Strings Attached for Montgomery Violins
It must be an almost sacred privilege for a violin maker to be entrusted with the restoration and care of centuries-old instruments crafted by the great masters – Stradivari, Amati and Guarneri. Violin-maker John Montgomery, owner of Montgomery Violins in Raleigh, certainly appreciates having been offered the job.
“I have maintained the collections at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian since 2003,” Montgomery says. “I feel very fortunate to have been asked. Initially, I brought each of the Library of Congress instruments to my shop in Raleigh, since they needed extensive work. Now I maintain them on site in Washington, D.C.”
Most days, however, Montgomery works in his Hillsborough Street shop, building string quartets of his own make or repairing and restoring instruments for the professional players who make up the bulk of his customers.
Montgomery first set up shop in Raleigh in 1983, after studying construction of another musical instrument, the hurdy-gurdy, in France as a Thomas Watson Fellow. He completed the program at the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City – considered the preeminent violin-building program in the world. He then worked in New York City for a time, but looked to establish himself in a place more conducive to raising his growing family.
“At that time, the Raleigh-Durham area was rated very highly, though in retrospect, I’ll say it was just the beginning of what makes this area good,” Montgomery says, noting the city’s growth as a cultural center. “It was a pretty ripe area to practice violin-making.”
Local musicians were thrilled to have a craftsman of Montgomery’s caliber in their midst, and business took off.
Now firmly entrenched in Raleigh, Montgomery Violins’ retail store carries a full range of instruments, from beginning-student level to professional, along with accessories and supplies.
But back in the workshop is where the real magic happens. Using his own handmade tools – extensions of his hands, he calls them – Montgomery carves, fits, joins and finishes the pieces, every aspect of the process infinitesimally detailed and precise.
His work at the Library of Congress studying the violins, violas and cellos of the masters – literally “hands-on” – has not only informed his own work but also allowed him to share his discoveries with others in his field.
“The measurements and documents I have made have been made available and enhanced our understanding, especially of the work of Stradivari,” he says. “One thing we realize more and more as we pursue the building of instruments is that every single aspect of the instrument plays a role and matters and is critical. There’s nothing about which you can say, ‘Oh that doesn’t matter, I can do it a different way.’ ”
That goes for materials as well: always maple for the back and sides, spruce for the top, ebony for the fingerboard. Yet, every slab of wood is as unique as the instrument it will become. In fashioning his works after historic European instruments, Montgomery actually buys wood that grew in the same forest, seeking a “close match to grain layout, color and vibrational characteristics,” he says.
Interestingly, some of the most admired violin varnishes were made in the 18th century and contain renowned North Carolina turpentine, which was exported to European makers.
The final step in the process happens when the unique sound of one of Montgomery’s instruments pleases the ear of a particular musician, and the pair leaves his shop together. “It’s kind of like finding a spouse,” Montgomery says.
If You Go …
509 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, NC
– Carol Cowan