Luthiers of Petaluma
contempo tradition at its best
The award winning luthiers Joseph Grubaugh and Sigrun Seifert, are based in the small northern California town of Petaluma, in Sonoma County. Their violins, violas, cellos reflect the tradition and craftsmanship of the golden age of Italian instrument makers such as Stradivari and Guarneri. Grubaugh received a degree in Music Theory and Composition from University of the Pacific (Stockton, California) before beginning his studies in string instrument making and restoration. Seifert studied at the renown State School of Violin Making in Mittenwald, Germany. In 1977, they met while working at Hans Weisshaar in Los Angeles (a dealer, restorer, maker of violins, violas, cellos and bows since 1946), subsequently married and established their own workshop. They have received numerous awards for their workmanship, including five gold medals and four silver medals from the Violin Society of America and 3rd prize overall by the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. Grubaugh and Seifert were responsible for identifying the missing Duke of Alcantara Stradivarius of c. 1732 that happened to pass through their workshop in 1994, of which their astute efforts helped in the instrument’s return to the University of California, Los Angeles. Grubaugh and Seifert share highlights of their fascinating career and work.
In August, 1972 Sigrun and I began to unlock the mysteries of the violin family of instruments, but at different locations. She studied for 3½ years at the Mittenwald School of Violin Making in Bavaria, and I began a 3½ year apprenticeship with Albert Muller in Sacramento, California. We both met in 1977 while continuing to pursue instrument making at Hans Weisshaar, the Los Angeles based violin expert and dealer. Two years later we began our violin making collaboration, opened a workshop in Petaluma in 1983, and raised two children! We received individual awards for our craftsmanship (Grubaugh won 3rd prize overall from the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers and Sigrun received a gold medal from the Violin Society of America for crafting a viola), but started making instruments together, and were even given the distinction Hors Concours by the Violin Society of America.
Our most meaningful rewards come from professionals who try and buy our instruments. It’s thrilling to hear a happy customers play our instruments in concert, often times along side instruments from the past. After all, those old instruments are our competition. In that regard, the method of violin making as we know it today was invented in an almost perfect form by Andrea Amati of Cremona, Italy, c. 1550. Along with his two sons, Antonio and Hieronymus and grandson Nicola, the family refined string instrument making, which in turn, inspired and challenged bow makers, composers, players. The Amati legacy was taken up in part by Antonio Stradivari and sons and members of the Guarneri family, which included the del Gesu label. At the beginning of the 19th century, increased musical and technical demands placed on instrumentalists required luthiers to make minor adjustments to the violin internally and externally – such as lengthening and re-angeling the neck for more accessibility to the upper registers. Otherwise, the violin remains almost exactly the way it was originally created by Amati.
In the late 1930’s, the brilliant Italian violinmaker Simone Sacconi came to New York where he worked at the prestigious Rembert Wurlitzer Company. He was the most influential maker and restorer of the 20th century and was privileged to have studied the tools and forms that survived from the Stradivari workshop. Using ‘hints’ that were imbedded on those old relics, he was able to piece together the working method of the Cremonese.
Sacconi’s book, I segreti di Stradivari – The Secrets of Stradivari– (Libreria del Convegno, 1979, English translation) was published in 1975, and became a groundbreaking source. In fact, Hans Weisshaar worked for Sacconi in the late 1940’s, and we were fortunate to have been at his shop, since it was world renown in the art of restoration of the violin family of instruments, and because Weisshaar became a real guide for us with regard to methods learned by Sacconi. We gradually realized that if we made violins using the same method and materials that Stradivari used, we might be able to reproduce a similar outcome. Violin making is not a science, although science began to shed light on its workings. Dendrochronology and CT scans offer some help with analysis, but we rely on time-honored methods, as our joy is to use traditional tools and handwork to arrive at the finished product. We begin the process by using similar methods employed by the golden age Italian makers. We choose wood with an eye for appearance, how it will look when varnished, and what it will add to the sound of the instrument. With this in mind, we select spruce from the Italian Dolomites for the top, and maple from Bosnia for the back, sides and neck. There are certain ways to access the qualities in a piece of wood, and each piece is different, even if taken from the same area of the same tree. We look for wood that is light in weight, low in density and strong. When making the instrument, we use a variety of techniques to determine the pitch of individual plates (front and back), while always flexing and ‘feeling’ its strength on the way to completion. We make our varnish using the same ingredients found in those of the Italian masters, and are pleased to note that we have fooled the experts on more than one occasion.
The universally accepted sound of the violin family of instruments was brought to its zenith in 18th century Cremona and environs. Our strategy is to do what the old Italian luthiers did and with similar methodology. No two pianos are alike, even though they are made side by side with matching materials. No two violins sound the same either, and instrumentalists gravitate towards one or another depending on individual playing style or personality, which makes this a mysterious area. We have been commissioned to make exact copies of existing instruments, but our main emphasis is in making the ‘next instrument’ in the classic style and channeling our thoughts, experience, artistry into this. We often ask musicians if they like playing, or like having played, and their answer is to play. Likewise, we like making.
We make about eight instruments per year, divided between violins, violas, cellos. We also love doing restoration, which can be quite challenging and requires a different mindset, tools and respect. It also allows us to get in touch with the past, as some of the instruments we restore are benchmarks of our trade, and handling them gives us a chance for deeper study. It has been said that we are now living in a new golden age of violin making. As to its future - the art and expertise has grown exponentially since we finished our training, there are a number of schools for study worldwide, and we have shared our experience at the VSA/Oberlin Violin Makers Workshop in Ohio and adjudicated at international competitions. The number of talented violinmakers has increased to the point that there could soon be one maker for every player. We are glad that no one discouraged us (except our parents who thought we were crazy), and our advice to anyone wanting to enter this field is: If you have to do it, you have to do it. www.gsviolin.com