By Karen Peterson | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
The end of an era is literally in Desmond Timms’ hands. Proprietor of T.A. Timms and Son (named for his late father), maker of fine bespoke wooden violin cases from his workshop in the luscious green landscape of Buckinghamshire, England, Timms feels the weight of history with each new order. There is nothing dire forcing Timms to break with a 250-year tradition of making the most celebrated cases since Stradivari produced the studded-wood-and-leather Milan “delivery case.” He’s talking about his open-ended but impending retirement after working “seven days a week for 26 years” as the last case maker trained to meet the standards of England’s celebrated W.E. Hill & Sons violin emporium.
Beginning in the mid-1700s, Hill & Sons challenged Europe in setting the standard for elegance and precision with its instruments and high-end cases—the company’s top-hat reputation reinforced by its neighbor, Fabergé, when it moved in the 1800s to London’s posh (then and now) New Bond Street.
Timms has come to this pivotal moment centuries later, after having serendipitously met the late Michael “Mick” Gordge. Trained in Hill & Sons’ workshops and apprentice to its senior case maker, Ken Turtle, Gordge set out on his own and tapped Timms, then in his 30s, for “a mid-life apprenticeship.”
“He was my mentor,” says Timms of Gordge, who died “suddenly” in 2007. “He was a great craftsman and a close friend.” He was also without pretense. On Timms’s first day at work, Gordge advised, “At the end of the day, we just make nice boxes.”
Timms had already set up a small “box”-making shop before Gordge’s death, working part time for a software company during the day and as a case maker by night “in a very small, cold, leaky garden shed with very basic tools.”
The business grew, orders started to flow in, and Timms carried on in Gordge’s learned footsteps. “I made cases exactly as he had taught me, and to his recipe with actually very few changes,” Timms says.
T.A. Timms had hit its stride, handsomely encasing and protecting the best violins and violas from England to points east and west in a collection that includes Gordge’s creation, the English Oblong model. Timms has typically built around 200 cases a year—not mass produced, but painstakingly “with my own bare hands,” he assures me.
Today, Timms is taking on fewer jobs and consciously reducing his workload. He and his wife, Rachel, are the sole proprietors, and both are looking forward to the next stage of their lives. He is also weary of the hassles inherent in running a small business—late payments, no payments. In 2014, Timms stopped supplying his cases to shops and dealers and began to sell directly to players.
“Many of these players and collectors around the world [have] become friends, and occasionally, when making a case for an instrument of great importance, we’ve travelled about the planet to take measurements and outlines,” says Timms. Today, most players with more expensive instruments visit him for the all-important task of measuring to fit.
As he approaches retirement, Timms is acutely aware that he is indeed “the trustee” of a long tradition of English case making. Until the day comes when the doors of his shop close, Timms is focused on producing four primary models from his collection, in limited availability. First, the classic English Oblong Model, a tribute to Gordge. “In my opinion,” says Timms, “in terms of design, less is often more, and I just love the classic, clean, unfussy lines of a traditional English case.”
Also still available, the sought-after Leather Collectors case. Based on models from Hill & Sons and Gordge, the cases come in sumptuous black or cognac leather, with polished brass locks and a three-layer inner blanket to swaddle the instrument.
The compact Double Violin case for two violins and four bows remains in stock, as well as the Dart Case—a model “forced” upon Timms by “shoulder-rest makers making ever larger rests” that needed to be accommodated, he says.
All T.A. Timms cases are made in-house from the ground up. Time-tested, with modern updates, they still exude the refinement and beauty of their heritage.
Timms laminates the sides and lids using “no less than nine layers of birch veneers.” The veneers are pressed onsite. Timms jokes that a friend, knowing his penchant for perfection, suggests he plant his own birch forest.
Joints are bonded together with slow-set Araldite adhesive. The exterior of the side walls is covered with a faux leather fabric, and the lids and base panels are treated with wood preservative, in all a four-day process.
Hardware is crucial, and even quality hardware can fall short, so Timms uses solid steel hinges rather than the more common pressed-steel products. Locks are handmade in solid polished brass by an outside contractor; the handles and shoulder straps are handstitched by a master saddler.
Case interiors are built for air circulation, and they are lined in 100-percent cotton velvet, colorfast and available in appealing matte-textured moss green, burgundy, and royal blue—or in 60 other colors at an additional cost.
Whatever the model, Stradivari or other, Timms says he never forgets “that a violin is usually the most important possession in a player’s life.” Respecting that, Timms and his predecessors “build our cases to last.”
“We make a case as strong as we possibly can,” says Timms, with the intention “that a graduate could buy one of our cases and use it every day of their professional life.” While it might look well-worn in its later years, he adds, “it will actually be just as capable of doing its initial intended job: that of protecting” the family jewels.
Longevity comes with a price. “Our cases are not inexpensive,” he admits, but the simple fact that one case will last a lifetime “proves to be the least expensive option long-term.” Prices for his classic English cases start around $1,000.
Timms only has to look outside his window for proof that quality is a bargain in the long run. He’s driven the same beloved Volvo for 27 years.