grubaugh apprenticed with master violin maker Albert C. Muller. Their preexisting talents were critical to creating a partnership of equals, the couple says. “If I had had to teach Sigrun how to be a violin maker or vice versa, we would have been divorced about four days before we got married,” Grubaugh explains. “We were both already fluent.”
The couple met in the Los Angeles shop of legendary maker and restorer Hans Weisshaar, and built their first instrument together in 1982. That debut collaboration turned out to be a real challenge—largely because they weren’t always in the shop together. Working alone sometimes meant one would forge ahead on a piece of the project or redo something the other had done the day before.
“I would correct something he’d done, and he would tell me that I had ruined it,” Seifert recalls with a laugh.
But that frustration taught them the value of communication and working side by side. And before long, they were winning gold medals in Violin Society of America competitions with instruments they’d made together. They quickly realized they brought different styles to the craft. The Mittenwald-trained Seifert was focused on being as clean and precise as possible. “Joe helped me to loosen up, approach it differently,” she says.
“And she pulled me out of the mud frequently,” Grubaugh says.
Today, they sometimes divide up projects by what each enjoys. Grubaugh likes fitting necks, while Seifert enjoys soundposts. And they both recognize each other’s special skills. “Sigrun has some real talent on restoration that far outstrips mine,” Grubaugh says. “Retouching or fitting a patch, I do demur on that.”
They are aware of other married couples that divide instrument-making with bright lines—one is the scroll carver, and the other is the body maker, for example. But on the whole, Grubaugh and Seifert juggle tasks interchangeably. “I can take over what Joe is doing and vice versa,” Seifert says. “There’s never, ‘Oh, I have to do this.’”
And in some cases, they work right on top of each other.
“We varnished a cello that way,” Grubaugh says. “I was varnishing and she said, ‘Here, here!’ And I gave her the brush. And then I said, ‘Here, here!’ That’s maybe when it’s the most fun.”
Working together has also helped them be more honest in evaluating and improving their instruments. “If you do something completely by yourself, your ego can get in the way,” Seifert says. “But here, we couldn’t always tell what was what, which was his or mine, so it made looking at it honestly much easier.”
Communication is key, at the outset of a project and as it moves along. “We throw ideas at each other—sometimes really stupid ideas,” Grubaugh says. “And sometimes that jars something loose in the other person’s brain. A better idea usually comes out of that.”
They often solicit each other’s feedback. “One set of eyes will overlap with the other,” Grubaugh says. “We ask each other’s opinion, sometimes really not getting the answer that we’re hoping for.”
A violin-making partnership might seem to offer a thousand opportunities for disagreement. But surprisingly, the pair says they rarely argue over instruments. “We’re in a traditional field,” Grubaugh says. “You can’t go too far adrift.”
Indeed, the worst design disagreement they can recall had nothing to do with instruments—it was a three-day squabble over plans for a back gate on their property. “But violins, they’re designed for you,” Seifert says. They do know couples who broke up after starting to collaborate on instruments. But they believe tensions can be managed. “If it gets too tight in your shop, too tense, go for a walk,” Seifert advises. “Together.”
Other violin-making couples they know are still married, but one has bowed out of the trade. It’s often the woman, Seifert says. “I kept my own name, and that helped,” she says. “I’m not just the little wifey who helps the husband. I have my own identity. People know we’re equal.”
And they both push back politely on the idea that there’s something unorthodox about a married couple teaming up to make violins. “It might be unusual in this day and age, but it’s not that unusual in history,” Grubaugh says. “There is a thought that del Gesù’s wife was there in the workshop with him. France has a long history of couples working together on violins. The women haven’t been written about much, but they were sure there.”