Jim Clinton Violins Greenville, SC

Archive for October, 2012

John Earl Sipe, violin maker, passed away Tuesday, September 4, 2012 at home. He was born February 27, 1931. After 81 years on this earth, God called him home. John was a special friend to me on multiple levels, as a brother in Christ, a luthier, a business associate, a mentor, and a great source of information.

About 14 years ago I began hearing about violin maker John Sipe from Charlotte, North Carolina. I was just getting my feet wet in the bowed instrument industry. A couple years and a couple phone conversations later, the opportunity arose to visit John. Alongside wishing to meet a recognized maker, my intention was to ask if I could apprentice in his workshop. Upon arriving at his house we shook hands, chatted a bit, then walked down his long rectangular yard toward a small two-story building that housed his upstairs workshop.

From the moment we ascended the outdoor staircase and entered the doorway into his quaint workshop, our conversation and physical movement seemed to automatically follow a clockwise direction, as though we were experiencing in reverse the process of inspiration, carving, bending, gluing, varnishing, and completing an instrument.

It was actually a fairly small workshop with approximately 4 workbenches: one for diagrams, one for varnishing, one for carving, another for final preparation. All were situated in proximity to at least one of several windows providing that essential daylight luthiers crave. There was also a tall combination bookshelf/instrument display case. Instruments in various states of progress were at their appropriate workstations.

Bypassing the tall combination display case/bookshelf to the left of the door, we walked and talked toward the first small workbench where John sat down and began polishing a completed instrument for a client, chatting as he worked. He showed me how he polished the ribs to bring it to a nice, clean glow. He had planned for me to stay a while.

We chatted, or rather, he talked at great length about violin making (if you have ever talked with John, you know that he had the ability to talk at great length). He told how he would study a Stradivari violin, then set it down for a week before starting to repair something as simple as adjusting the soundpost or carving a bridge. While he chatted, he would set one of his own violins down (he was unafraid to handle them in whatever state) and there would be this “bonk” of the instrument edge against the wooden workbench. He didn’t use a cloth to lay instruments on while working. We talked more and he offered sage advice about pricing repair work at my shop in South Carolina. This was between 1999-2002. John was making some of his greatest instruments at this time and they were about to be discovered for their tone.

He reached to the right of the first instrument, and picked up a violin that appeared to be complete but needed a bridge, tailpiece and strings. He quickly set it down and grasped the only visible hand tools in the workshop, two files that looked old and worn. He nervously pulled open a drawer and tossed them into it with a “klink”. Just as quickly, he closed it as though hiding a violin-making secret before it was recognized. Otherwise, the whole shop was rather neat and uncluttered, even for a craftsman’s lair. The thought actually crossed my mind: did he actually work in this shop or was it merely for this orchestrated presentation that seemed to be happening? It seemed precisely laid out with sample instruments at each respective work station, demonstrating the violin-making process. John continued talking. “Now a professional actually likes to feel the string under his fingers so you can’t make the string clearances too low. But if you make them too high, the string stretches and changes the pitch.”

As our orchestrated presentation continued, we moved further clockwise toward the corner where two of several windows were situated overlooking a corner shaped workbench. Two in-the-white violins were basking in the sun. “They will be varnished after achieving the perfect tan,” he told me. “I’ll tan some a little darker than others and it gives the varnish a different look. It just depends on the look I want it to have and how I feel about that particular violin.”

“The violin seems to tell me what to do.” There was a small poster on the wall, picturing the front and back of a violin with a diagram of its measurements. “Over the years, I have found that my scrolls and the body shape is a combination of the two great violin makers, Stradivari and Guarneri. You see this scroll? For a while, Del Jesu’s father would carve his scrolls and they were not perfect because he was getting older. The ears sort of stuck out like this.” He pointed at one of his violin scrolls. “See how the Stradivari scroll is different?” he asked, showing me a picture in a book.

We turned the corner again, moving toward the right. As if unmaking violins, we reversed further toward the gluing bench, then toward the bending iron bench in the next corner. With each station visit, we encountered instruments in a digressing state of completion. In the middle of the room, but against the wall was a larger and taller workbench, a little below waist-high, that he used for rough gouging his instruments. If there was a place that he didn’t keep meticulously neat, it was here. A large piece of paper with a diagram was sort of pushed out of the way, half rolled under at one corner. There was a cello back of beautifully flamed maple glued together at the center joint awaiting the gouging process.

“Cellos are the hardest work. I don’t make very many and only for special customers. There’s just too much work to do and it tires you out, especially at this age.” I found my opportunity to bring up my apprentice request. Here he could use some help. I could do the grunt work and let him do his expert work and teach me a few things along the way! “How about if I come every Saturday and do this work for you in exchange for learning how to make violins?” I asked. Even though working on celli was physically demanding at his age and though I offered to do some of that hard work for him, he told me he had tried apprenticeships before and didn’t feel like he could at this point. Needless to say, I was disappointed. In the following years I came to understand in a small way, his hesitancy.

Again, moving clockwise in our backwards violin making tour, just to the right of the roughing out workbench and set against it was a metal rack for stacking and storing tonewood awaiting its musical future. Some pieces were glued together for a maple back or a perfectly grained spruce top. Most of the wood patiently languished in its precisely quarter sawn state. “Quite a few years ago, I have a friend in Michigan who called me one day and asked me if I wanted a maple tree that he was going to cut down. He said it was really big. I told him I’d take it and it was a lot of trouble getting it down here but it turned out to be the most beautiful flamed wood I’ve come across in American wood. There’s enough wood here to make instruments from now on. I try to be careful about using too much of it though and just for certain special instruments, and cellos take a lot of the tree so I have to be careful about making cellos, but since I really don’t make that many cellos it isn’t going too fast, but most of my instruments now are made from that tree.” He had a fascinating way of saying both sides of something that left me wondering what exactly he intended for me to hear.

At last we were back where we started at the doorway. We passed it. Our clockwise tour was not complete. We returned to the display case that we breezed by earlier. “Here is one of my first violins, and here is a really nice fiddle I picked up over the years and a couple more that just kind of ended up in the cabinet. This one has an unusual body style and look at the f-holes on this one. It’s a good representation of a Guarneri f-hole. Here is a book, I don’t think you can get it now, but you should try to get it. It’s a really good book for a violin shop owner to have. You see it has a lot of pictures in it and you can see what the maker’s work is like so you can identify it. Here are some bows. This is a gold mounted pernambuco bow, you have to have pernambuco for a bow, the other types of wood just aren’t strong enough. A piece of wood has to be strong to make a bow, and if it doesn’t sing when you’re done making it, it’s no good. I made quite a few bows too. Here’s one right here. It turned out I was allergic to Pernambuco dust and it would just make me sick so I had to quit making bows. It’s a shame. I went to school to learn bowmaking and bought all that top quality pernambuco wood and had to quit making bows.”

We stood there and talked for another thirty minutes. I’d ask a question, he would talk some more. We went downstairs and looked at some old research equipment he assembled years ago. We talked some more. I asked him to keep me in mind if he ever decided he could use help gouging his cellos out for him. We parted after a 3-hour bonding. We forged a friendship that day that brought us together numerous times in the years to follow as my business grew and his notoriety increased. We would later have “luthier” events at our shop featuring John and his instruments. We would sit down to breakfast together, visit each other’s workshops and pray together when his health was declining.

Today, I opened a box in the mail packaged and shipped by someone who wasn’t John. It was two of his violins and a couple bows. The family is selling his precious handiwork. Never again will I receive a “fiddle” by John that was packaged by him. It was an emotionally, sentimental moment.

Thank you, John for spending an afternoon of your life with me.

More articles remembering John Sipe will follow.