A Creature of Promise
For Bob Harvey, violinmaking “grew from the desire to learn to play the violin and the equally strong desire not to buy one.” It all began in 2001, when contractions in the muscles in the palms of his hands restricted finger movement sufficiently that it was impossible to play classical guitar any longer and he thought he might be able to manage the smaller neck of a violin. Now four years and twenty-six attempts later, he is satisfied that his violinmaking skills are improving although he still can’t play worth a hoot. “You just do it and do it and do it, until you get to the fifth plateau. Everyone needs to go through the first four plateaus. If you have an affinity, you’ll just go through them faster. It’s not the goal that’s important. What matters, “ he says, “is the pleasure you receive getting to the goal.”
Bob derives great pleasure from “teaching a piece of wood how to sing. The purpose is to keep me entertained and to spend my remaining years as pleasantly as possible, instead of just sitting and drooling down my uniform.” At seventy-six years of age, he feels like he has found his “life’s work” since “the possibility of perfection is not there.” This being the case, he can keep improving forever and never contrive the ultimate instrument.
The wood is the variable. He buys mostly pre-sawn European wood – dense maple for the back and neck and light-weight spruce for the front – and from these rough-cut pieces, using a battalion of curved chisels, he carves the forty parts for a violin: 2 fronts, 2 backs, 6 sides, 12 linings, 4 corner blocks, 2 end blocks, 4 pegs, 1 fingerboard, 1 saddle, 1 tail piece, 1 bridge, 1sound post, 1 base bar, 1 neck and scroll, and 1 nut - that doesn’t count the thirty-six pieces of purfling (inlays) that are used to strengthen the edges and keep the top from splitting.
The sidepieces are bent on a hot iron and clamped onto the sides of the chosen mold where they remain until they remember the desired shape. Bob is “very picky about curves” and although the violin has a classic shape, there is some flexibility in design and he has experimented with a variety of molds. The “rest is pure carving” and he “plays it by ear,” pun intended. The front and side pieces are carved so thin you can see light through them and with practice he is learning what works and what doesn’t. “Being self-taught, it takes about fifteen to get it right.” “The first one was a disaster,” he confides. “That was tough. I had to make another.” #2 fell apart, too, but at least it was salvageable.
Now, numbers 3 thru 26 (four of them violas) hang in the central living space of Bob and his partner, woodcarver Meg Nalle’s, workshop/home, where they bear silent witness to a man who practices what he preaches and just keeps on trying. “The clue to a boat builder’s skill,” he confides, “is not how well he built the boat, but how well he hid the mistakes.” Bob doesn’t mind making mistakes. “Problem solving is what humans do best,” he says, “screwing up and learning how to save it.”
The carved pieces are then put together with “hide glue,” a purpose-made concoction of “ground up critter’s hides” and the instrument is ready for finishing. The beautiful wood grain is given depth with twelve coats of varnish beginning with light yellow through successively darker shades to dark brown to give it depth. Then several coats of clear varnish are applied and finally it is polished with a compound similar to that used to finish fine automobiles.
Bob tells me that it takes between 200-250 hours for an experienced violinmaker to produce one instrument and although he doesn’t keep track of the time he invests, he knows he’s getting faster and he finds his interest growing, not lessening. This creative activity has become his driving force; it not only gets him up in the morning, it gets him up on the right side of the bed. Rather than succumbing to his life-long enemy, depression, he overcomes it. First, he “accommodates” it; he admits it’s there; he recognizes the problem and acknowledges it by saying “I’m off color.” Then “I pull my foot out” by thinking only positive, constructive thoughts. “Don’t waste time on a mental sewer,” he advises. “There’s nothing nice down there.” The final coping mechanism is pursuing a pleasurable activity, such as making violins, which “has a soul to it that makes it doubly delicious.”
He calls Violin #26 “a creature of promise” and demonstrates its resonance by plucking a string and asking me to place my hand lightly on the body of the instrument. I can feel the instrument vibrating with life while I’m getting some life lessons from its philosopher-creator. “You can overcome lethargy by doing something that pleases you,” he counsels. “You have a duty to be happy. Depression can affect you physically, you know. Smiling can actually make you feel better. So can singing.” He’s got a “bushel” of quotable quotes in his “brain,” a little notebook he keeps handy for the purpose of jotting these jewels down and having them handy when he needs to remind himself “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
For Bob Harvey, happiness is making violins. Both he and Meg demonstrate the practical wisdom in the advice of clergyman Howard Thurman who said, if you would be happy, “follow the grain in your own wood.” When I asked Bob if he would sell any of his instruments, he said, “Sure, but I would pay to do this.” “No, he wouldn’t,” is Meg’s cheerful rejoinder. If you need a violin, I suggest you call Bob at 546-3072. He can give you a great deal because he’ll make one for you while he’s in therapy.
Note: This article appeared in the Downeast Coastal Press week of September 6-12, 2005
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