Master Violin Craftsman

Hometown Heroes, Made in America, People, Traditions
on June 3, 2001

When William Lakeberg talks about making violins, its clear that as much art goes into the craftsmanship as into the performance.

A really good craftsman can make everything perfect, and at the same time make it aesthetically pleasing, says the resident of Fort Wright, Ky. (pop. 6,670). Ive seen a lot of workmen who can do very precise work, but it looks kind of cold. Youre not drawn to it. There are a few gifted people out there who can do both. I strive for that.

Lakeberg graduated in the late 1970s from what is now the Chicago School of Violin Making, then worked in music shops before striking out on his own six years ago. He now spends mornings in his home-based Amsterdam Violin Shop, varnishing violins that are sent to him in the white. He joins a partner, Peter Baer, at another shop making string basses in the afternoon and reserves evenings for crafting violins or violas. In total, he produces about 10 to 12 instruments every year, charging at least $8,000 each.

My favorite part is designing the instrument, working with the materials, he says. I like imagining Oh, this will look nice, this figure has a nice way that it turns in the light and shines back at you.

Lakeberg says theres something almost indescribable in the difference between a well-made violin and a poorly made one. Although he emphasizes that the sound of a violin depends largely on the playerHe has to create everything that produces the sound; all the violin can do is faithfully recreate what hes doingLakeberg notes that a good violin will respond to the way the musician bows the instrument and, therefore, produce the desired variety of tone colors.

An amateur fiddle player himself, Lakeberg says he can play just well enough to assess the tone of the instruments he makes.

Theres a way you can adjust the violin, and when you get it to just that spot, it will ring out and sing, he explains. You really have to be able to determine if you brought it to that point.

In addition to his training, Lakeberg attends seminars conducted by senior members of the Violin Society of America (VSA). He savors the opportunity to study the efforts of older, more accomplished craftsmen.

The work of Antonio Stradivari, an Italian violinmaker born in Italy in 1644, is considered the benchmark. Lakeberg has inspected several of the masters 650 surviving instrumentswhich can be worth up to $5 million apieceand says he learns something every time.

If you look at good old Italian instruments for a long time, you can find relationships there, he says. These violins werent just designed by random chancea lot of mathematics and geometry went into the design. That intrigues me, trying to figure out what was going on in their minds when they made them and trying to use that in the way I make instruments.

Tschu Ho Lee, now the president of Lakebergs alma mater, says his former students willingness to be an apprentice is part of what has enabled Lakeberg to make a living as a craftsman for more than two decades.

He always contacts me when he makes something and wants to know what is wrong, what is good, he says. Hes making pretty good right now. I think he will be even better in the future.

Since Lakeberg recently received a coveted Certificate of Merit for Tone in the VSAs viola competition, pretty good seems an understatement. But Lee, for whom Lakeburg has the utmost respect, insists that violin making is a lifelong endeavor.

Many young people want easy study, easy learn, and big money right away, says the veteran teacher. But in the violin making business, you cannot get fast. You need whole life of study. Its no end to the research and the trying to.

Thats a commitment William Lakeberg is willing to make.