By Allison West (reprinted from The High Country Magazine, April/May 2014)
Photography by Katie Warren
Amati. Maggini. Stradivari. Guarneri. … Finck? The latter name, it’s safe to say, is never mentioned in the same breath as that of the former, whose violins are heralded and spoken of with a reverence verging on the religious. So what could David Finck, a woodworker from Valle Crucis, NC, possibly have in common with those European violin makers of the 16th to 18th centuries? Plenty, it turns out.
For starters, they are all masters of their crafts – experimenting, honing, perfecting. Stradivari’s instruments, for instance, are considered the epitome of the luthier’s art, prized by the world’s greatest musicians and collectors, and valued today at hundreds of thousands to several million U.S. dollars. On a smaller but no less devoted scale, Finck, who studied for two years under internationally renowned teacher James Krenov at The College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program in Fort Bragg, Calif., has been building custom high-end furniture, jewelry cases, lamps, tables, desks and guitars for the last 30 years. And his skill commands its own relative high figures: According to Finck’s website, www.davidfinck.com, a dreadnaught steel-string guitar is priced at $3,500 while an arts and crafts-themed walnut buffet runs $6,100. But where the fine woodworker’s life truly intersects with that of the Italian masters is in his latest endeavor: making violins.
Finck’s interest in music ignited in high school, when he began playing guitar and singing, first pop music, then blues, ragtime and classical. But it was a few years later before his musical passion collided with one he wasn’t even aware he had: woodworking. While lending a hand on his folks’ remote land in West Virginia one summer during college, Finck stumbled upon a guitar that his father Henry, an anatomy professor who was also an avocational woodworker and violinist, had stopped just short of completing. The guitar was step one in his very methodical father’s three-step plan. “My father had a lifelong goal of building a violin,” says Finck. “[His plan was] first he would build a guitar, then a viola da gamba, and finally, the violin. These instruments represent a progression in woodworking.”
Finck recalls that his father had begun working on that guitar a couple of years before Finck the younger ever thought about playing one, so when he saw the incomplete instrument, along with extra wood and how-to books, Finck thought he hit upon a brilliant plan. “If I started making a guitar of my own, maybe [my dad] would get inspired to start back on his and I would end up with a decent guitar. Well, that part of my plan failed,” he recalls, laughing. “I think it was another 10 years before my father completed the guitar. But something unexpected happened: I became absolutely passionate about woodworking.”
Following that revelation, Finck readily admits he wasn’t much help to his parents the rest of that summer, but he did catch a glimpse of the path his life would take. The then 19 year old returned to the University of California at Berkeley with a guitar of his own making and graduated two years later with a degree in Environmental Science. The next step was obvious. Finck was off to woodworking school where he “had the experience of a lifetime” and, incidentally, met his future wife, Marie. After they both finished school, the couple moved back to West Virginia and set up shop on his parents’ property, where Finck went full-time into designing and building fine furniture and acoustic guitars. To date, he has crafted more than two dozen acoustic guitars, including the one he plays as sideman in the local Celtic group the Forget-Me-Nots, an acclaimed trio of fiddle players that includes his twodaughters, Ledah, who is working toward a degree in music performance at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Willa, a high school senior, as well as their good friend Maura Shawn Scanlin. (Since the girls are residing in three different cities at the moment, the group is currently on hold; however, the Forget-Me-Nots are scheduled to play Music in the Park at the Valle Crucis Park on May 23 at 7pm.)
Finck’s father Henry passed away in 2011 and, sadly, never achieved his lifelong dream of making a violin. Henry’s son, however, has turned that dream into
a reality. Just over a year ago, a confluence of both personal and professional circumstances provided the impetus to Finck’s successful shift to violin making. And the personal was never far removed from the professional. Having toyed with the idea of making each of his daughters a violin at one time or another, Finck says his wife finally “lit a fire under me” when the time came for Ledah to return an exceptional contemporary violin she had received on loan as one of the benefits of winning a national music competition put on by the University of Delaware. Purchasing a new one of the same caliber would be costly, plus his father had bequeathed him a two-foot library shelf full of violin making how-to books and the requisite tools needed to do the job. If ever there was a time, urged Marie, it was now. Inspired to honor the legacy of his father and to not upend his own bank account, Finck got to work. While Ledah “was rightfully skeptical that it would be anything other than something [she] might play an occasional fiddle tune on,” remembers Finck, “Marie kept the faith.” Finck wasn’t particularly confident, though. “Initially I just wanted it to be something for [the girls] to keep as a memento of their old man.”
What it became, however, was beyond the family’s wildest imagination. Finck was instantly hooked. “I am not a figurative carver, but I have always enjoyed carving detailed handles and parts for my furniture or carving the neck or the bridge on a guitar. Violin making is nothing if not one intense carving job. I was enthralled,” he says. For his induction into violin making, Finck was enthralled for more than 200 hours. Most of us couldn’t get a single flat wall painted in a week, much less whip up a violin from scratch. But like any good painter knows, it’s not about speed, it’s about precision: These days sometimes an entire day of work will result in one tablespoon of shavings from getting just the right thickness. “Naturally,” Finck notes, “as I gain experience, the time invested in each violin decreases,” before recounting a tale about Picasso meant to underscore the irrelevance between time and price:
“Picasso is said to have charged a woman the equivalent of about $5,000 for a napkin doodle that took him about two minutes to create,” says Finck. “When questioned about the charge, he told her it took him his whole life to make the sketch. I can relate to that in the sense that my violin building draws upon woodworking skills that I have been developing for three decades. Unfortunately, I am not nearly as fast, talented or marketable as Picasso.”
But Finck’s training certainly paid off handsomely, and not only monetarily, because what happened next, Finck says, was “stunning.” The day arrived for Ledah to play a recital her freshmen year at Chapel Hill, and afterwards the group went into a rehearsal room for a showdown between the top-notch loaner and Finck’s handiwork. First she played the loaned instrument. “Then she took out mine,” remembers Finck, “tuned it up and set bow to string. We were all amazed and kind of in shock. This first-time instrument was without a doubt the better sounding violin. Ledah put away the other and sent it back early. She’s been playing mine ever since.”
A week later Ledah was using her new instrument for her solo debut with the Durham Symphony Orchestra, for which she played the Vieuxtemps Violin Concerto Number 4, first movement. The Finck family understandably bubbled with pride as Ledah stood before the orchestra, “the violin soaring above the entire orchestra and filling that hall with beautiful sound,” recalls Finck. Because what was happening at that moment transcended the present — it reached back into the past, grabbing the dream of a father, a grandfather, and foreshadowed the possibilities of the future, for both player and creator. “I decided to just keep going with it,” says Finck. “I dove right into the next violin.”
Of course, with two daughters, did he really have any choice in the matter? Let’s face it, violin #2 was inevitable. But Finck was motivated, as he “felt like I had a newfound calling in woodworking.” Still, like any parent knows, the reaction of one child does not guarantee the same reaction from another. So when Willa took her new violin for a test run, remembers Finck, “her first comment was, ‘It’s good.’ Period. With not much more excitement than that. I was a little disappointed,” he admits. “However, the next day, after a few hours of practice using the new violin, she came out with her eyes sparkling and pronounced, ‘I love it!’”
That double success was more than enough to propel Finck down the violin making path, but one with a more personal footprint. Rather than number the violins as is the traditional practice, Finck chose to give them Yiddish names to honor his father and daughters. Ledah’s violin is “Gelibt” — “Beloved” — and Willa’s is “Neshomeh” – “Soul” or “Darling.” Since then he has completed two more violins and has two more in the works, and hopes to devote himself to violin making in the years to come. His goal for this year is 10, he says, and he’s on track to reach that target. Underscoring the passion that lies beneath this trade, Finck does not plan to build on commission, instead imbuing each of his creations with its own unique personality and thereby building a stock of instruments so musicians have a range from which to try. This sounds very Ollivanders Wand Shop, but that approach certainly worked out for Harry Potter and his friends.
Though a violin can be used to perform any sort of music – Baroque, classical, jazz, folk, rock and roll, and soft rock, for example – Finck says he is “primarily focusing on classical musicians who often have very demanding requirements for their violins.” They obviously don’t need to defeat world-domineering wizards, but they do need to conquer various performance challenges. “Besides sounding good to the musician,” Finck explains, “the instrument may need to project well in a concert hall or blend well with an ensemble. It also needs to play well and make a good sound right to the high end of the fingerboard on every string.” Simply speaking, Finck’s “aim is to produce instruments that satisfy world-class musicians.”
That’s a tall order, but given his background and available resources, Finck’s violins have started out at an extraordinarily high level; in fact, his violins command $7,400 each (peruse his work at www.davidfinckviolinmaker.com). Violin making in its current form dates back to the early 1600s, “so there is no need to reinvent the wheel here,” he acknowledges. “My goal as a builder is to stay firmly within the tradition of famous early makers such as Stradivari and Guarneri, but without being a literal copyist. There are numerous small and subtle ways to assert one’s own personality into this traditional form while staying true to the tradition. I am trying to make a beautiful object that also feels just right to the player and produces a beautiful sound.”
When asked exactly what that sound is, Finck goes into vocational, scholarly mode, discussing types of wood (spruce, fiddleback maple, hard maples, soft maples), “open and robust” sounds, “clarity of tone,” “dark and throaty” low notes, “complex sympathetic vibrations”, “shimmery tones” on the E-string, placement of the violin bridge and soundpost, “projection.” But it’s Finck’s summarization of “responsiveness,” meaning how much work it takes for the player to achieve the desired sound, which best encapsulates the builder’s philosophy: “A good violin gives up the sound easily.”
A description so simple yet teeming with such artistic complexity that novices can appreciate it and virtuosos will cherish it. Finck’s passion is palpable. He radiates integrity. Which makes sense considering how he reached this defining moment in his life: his father, his mother (a music teacher), his wife, his daughters. In short, family. After years spent crafting exquisite furniture and guitars, his first two violins are, without question, he affirms, “the best things I have ever built. Hearing [Ledah and Willa] perform on them is simply a joy. But perhaps even more meaningful to me is knowing of the endless hours they spend with those instruments in hand in the practice room. I don’t believe there is anything I could make that is so integral to their lives and as a bonus also touches the lives of so many other people.”
Somewhere the Italian masters and Henry Finck are smiling.
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