By Patrick Sullivan
The pirate head still sits on Susanne Küster’s tool rack, peering down as she putters about her workshop in the German town of Putlitz.
It’s been 25 years since Küster made that pirate in her small apartment, carving it on a makeshift workbench in the tiny bathroom next to the shower—“a pretty unfortunate setting,” she recalls.
She carved the pirate head at the request of viol maker Henner Harders, who hoped to put it on one of his instruments. But Küster—back then a recent graduate from carving school—is now frank about her first attempt to create a scroll for an instrument.
“I think it’s crap,” she says with a laugh. “It had a crack in the face, and it was never used for an instrument.”
However imperfect, that pirate head was the first step in what has developed into an illustrious career.
Today Küster has an international reputation for carving spectacular scrolls for a variety of instruments, mostly for the Baroque market. She’s also a trained luthier who makes violins and repairs instruments when she isn’t carving scrolls. Indeed, she recently finished a “chameleon fiddle” with a charmingly carved scroll.
But Küster is one of a relatively small number of specialist artisans who make personalized scrolls for musicians and other luthiers. She’s been commissioned to make heads by a wide range of European makers, including the late Dietrich Kessler, as well as US makers, such as Oregon’s Wesley Brandt and Thomas Mace in Colorado. And some musicians come to her directly. She has customers from all over Europe and the United States, as well as countries like Japan.
Küster has carved unicorns, eagles, horses, rams, griffins—and a few too many Medusas.
“I’ve done that a few times,” she says with a laugh. “And after each one, I’ve thought, ‘It’s too complicated. I won’t do that again.’”
Her ideas usually come from her customers, who often find her through luthiers familiar with her work. While she rarely has face-to-face discussions with clients, she does get a good sense of what they want by phone or email.
“Typically these are commissioned and the person knows what they want,” Küster explains. “It’s such an individual thing.”
They may want a copy of a historical figure or a beautiful lady they’ve seen in a painting.
“So I make sketches, and we discuss it to make sure it’s what they want,” she says. “We talk about details like how the hair should flow. And then I try to turn it into three dimensions.”
Initially, Küster worked up a clay model as an intermediate step in the process. But these days she goes straight from the sketch into carving.
“I just slowly make my way through the wood so that, in the end, the picture I have in my mind becomes real,” she explains. “Sometimes it just flows out of my hands and it’s very easy. And sometimes I struggle and have to work hard.”
Maple is the wood she typically uses, since it’s usually employed for the necks of stringed instruments. “It is easier to carve in unflamed maple, because you have more even fibers,” she explains. “Also a strongly flamed piece of wood can be so striking that it interferes with the impression of the carving.”
Küster employs a variety of carving tools—mainly gouges in all kinds of curvatures. She starts with big tools, making large cuts with the help of a mallet to remove waste. Then she moves to smaller and smaller gouges, ending with two to three millimeter wide V, U, and straight carving tools. “These fine tools are necessary for the details of the face, the hair, and other kinds of decoration,” she says.
The time she spends varies widely. Küster typically takes from two to eight weeks to finish a job. “But it’s not that I’m carving eight hours every day,” she says. “I couldn’t do that anyway, because I wouldn’t be able to focus on such intricate things all the time. With my private life, I can’t stay in the workshop that long.”
“One of her most challenging projects was a deeply personal one: Her customer wanted a scroll with his daughter’s face.”
A head can require anywhere between 25 to 40 hours of carving, depending on the intricacy of the project. Partly because of the work’s intensity, she makes only six to eight heads a year.
One difficulty that sometimes arises is that the shape the player wants doesn’t fit with the peg box. She typically resolves that through discussion, working with the client or the luthier to revise the design.
One of her most challenging projects was a deeply personal one: Her customer wanted a scroll with his daughter’s face. “I think in the end he was happy with it, but it was very difficult to work from photographs and make a three-dimensional depiction,” she says.
And then there was the unicorn. “That was quite difficult,” she recalls.
The unicorn head was designed with a horn that stuck out, which had to be removable for transport. “It’s got a screw, so you can screw it off and on,” Küster says. “I had to make three horns, in case of loss. Two were made out of bone and one out of wood.”
The carving was more or less typical, but she had to drill a hole in the nose of the horse to attach the horn.
“I felt very uncomfortable drilling a hole into my carving,” she recalls. “I don’t know exactly how long the whole project took, but it felt like a very long time.”
But driving her through even the most difficult projects is a love of her craft and a profound respect for her clients. “People pay a lot of money for these instruments, and they’re almost married to them because they’re going to play on that instrument for the rest of their life, hopefully,” Küster says. “They want something very beautiful or striking that draws a response from them. And that’s what I try to achieve.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Strings magazine.