This article was first publishe in The Strad October 2011

Tales of wine and wood

Andreas Hudelmayer reports from a week spent in rural France, sharing ideas with luthiers from around the world

THE INVITATION, AN EMAIL on a grey autumn day, was enticing. Would I like to spend a week the following summer in a village in rural France, working alongside other luthiers from across Europe?

It took me about 30 seconds to make up my mind – and a bit longer to run it by my wife.

The invitation came from German luthier Andreas Hampel, who I know from the long-established summer workshops in Oberlin, Ohio. Much of Oberlin’s success comes from the careful choice of participants, invited for their advanced skills, varied backgrounds and willingness to share. Hampel has taken the same approach, albeit on a smaller scale – just 13 of us gather in Fertans, a small village in the Jura Mountains.

Members of Klanggestalten, a group of like-minded European violin makers who joined together to exchange ideas and to promote themselves (Hampel is a founding member) form the basis of the party, and it its augmented by other Oberlin veterans and friends.

WE ARRIVE ON A WARM SATURDAY night in June at the vast old farmhouse that will be our home for the next seven days. Roast duck and potato gratin are in the oven, and wine is already on the large wooden table, around which we share food and conversation. Our host is Bernard Michaud, from the neighbouring Le Bois de Lutherie, a specialist violin wood supplier. Early on Sunday morning we walk down to his sawmill, which provides an atmospheric, beautifully equipped venue for us to work in.

Whereas Oberlin has a theme for each workshop, here we simply concentrate on our own work. But that’s a fascinating process in itself among this group of makers. We come from eight different countries and our training has covered all the major European schools, including Newark, Mittenwald and Cremona, plus years of experience in workshops around the world. I observe the similarities in our approaches, and I am challenged by the differences. I become aware that the people with whom I normally exchange ideas have similar approaches to me, which leads me to forget how many successful makers have a completely different way of working.

We informally exchange techniques and admire each other’s tools. (If François Denis finds that his Chinese winged planes have vanished one day, I had nothing to do with it.) In addition, there’s a 15-minute slot for each luthier to present something of interest to the rest of the group, an idea taken from Oberlin. This again reminds me of how many approaches there can be to the same challenge. Thomas Bertrand’s presentation of Denis’s system of practical, proportion-based arching is complemented by Torbjörn Zethelius’s method of developing the arching from the inside. Hampel provides a third approach to arching with his use of a standard computer drawing program to gain usable templates from distorted plates by adjusting the height of the cross and long arches.

I’M PARTICULARLY INTRIGUED BY Luca Primon’s thoughts on the acoustic effect of the nails that hold the neck on a Baroque violin. His suggestion that the extra weight at this point has a positive effect on the sound is something I plan to experiment with for myself.

Each day the work is interrupted by what is described as a light lunch, but which turns out to be a three-course feast, courtesy of Michaud. More food seems almost superfluous, but nonetheless in the evening we take turns to cook, relaxing after a day’s work with fabulous meals from different regions and plenty of French wine. We resolve to keep quiet about this in case our families think we’re having a holiday.

Of course, it’s a stimulating, fun week. But it’s also an exciting reminder of how many accomplished, skilled makers there are in Europe, and how much knowledge there is between us. I go home with new inspiration, some specific ideas to try out, and, oh, a few bottles of wine!