By David Templeton | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Five years ago, violinmaker Andrew Carruthers had an idea. “Inspired by the ‘Go Local’ movement, which I really believe in, the initial idea was to build a violin out of materials from within in a 25-mile radius of my home,” he says.
That he currently lives and works in Sonoma County, in Northern California, means that those “materials” would possibly include California redwood, better known for its use in backyard fences and living room furniture than in the making of violins, cellos, and violas.
“When people first started making violins 400 years ago, they would never have dreamed of using redwood, because, of course, they were making violins on the other side of the globe,” admits Carruthers. “And the people who did know about redwood didn’t know about violins.”
Slideshow photos courtesy of Andrew Carruthers
The notion of creating such a violin was exciting, inspiring, and necessarily time-consuming. Because of the latter, Carruthers would probably never have attempted it were it not for the spare time handed to him by the coronavirus pandemic and its ensuing slowdowns in the violin-making industry.
“In many ways,” he says, “it was the pandemic that allowed this thing to happen, because my business had slowed down quite a bit.”
Following months of research and assembling of materials through much of 2020—“I collected everything myself, short of actually chopping down trees with an ax,” he says—Carruthers officially closed his shop in January to devote himself full-time to crafting his locally made violin, though he has been continuing to sell instruments already hanging on the rack. In addition to building the new violin, he decided to produce short videos documenting every major step in the process, requiring him to learn the art of filmmaking along with a number of other new skills.
But with the Redwood Violin Project, as the undertaking has come to be known, everything begins with Carruthers’ understanding of the nature of redwood. “Redwood has a very high thickness-to-weight ratio,” he explains. “The top of the violin needs to be strong enough to resist the forces from the strings, but it can’t be heavy. It has to be light so that just a small amount of energy from the strings will start it vibrating. That’s the main characteristic you look for in a top wood. Redwood possibly has a better thickness-to-weight ratio than spruce, which is what I’d normally use.”
Swapping in different kinds of wood is something Carruthers is more than familiar with, adding that it’s a good way to learn and to test one’s knowledge and skills. “I’ve done a lot of experimenting with different kinds of wood, mainly with making violas and cellos, not so much with violins,” he says. “Different woods have different tonal implications. It’s a test of your understanding of violin making, because in order to make a good substitution you have to understand how that original wood functions, what qualities are the most important about it.
“It’s a bit like baking,” he continues. “If you are out of flour, you need to understand what chemical function it serves if you try to substitute something else. Or you are likely to say, ‘Well, flour is a white powder, and sugar is a white powder, so it’s probably more-or-less the same thing as flour.’ That’s a good way to create an unsuccessful cake.”
Redwood, of course, was only one ingredient in a very demanding recipe. While local redwood groves provided the top plate of the instrument, the head, neck, ribs, and back would be made of local Gravenstein applewood. As for the tailpiece, chinrest, fingerboard, and other fittings, they would be carved from the twisty, reddish wood of manzanita trees from nearby mountainsides.
Nearby, of course, being the critical distinction.
Unlike Carruthers—who was born in Oxfordshire, England, and moved to Santa Rosa after stints in Berkeley, Chicago, and Tacoma—every single bit of the Redwood Violin would have to originate in Sonoma County (other than the strings, mainly because he didn’t want to “deal with smelting”). And those bits would include more than just wood. Also locally sourced would be the glue that holds the instrument together, in this case not just made locally, but made, from scratch, by Carruthers—from cow-ankle tendons. Then there’s the pinesap-based turpentine used in the varnishing process, and actual sheep intestines (40-feet worth) used to make the tailgut that anchors a violin’s tailpin to the tailpiece.
“I made that too,” he says. “It was an interesting process.”
It’s one thing to carve a violin from unconventional woods, but boiling down the extremities of demised bovines and untangling knots of intestines displays a level of commitment to going local that many would give an understandable and relieved pass. For Carruthers, though, it was something he was somewhat looking forward to, having once encountered someone who tried something similar, but with a twist.
“I heard about someone who was going to get kicked out of violin-making school, when I was in school myself, because he was a vegetarian and didn’t want to make animal glue,” recalls Carruthers, who studied his craft at the Welsh School of Violin Making and Repair, near Cardiff. “They wouldn’t let him use synthetic glue, and he was going to be expelled. So he started making his own glue out of roadkill, because the animals were already dead. I don’t know if he’s still a maker, but for a while there was an ad with his name on it in the back of a magazine saying that no animals were ‘intentionally’ harmed to make his violins.”
In early March, when this conversation took place, Carruthers was working seven days a week to complete the violin in time for a March 2021 concert presented by the Young People’s Chamber Orchestra, a program supported by the Santa Rosa Symphony Institute for Music Education. The Carruthers Redwood Violin was to make its debut with Concertina for Violin and Strings, an original composition by Gwendolyn Thalia Przyjazna, a high-school junior from nearby Cotati, California.
Such a debut for a new violin—involving scores of musicians, educators, staff, and the audience who will view the performance virtually—is a clear demonstration of how Carruthers’ “Made in Sonoma County” mission has inspired people across his community. Many of those have already joined in on the craft side of the project in a number of ways.
In adherence to the stipulations Carruthers set for himself, his collaborators included only other Sonoma County craftspeople. One is Sebastopol wood turner Kalia Kliban, who supplied the pegs and endpin. Mark Tindley and Greg Zall, acclaimed woodworkers from Petaluma, took on the job of carving an intricate, ornamental tiger salamander design for the violin. This adds another local touch, as the California tiger salamander is an endangered resident of Sonoma County’s grassland pools and underground burrows.
One of the trickier DIY elements of the violin is the making of the turpentine.
“I thought that making my own turpentine was going to be easy, so I’ve left it to the end, and it’s giving me the most trouble, it turns out,” Carruthers says. “The way I’m making it is that I’ve collected pinesap, which exudes from pines when they are damaged. For the tree, the sap is kind of like blood, and the turpentine in it is a bit like an insecticide that trees use to protect themselves.”
To collect the turpentine, one has to heat up the sap to break it down into various byproducts, and then capture the little bit of turpentine that is produced through steam distillation. “It’s also fairly volatile, so if you warm it up, it off-gasses fairly easily,” he says, noting that turpentine is a hazardous material if breathed or ingested in large quantities. “In the old days, they used to take a bit of sheep’s fleece and put that on top of a simmering pot,” he says, allowing that he also learned of that practice at school as well, but never saw it demonstrated. “The turpentine collects into the fleece, and then you wring it out,” he explains. “So I wanted to try that, and I did. But sadly, I couldn’t make it work.”
As he draws closer to perfecting his turpentine-making proficiency, and to completing the violin itself, Carruthers says, “Actually, 200 or 300 years ago, a lot of these steps would have been done by the violin makers themselves. Nothing I’m doing is particularly new. It’s just new to me.”
As Carruthers comes close to the moment when he strings the Redwood Violin for the first time and witnesses its sound and tone at the hands of violinist Aedan Seaver—YPCO’s co-concertmaster and the player soloing in the instrument’s debut piece—he admits he’s excited, and perhaps a little nervous, his feelings enhanced by how public he’s made the entire process through those videos and a quarterly newsletter.
“I really can’t wait to hear how it sounds,” he says. “And I’m not alone. Because of how many people have been following this project, and have become involved in it, there are people all around the world—South Africa, Switzerland, Scotland—waiting to see how this all turns out.” After its debut, the community will have plenty of further opportunities to hear the Redwood Violin, as it will be made available to local artists to borrow for performances and recordings.
Asked if he’s looking forward to going back to making instruments out of traditional materials, Carruthers says, “I am, largely because I’m looking forward to bringing along some of the things I’ve learned through all of this. Every time you set yourself up with a complicated exercise like building a redwood violin, or sourcing all local materials, it changes all of your preconceptions, and you end up learning something.”
And would he do it again?
“Well, I am a violin maker,” he says, with a warm laugh. “If someone orders something, I’m always game to make it.”
Videos showing the steps of making the Redwood Violin can be seen at AndrewCarruthers.com.