by Mimi Montgomery
photographs by Annie Cockrill
A wall in Mike Anderson’s backyard woodshop is marked with descending lines, each bearing a small inscription. These aren’t childhood height-markers – they’re records of the trees Anderson has cut down over the years.
Red maple, spruce, willow – each has been cut into planks and placed in the eaves of his workshop to dry, a process that takes four or five years. It’s the first step in the long process of hand-making violins, violas, and cellos, something Anderson has been doing for 17 years.
Anderson has long worked full-time restoring historic homes, and for many years had kept his hands busy after-hours carving bowls and making furniture. In 2000, his moonlighting changed shape when he cut down a mulberry tree in a client’s yard. He hated to see the wood go to waste, realized mulberry was perfect for making an instrument, and a hobby was born. Since then, he’s made 62 instruments.
Anderson says he’s always been crafty. At 5, he carved figures in soap. “My parents actually let me have a sharp knife,” he says with a laugh. “Now that I have two grandchildren, I’d be a little more cautious with something like that.”
These days, his Louisburg home workshop is devoted to instrument-making. Once his wood is dry, Anderson shapes the top pieces of his instruments out of red spruce and the backs out of red maple, using a form. The sides are maple, too, and are bent on a hot iron. North Carolina willow is used for lining, and a chin rest, sound post, and bridge for the strings are all added separately. Each instrument takes about 200 hours to make. He’s usually working on two or three at once.
The finished products – those not yet sold – are hung and displayed throughout his house; prices start at $1,200. At his home workshop, you can find violins (synonymous with the term “fiddle,” the only difference is in how you play it – classical or bluegrass), violas (slightly bigger than violins), cellos, and pocket fiddles (an easily portable, small fiddle used in colonial days). There are also ribbons – one blue, one red, and both awarded at the N.C. State Fair’s Village of Yesteryear for craftsmanship and presentation.
Awards are great, but Anderson doesn’t claim to be an expert. He calls his vocation a constant learning process. He apprenticed with Copperfield, Va.-based fiddle maker Arthur Connor, has attended workshops across the country, and is a member of the Violin Society of America.
He’s even picked up a bit of fiddle-playing himself – “I’m not entertaining when I play, even though my wife will say it’s pretty good,” he says, laughing. “My passion is right here – it’s making. I wanted a challenge that would take me beyond my lifetime to figure out … I don’t think I’ll ever know everything about instrument making.”
He likes sharing what he does know with those around him. You can find Anderson and his instruments at events like the Village of Yesteryear, the International Bluegrass Festival, the Scandinavian Christmas Festival, and MerleFest. He also visits schools and hosts students at his workshop to teach them about instrument making, and every Christmas he gives away a violin to a child between the ages of 10 and 17. “I ask young people, ‘Where would I make more money, at a McDonald’s or making a violin?’” he says. “At McDonald’s. But where would I have more fun? Making a violin.”
Anderson says that the connections he makes through his instruments are unforgettable. He values “face-to-face contact with people.” He tells them “where the wood comes from, where the trees were cut down from, so they get the whole story.” He likes seeing his instruments purchased and carried out to new homes across the country. But don’t ask him to pick a favorite – he compares that to a parent picking a favorite child. “Each instrument has a little different voice, just like each of us has a different voice,” he says.
His tone turns contemplative. “To delve into the secrets of a subject, you touch the divine,” he says, summarizing a quote by Beethoven. “That … really speaks to me about how there’s so much to learn.” Music, he says, “resonates eternally, far beyond what we can imagine.” He gestures at the half-constructed instruments around his shop. “Music just keeps going on.”