Old violins and new technology


In Andrew Dipper's downtown Minneapolis workshop, a 400-year old Italian-made violin hangs by its neck in a rack next to dozens of other historic instruments made by great European violin makers.

"Almost everything in this room pre-dates America. There's not much here that's after 1776," Dipper says.


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He is the head of restoration at Claire Givens Violins. Dipper began his business in London and relocated to Minneapolis in 1990 after he married the owner of the shop. The newlyweds shared a passion for stringed instruments, and decided to combine her violin shop with his restoration business.

"It's really easy to see the romance of making an instrument, and this idea of taking wood from a tree and making it into something that sings," Claire Givens says.

According to Givens, violin makers such as Stradivarius are widely known for their artistry. But those involved in instrument restoration are also artists.


"It's I think akin to a musician in an orchestra interpreting the music of a composer," says Givens. "To have the skills to recreate something that's been damaged or something that's been deteriorating over the ages, and bring it back to it's former glory -- I think this is an amazing process."

Walking into the workshop, it's difficult to remember that you're in present-day Minneapolis. The tools, instruments and workbenches can lead you to believe you're in an Italian violin maker's workshop in the 1700s.

Andrew Dipper received his training in London and uses traditional restoration techniques. These old instruments are quite durable, but sometimes the seams will split and the wood will crack. When that happens, he takes the instrument apart and reassembles it. Sometimes he hand carves a new piece for the instrument.

Dipper uses traditional techniques that he learned from his days in England. For example, he uses glues made from animal hide, not synthetic glues.


"Natural materials -- we know from how the Egyptians used them in the pyramids and in the tombs -- we know that certain types of glues will last 1,000 or 2,000 years in the right circumstances," Dipper says.

He adds it's important to blend old techniques with new technology. Dipper takes digital pictures of his instruments and blows up the image so he can see cracks in the wood and other problems. This was not possible before the computer age. He also uses the Internet to check on techniques, and to get biographical information about historic violin makers.

Five people work full time in the Claire Givens repair workshop. This area of the business does not deal with restoration. They maintain stringed instruments used by everyday players. The workers here adjust the sound post and re-string violins.

Their highest-profile customers are professional players from Orchestra Hall down the block, who bring in their 300 to 400-year-old instruments for servicing.

"It's not exactly my contact with immortality -- but it comes close," says Douglas Lay, manager of the repair shop.


Lay has worked at Givens Violins for about 20 years.

"One of the best parts is getting the instrument back in the musician's hands," says Lay, "and I'm listening to them play it and I hear what it's really all about -- the music."

Lay says most of the repairs he does cost about $50. The shop charges by the hour. For some complicated historic restorations it takes about 400 hours of work, and can cost around $10,000.

Minnesota's connection with professional violin restoration began with the founding of the Minnesota Orchestra in 1903. Shop owner Claire Givens says other major metropolitan areas like New York and Boston already had established orchestras, and had attracted skilled violin makers from Europe.

"Minnesota has more of a tradition of people who combined other skills with being restorers and makers. So going back through the history of Minnesota violin-making, you'll find people who were a combination of typewriter repair and violin repair," Givens says.

Givens says it's only been since the 1970s that professional violin restorers have been working in the Twin Cities. She says the number of violin players and makers in Minnesota is a statement about the seriousness and the strong future of the musical community.