At this year’s Richmond Folk Festival, spectators have the chance to hear Tibetan opera, Dominican merengue and Native American hip-hop. Virginia’s rich cultural heritage will also be celebrated, including those continuing the tradition of hand-crafted instruments. Virginia Currents producer Catherine Komp brings you to the workshop of one of those artisans, violin maker Don Leister.
Learn More: Find out information on Don Leister’s work and listen the songs performed with his violins by Richmond Symphony Orchestra musician Jocelyn Adelman Vorenberg.
Don Leister: This is my shop...
In the middle of Don Leister’s workshop, a large piece of wood about four feet tall and 20 inches wide is propped up against the wall.
Leister: When you see really pretty maple, you start imagining what it’s going to look like when it turns into an instrument.
Leister: I try to get the best looking woods and the woods that originally would have been used by the Italian masters.
Leister made his first violin 25 years ago. He always had a creative side, majoring in painting and printmaking at VCU, and had developed skills in carpentry and woodworking.
Leister: I played violin as a middle schooler and elementary school child and then picked it up again as an adult and just fell in love with the instrument and knew that’s what I wanted to do so I started taking courses, trying to build on my own and just learning where I could.
Pulling out a drawer of his own violin designs, Leister says having access to original Stradivari and Guarneri violins - and being able to handle and measure them - was one of his most valuable lessons.
Leister: This is a Strad outline that I took, a 1714 Strad and this would be the rib outline...
He used these designs to make Stradivari and Guarneri molds. The process of making violins and violas involves many precise steps. After selecting aged wood, Leister cuts the various parts to size. Spruce is used for the top of the instrument, maple for the back. The sides of the violin, or ribs, are bent around the mold to form the hourglass shape. The top and bottom plates require careful shaping to create the subtle curvature that’s so important to the instrument’s sound.
Using special steel tools for gouging the wood by hand, Leister works on the concave underside of the plate.
Leister: You want to use the tool that takes off the most amount of wood and gets you there as quickly as possible. A lot of the steps you might think a violin maker is just scraping tiny amounts of wood which at times you do, but you want to get there quickly.
He’ll need to make exact measurements with violin makers calipers to get the thickness of the wood just right, down to an ⅛ of an inch in some places. About 30 hours of work went into this instrument so far, and there’s some 70 more to go.
Leister: I would say the arch is almost finalized for the outside. I have the F holes drawn and what I want to do is hollow it or graduate the plate and when I get it thinner, then I’ll cut the F holes out of the front. Then I can refine the thicknesses and install the brace that would go with that. After I glue the instrument together, I go over the whole instrument and clean it up, refine it, take all the little bumps out and make sure it’s beautiful and smooth.
Eventually, he’ll stain the instrument. He might start with egg whites or a thin wash of gelatin to make sure the oils don’t soak into the wood. To add color, he prefers making his own stains using natural components like tea and walnut hulls.
Leister: You wouldn’t think brown is such hard color to come up with but it’s really a challenge to make an interesting instrument that isn’t just brown. It has gold in it, it has reds, it has blacks, it has hints of purple, blue or even green sometimes.
Final steps include adding the internal soundpost, bridge, tuning pegs and strings. Leister has made more than 70 instruments, including a cello and a handful of violas. All but four are owned by musicians, including the Richmond Symphony Orchestra’s Jocelyn Adelman Vorenberg.
Leister: Hi Jocelyn...
Vorenberg opens her case and reveals one of Leister’s Stradiveri models, a golden brown one he made in 2013. She says there’s an ease to playing Leister’s violins.
Vorenberg: Some older instruments, there’s certain notes that don’t speak well or you do a shift, the same way you’ve always done a shift and it doesn’t turn out the way that you expect it to. With this, it does, it’s very consistent.
Pulling out several pages of sheet music, Vorenberg begins playing Ashokan Farewell, the title song from Ken Burns’ Civil War series.
Leister: It hasn’t been played, so it might warm up a little as she’s playing it...
Vorenberg quickly tunes the instrument and tries out Meditation from the French opera Thaïs.
Vorenberg: It’s warm, a warm sound. It’s similar to mine I feel like. Don really has a style, I can really tell I’m playing his instrument; it’s a different feel but when I go from one violin to another to another by Don they feel the same and there’s a certain sound.
Leister says its an honor to hear his instruments played and to know they’re being used to make beautiful music. He joins other instrument makers from Virginia who are demonstrating their craft at this year's Richmond Folk Festival. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.