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Leroy Douglas is tracing a snail-shaped outline of a scroll, the curled wood at the top of a violin’s neck, on a block of Bosnian maple.
This is how it begins.
“It’s a passion,” Douglas says, working in his cabinlike studio above the century-old home he rents near Hendricks Park in east Eugene. “I enjoy the instrument. I enjoy the challenge.”
Douglas, 57, has been making violins for 18 years.
It’s not something the native of Southern Illinois planned on doing when he hitchhiked to Oregon 30 years ago “with a backpack on my back and a fiddle under my arm.”
It came about as a matter of necessity.
After years of taking his instruments — fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo — in for repairs when needed, the expense wore on him, he says.
“I just had this notion that I wanted to repair my own instrument,” Douglas says. And the best way to learn how to repair an instrument?
“Make one,” he says "And see how it is put together from the inside out."
“And that was a very slippery slope I stepped on, because once I made one, I had to make another,” he says. “And I haven’t stopped since.”
Making violins in the Cremonese tradition of Italian Renaissance masters is not a moneymaking proposition for Douglas.
“You have to be a little bit crazy,” he says. “And you have to be willing to eat tree bark and dirt during the lean times.”
Douglas makes two violins a year, on average, and sells them for about $10,000 apiece. And he’s not the only violin maker in Eugene.
There’s David Gusset, considered among the best in the business.
Gusset is the only American to win the prestigious gold medal at what is termed “the Olympics of violin making,” the International Triennale Competition of Stringed Instrument Making, held every three years in Cremona, Italy.
But Douglas, who didn’t venture into the craft until his late 30s, and didn’t have the luxury of attending violin-making school, says, “I know where I am in the pecking order. You have to know where you fit in.”
Douglas sells his violins through his website (leroydouglasviolins.com) or by word of mouth, and buyers come from all over the country.
“It’s not an easy sell,” he says. “People basically have to come to you.”
Douglas has four violins in his inventory now, displayed in a glass case in his studio.
“I’m not about quantity,” he says. “I’m really about quality in workmanship, and quality in sound & playability".
“I’m patient, and I’m dedicated to the craft.”
Just fiddling about
Douglas entered into this musical world in the 1990s by taking an instrument-making class at Lane Community College. He started by making a scroll.
“I reckoned, if I could figure that part out, I could figure the rest of it out,” Douglas says. With large, workmanlike hands, he’s a big man, standing 6-foot-3½, and likes to wear knee-length, cutoff blue jeans. "In retrospect," he says "carving a scroll is the most straight forward part of violin making."
Douglas was born and raised in Carbondale, home to Southern Illinois University, which Douglas attended and where he eventually obtained a bachelor’s degree in botany. He says he began teaching himself to play the fiddle and other instruments, especially “old-time Appalachia” music, during his college days in the late ’70s.
After arriving in Eugene in 1985, he played “back porch stuff” with a band for years while working as a carpenter. He’s also been a personal trainer, teaching resistance training in the gym to the likes of Eugene’s Kenny Moore, the author and two-time Olympic marathoner. Not to mention doing website design & development.
But nothing has ignited Douglas’s passion like violin making.
“The longer I do it, the longer it takes me to make one,” he says of perfecting his craft.
Douglas uses planes, chisels, knives, gouges, files and scrapers to shape each instrument, creating models based on the work of the greats, Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe "del Gesù " Guarneri.
He uses imported Bosnian maple — “This stuff carves like butter,” he says — for most of the instrument, and Italian spruce for the top, or face, of the violin.
It takes him about three months to build the violin, and another three months or so to varnish it.
Douglas recently completed a model of a 1735 Guarneri violin and then got started on a 1742 model.
The 1735 model is propped on his self-made planing bench “in the white,” he says. That’s a reference to the color of wood before it’s varnished.
“It inspires me to have one in the white,” Douglas says.
Douglas has sought the advice and critiques from other violin makers, such as Jeff Manthos of Corvallis, a 1986 graduate of the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City. That’s been invaluable, Douglas says.
Manthos, at his peak 20 years ago, made four to six violins a year.
“To most folks, it probably doesn’t feel like there are that many violin makers out there, but there are,” Manthos says. “It’s a tough way to make a living.”
A lifelong pursuit
Buyers can seek less expensive models; there are plenty of Chinese imports “that sound OK” and cost less than $1,000, Manthos says. But it’s not the same thing, he adds, as a handcrafted instrument made with heart and soul.
“Douglas is as dedicated as anybody you can find,” Manthos says. “And he’s continuing to improve his work, and that’s all anybody can do.
“There’s a lot to be said for his tenacity.”
Douglas went to Italy in 2000 for the ninth International Triennale Competition of Stringed Instrument Making to soak in what he could.
“It was just an incredible experience,” Douglas says. “I needed to breathe the air, have the same wind and rain hit my face as the masters makers of 300 to 400 years ago."
Douglas plans to be making violins at age 90, after all.
“Strad did it until he was 93,” he says of Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), considered the greatest violin maker of all time. “He died with a chisel in his hand, so they say.
“I think violin makers tend to live to a ripe, old age.”
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