Keeping the craft of instrument making alive

May 10, 2014

John Delmonico works at a small violin shop on East Avenue in Rochester, continuing a tradition that dates back to the 16th century.

"You know it's something we don't hear about that much anymore," said Delmonico, who began working at Sullivan Violins five years ago.

“Really, the story is I couldn't find a teaching job and I needed a job.”

He’s a classically-trained cellist with a background in music education. He started out as an office clerk at Sullivan’s, but soon took an interest in how the instruments were built and maintained.

"When I got here and had the opportunity to play 20 different cellos I got to experience 20 different voices or 20 different characters.”

From Salesman to Cello Maker

Now, he’s repairing string instruments, some over two hundred years old.

“That has helped inform me on what I'm looking for when I set up an instrument. Suddenly I have more of a palate to work with," said Delmonico.

While still supporting the business side of things, he’s about to make the first cello of his career.

"You want to have the sound of the instrument in your head"

"Even though there's been no cutting of wood yet, no selection of materials, you want to have the sound of the instrument in your head already as you’re thinking about the building process, because at some level that affects it," he said.

Studying from the Master

His boss is Ken Sullivan, owner and senior luthier, at Sullivan Violins. A luthier is a maker of stringed instruments. Sullivan came to the trade as a carpenter, so he has a feel for the materials. For Sullivan, the nuances of a handmade object have more value than the qualities of a machine-made product.

"It could just be a moment's thought …Something that you did different, that you were thinking [about] that gave it a little more character by doing that. It could be a slip of the knife which people, you know, it just, it adds a little character to it sometimes."

Sullivan has just completed building a cello by hand. The process took a little over a year. The project was based on an 18th century cello made by an Italian luthier named Mateo Gofriller.

"The curves on the instrument are quite honest curves, let’s put it that way, the violin was a product of the renaissance -- mathematics and geometry were very important in its construction."

Little has changed in the way of string instruments since the Renaissance, but musicians now play in bigger venues, so Sullivan has adjusted some of the cello’s shape. A flatter arch, for instance, allows for more resonance.

While making instruments still follows the basic processes of the 1600s and 1700s, technology does help.

"The idea that Stradivari didn't have a band saw or a joiner is kind of -- it's true he didn't -- but what he did have is two sons who worked with him for over 50 years. They were his band-saw and joiner." said Sullivan.

Sullivan does have wood-working machines, and like Stradivarius, he also has two assistants. But no one today, says Sullivan, can make an instrument that can compare to the work of a master like Stradivari.

But Sullivan still believes that there’re plenty of reasons to create new instruments.

"What we can do is make great instruments that sound great that look great that are affordable that under the right hands somebody can develop a tremendous expression of their own," he said.