- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

Tom King holds out a stack of wood pieces in one hand, while gently whisking away small flecks of sawdust with the other.

"Here's a violin of the future," he says, smiling.

The wood is Bosnian maple. It is uniquely hard and light the perfect wood for making a violin that can "sing."

Mr. King makes violins in a workshop located in the basement of his Potomac home. On this day, he is meeting friend and fellow violin maker Gary Frisch to discuss the craft and art of turning plain wood into elegant music.

It is not easy work. Both men have been making violins for more than 20 years but still strive to replicate the work of history's greatest violin makers, like Antonio Stradivari or Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesus.

With those instruments, "there's a great sense of response, and the instrument almost always wants to play in tune," Mr. King says.

And the quest to make the next great violin has Mr. King and Mr. Frisch spending an almost unhealthy amount of time in their workshops, tapping on wood to hear the proper tones, measuring wood thickness and testing finished instruments for sound.

"People get really passionate about this stuff," says Mr. Frisch, 49, a resident of Falls Church. "This is their world."

On the surface, putting a violin together is not that hard. There are fewer than 10 big pieces that can be carved easily and put together with a nice slab of hide glue. But getting the instrument to create that broad, angelic sound that musicians look for is much harder.

The type of wood used is key, Mr. King says. The front, or belly, of a violin is usually made with spruce, a wood known for being stiff, but light. The same qualities are found in maple, which is often used for a violin's back and sides, or ribs. The stiffness makes the instrument durable, while the light weight is better for sound.

The thickness of the violin's front and back helps shape the violin's sound. Mr. King and Mr. Frisch spend hours using small "finger planes" to carve slight amounts of wood away from the violin's belly. There are no rules as to how thick a violin must be, because a certain thickness "might not necessarily be the right thickness for that wood," says Mr. Frisch.

Carving the belly of a violin is a tedious process similar to that of making a statue out of clay.

"You have to train your eye like [a] sculptor does," Mr. Frisch says. "It takes a long time to develop your eye."

For the most part, the front and back of violins are thinner around the edges and thicker in the center. But that is not always true. Some of the great instruments made by Stradivari are fewer than 3 millimeters thick in the middle, Mr. King says.

It's all about testing and trying it out. Both Mr. King and Mr. Frisch occasionally use electronics to measure pitch and tone, but they also meet with professional musicians who test the instruments and give feedback.

Mr. King and Mr. Frisch met in the 1980s while training under Robert and Deena Spear, two other local violin makers. Mr. King also trained with Karl Roy, director of the Mittenwald School of Music at the University of New Hampshire.

Neither man grew up aspiring to make violins for a living. Mr. King holds a Ph.D. in economics and worked for Freddie Mac until he retired to make violins full time.

"I'm sure I'm the only person in the history of the company to say I'm quitting to make violins," he says.

Mr. Frisch took up playing the violin in his early 20s, but worked as a bookstore manager before coming across a violin maker at an arts festival. Now, he makes violins full time, concentrating on violins for children and beginners, while also earning money repairing instruments.

Neither man sells a large number of violins. With instruments costing between $2,000 and $5,000, the men can afford to take extra care and time to make their instruments unique. And they spend a great deal of their time talking with other violin makers to get ideas how to make their instruments sound better.

Both men are actively involved in research to determine what gave the instruments of Stradivari and other great makers such a widely appreciated sound. Some violin makers have gone so far as to earn advanced degrees in physics to understand the activity of wavelengths with certain violins.

"There tends to be a compulsion about it," Mr. Frisch says.

Mr. King and Mr. Frisch say they are part of a new "renaissance" of violin making in the United States. Talented makers are popping up all over the country, and musicians don't always insist on playing European-made instruments, they say.

In the end, making violins is about making great music, Mr. Frisch says. And there is a clear correlation between satisfying customers and doing a good job.

"When you do it right, you make people happy," he says.

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