Why this Santa Rosa violin and cello maker uses 300-year-old techniques

Andrew Carruthers has been quietly toiling away in his workshop hand-crafting violin using the old ways. Now he's been discovered by some serious musicians.|

When world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma visited the nearly completed Green Music Center in 2011, he did not bring either of his famous cellos: the Davidov Stradivarius crafted in 1712 or the Montagnana cello made in 1733. That became a problem when pianist Jeffrey Kahane asked him to perform an impromptu concert.

Coming to Ma's rescue was Santa Rosa luthier Andrew Carruthers, who loaned out one of his finest cellos so Ma and Kahane could perform a Rachmaninoff sonata in honor of Kahane's 55th birthday.

“Needless to say I agreed immediately and took it as a huge honor,” Carruthers said. “Afterwards Yo-Yo Ma, who is a known mensch, said some complimentary words about the cello as he handed it back to me. It was a gratifying and memorable event.”

For more than 30 years, Carruthers has been quietly toiling away in his small, Santa Rosa workshop, flying under the radar while restoring and handcrafting violins, violas and cellos using ancient techniques and materials that haven't changed in more than 300 years. Most of the instruments are sold to musicians in Chicago, New York and beyond.

“My market is not local musicians,” Carruthers said while surrounded by wood chips from a cello top he is in the process of shaping. “My clientele is mostly serious students, either going to music school or graduating from musical school and looking for their first job.”

Those who have purchased one of the 300-some instruments Carruthers has made through the years praise the instruments' clarity and power.

“I always get complimented on the evenness of the sound and the balance,” said Carruthers, a self-deprecating chap raised in the U.K. “People tell me my instruments have a particular sound ... but that they are all slightly different.”

Although most luthiers concentrate on violins, the shy, bespectacled Carruthers has carved out a niche with the cello, the tenor/bass instrument of the violin family that is constructed using the same components as a violin, only larger.

“There are fewer people who will do cellos at a high quality,” he said. “ Violins - that's where most people go. It's more prestigious.”

After enrolling at the Welch School of Violin Making and Repair at age 32, Carruthers served an apprenticeship under cello restoration specialist Russell Wagner at the high-profile Bein and Fushi shop in Chicago.

“What I like about the cello is the range, because it's more similar to the voice,” the 61-year-old luthier said. “And the body is similar to a human body.”

‘People find me'

Over the past quarter century, Carruthers and his hand-carved instruments have caught the eyes and ears of serious musicians through word-of-mouth as well as through internationally known dealers, including Ifshin in Berkeley and Roland Feller in San Francisco.

“People find me,” he said simply. “The reputation is finally starting to work after 20 to 25 years.”

Locally, a handful of professionals and serious amateurs play on Carruthers' instruments, including retired Santa Rosa Symphony violist Ellen Watson and Santa Rosa violinist Richard Heinberg.

“I wanted to have a violin by a local maker,” said Heinberg, who owns a Carruthers and two other violins. “This violin has a good, strong sound, evenly balanced across the strings ... his violas and cellos are a little more remarkable. He uses different woods for the backs of the violas, and he manages to get a really beautiful, woody sound.”

Watson has been playing on a Carruthers viola since 2001, after trying out various violins from some of the top Bay Area dealers.

“The one that Andy made is very refined and very lightweight,” she said. “The tone has only become richer over time.”

Hand-crafted works of art

Like luthiers working in Cremona, Italy, during the Golden Age - from the house of Amati in the 16th century through Stradivari, Guarneri, Ruggieri and others in the 17th and 18th centuries - Carruthers makes each instrument by hand and assembles it from more than 70 different molded pieces of wood, using mostly spruce, maple and domestic poplar. He adapts each instrument to the particular qualities of each piece of wood.

“It's all air-dried,” he said of the wood, which he measures for density and weight. “It dries slowly and tends to be stronger. You want lightweight but strong wood.”

It's especially important to use lightweight wood on the top of an instrument, Carruthers said, because it needs to vibrate easily yet be strong enough to withstand the pressure of the string tension, which equals more than 80 pounds on a modern violin.

“It's like building a race car,” he said. “You only want to use as much material as you need.”

Guided by tradition

It takes Carruthers roughly three months to make a cello, about half that for a violin or viola. He has an arsenal of 100 hand tools at his disposal - a broad, shallow-sweep gouge, a Jack-plane for smoothing and joining plates, and various small plates, scrapers and measuring tools - plus a few, time-tested templates from the Cremona luthiers.

“I tap the wood and listen to it, to see if it's going to be resonant, and I experiment with a lot of woods,” he said.“ You get some idea of the wood, but mostly, you're guided by tradition.”

When building an instrument, Carruthers starts with the “ribs,' the thin, rounded sides that are heated and bent around a form. The ribs determine the shape of the instrument, which differs for each model.

Carruthers' favorite cello model, for example, is a copy of a Francesco Ruggieri, Cremona Circa 1690, which he makes with poplar wood, just like Ruggieri, to give it a richer sound.

“It has a broad sound with a good, solid bass end,” he said. “The body is a little shorter than some cellos, which makes it comfortable to play.”

Recently, he has also been making a cello model from Antonio Stradivari, Cremona Circa 1740s, which is historically the most copied cello model.

“There is a reason for that - it works well,” he said. “The body is long and narrow looking, quite elegant, and the tone is rich, with a strong A string.”

Carving ‘endlessly engaging'

After the ribs, he carves the back and the top plates, pushing a gouge to create the arch, then using small planes and scrapes to refine the shape. The tops are a uniform thickness, while the backs are thicker in the middle to provide more support.

Creating the back and top of an instrument is both mentally and physically engaging for Carruthers, as he tries to balance the structural necessities with his tonal aspirations and the overall aesthetics. The shape of the arch dramatically affects the tone.

“Carving the plates is a puzzle to solve and, since there is no single right answer, it is an endlessly engaging problem,” he said. “It's very nerve-wracking the first time you put on the strings.”

Inside the violin, other supporting roles are played by the sound post, a dowel under the treble side of the bridge that connects between the top and bottom plate; and the base bar, an oblong piece of wood that runs the same direction as the strings under the base side of the bridge.

After the plates are finished, Carruthers carves the neck and scroll, then puts the various pieces together with the help of a glue made from animal skin and tendons, which allows for elasticity yet create svery strong joints.

Finishing touches

Then, to protect the wooden instrument from damage, he applies various coatings, including varnish, hanging the instrument to dry in his back yard, which is shaded by a California black walnut tree.

Often, he also adds a patina to the finish - called antiquing - which makes the new instrument appear more “comfortable” and allows it to blend into an orchestra of older string instruments.

The benefit of playing a new instrument, however, is that you actually know who made it, he said. You also know they are structurally healthy, he added, without a lot of cracks and nicks.

“With antique instruments, there are plagiaries,” he said. “And a lot of antique instruments were made in factories, not very carefully.”

To finish the instruments, Carruthers adds the purchased fittings: pegs, fingerboard, strings, tail piece and bridge, which all need to be carefully measured and aligned correctly.

Once the instrument has been assembled, the moment of truth arrives. It's time to take it for a test drive.

“I play it at the end, and then I'll make adjustments,” he said. “I'm looking for balance, power and clarity.”

Over the years, Carruthers said he has started to rely more and more on his intuition during the process. Like a cook who has used certain ingredients for years, he can't resist playing around with the recipe.

“I still take all the measurements, but it's mostly the feel,” he said. “I make what I like and wait until the musician who loves it comes along.”

A love of music

“The son of an American mother who loved classical music and a British father who was a sculptor, Carruthers grew up wanting to be a musician but only ended up a dabbler in ukulele and violin.

“I started playing fiddle at age 18,” he said. “I was on a Morris Dance team (a form of English folk dance), and I learned how to play the music.”

At college, he received a joint degree in ecology and industrial design, then moved to Berkeley in his 20s to work as a lab assistant at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

Five years later, he moved back to England and decided to study violin making. Although luthiers were scarce in the 1960s, he said, a wave of instrument-making schools opened in the '70s, which has led to a recent resurgence of the craft.

“Basically, you learn to collect tools, set them up and sharpen them,” he said. “The first and last year, we made an instrument. The middle year we did repair work ... I couldn't believe I could do something that fun all day.”

When he apprenticed in Chicago, he would come in early in the morning to make his own instruments, then work on restoration during the day. String instruments are always in need of repairs and upgrades, and luckily, they are easy to take apart.

“The beauty of the violin is that it's a flat joint,” he said. “You put just enough glue to hold it on, but it can be lifted off for repairs. That's why we have 400-year-old violins.”

The restoration work also taught him how high-quality instruments are put together in ways that can produce a better sound. The instruments are often mailed to him and arrive in disrepair.

“Usually, you get something in a box with no strings that buzzes, has too much wood here or is too thin there,” he said. “By assessing how to do as little as you can to make it sound good, you can learn a lot.”

Opened a studio in 1996

After moving his family to Santa Rosa and setting up his first private studio in 1996, Carruthers continued to do restoration work to pay the bills. But about half the time, he made his own instruments with savings he had put aside.

About three years ago, after his two boys had finished college, he decided to take the risky plunge into full-time maker. Despite working 10-hour days at the work bench and computer, he has no regrets.

“I love to work with my hands and to make something tangible,” he said.

“What I particularly like about this is that it's a tool, and when I'm finished, I give it to a musician.”

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

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