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Santa Rosa luthier builds ‘The Redwood Violin’ — from all-local materials

Most everyone has heard of “The Red Violin,” a 1998 film with a soundtrack by John Corigliano and violin solos by superstar musician Joshua Bell. The plot revolves around a mysterious red-colored violin as it passes through various hands over the course of four centuries.

Now there’s a new iteration: The Redwood Violin, an instrument Santa Rosa luthier Andrew Carruthers is carving, gluing and varnishing from materials sourced within 30 miles of his studio.

The top plate of The Redwood Violin — along with the bass bar and sound post located under the belly — are made of redwood. The back, neck and head are made of applewood. The “fittings” — tailpiece, fingerboard and chinrest — are made of manzanita.

Through the curves and acoustics of the Redwood Violin, Carruthers hopes to paint a portrait of Sonoma County and pay tribute to its redwood forests and apple orchards, its talented artists and crafts people. His vision is to embody the principles of the Go Local movement.

“It’s a way to show, especially in this pandemic, that you don’t need all this exterior commerce,” he said. “We have amazing resources here in terms of musical talent and craft.”

Although he normally sells his hand-carved instruments to serious music students across the country who are entering music school or the job market, the luthier plans to use the all-local violin to promote local education programs and orchestras.

The Redwood Violin will debut this April in a recorded concert by the Young People’s Chamber Orchestra, part of the Santa Rosa Symphony Institute for Music Education. YPCO’s co-concertmaster Aedan Seaver will be the featured soloist in Concertina for Violin and Strings composed by high school junior Gwendolyn Thalia Przjazna of Cotati. The virtual concert will be released to the public in early May.

“I do want it to sound good. ... It’s going to have my name on it,” Carruthers said. “It’s going to the youth orchestra, and it has to be at least as good as their best player is playing on. I hope it will sound as good as my other violins.”

As part of the ambitious project, Carruthers is collaborating with an array of local businesses and crafts people, including wood turner Kalia Kliban of Sebastopol, who is making the pegs and the endpin on her lathe, and fine woodworkers Greg Zall and Mark Tindley of Petaluma, who are creating an elaborate marquetry design for the back of the violin.

“I’m looking forward to hearing this thing once it’s finished,” Tindley said. “There’s so many different kinds of wood in it. … Although he’s using a lot of eccentric materials and techniques, he’s being super-careful to build it properly. I fully expect someone to be playing it in 500 years.”

A craft bound by tradition

Since Andrea Amati created a set of string instruments in the 16th century for the king of France — including a small violin dated 1564 that is regarded as the oldest surviving violin in the world — not much has changed in the art of the luthier.

Violin makers such as Carruthers still employ many of the ancient methods, molds and materials that were used more than 350 years ago during the Golden Age, when luthiers Stradivari and Guarneri perfected many of the design features and techniques.

“Violin making is very traditional, and we tend to do what they were doing in Europe 200 years ago,” said Carruthers, an understated Brit who has been working on string instruments for the past 30 years. “It’s mostly because there’s a particular sound associated with a particular wood and a particular look.”

Carruthers normally sources wood and materials from all over the world for his instruments, including ebony from Africa or India for the pegs, fingerboard, tailpiece and chinrest; maple from Europe for the back, sides, scroll and neck and spruce from the European Alps for the top.

“All of my decisions are based on function and practicality,” he said. “It has to be the best substance I can get. ... Everything has to be strong enough ... but no stronger than it needs to be.”

At its most basic, the violin has four strings, held under tension by pegs inserted in a scroll at one end. A horsehair bow makes the strings vibrate as they stretch to a tailpiece over a bridge, which transmits the vibrations to the soundbox below. The soundbox acts as an amplifier.

Violin backs traditionally are made from maple because it has the density and thickness to create the right sound, Carruthers said. It carves nicely and has the flame-like pattern that has become synonymous with violins. The top of the violin is usually made from spruce, a light yet strong and flexible wood. It needs to vibrate easily but be able to withstand the pressure of 80 pounds of string tension.

Having fun with a new challenge

About five years ago, Carruthers started playing with the idea of making a violin from only local components as a way to learn more about how the instrument works and to connect with others in the community. He hoped to document the process with videos to share his bold experiment with the world.

“I am very isolated when I work, and it suits me very well. But I’m not an anti-social person, and I’d like to connect more with my community,” he said. “Another part was the Go Local movement, with people thinking about not shipping their food in from elsewhere. ... We’re going back to the local stuff.”

However, it wasn’t until the pandemic hit and shelter-at-home orders closed concert halls across the country that Carruthers found time to devote himself to the project. He and his stepdaughter Mira Stenger have been documenting the work with videos.

“The reporting of the whole thing has been really important,” Carruthers said. “At one point, we were trying to raise money to make a documentary, and that went by the way, but I always wanted to record. Video is the most powerful medium.”

While a keen curiosity led him down the path of creating The Redwood Violin, the process of reinventing the age-old craft of violin making has revived for him the childlike joys of discovery.

“I’ve seen Andy make a lot of instruments over the years, but I’ve never seen him have so much fun,” Tindley said. “Part of that is he’s getting out and about and meeting a lot of people.”

The project got underway in mid-August, when Carruthers approached the Santa Rosa Symphony’s education department about collaborating on The Redwood Violin project. They responded enthusiastically.

By October, he had started collecting wood and materials, many donated by local woodworkers and lumber yards.

Woodworker Steve Wigfield provided a plank of seasoned applewood, a wood he uses to make tool handles. At Tindley and Zall’s shop, Carruthers had the plank re-sawed into smaller pieces for the back, neck and scroll.

A few months later, after he carved the back, Carruthers returned it to the fine woodworkers in Petaluma to create a marquetry design, which involves cutting a recess about 1 millimeter deep, then cutting a design out of different kinds of wood to fit into the shallow recess.

“It took us quite a bit of time to come up with something that was beautiful,” Tindley said of the design they settled on. “The violin back is really beautiful. It is wild and has lots of colors in it.”

After much discussion, Carruthers came up with the idea of inserting a tiger salamander, an endangered species that inhabits Sonoma County’s vernal pools and seasonal ponds. The woodworkers set the amphibian in the lower left section of the violin back, where the curves are not so steep.

“I really do want the violin to be recognizable to anybody who doesn’t know anything about violins,” Carruthers said. “And I wanted to pull in as many craftsmen as I can.”

Zall used several kinds of wood for the design: two kinds of poplar for the salamander’s body and the eye, California nutmeg for the spots and stripes, maple for an image of oak leaves and California claro walnut for a shadow underneath the amphibian.

Carruthers started construction of the Redwood Violin on Jan. 1, first carving the sides or “ribs,” then moving on to the back and top by mid-January. By late January, he had finished carving the top, sides and scroll. That’s when he sent the back to Zall and Tindley to perform their miraculous marquetry work.

By early February, Carruthers had made serious progress on the wood carving, creating the fittings (chinrest, fingerboard and tailpiece) from manzanita wood donated by Mike Center, a member of the Sonoma County Woodworkers Association.

“It’s a really nice red color,” Carruthers said of the manzanita, a twisted, small tree or shrub that grows all over Sonoma County. “It’s very hard and durable. The fingerboard needs to be strong because the strings tend to wear grooves into it.”

Center also provided the box elder for the interior blocks, which hold the thin ribs together at the sharp corners and provide internal support for the tailpiece and the neck.

Getting creative with glue, varnish and more

To make rather than buy the smaller components, the mild-mannered violin maker became a mad scientist, inventing then building his own equipment to create substances like glue and varnish from natural sources.

By mid-January, he had started making his own glue from cow tendons sourced from the Sonoma County Meat Co. in Santa Rosa.

“That was the main thing I was curious about making myself,” Carruthers said. “I’ve always thought it shouldn’t be that difficult. If you make chicken soup and leave it out, you get a gel on top. That’s what the glue is — it’s gelatin.“

It took him a few tries to get the glue to the right consistency and clarity. He started with four pounds of beef ankles from which he harvested 350 grams of tendons, which he cooked down for 108 hours to yield 200 grams of quality glue.

Then he set to work on the tailgut, which ties the tailpiece to the endpin and anchors the strings. He worked for about two weeks for that small piece of string.

“These days, they are made out of plastic,” he said. “But they used to be made of sheep’s gut, like the strings.”

Carruthers sourced the sheep’s gut from Gabe Naredo of Diamond G Ranch, who works with Willowside Meats of Santa Rosa. The 40-foot-long sheep intestine had to be unraveled, cleaned and scraped to get rid of excess tissue.

“After that, it’s very strong and flexible,” Carruthers said. “It’s what they still use for sutures in surgery.”

Then Carruthers soaked the sheep’s gut in lye from ashes gathered from an oak tree burned in the Glass fire. He scraped the gut five times a day for two days while it soaked.

“Then I got into horrible trouble with tangles,” he said. “It only needs to be a few inches long. I was secretly thinking I would make some gut strings, but when it came to it, I was breaking a lot of it during processing.”

Finally, he built a contraption to twist the sheep’s gut into a thick, sturdy string. He twisted that up on the fiddle and dried it, but it was too thick, so he filed it down.

By early February, Carruthers also was getting his hands sticky with the pine sap he collected from local trees to make his own varnish. Normally, it’s made from rosin, also known as colophony.

“Varnish is mostly for protection ... mostly against dirt,” he said. A dirty, varnished violin can be wiped down.

Making the varnish required multiple ingredients and steps. First he had to melt down the pine sap. To make it less brittle, he used walnut oil, extracted from walnuts with another homemade contraption.

He built a still to capture the turpentine off-gassed by the heated pine resin, so he could mix it back into the varnish as a solvent, which helps it spread more evenly over the violin. When the first drops of turpentine emerged from the still, his eyes lit up like a kid fresh off his first Disneyland ride.

And that’s exactly why he wanted to attempt the project: to test his knowledge and improve on it so that he can understand how all the violin’s components work.

“Say you have a recipe for a cake and you want to substitute something,” Carruthers said. “You can only do that if you understand what the ingredients are doing.”

Some things, like pressing the walnuts, turned out to be easier than he expected. Others, like making the glue, took time to refine. The glue will be crucial in keeping the violin together under the intense pressure of the strings. The last thing he wanted was for it to explode onstage.

“I was a little nervous. ... I have a reputation,” Carruthers said. “But by the third attempt I got a really quite good result.”

There was another upside to all his homemade products. The crazy experiments often connected him with more people.

“The smaller the parts on the violin, the more people are involved in them,” he said.

Right now, Carruthers believes he may have found for a machinist to make the metal parts — the fine tuner for the E string and the clamps that hold the chinrest. He plans to ask violin dealer Mick Loveland of Loveland Violins in Santa Rosa to cut the bridge, a skill Loveland has perfected.

“The bridge has a big sound component,” Carruthers said. “Basically, it’s like tone control. The more wood you take out of it, the more vibration can pass through the wood into the body. It’s like turning up the treble.”

By mid- February, Carruthers was starting to work on some of the final touches, before the violin starts to sing in the hands of the local musicians. For the label he will tuck inside the instrument, he was making his own ink from walnuts, acorns and iron. He connected with a local calligrapher and paper maker to help fabricate the label.

Meanwhile, natural dyer Marilyn Buss of Cazadero had delivered the black-dyed boxwood shavings for the purfling, a narrow, decorative edge inlaid into the top and back plate of The Redwood Violin.

The one thing Carruthers decided not to tackle himself was the construction of modern strings, which are made of exotic metals like silver and titanium and involve four different kinds of winding.

“The technology of the strings has changed so much since people made everything themselves,” he said. “That has really changed the sound tremendously. They’re very complex.”

However, he was looking forward to a field trip to Healdsburg distillers Young and Yonder, who are donating the alcohol he will use to polish the finished violin.

Introducing the Redwood Violin to the public

Along with a regular newsletter for fans of The Redwood Violin, Carruthers has created a series of YouTube videos on his website that highlight Sonoma County residents who have contributed to the project, plus his progress in the workshop.

“The project turned about to be about 10% violin making and 90% reporting,” he said. “I can make a violin very quickly. The trouble is I’m having to report on it, so everything is taking nearly 10 times as long.”

Over time, Carruthers has not only learned to be more comfortable in front of the camera but also how to edit videos, a task almost as time-consuming as violin making.

“I’m already working seven days a week on this. ... I’m starting my weekend video editing,” he said. “Not only that, but I keep getting more ideas.”

With a goal of finishing The Redwood Violin by early to mid-April, Carruthers is starting to feel the crescendo of excitement for the next phase of the project, when the unique instrument will be introduced to Sonoma County musicians and music lovers.

“After the kids play their youth orchestra concert, I’m going to make it available to anyone who would like to include it in their concert or make their own recording,” he said. “I really want to include the mariachi band from Roseland ... and then get as many different styles as possible, fiddlers and jazz players.”

To read more about the project, watch the videos and sign up for the newsletter, go to theredwoodviolin.org

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

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