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Crafting Timeless Violins: A Journey with Robert Gordon III

by Madonna

BELSANO — Within the heart of Belsano resides a craftsman who has skillfully etched his mark, much like the intricate hand-carved scrolls that adorn his violins. Meet Robert Gordon III, a veteran of the Vietnam War era, whose calling aligns with the meticulously fashioned violins he brings to life.

Hailing from a lineage of artisans, Gordon stands as a second-generation luthier, the official designation for a violin maker. As a child, he witnessed his father’s mastery in conjuring violins from seemingly ordinary blocks of wood, infusing them with musical vitality. With a workshop ever-present in his childhood home, Gordon’s fascination burgeoned. By age 13, he had crafted his inaugural violin, thus embarking on a collaborative journey with his father that would shape his future.

Though his father is no longer among the living, Gordon attests that his paternal influence remains unwavering, a constant source of inspiration. Following his service in the Navy from 1973 to 1979, Gordon gravitated back to his artistic haven — a personal sanctuary where his love for violin-making could flourish, persisting regardless of life’s diversions.

Bolstering his inherited knowledge, Gordon enriched his craftsmanship by participating in the distinguished Violin Society of America’s Workshop held at Oberlin College in Ohio. Here, he imbibed wisdom from revered master artisans such as Vahakn Nigogosian and Christopher Germain.

Gordon’s process for crafting a violin is a symphony of devotion and meticulousness. It commences with the selection of impeccable wood and extends to sculpting the scroll, affixing the bridge, and stringing the instrument. His violins emerge from a deep-seated passion, exemplified by his magnum opus, a Guarneri violin that took two decades to reach completion. Their appearance resonates with age, and their tones mature with the passage of time.

Stanley Chepaitis, a former professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, lauds Gordon’s instruments for their resonant and full-bodied timbre. He praises their impeccable setup, meticulously optimized to produce the finest tones. Chepaitis, a longstanding friend, is among the musicians whose feedback Gordon values.

Gordon’s devotion primarily centers around crafting violins, a lifelong endeavor. In the past, he also undertook instrument repairs, a role he occasionally revisits. Most notably, he revived Prince Gallitzin’s violin, an instrument of historical significance that now rests at St. Michael’s Church in Loretto. Notably, Gordon’s expertise revitalized this aged treasure, garnering the trust of violinist Gina Tusing and other musicians.

Tusing, entrusted with playing Prince Gallitzin’s violin, testifies to Gordon’s skill in preserving historical instruments. She recalls his meticulous restoration work on her own violin, shattered due to exposure to inclement weather. Gordon’s dedication salvaged the instrument, much to Tusing’s admiration.

Gordon’s oeuvre encompasses over 40 violins and a handful of violas, with aspirations to craft six violins annually. Each piece requires hundreds of hours and meticulous attention, taking approximately 250 hours to construct, excluding the varnish. While affixing the bridge concludes several weeks of labor, an additional 100 hours of playtime fosters the maturation of sound and wood, bestowing each violin with a unique resonance.

This extended crafting process has led Gordon to trim his focus on repairs, redirecting his energy towards creation and the legacy he aspires to leave behind. A sentiment Gordon articulates, “You are known for your making,” he emphasizes, noting the enduring legacy he desires to establish.

Amid a recent rendezvous, Gordon could be found expertly handling slender Douglas fir pieces, each approximately 2 millimeters thick. His workshop, a realm brimming with specialized tools like gauges, scrapers, and a varnish-drying lightbox, hosts violins in various stages of completion. Among these are the instruments initiated during his joint efforts with his father, a promise he is resolute in fulfilling.

Peering through a generous picture window, Gordon’s studio offers a serene vista of a bird feeder. He and his wife, Sally, avian enthusiasts, revel in observing the feathered visitors, a shared passion complementing their musical inclinations. In tandem with about 10 others, they form the Gordon Glen band, a collective that assembles beneath a sprawling tent on their property. Here, Gordon’s fiddle and Sally’s upright bass unite, an embodiment of shared joy.

Sally regards her husband’s vocation with admiration, declaring, “I love being married to a violin maker.” Beyond their immediate family, Gordon has fostered a lineage of knowledge by mentoring apprentices and inspiring his nephew’s interest in the craft. Ensuring the perpetual flame of his violin-making expertise, he reflects, “If you don’t share your knowledge, it doesn’t keep growing, it dies with you.”

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