In his own Old World

Finn Meyer strives to make the perfect violin

Finn Meyer is covered by a cloud of sawdust. He just emerged from his small woodshop tucked behind saloon-style swinging doors that reveal mounds of woodchips on the floor, illuminated by a dim orange glow. The scent of spruce, maple and varnish permeates the Linden Hills-based Meyer Violin Shop.

Meyer, who resembles Santa Claus with his curly gray beard, spectacles and belly (he often poses as Santa for holiday events), is wearing jeans and a black T-shirt that reads, “Save the drama for your mama.”

Originally from Denmark, Meyer, 56, still totes a Green Card in his wallet. He belongs to a breed of Old World violinmakers who craft the delicate instruments by hand; he’s been doing it in the quaint storefront shop and his own home for 27 years.

The place appears to be stuck in a time warp. There’s no credit card machine or computer to be found. It was only recently that Meyer acquired a CD player.

He confesses that he’s not a savvy entrepreneur, but rather, an artist surviving from violin to violin.

Every violin Meyer creates is an experiment in his “laboratory.” He’s constantly refining the instruments. In his lifetime, Meyer has crafted 200 violins, 30 violas, 3 cellos and 450 bows. Some of his violines are worth up to $25,000 and his bows have sold for as much as $7,500 apiece.

Those who own his instruments, including some members of professional orchestras, among others, say his violins are getting better and better. Driven by equal parts passion and necessity, Meyer, who’s partially deaf, “feels” the tone of his violins.

Grasping the unfinished backside of a wood slab of a violin to-be, he demonstrated: Slapping the wood gently, it let out a warm, resounding howl.

“This has to sound like God in a box. Otherwise, I don’t eat. It must ring,” he exclaimed. “After all of these years, I’m still chasing after the holy grail.”

Meyer’s voice, too, is full and musical. It betrays only a hint of his Danish upbringing. The son of a tool and die maker, Meyer grew up alongside many other makers of things, jewelers and people who made chairs as examples.

Ancient wood

Aged wood is essential to creating violins. Only wood that’s been chopped down in the winter and then air-dried for 50 years will do. Meyer pointed to a pile of lumber stacked on a counter in the shop – century-old stock from the Remington rifle factory.

In his native country, guns were banned except for the military and police. Even then, soldiers were allotted bullets only on weekends, said the violinmaker.

At one point, Meyer had a job fashioning muzzleloaders for guns. He can tell tales. He’s also been an architectural draftsman and a photographer, snapping pictures of buildings under construction to preserve the record of their skeletons. He’s also a goldsmith and silversmith who wears rings he’s made.

A curio cabinet that once contained architectural renderings now holds violin components such as the pegs that tighten and loosen the strings, while a glass display case shows “empties,” or bits of wood leftover from the process.

Violins and bridges (the part supporting the strings near where the bow strikes) are suspended from wires. There’s also a harp, banjo, accordion and a distinctive Chinese fiddle on view.

Books with yellowed pages and albums are stacked on shelves. Mounted on the wall behind a display counter is a 10-year-old sketch of his right hand, rendered by his wife.

The picture is now more meaningful than ever, since Meyer has lost feeling in his right hand. He suffered a stroke in May and some doctors predicted he’d be dead by Christmas.

He can still create violins because it demands slow movements, as opposed to swift ones, like playing the guitar – which he’s now unable to do.

Still, he thinks that playing the guitar, which he did for over 50 years, saved his life. The skill of practicing music caused three extra veins to sprout in his brain, he says. They kicked in when a major artery quit working, causing the stroke.

“That’s why I’m still alive,” he said.

Meyer, whose birthday is Nov. 22, coinciding with the day dedicated to Cecilia, the Patron Saint of Music, believes he’s been given a second chance. “Becoming a better husband and father is more important than becoming a better violinmaker,” he said.

Building violins

He was inspired to produce fiddles by a very special musical performance. When he was 16 years old, he heard violinist Henryk Szeryns, who he called the world’s most famous musician of the time, play live.

“The way he played wasn’t technically perfect, but I wanted to be just like him. I was hit by the sound,” he said. “That was pretty close to heaven. I’ll never hear anything like it again.”

The violinmaker begins with a pattern that he Xeroxed from the famed Guarneri, an Italian master violinmaker in the 1600s and 1700s, to sketch a sturdy frame shaped like a violin – the mold.

Because it’s hand-drawn, the pattern is crooked, a measurement used to determine the authenticity of old violins. That extends even to the frogs of the bow, which holds the hair-and-wood stem together.

Pieces of wood are labeled. For example, on the “empties,” wood pieces cut out of the front and back sides of the violin he’s currently working on, it details “Dec. 13” in pencil, like a numbered artist’s proof.

He carves the front and back pieces so that they become concave. The same maple is used for the scroll at the top of the violin. Meyer has been using the same hammer and chisel, a tool dating to 1858 that’s made out of extra-carbonized cast steel (which is very sharp but also poisonous) for 30 years.

For the violin’s ribs, he soaks wood strips in water for six hours, till they’re soft and malleable. Then, he steams them over a heated pipe. He maneuvers the wood with brass planes his father made. When he makes the bow, he waves it over the flame of an alcohol lamp and then glues them to the violin’s sides.

When he’s done fitting the pieces together, he applies five coats of varnish “wet on wet,” a protective solution that he occasionally has concocted out of odds and ends, including beer. For the purfling, or edgework that lines the violin to keep it from cracking, he improvises with manila folders.

His voice

While other violins boast glossy surfaces and symmetry, Meyer’s violins reveal his handiwork. Even after he’s done, wood shavings are still visible. The honey-colored instruments are deep, dark and warm.

Often, he’s asked to leave out his name on the label inside the violin because his instruments give the impression of being expensive, old violins produced by a long-ago master.

Musician Troy Gardner, who occasionally plays with the Minnesota Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Chicago Symphony, has owned many of Meyer’s violins over the past 20 years.

“It seems to combine a lot of what’s best about modern and older instruments. Modern ones produce a big, clear penetrating sound. But most of them don’t have that certain quality that makes older instruments great,” he said.

Sometimes, the difference is an intangible thing, said violin teacher Beth Wolfe. She said Meyer’s violins are professional-level, befitting a soloist. “They’re not like anything [else] you’ll see on the market,” she said. “He’s hitting his zenith.”

 

Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or apratt@mnpubs.com.