Making sweet music: Violin maker Antoine Nedelec

East Dallas violinmaker Antoine Nedelec looks exactly like you’d expect — a young Geppetto from “Pinocchio” — and his workshop is lined with woodworking tools, each meticulously organized along shelves or in drawers. Born and raised in France, Nedelec speaks with an accent when he passionately discusses the painstaking process of building a violin, which can take up to 200 hours per instrument. Nedelec is renowned for his varnishing skills, which lend his brand new violins an antique look.

How’d you get into violin-making?
Like every other kid I built stuff, but it was more a love of the violin. There’s a famous violin making school in Utah. [The Violin Making School of America.] When I went there, the program was about four to five years. I was pretty sure that was what I wanted to do, but it’s not like college where you go and then even if you don’t like your major you still get a diploma and you can kind of choose the job you want after that. With violin making, if it turns out that’s not what you want to do then you’re wasting your time. But within two weeks I knew I made the right choice. I just loved it right away.

Could technology or machinery eventually replace you?
No, science is making progress, but a computer does what it’s told. It doesn’t figure out anything. They’re getting closer, but what counts at the end is what people hear. You take a tree and you cut it, even if you make both sides from the same cut of wood, the left side is not going to have the same properties as right side of the instrument. It’s intuitive. I think modern makers have lost their intuitive-ity compared to the old Cremonese violins [out of Cremona, Italy, where the famous violin-maker Antonio Stradivarius was born in 1644], but there are some violin-makers who are getting close. I think the best of the modern makers are getting pretty close to the old ones.

So you make old-style violins?
I do, I make older styles — more intuitive, less symmetrical. I try to just let it happen. And they’re much easier to sell if you antique them. Much easier. My reputation in the business is that I do that well.

How many hours a day do you spend working?
I used to spend a good 10 to 12 hours day working. About two years ago I made a huge life decision that I wasn’t going to go crazy, so now it’s more like just any regular job. Although it’s hard to tell because some days I can work 15 hours and other days I can work two.

What’s your artistic process like? Is it therapeutic or creative?
The creative thinking gets pretty intense. When it comes to varnish, it gets so intense that that’s what I think about at night. I cannot let it go. When I make a mistake, I’m getting better at walking away and going on with life, but it’s still hard. It’s hard to deal with my family when I get out of the shop and I’m mad, disappointed or stressed.

How much does a violin go for?
One of mine goes for a little bit over $20,000. If you work on old violins, which I used to, but I don’t do much anymore — I’m almost 100 percent into violin-making — I did violin restoring, and very often I’d have violins that were 10 times more expensive than my house. A Stradivarius from Cremona can easily go for $3 million to $5 million.

Have you ever owned a Stradivarius violin?
No. I’ve worked on them doing adjustments, but I don’t that any more. I concentrate only on new making. When I have one of those, I can’t leave my house [because he’s afraid it will be stolen].

Are there any Stradivarius violins in Dallas?
There are a few. Do you know Harlan Crow? He has one, and there are two in the symphony. There are a couple more that are privately owned.

Do people buy already-made violins or do you make them for specific people?
I make them for specific people, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be happy about it. Usually those people are very, very picky. So when I make it, they’re not forced to buy the violin, at which point it can go to somebody else, if they don’t like it. Most of the time my violins sell in New York. They go to professional violinists. I have a shop in New York that I do a lot of business with. I send them my violins, and they handle the sale. I do like to deal with musicians directly, so I do that too, although that’s another job right there.

How so?
The violinists are under a lot of stress themselves. It’s their profession. It’s their voice, which is why it can be so hard to be commissioned. It’s so much easier to send them to a shop and let them deal with them. There’s something to be said for making the violin and then finding the right customer, rather than finding the customer and making the right violin. But I do both, and I do adjustments for some customers.

Do you get your inspiration from Stradivarius?
All the violin makers in the world are infatuated with Stradivarius. So yeah, I take inspiration from him. Sometimes I try to make exact replicas, trying to be as close to an original as possible.

How do you go about making an exact replica?
I was involved in a big project at Oberlin College. Every summer they gather some of the best makers in the world, and they come together and build a violin. We got to copy a very famous Stradivarius violin that’s at the Library of Congress. It was the first time they let it out of the library — ever. We got to use technology for that. It was a pain in the butt. It’s much more fun to make it by hand. It took two years. The first year was to make it, and the second year was to varnish it. I was in charge of varnishing it, and now it’s right next to the original in the Library of Congress. It looks close. It’s not exactly like the original.

You’ve won awards for your work, right?
Every two years there’s an international violin-making competition in the United States. It’s called the Violin Society of America Competition. I’ve won quite a few prizes. In 2012, I won a gold medal, so first prize, for viola. That same year I won silver for cello and a certificate of workmanship for violin.

How often do you make a violin that you feel like is a perfect violin?
Never. I think I’m getting to the point where I have a better idea of what they’re going to sound like. If somebody is telling you they’re going to make you a violin, and they know exactly what it’s going to sound like, they’re lying. You can choose things to make it sound darker or lighter, but even then there are surprises.

How many days does it take to make a violin?
It depends. You could go really fast. You could make one in four to five days in the white — meaning not varnished — or you could take a whole month to make one. Even two months. In terms of hours, it’s usually about 200 hours from start to finish, but you could go faster than that. I never have a deadline. My only deadline is my wife telling me I haven’t made money in months. That’s when I start worrying about finishing one, but I’ve learned to never ever, ever make compromises with quality.


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