Violinmaker shows amateurs how it’s done

John Jacob Karwandy, a master luthier, is one of the last professional violinmakers in Calgary if not the country.

He expressed distain over the increasing number of amateur violinmakers currently working in the trade.

“Would you go see a witch doctor?” he asked.

Karwandy currently works at Vintage Music where he makes violins and teaches students how to do so themselves. Karwandy has also self-published a book containing many of his technical illustrations of violins.

When stepping into the store, one can immediately see him in the back whittling away at a piece of wood. Karawandy said it is rare to find a violinmaker who is willing to work out in the open.

“No repair guy, in general, wants you in his shop.”

Steven Wright, the owner of Vintage Music, said that having Karwndy working out in the open provides a “focal point” for customers.

“It’s like looking through the glass at a craftsman working away, except there is no glass,” Wright said.

Victor Farrell has been repairing and restoring guitars for over 30 years and works at Vintage Music alongside Karwandy. Farrell said he was the one who first got in touch with Karwandy through Facebook and Kijiji six months prior.

Vintage Music is the only music store in Calgary with both a guitar luthier and a violin luthier. Karawndy has only been working at Vintage Music since the beginning of March, but he had already had a dozen people who have expressed interest in becoming his students.

Bryan Buss is the owner of Music Studio, Vintage Music’s next-door neighbour. Many people get lessons at his studio and then buy their instruments at Vintage Music or vice versa.

“I don’t play the violin, but it’s all custom stuff Karwandy’s making. It looks pretty amazing,” Buss said.

Karwandy began his long career as a violinmaker at the age of 13 in his father’s music store. He went to NAIT and was an engineer for ten years afterwards until Pierre Treadu’s job cuts forced him out of work.

For two and a half years, Karwandy was jobless and living on welfare. It was by suggestion of his father that he began pursuing a career as a violinmaker.

There is no school in Canada outside of Quebec that teaches violinmaking, so Karwandy went to England to begin his training, only to be told there was an even better violinmaking school in Salt Lake City, Utah.

He took this advice and attended the Violin Making School of America for four years. The school still exists, but it is now a three-year course, costing around $33,000.

“That’s American dollars,” he emphasized.

Many of the other students were fresh out of high school while he was in his late twenties. The instructors also “black balled” him and the other students in order to weed out the one’s who weren’t committed.

“They weren’t able to harpoon me, so I was the first Canadian to finish the course,” Karwandy explained.

Karwandy has worked across the country in a variety of places such as Montreal, Regina, and Vancouver. He has also worked extensively in China and Korea.

“They treat you real well there, especially if you’re teaching them something.”

He even went so far as to say that, as a violinmaker, he was treated better in Asia than he ever was in North America.

Although working as a violinmaker for 30 years, Karwandy said he has only made 60 violins so far in his career.

Karwandy first starts out with a pile of timber. He then uses a metal template to cut out a mould, which can either be an inside or outside mould.

Karwandy said he typically uses an inside mould, an approach known as the “Italian-American method.”

After that, he makes rims and wraps it around the mould, securing it with glue. He then attaches plates, which he carves by hand, to the mould. The last steps are to varnish the wood and attach the strings to it.

Karwandy revealed that the F-holes on the front of violins aren’t just for letting sound out. It actually serves as something of a logo, for every violinmaker has his own unique F-hole design. It’s one of the few ways to tell where a violin came from.

“Can you tell the difference between a Ford and a Chevy?”

Some are using 3D printers to make violins. They are technically not considered violins, since they have no strings and rely on electronics to make sound.

“I’m interested in doing it the classical way,” Karwandy said.

His cheapest violin can be bought for $12,000, each one taking 100 hours to make. Karwandy said he knew an amateur violinmaker that takes 250 hours to make a violin.

“You can’t make a living off that. If I can’t make $80 to $100 per hour, I might as well become a mechanic.”

Violinmaking can be dangerous as well. Karwandy said he knew a man who died of rosewood poisoning.

In fact, many amateur violinmakers lack the proper training to handle certain types of wood properly and end up breathing in poisons over the course of years. Two of Karwandy’s associates are unable to even touch a violin without having an immediate allergic reaction.

“You will swell up like a balloon,” he warned.

Karwandy said that professional violinmakers are undervalued and ought be able to make 100 grand a year just like a doctor.

“I consider myself a professional.”

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