Profile: Michael Darnton, In His Own Words

Michael Darnton will be familiar to many of our readers as the author of numerous informative (and sometimes controversial) postings on internet string-related sites. In view of this, it seems that some readers might like a more complete view of this talented artisan.

Michael Darnton was born in Michigan in 1949. He attended the University of Michigan and graduated from Thomas Jefferson College of the Grand Valley State Colleges in 1974. Initially he had a career as a photographer, doing small object photography, educational slide shows, and newspaper work, and since 1980 he has worked as an instrument maker. He and his wife, Ann, live in Chicago.

How long have you been a violin maker? What led you to this line of work, and what is your training?

I’ve been making violins since 1988. Before that I worked in repair and restoration, and before that I made guitars. My previous experience was as a newspaper photographer, but, as is common in that business, I burned out after a couple of years. When that happened I’d already been doing a little instrument repair, and needing a new trade, I decided to go to a guitar-making school near Nashville.

It’s not as strange a transition as you might think. I’d played the cello as a teenager, and had always been more interested in the instruments than the music. In fact, I’d bought a book on violin making when I was about 12 years old. The decision to make guitars was one of expediency: I figured there wasn’t anyplace to learn to be a violin maker quickly enough, but guitar making school was only three months out of my life. When I came back from that it was only a short time before I was doing more violin repair than guitar making. That all happened in 1980.

Then in 1984 my wife saw an article about Bein & Fushi in Chicago taking large numbers of trainees for their violin repair shop, and keeping only one or two, the best out of each group, to work permanently there. I figured that I could go down to Chicago from where I was, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, get about five months of great training at the best shop in the known universe, get rejected and fired, and come back home knowing a lot more than when I went. Unfortunately, they kept me.

I stayed there for three and a half years doing repairs and restoration, but one day I discovered that the violin making shop of William Harris Lee (in the same building as Bein & Fushi) was expanding, and I went down there and applied for a job. They hired me to do their repairs and setups, but I slid over into building pretty quickly, first as Will Whedbee’s assistant, then making my own instruments. It was a wonderful place to learn because it’s set up as a production shop, making large numbers of really excellent instruments. I picked up proficiency in a lot of specific tasks by going around and helping other makers with their work. For instance, I got up to speed on doing neck sets and bass bars by gathering shop instruments, and fitting bars or necks onto them in groups of twelve. That’ a much faster way to learn than by setting one neck every three or four weeks, as I would if I were by myself, or working in restoration as I had been doing at B&F. After four years at Bill Lee’s I went out on my own, and have had a shop in Chicago’s loop since 1991.

How do you select your wood?

I’ve made well over 125 violins now, and done a lot of experimenting with different types of wood. Through experience I’ve learned what types work for me, and how to deal with them. A lot of violin making isn’t choosing the right wood as much as it is knowing what to do with the type you have. My experience is that species and source is much more important than visual factors like grain widths and figure. If you look at old violins you’ll see great instruments made from many visually very different woods.

For me, the best woods for the purpose have turned out to be the original ones, of course. I know a lot of makers who use American woods, and I did also for a long time, but I almost exclusively use European wood now, especially the spruce for tops. A common top wood for many American makers is Engelman spruce, for instance. I find the instruments it makes to be relatively plain sounding compared to European spruce. Though many players don’t notice the difference, it’s definitely there. Other American varieties have turned out even worse for me. I guess it makes perfect sense that in trying to replicate particular old violins, I should be using the same materials that worked well for the old makers. For this reason, I don’t think that modern synthetic materials have much of a future in fine violin making, though they might turn out to be utilitarian for cheaper instruments of consistent quality, much as has happened with bows.

Do you have a particular model that you prefer to use, or do you experiment?

It seems like a waste of time to use anything less than the best models for instruments. My favorite, and the one that has been the most successful for me, is an absolutely typical Stradivari from 1715, The specific violin is the ex-Baron Knoop, a very beautiful instrument with a great reputation. It’s nearly identical to a number of fine violins he made in that period, all of which are fabulous instruments. Almost all of the last 70 or so [as of 2000] violins have been from this model. (Darnton has since added the “Cannone” Guarneri del Gesu model to his line-up, with great success.)

Stradivari instruments are so incredibly sophisticated that doing the same model over and over is really a great pleasure for me. Each time I try to learn more about the details, and work more accurately to the original intention of the instrument, putting myself as much as possible into the aesthetic of 1715. Historically, the best post-golden-period violins have come from the makers who were best able to subvert their own historical position in favor of making their instruments as someone of the proper period would have done. It’s very hard to learn to work with the aesthetic of a time that’s not your own, and I’m fascinated by art fakes for this reason. Invariably, fraudulent paintings reveal themselves through being artistically untrue to their supposed period, and there is much more written about this problem in the art world than in the violin world.

The more I’ve studied and worked to be a violin maker of 1715 the better my instruments have become. Essentially, the quality of violins dropped precipitously after the deaths of Antonio Stradivari (1737) and Joseph Guarneri del Gesu (1745), and it’s has never recovered. I figure that if I could ever merely replicate the work of Stradivari, I’d be the second or third best violinmaker that has ever lived. Until someone has achieved equality with those old makers, any path that diverges from that goal leads in the wrong direction, as far as I’m concerned, so I’m not much into innovation for its own sake, as many makers are.

What influences your choice of varnish?

One thing only: the original varnishes of Cremona. For me there’s nothing else. Any path that doesn’t lead me in that direction is immediately abandoned. Like many makers, I’m fascinated with varnish, and I have done a lot of experimentation with it. My current varnish is the closest I’ve come yet (not close enough, of course,) but that doesn’t mean that next week I might do even better.

This can be a bit of a battle with violinists, because the original varnishes were very tender and fragile, and wore very quickly. Even now, all you have to do is look at them too hard, and they chip right off. As a result, my varnish is also very vulnerable, and I almost always do at least a little bit of antiquing on my violins, so the first scratches are mine rather than the owner’s. The very few surviving Cremonese violins with untouched varnish have much more texture than modern violinists are conditioned to find appealing, as a result of the varnish’s thinness and the way it hugs the wood. I keep photos of old instruments and their varnishes handy to show customers what I’m trying to do.

Reflect on varnish recipe versus application.

If the question is whether the “secret” is in the recipe or the application, I definitely think it’s the recipe. I only use a traditionally formulated oil varnish that I make myself, and the application really isn’t an issue—it takes quite a while to firm up, and one just pushes it around with the brush until it’s right. Once a violin is finished there’s no way to tell if it’s got one thick coat or 16 thin ones, so of course that isn’t a factor. I think a lot of the application mystique came about to convince customers that there’s a lot of work to making a violin—24 coats is twice as good (twice as much work) as 12. I use four coats generally, and some people think the original Cremonese varnish was put on in one layer, which I personally doubt, but regardless, varnish is one aspect where more is definitely not better. If there’s a secret of Cremonese varnish in this regard, it’s that the Cremonese varnish is very thin, with a lot of color and clarity, and that more, thicker varnish of any type invariably strangles an instrument.

Whose work do you admire, or has had the greatest influence on your work?

Stradivari first, Guarneri del Gesu, second. Why waste time being impressed with anything less? I’m extremely lucky in this regard because as an ex-photographer I very quickly took over the photo documentation at Bein & Fushi, and have done all their photos for 16 years now. That means I’ve seen virtually every fine instrument that’s ever been in the shop (and many that haven’t—I’ve made a couple of trips to Europe to shoot photos for the B&F archives,) and I have photos, measurements, and drawings of many of them. I don’t know of any other maker who’s ever had that kind of opportunity and exposure to fine violins. At last count I’ve seen about 90 Strads, and maybe 40 del Gesus, plus countless other great violins.

What School of violin making do you consider yourself to be from?

People tell me that my violins look like Chicago violins, and by extension, I believe, classical Cremonese. This is in a large part because Chicago violin makers have had, thanks to Bein & Fushi and the other great shops Chicago has hosted in the last century, more access to great Cremonese instruments than any the previous school of makers except possibly those in the Vuillaume shop. Players aren’t aware of it, but many, or most makers have never had any access to great instruments, and often work from handed down, usually inaccurate drawings and photos. The violin making, and violin restoration businesses have traditionally had very little to do with each other, and have in fact, usually not even been in the same cities, at the same time. Any time I have a question about some precise detail of what I’m doing, I pick up my work and run over two blocks to compare it with several originals. As far as I’m aware, not even in present day Cremona (looking through glass cases doesn’t really count) does this opportunity exist for makers.

What is the hardest part of your profession? The best?

For me, the hardest part has been placing myself in a different place and time, knowing that I have to work to be something that the great Cremonese makers were born into.

The mechanics of making a violin are not all that difficult—amateurs do it as a basement hobby—but getting things exactly proper in all respects is nearly impossible. Players might imagine the difficulty, for instance, of replicating a whole Heifetz performance, from one end to the other so perfectly that the most critical listener would not know the difference in even a single note. That’s what violin makers are faced with if they truly want to make the best possible violin.

What single piece of advice would you give an aspiring maker?

Put yourself in the position to see the finest violins on a regular basis, and learn to learn from them.

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