By Emily Wright | From the January-February 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Iris Carr was born in Philippsburg, Germany, not far from Heidelberg, a city tucked into a curve of the river Neckar in the southwestern region of Baden-Württemberg. She played violin as a child, and describes herself as an average, albeit practice-averse, student through her late teenage years.
The strings trade is a field of great variety—there are so many roles, passions, and stories. Tales Of The Trade shines a spotlight on the trade and the people involved in the art of the instrument.
In the year after completing her A Levels, unsure of what she would do next, a friend casually suggested violin making as a possible career for her. Although the suggestion was out of the blue, it immediately made sense to her: she was a violinist herself and came from a family that appreciates fine woodworking.
From there, things happened in quick succession: she applied to the famed violin-making school in Mittenwald, where she placed 13th on the entrance exam—the program accepted the top 12 students. Undeterred, she applied to the Newark School of Violin Making, which was beginning a new course at just the moment she was seeking one out. She was accepted, and packed her rucksack for England. The entire process, from the offhanded suggestion of violin making as a career to her first day at Newark, took about six months.
From day one, she was absolutely in love.
After Newark, she was offered an opportunity to work at Charles (now J&A) Beare’s shop in London, where her skills flourished and her focus shifted exclusively to restoration. After eight years, Carr and her family were looking for more space—her husband wanted to start up his own joinery business—so they moved to Suffolk with their two children, and she struck out on her own.
By this time, she was already established as one of the go-to luthiers for intensive restoration work, particularly neck grafts and detailed retouching: she has an eye for texture and color.
Terminology: Restoration may have repair as part of the task, but it usually refers to older instruments, with an eye to making repairs invisible and maintaining the integrity of the original wood. Most restorations include repairs, but not all repairs are restorations.
Carr’s foray into teaching came about when a shop in Cologne inquired if they could send one of their employees to the UK to study a particular process under her guidance. Her workshop at the time was too small to accommodate a second bench, so she traveled to Germany and taught a weeklong retouching course onsite. “I just enjoyed it so much,” she says. “You’re exchanging thoughts and learning along with the people you’re teaching.”
This was in 2012, and from there, it developed into something more regular. A friend affiliated with the French violin association ALADFI invited Carr to give a course in Fertans. She has gone on to teach at Oberlin, the Tottori Violin Making School in Japan, and in Poznan, Poland. She says that teaching “confirms that you’re doing the right thing, as well as showing where you might need to make some changes.”
The conversation and collaboration of these sessions serve as a tonic to counterbalance the solitary nature of lutherie, which Carr admits can be isolating. What about the sometimes-proprietary nature of the methods and materials employed by luthiers? “To me, it’s never made sense, the secrecy and keeping things to yourself. There are enough instruments out there that need looking after; why wouldn’t you want to raise the whole standard in the trade?” Her view is a long one, informed by her intense affection for violins: more well-trained restorers means that more instruments are preserved for the next generation.
When asked if she has any advice for aspiring makers and restorers, she urges an upbeat approach, even for those without years of experience. “The methods and materials I use are quite simple, so anyone can learn this,” Carr says. The trick is the care with which they’re applied, and the decisions that are made before work begins. “Violin-making schools are quite limited in terms of how much they teach repair and restoration,” she adds. So, if it’s of interest, the most important thing is to find work in a place where restoration is being done carefully, with the preservation of original wood and varnish in mind, or to find programs where those skills are taught in a specialized way.
Her favorite thing to teach is retouching, and she’ll work with six students for a week, each of whom has brought his or her own project. “They hand me over the instrument and I show them how I retouch over a repaired area or where they’ve had to add a new piece of wood, and then they apply that method themselves under my supervision,” she explains. Over the course of the session, students observe—and then are observed by—a master of details.
The demand for her courses combined with the difficulties of traveling and in-person education caused by the pandemic led Carr to put together a well-produced series of video classes, available through the Teachable online learning platform. Topics include neck grafts, invisible retouching, crack repair, and the intricacies of bass bar fitting. The experience proved rewarding for Carr, who plans to continue adding to her online offerings, even after international travel is feasible again.
Is there a particular restoration or kind of work she relishes the most?
“There’s an unusual restoration where someone has moved the f-holes into a different position for dubious reasons and I restore them back to their original position as if it never happened,” she says. The process is every bit as Byzantine as you’d imagine, requiring equal parts experience, finesse, and patience. She is in the middle of her third experience moving f-holes on an instrument, so she has faith in her approach and confidence that the outcome will be good—but the first time took nerve. “It was kind of an unknown,” Carr remembers. “There was nobody there, saying, ‘This is how you should do it.’”
She enjoys the balance of making the repair invisible (which often involves reversing previous repairs done by a restorer with a less fastidious ethic) while preserving as much of the original wood as possible. “I seem to attract jobs like this,” she says with a laugh, “but I always thrive on challenges.”