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Making music

Violin makers converge on Fredericksburg shop

Joe Thrift of Elkin, NC, plays some old-time fiddle, but the violins that he makes are typically bought by professional classical violinists.
Thrift is a master violin maker, and he’s been teaching other makers how to refine their craft for the past two weeks at Wm Mason II Violin Shop in downtown Fredericksburg.
“There are more violin makers out there than you might think,” Thrift said.

Bill Mason owns Wm Mason II Violin Shop

By Chris Muldrow / Fredericksburg Today

This is the second year that Bill Mason has hosted the class at his shop.
“As a violin maker, it’s easy to get into your own little vacuum,” Mason said. “This is a way to get out and talk to other people in the craft.”
Makers from as far away as Wisconsin have joined this year’s class.
“We start early in the morning and work into the night,” Mason said. “We take breaks to enjoy Fredericksburg’s great restaurants.”
Thrift said that the participants brought projects they’ve been working on to try to refine their work.
It takes Thrift about two months to build an instrument. He said the woodworking itself takes 4 or 5 weeks, and then varnishing takes time. Thrift makes his own varnish, just like Mason does.
In fact, the walls of Mason’s largest workshop are covered with sheets of paper with varnish recipes, designs, history lessons about stringed instruments and other educational information.
“We have schools come in and learn about our craft,” Mason said. “Making a violin is about math, and engineering, and physics, and chemistry.”
You might not realize Mason’s shop could fit a pack of craftsman from the small door on Jackson Street. But it is a maze of rooms with rehearsal space, machine shops, a bow repair area, a violin showroom and the space where Bill and Elaine Smith-Mason live.
Mason’s business initially grew as a rental business for students who needed violins, violas, cellos and double basses. He added repair services and has someone who teaches lessons in the shop.
As that business has grown, though, Mason is taking the next step into building instruments. He has installed milling equipment to manufacture violins in the shop, and he has stockpiled several varieties of American-sourced wood to build a line of affordable violins. He also has a stock of European wood for entirely handmade instruments built by himself and Christina Wan, the other violin maker in the shop.
“I was a professional violinist, but I decided to take a different direction in my career,” Wan said. “I’m from New York, and I started looking around for a place to learn to make violins. I came here, and I really like what we’re doing.”
Wan apprenticed with Mason, and now they both build custom instruments. She has been working on a special instrument for a student from West Virginia since the shop’s workshop last year–he has picked out the wood and all of the pieces she will use to build the violin.
Mason and Wan are also planning to build a quartet of instruments that can be played in the shop.
Mason is enthusiastic about the idea of building quality instruments in downtown Fredericksburg. He grew up here, and he likes being in the center of town.
“Many makers tell their apprentices they have to put their instructor’s name in their instruments,” Mason said. “I tell my guys, you can put whatever you want on the violin, but it’s got to say ‘Made in Fredericksburg.'”

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