Signature Series

By Shrader, Erin | Strings, October 2005 | Go to article overview
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Signature Series

Shrader, Erin, Strings

Seattle luthier David Van Zandt turns to Stainer and del Gesù for inspiration

HIS NAME IS NOT ON THE DOOR, nor will you find him in the phone book, or even see him if you happen by his window-the shade is always drawn. But musicians know where to find him, and his name is particularly well known among early-music performers who play his Baroque and classical instruments in professional ensembles alongside centuries-old originals. David Van Zandt makes both early and modern stringed instruments in the red-brick shop he shares with fellow violin maker Aimin Barnett on a quiet side street in Seattle.

The violin he's making today is based on the "Lord Wilton," made in 1742 by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù. Van Zandt has made many successful "modern" instruments on this pattern. Picking up a nearly finished back, he lays it on a life-size photograph of the original. The outlines match. He points out the flattish ends of the upper and lower bouts, as if del Gesù had just widened an earlier pattern by adding a narrow strip in the middle without adjusting the rest of the outline.

While the outlines match, Van Zandt doesn't make copies. Working within the confines of a pattern that is known to work and measurements considered standard for modern instruments, he will make adjustments to achieve a certain sound for a particular client, or to satisfy his own curiosity. Even if he wanted to make an exact copy, it wouldn't be possible. He uses John Hancock as an analogy. Anyone can write the name, everyone will recognize it, but the handwriting can never be the same. The same is true of violin making.

"You've got a Strad, everybody knows what it is," he says.

But no two makers will use their tools in precisely the same way; no hand can cut exactly the same f-hole. The finished violin is as unique as a signature.

Van Zandt's career took an unusual turn after violin-making school when he went to work for William Monical in New York, the foremost practitioner of early-instrument restoration. "Most violin shops don't want anything to do with early instruments," he says, but at Monical's he had the opportunity to see and work on instruments, in original condition with every possible type of setup, by such old masters as Thir, Albani, and Stainer.

At school he had learned the skills to make "a very accurate violin-shaped object." Working at Monical's, he says, "I learned what a violin was. What made it tick.

"Nothing was standard. Early violins and violas were more individual and regional," he adds, explaining that they developed according to local standards of pitch and measurement. For example, the pitch A was simply A on the local church organ, while the local unit of measure might be the length of a finger or a foot on a statue in the center of town. Early French violins, he says, tended to have a longer string and neck length than Italian instruments of the same period. Bridges, sound posts, and bass bars were not uniform in size, and their placement was determined by the arching, which was designed around where the bridge goes-bringing the discussion back to pitch, which was determined locally.


By listening to an instrument before and after taking it apart, Van Zandt was able to develop theories about what worked and what didn't. By working with a range of instruments and setups, he learned how the size and placement of post, bass bar, bridge, arching, and graduations all work together-the principles behind the standard measurements in use today.

This experience gives him greater flexibility in how he balances those variables to get a particular sound for a client. Of course he has more room for interpretation on early-style instruments. "I don't have to use a 44.5 millimeter bridge or a bass bar that's 27 centimeters long. The question is, how do I get to the point that I can make my best instrument, understanding why I make the arch this way.

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Signature Series


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