By Karen Peterson | From the January-February 2024 issue of Strings Magazine
In the string world, this knowledge comes early, given the physical demands of the pursuit: When it comes to the body, what you do and don’t do now will haunt you later. Even if you’re young and vigorous. Even if you aren’t aware of the damage being done.
And even if you’re a luthier.
“The wear and tear on your body as you work is something you might not be aware of until it’s getting too late, and you’re like, ‘Oh crap,’” says Cameron Robertson, an Atlanta violin and bow maker who’s concerned that colleagues may not be paying attention to what he sees repeatedly in the portraits of makers on their websites. “They always show a guy hunched over with a single light,” he says. “It’s very shadowy and very romantic, but physically, you know, it’s not a good look.” Robertson knows of what he speaks: he suffers from flare-ups of carpal tunnel syndrome, and fights “drummer’s thumb,” or tendinitis of the wrist, which is caused by excessive gripping.
Lutherie is a traditional craft that has survived over the centuries, but that’s not to say there’s necessarily a lot of information available on how makers can keep their bodies and health intact when working with dust, chemicals, and tools. Like Robertson, luthiers today are increasingly taking proactive measures to keep their lives and careers intact—and doing so without formal instructions. “People learn at the bench, the way the guy before them did,” says Robertson of the trade’s requisite resourcefulness and how the luthier’s art is passed down. “I really do think this work takes a toll on you physically,” he says.
There are no specific OSHA rules for luthiers, but what the federal work safety office has to say about wood dust applies here: it is bad news. And it isn’t just violin makers who are faced with this particular challenge: it’s a lurking hazard for all those who work with wood. Jacco Stuitje, for example, of Rikkers Guitars in Groningen, Netherlands, started the “healthy workshop” dialogue in 2017 at a special safety session at the European Guitar Builders symposium in Vienna. And he’s keeping the conversation alive.
His trick question is, “What’s the most dangerous tool in the workshop?” It’s the broom that kicks up a cloud of wood dust during a good sweeping. Without the right ventilation, the fine particulate matter in dust, he warns, “will penetrate your lungs deeper than anything else.”
The National Institutes of Health designates wood dust “a human carcinogen,” a rating based on “sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in humans.” Nasal cancer and lung diseases such as bronchitis are worst-case outcomes, but wood dust, which also can include toxic chemicals from processing, also exacerbates and can cause asthma, skin disorders, and serious allergies.
And not all wood is created equal when it comes to human reaction. The ebony used on fingerboards, for example, can be particularly hard on the luthier, sometimes causing eye, skin, and respiratory trouble. The way in which a maker is oriented in relation to this piece of wood as they work on it makes avoiding contact with the dust particularly problematic. As soon as a luthier begins to shape the ebony, “their nose is directly above [it], and they’re inhaling ebony dust,” says Stuitje.
There are a number of mitigating solutions, depending on a luthier’s sensitivity and level of concern. Instead of that broom, perhaps a shop vacuum. From fans and open windows to whole-shop filtration systems, ventilation is a key part of any dust-management strategy. And when working closely with irritating woods, a luthier could use a number of simple solutions: masks of various types, hats, face shields, gloves, long sleeves, and disposable coveralls are all options to help protect the violin maker.
Compared to other trades, like carpentry, there is scant information for luthiers about the dangers, causes, and solutions for physical ailments such as carpal tunnel syndrome and other musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). Nor is there literature specific to modern instrument-maker ergonomics to prevent painful conditions of the neck, back, elbows, wrists, and fingers, says Robertson—injuries that are more common among bow makers, like he is, “because everything’s so small and petite.”
Bow makers use small tools that require heavy gripping to control “tiny, tiny little details,” and that puts pressure on the hands and wrists. A professional jeweler’s desk would be the ideal setup, says Robertson. Unfortunately, it comes at a price. “They cost thousands of dollars,” he says, suggesting that the return on investment, however, would be the insurance against “medical costs for these injuries later on.”
Robertson, to his chagrin, willingly paid $800 for a posture-perfect Swedish office chair. “My brain said, I’m not paying $800 for a chair, but my body said yes.”
“Listen to your body,” he advises, his own ergonomic knowledge supplemented by that of his wife, a physical therapist. “While there’s not a lot of research on ergonomics for violin makers specifically, there is a lot of research for ergonomics in other fields.”
There is also the DIY approach, which Robertson champions with inventive solutions to help avoid carpal tunnel and generalized pain. Most are homemade grips that he fashions from tape and small balls, like knobs, that are attached to tool handles. These help reduce the strain of rotation on his hands, wrist, and arms.
“I try to build up the grips on all of my carving tools and all of my knives and chisels,” says Robertson, who also uses a variety of work gloves to help with the force needed for twisting and turning. “They all help to reduce fatigue,” he says, which, in turn, helps prevent accidents.
The best way to deal with chemicals in the workshop? Very carefully. Luthiers call on numerous chemicals, from aniline dye to the solvent xylene, whose side effects can include death in high doses. Chemicals are part of the job, but the overarching problem, says luthier and podcaster Jerry Lynn, a violin restorer in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, “is that we think to ourselves, I’m just going to use a little bit. But a little bit all the time adds up.”
Lynn and luthier Rozie DeLoach are cohosts of the luthier-themed podcast omo, and on two episodes dealt with chemicals as they impacted a young luthier with bladder cancer, which he and his doctor suspect was caused by aniline, a semitransparent dye in fine powder form used for finishing instruments.
The EPA classifies aniline as “a probable carcinogen.” The dyes used today are under greater scrutiny and regulations, but older, more toxic aniline products still exist on the shelves in innumerable workshops. “This gentleman had been working at a shop that was sitting on old stock—luthiers tend to hoard things,” Lynn admits. “And this place had a lifetime-plus supply of these dyes.”
Doing what has always been done is not necessarily the right way to work, even in a trade so tradition-bound as violin making. For example, the aniline dye used in this case had been sprayed rather than spread onto the instrument—the air in the shop then hung heavy with coal tar, aniline’s primary ingredient—a petrochemical.
The first episode of the podcast discussing the dangers of chemicals was so well received that they did a second one. Among the lessons learned: “You have to know what you’re dealing with, what gloves to use—and also to not necessarily buy the solvents that you use in your workshop at the hardware store. The stuff there is the lowest-grade possible that you can buy,” says Lynn.
Discontinuing the use of chemicals is not in the cards, but knowledge is a worthy shield. First, says Lynn, read the labels. Second, take advantage of the chemical safety website ChemicalSafety.com and its extensive safety datasheet search. Everything you need to know about a certain chemical and product is listed.
And remember that chemicals don’t only pose a danger in terms of inhalation. One often overlooked safety measure is preventing chemical fires. “Most people don’t store chemicals safely,” says Lynn. Many of these chemicals are rather flammable—and don’t play well with others. Importantly, solvents and oxidizers need to be stored away from each other. If solvents catch fire, “you’ve got a bomb,” he says. But if solvents mingle with the oxidizers, “ignition equals a big boom.”
If there is any good news in the future of workshop safety, it is because of the upcoming generation of luthiers, says Lynn. “I’m already seeing it happen,” he says. “Millennials and Gen Z are much more inclined to worry about what they’re taking into their bodies and what they’re exposed to than older generations have been.”
Further workshop-safety, ergonomics, and chemical-safety resources
- Health and Safety in the Shop, J.S. Bogdanovich Guitars
- Wood Dust Hazard Recognition, Occupational Safety and Health Administration
- Dust Collector Basics, Wood Magazine
- Best Dust Masks and Respirators for Woodworking, Thomasnet
- Take Care of Your Butts: Cameron Robertson, Omo podcast episode 37 (April 11, 2021)
- Ergonomic Guitar Building, It’s difficult to find a guide to ergonomics specifically for violin and bow makers, but this guitar-inspired guide offers information that is universal.
- The Chemicals, Pt. 1, Omo podcast episode 21 (March 4, 2020)
- The Chemicals, Pt. 2, Omo podcast episode 22 (March 16, 2020)