Jan Špidlen: Violins are so cleverly made that they really improve in time

Jan Špidlen, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Jan Špidlen is the fourth generation of his family to work as a master violin maker. What are some of the secrets to crafting top class violins? And how has the industry changed in the last few decades? I discussed those questions with Špidlen surrounded by an array of traditional tools at his Prague centre workshop. But I began by asking him about the first violin he ever produced?

Jan Špidlen,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů

“That was back in 1986, so I was 21.

“I made the violin while I was still finishing my secondary school in Prague, as a wood carver.

“I had already spent some time in the workshop with my father, so he basically told me what to do.

“But before that I spent one year at a violin-making school in Germany, so I already had the basics.”

And you also worked or studied in London?

“Yes. After I finished secondary school I spent about a year with my father and then I went to London to work with a very nice company, with very fine violins.”

Tell us the story of your family. I understand you’re the fourth generation of Spidlens who have made violins?

“Yes, that’s correct. My great-grandfather was the first.”

His name was Frantisek and he was working in the late 19th century, making violins?

“My great-grandfather achieved the highest position in tsarist Russia – he became the violin maker of the tsarist conservatory in Moscow.”

“Yes, he was born in 1867, 100 years before I was born.

“He was not from Prague, originally – he was from the Krkonoše Mountains.

“The country was very poor there and he had a chance to go to a better place, to Russia.

“First he went to Kiev, which is Ukraine, and then later to Moscow, where he made really a fabulous career.

“He achieved the highest position in tsarist Russia – he became the violin maker of the tsarist conservatory in Moscow.”

What happened with your family’s business under communism?

“Those were difficult times, of course.

“My grandfather was a successful dealer – not only a maker, but a dealer.

“He owned this whole house and a large store. And of course the Communists took all of this from him and he suffered a lot.

“He died in depression, and that was quite difficult.

“All that remained for our profession was one room, one little workshop in the basement of this house.

“My father spent most of his years there.

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“It was not allowed to make any business, any dealing, but production, making new instruments was allowed.

“So that was what he became focused on. Luckily, actually, because he became very good at it.”

I saw a fabulous video of you when you were four years old or something in the workshop with him.

“I grew up on the first floor, where my parents’ apartment was, so it was just a few steps to go to the workshop.

“So I spent quite a lot of time with my father.”

On your website there are photos of four violins, made be you, your father, your grandfather and your great-grandfather. To me they all look the same – are they exactly the same?

“[Laughs] No, of course not.

“You must train your eye a bit to tell the differences, but they are quite different.”

What are the differences?

“Well, many [laughs]. Really many.

“It’s the same as if you look at cars. For someone who has never seen a car, they are all the same.

“But once you know, you can tell.”

But isn’t there still a kind of classic violin shape and design, that doesn’t really change very much?

“We basically use the classical models: Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati.

“And based on this, you still try to show your own style, your own, let’s say handwriting.

“It’s more about detail and it’s more about varnish quality, the wear of the varnish, the care, how precise you can work, or you want to work: Some violin makers don’t like to be precise, or they cannot be precise, but still they make very nice instruments.

“And of course there’s the sound quality.”

What role does varnish play? I was reading that your father developed his own varnish.

“Yes. I also try to develop my own. It’s a job for many years – you see the results after many years.

“You can judge the varnish, you get the feedback, after many years. A violin is made for a long time.

“It was my father’s hobby, or his passion, to make his own varnish and he made many, many tests.

“I inherited this, a bit. It’s a very wide field to work in.

“There are many books on violin varnish, so it’s a lot of fun, too.”

“My grandfather owned this whole house and a large store. Of course the Communists took all of this from him. He died in depression.”

You’ve said in the past that your aim when you’re making a violin is for it to sound better in 100 years than it does now. How do you attempt to achieve that?

“This comes from the construction of a violin. It’s constructed, it’s designed, so cleverly that it really improves in time.

“To put it technically, it needs some stress. The wood needs to get a bit tired to vibrate best.

“We say that the violin is getting to be played in – it improves in time.”

Does that mean that a top violin player wouldn’t play a brand new violin, they prefer older ones?

“They mostly do prefer old violins, but even a new one can equal the old ones, if it’s made very well.

“But still, even the new one will improve in time.”

How many violins a year do you typically make?

“About three or four. Not very many.”

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů
And would you usually have orders in advance for violins? Or do you make them and hope to find a buyer?

“I do work on commission, so I do have a waiting list and people first order.”

You’ve been doing this for a few decades now. How has the business changed in your making violins?

“Not much.

“We have the internet, so my wife joins me and she runs the store here. We have an e-shop.

“But the actually violin-making, the production of new instruments, did not change much.

“We have some modern analyses of the vibrations and sounds that come from violins and we like to compare our ones to the classical ones.

“So the methods improved and I think we have better understanding.

“But the methods of making violins, they remain the same.”

What about competition from other countries? For example, I was reading that in China today they produce a lot of low cost violins.

“To put it technically, a violin needs some stress. The wood needs to get a bit tired to vibrate best.”

“Well, the Chinese produce everything [laughs], including violins.

“I try to compare myself with the whole world, not only with China or America or wherever.

“I think the market I belong to is not so large.

“There are, I don’t know, a few dozen makers who I’m comparing myself to.

“And I don’t care whether they are from China or from other countries.”

Are your customers typically from the Czech Republic or from abroad?

“They are typically from abroad, but they are becoming more from the Czech Republic.”

How do you deliver? Say if somebody comes to Prague or orders online, is there some special method you have? Because they are so valuable.

“No, no special methods.

“I get orders, commissions, from the internet as well. Not from the e-shop, but through emails.

Jan Špidlen's son,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“So I’ve sold a few violins to clients I’ve never met.”

But when you’re sending them the violin, do you have to deliver it by hand? It’s so valuable – you can’t really send it through the post.

“Well, you can, but I prefer personal delivery.

“I prefer if the client comes to my shop and he picks up the violin.

“If this is not possible, I’m also able to ship the violin. But I don’t like to do that.”

Have you had any bad experiences in that regard?

“Not me personally, but my father had and of course you hear about bad things happening.”

You are the fourth generation in your family making violins. Do you have children, and if you do are they in the business, or planning to enter the business?

“Yes, my son is. I think he’s coming today.

“He’s studying in England, in Newark, which is about two hours north of London, at a violin-making school.

“He still has to do one more year there and he’s doing fine, I think.

“He’s getting more and more interesting, which is the greatest thing.”

“I think the market I belong to is not so large. There are a few dozen makers who I’m comparing myself to.”

How does it feel to be the fourth generation of your family producing violins in this great tradition?

“I feel it’s an advantage.

“In this business it helps, a lot, if you have the background and if you have the tradition.

“So for me it’s an advantage.

“I don’t feel it as a burden, so much. I’m just enjoying it.”