Urban Violins

I CAN THINK of few better places to while away an afternoon than the shop of Finn Meyer, violin maker. His storefront in Linden Hills smells like fresh wood shavings, and is separated by a plain two-by-four divider into a uniformly dusty front shop--where Meyer entertains visitors when he's not busy--and his work bench in the back. An unstrung harp stands off to one side of the front room. A virginal sometimes doubles as a spare work table. Frames of various sizes that Meyer uses to shape the ribs of violins, violas, and cellos are propped in an open display case. Behind the divider, Meyer's work bench, when he's filling an order, is littered with wood curls and tiny brass hand tools: planes, knives, and chisels, which he uses to shape out the tops and backs of his all-too-rare instruments.

Every violin Meyer builds must begin with good wood--the older and harder the better. Meyer has built violins from old maple stair risers and bridges from the scavenged wood floors of an aging high school. He recently traded his guitar and some guns for a plank of fine-grained maple a farmer had stored in his barn since the 1930s. Once he's glued a slab of wood together and roughed out the shape of the fiddle's back with a power saw, he raps it with his knuckles to get a sense of the wood's--and ultimately the violin's--tone. Then he'll attempt to match this tone in a piece of ash from which he'll carve the violin's top. As he carves, he tunes the wood.

"You start hearing what it sounds like in different spots," he says, demonstrating with his knuckles on the half-finished body of a cello. "You plane a little bit off and tap it. Plane a little more off and tap it. You're listening for a clear, pure, harmonious relationship between the upper flanks, the middle, and the lower flanks that ranges an octave." When that harmony is nearly worked out, he glues the instrument together before making his final adjustments. "You can only make one at a time that way, but you get to feel the reaction of the two plates to each other as a unit, as opposed to everyone else who makes them six tops, six backs, slap them together and hope for the best."

Meyer's hands, which have been cut, scratched, gouged, and scraped so often that he's lost all sensation in half his digits, are large and stained by nicotine. He has a large, round face made larger by a thick gray beard; his girth is large, too, and he is given to making large, often gloomy proclamations about the state of his art, about art in general, and about the life of the artist. He explains his work thus: "You live. You die," he tells me. "You definitely die. And the crap you make stays behind. The stronger it is, the longer it stays behind."

It takes Meyer about 400 hours to build each fiddle, and they sell as soon as they are finished, if not before, for between $5,000 and $15,000. Meyer's violins are well-respected by the musicians who play them. Demand for his work is high; orders will keep him busy until he dies. Nevertheless, he is, and always has been, more or less broke. "The life of an artist sucks," he tells me. "It doesn't really--it's heaven. It's just when you have to come up with the money." He and his wife only recently bought health insurance. He has no savings account, no investments, no retirement fund. His neighbors drive brand new Land Rovers, while he limps along in an old Volvo. He even fashioned his own false teeth to save the cost of a bridge. They're handsome enough, and cleverly made, but inconvenient, since he has to remove them when he eats.

He blames all this on his own lack of business acumen. "The Neanderthal," he says moodily, "was a species that lived in Middle Europe. They sort of died out when Homo Erectus came in and kicked their asses 'cause they were smarter. Some people I know make comparisons between me and Neanderthal." Be that as it may, it's the work itself, not the selling of it, that keeps him interested. "I don't have the cranial capacity for retail," he shrugs. Despite his financial worries, Meyer, who is 46, believes after two decades that he has reached his golden age. He measures the sacrifices he's made so far--the all-nighters away from his family, the financial insecurity, the homemade teeth--against the possibility of going further in his trade than he ever thought possible.

"Every instrument has to be a hit," he says. "That's the crazy, I'm-tired-of-it part of this. Really, I just want to make bread sometimes. I'd like for my rewards to be commensurate with my work." To that end, Meyer is thinking about finding a cheaper shop, taking on less work, maybe some day teaching the knowledge that would otherwise die with him. And in the meantime, he's trying to infuse his shop with a rusty sort of business sense.

"Someone came in last week," Meyer goes on before getting back to work. "I made a bow for him, and it was an agreed-upon price. He came in with half of it in cash and dangled it in front of me. In the past I would have taken it. But I'm paying $400 a month for Blue Cross Blue Shield, thank you. So I picked up the bow, and said, 'You want to pay for half, huh? Okay, well I'll give you half now'--made like I was going to break it--'you can come back and have the other half.' He thought I was nutty. And I came to the conclusion that I probably am."

 
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