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  Crafting Sound

Luthier Ray Hardy has a musician's ear and a sculptor's touch.

By Dale Keiger
Photos by Mike Ciesielski

Latent within trees, within spruce from the Alps, within maple from the Carpathians of Eastern Europe, within pernambuco from Brazil, there is music. Raymond Hardy, a soft-spoken man of 71 years with thin white hair and strong hands, picks up a piece of spruce he has carved into the familiar shape of a viola's body. This piece will form the top of the instrument. The carved wood has nodal points, places where it does not vibrate. With the forefinger and thumb of his left hand, Hardy holds the piece by one of these points and with a finger of his right hand, taps spots near the middle of the plate. He hears an interval, a minor ninth. "It has a lot of sound," he says of the wood, as he brings it close to his ear. "It continues to ring."

Far right: Hardy carves a viola top, pausing from time to time to check its resonance by tapping on it. Hardy is a luthier who handcrafts violins, violas, and cellos. A 1955 graduate of the Peabody Conservatory, he has been a music teacher in publicc schools and a working musician. Since 1984, he has carved, assembled, repaired, and sold instruments full time from a workshop in his house in Catonsville, Maryland. The principal cellist of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., who happens to be Hardy's eldest son, David, plays a Hardy cello, as do other cellists in the NSO and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Charles Wetherbee, concertmaster of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in Ohio, plays a Hardy violin. All of Hardy's instruments are made on commission, for professional musicians and music teachers and conservatory students. A typical cello from his shop sells for $20,000. Hardy resists questions about what his instruments cost. He'd prefer to talk about getting music from wood.

Outside, clouds drift away from the early February sun. As light floods the room, Hardy says, "It's a much stronger light than you can get with any incandescent lamp. I should take advantage of this." He stops talking, positions the viola top in the sunlight, picks up a scraper fashioned from a piece of steel about the size of a commemorative postage stamp, and pulls it toward him across the concave surface of the wood. Tiny shavings curl along the burled edge of the scraper. Hardy is refining the arched top of the proto viola, making it more pleasing to his eye. The angle of the light streaming through the window helps him gauge the symmetry of the arch's curve. "The controlling thing is the eye," he says. "Great tool." He scrapes more tiny curls of spruce, then blows them off and slides his fingertips over the wood. Hardy does this frequently, sometimes to judge his progress, sometimes, it seems, for the tactile pleasure.

Hardy's workshop has some modern technology, but the fundamentals of making a violin or cello have changed little in the 400 years since their invention. He picks up a tray that bears an assortment of planes, similar to the familiar carpenter's tool, only made of brass and much smaller. There are 10 of them on the tray, assorted sizes, the smallest not much wider than one of Hardy's fingers. "It's amazing how many little things you need." He takes a graduation caliper and checks the thickness of the viola top in a few spots. In one place the spruce remains too thick, so Hardy begins peeling off bigger curls of wood with one of the planes. The top has been fashioned from two pieces of wood glued together, and the grain does not align perfectly. Hardy must take this into account as he carves. He sets down the plane and with both hands carefully flexes the wood. "The pitch has probably changed," he says, tapping it again. He hears a chord. "We now have something that Pope Gregory outlawed as the device of the devil — the augmented fourth."
Hardy uses heat to bend the viola's ribs.

Pope Gregory I codified liturgical singing in the sixth century — hence Gregorian chant. As part of that codification, he forbade use of an augmented fourth, a dissonant, unresolved harmony that became known as diabolis in musica. Hardy seems to enjoy relating bits of historical knowledge like this. As he again takes up a scraper, he says, "Stradivarius, instead of metal like this, may have used pieces of swords." He can talk about the evolution of the violin bow, and the different traditions of violin making in northern and southern Germany, and the history of hide glue. He has studied antique instruments at the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and the National Music Museum, the "Shrine to Music" in Vermillion, South Dakota. He pulls out the catalogs of various exhibitions, displaying pictures of the work of the master luthiers of the 17th century who set the standard for craftsmanship and the sound of the instrument.

Hardy's workshop has some modern technology: a band saw, a portable stereo, an electric bending iron, lamps for when the sunlight is insufficient, several pairs of bifocals to assist his eyes. But the fundamentals of making a violin or cello have changed little in the 400 years since their invention. The back, neck, and ribs — the curved strips of wood that form the sides of the instrument's body — are fashioned from maple. Hardy likes maple cut from forests in Romania, around the Carpathian Mountains, because of its even grain and the lovely parallel curves in the grain known as "flame." For the instrument's top, he works with spruce, usually from the Alps. It is said that an expert cutter can determine the sound quality of the wood by rapping on the tree's trunk with a hatchet. That may not be true, but it's a lovely idea.

All the wood has been carefully air-dried, often for decades. Hardy has visited the barns of specialty-wood dealers in Germany and Italy, barns full of wood harvested by the ancestors of the present-day proprietors. He likens a violin maker looking at wood to a knitter perusing yarn. "You see a piece and think, I must have that, and you buy it." Wood for a single cello can cost a few thousand dollars. Hardy has pieces stashed all over his workshop.

Hardy can make a violin in two or three weeks. He does not care to rush. "It's preferable to allow time to be poetic," he says. He associates the word "poetic" with great care and attention to nuance. The top and back of a violin, viola, or cello most commonly consist of two wedge-shaped boards glued together along their thickest edges. The result is a single elongated piece of wood, flat on one side and shaped like a peaked roof on the other. Hardy cuts the wood in the familiar outline of the instrument's body, then begins the slow, meditative process of hollowing it out, carving the arched contours of the top and back with gouges, planes, and scrapers. The resultant shape, like a building's ceiling vault, distributes force, so that the wood can be planed thin enough to resonate but retain enough strength to resist the tension exerted by the strings. Hardy carves for a while, gently flexes the piece with his hands, holds it up to the light, then carves some more. Over days the piece comes more and more to resemble a musical instrument. Hardy can make a violin in two or three weeks. He does not care to rush. "It's preferable to allow time to be poetic," he says. He associates the word "poetic" with great care and attention to nuance.

At some point he will bend thin strips of maple to form the instrument's ribs and glue to them the finished top and back. He glues the instrument's hand-carved neck to the body. At the end of the neck is the scroll, the ornamental flourish around the peg box, and carving it is one of Hardy's favorite parts of the process because it's most like creating sculpture. Once, when he was buying wood in northern Germany, he saw a machine that could carve eight or nine scrolls at a time. "It was like a key machine at Wal-Mart."

Far right: Carving an instrument's scroll is one of Hardy's favorite parts of the process because it is most like creating sculpture. Later he will cut the f-holes in the top, varnish the instrument, add purfling (thin strips of wood that reinforce the edges of the viola's body), position a sound post inside it (the sound post strengthens the instrument and, more importantly, transmits vibration from the top to the back), and add the strings. He enjoys his work. He says, "It must relate to the fact that I liked to make dog houses when I was a kid."

It was an uncle of his, a farmer, who most interested Hardy in wood working. Young Ray did, indeed, make dog houses, including an insulated dwelling for a neighbor's pooch. In the early 1950s he earned a bachelor's degree in music education from Peabody, married a violin student named Irene James, and began teaching in the Howard County school system in Maryland. He and Irene (Peabody '57) raised three sons — the aforementioned David (Peabody '80); Andrew (Peabody '82), a violin soloist who lives in Brussels, Belgium; and Scott, a cellist with an orchestra in La Coruna, Spain. To help pay for the boys' music lessons, Hardy performed in pit bands at Baltimore's Mechanic Theatre and played jazz piano on weekend gigs.

One day, he brought home a book on violin making. "One thing leads to another," he says. "If you can play a stringed instrument, you think maybe you could make one." How did his first attempt turn out? "You know, I still haven't finished it. I bet it's still around here somewhere."

In the 1970s, Hardy began a serious study of instrument making, first at Hofstra with a luthier named John Rossi, then with Karl Roy, director of the Violin Craftsmanship Institute at the University of New Hampshire, who had learned at the renowned Berufsfachschule für Geigenbau in Mittenwald, Germany. In 1984, Hardy retired from 29 years of teaching and began crafting instruments full time.

"The Hardy violin is even, responsive, and dependable," says Charles Wetherbee. "There are no stronger or weaker spots, but the violin is powerful throughout." He has a number of projects in his shop on any given day. Mid-morning on a Thursday finds him rehairing a violin bow. He takes 5.5 grams of white horse hair, about 120 long strands, and ties one end of the bunched hair with thread. The hair comes from horses in Mongolia or China, sometimes Siberia. Clamped on Hardy's bench is the bow stick, a long, rounded, reflexively curved piece of pernambuco, a lovely reddish wood from Pernambuco, Brazil. He forms a cap at the end of the hair with glue. He will insert the ends into small mortises in the end of the stick and the bow's handle (called the frog) and lock them with tiny wooden wedges.

His workshop is a craftsman's jumble. Suspended from the ceiling along one wall are 14 violins and four violas, many made in China. Hardy augments his income from luthiery by selling these less expensive instruments, mostly to students. There are work benches on each end of the small room and an island in the middle where he can work on jobs that require more space, like varnishing a cello or bending strips of willow to form the linings that, glued to the ribs, provide more surface for the top and back to adhere.

One of Hardy's violin bows, fashioned from pernambuco wood and the hair of white horses. Musicians bring him instruments for other sorts of modification. One morning, he opens a case and removes a viola. The owner, a woman, wants him to make its overly thick neck thinner, better for her smaller hands. He unstrings the instrument and carries it to his bench, where he holds it in place by propping it between his belly and the front edge of the bench. He selects a knife and with a sure stroke pulls it along the underside of the neck, carving off a piece. There's something startling about this, because the viola is otherwise intact, and the cut, a slice of unvarnished wood stark against the dark varnished instrument, looks so much like vandalism. Hardy slices off another piece, bringing it closer to the desired shape.

Asked about painful lessons acquired as one learns the trade, Hardy smiles and demonstrates the wrong place to leave one's thumb when using a sharp implement to carve a viola's neck. His hands don't bear much in the way of scars. He holds them up, laughs, and says, "As a musician ..." Meaning, to play, he needs intact fingers free of scar tissue. He preserves his digits, and crafts a fine instrument, by paying attention. Now and then he listens to music while he works, but sometimes an audio book is better because he tends to get too caught up in music and loses focus on what his hands are up to.

Hardy is proud that when Charles Wetherbee of the Columbus Symphony wanted to buy a new violin, he auditioned several instruments by playing them before groups of his peers. They voted for a Hardy over instruments valued in the six figures. Wetherbee says, "The Hardy violin is even, responsive, and dependable. There are no stronger or weaker spots, but the violin is powerful throughout. I like most the fact that I can play with confidence in any position, any dynamic."

Once Hardy finishes the viola he's making, he wants to make four new violins. "I'm not very good at managing time. I'll estimate how long it takes to get an instrument done for someone, and then it takes much longer." He slides his fingertips over the top of the viola, then with a plane takes off a little more wood. He holds the top up to the light, then taps it. And smiles. "That's a very light tap and a very big sound."

Dale Keiger is a senior writer for Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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