Juneau luthier marks 20 years

Posted: Friday, June 06, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) The String Shop has a fresh, slightly spicy smell: part wood and part dandelion wine, which owner Jim Hanes likes to make in his limited spare time.

The rest of his time is spent repairing broken bridges, cracked necks and other violin and guitar casualties.

Hanes, 49, is a luthier, or maker of stringed instruments. He has operated his store for 20 years and repaired more than 5,100 violins, cellos, violas and guitars. He has built about 50 violins since quitting his former career as a marine biologist and completing his apprenticeship 23 years ago.

Hanes began fiddling in college, and still plays regularly. He lives in downtown Juneau with his wife, Salty. He is from Seattle, but arrived in Juneau in 1975 for work.

Hanes was drawn to violin-making at age 27. That's a good deal older than European apprentices centuries ago, when 19 year olds were considered too old to learn the trade.

''I had played the violin and learned a little bit about how they were constructed. That intrigued me a great deal,'' Hanes told the Juneau Empire. ''To me it looked like one of the ultimates of woodworking.''

He was interested in the delicate balance between science and art: the precision necessary to shape planks of maple into the violin's voluptuous shape, the artistry of a gently curved scroll.

It can take an apprentice 500 hours to build his first violin, but it's a long time before apprentices are allowed to try.

They begin learning the trade by scraping a set of ribs, the portion of the violin that connects the front and the back and gives the instrument its depth.

The ribs must be scraped until they are a millimeter thick, give or take about one-tenth of a millimeter.

A hand-crafted violin requires $400 to $500 in materials, and at least 150 hours of work, Hanes said.

Most of the violins in his shop now are factory-made, but Hanes reworks them to improve their sound.

''We luthiers have a tendency to do what the factories don't do. When they set them up at the factory, they're trying to make as many units as they can with the least amount of labor,'' he said.

Friend Bob Banghart, a Juneau museum designer who used to build electric guitars, violins and mandolins, said Hanes' experience and dedication is evident.

''For a community of this size to have someone of his caliber is great,'' Banghart said. ''The guy knows what he's doing.''

Banghart owns a Hanes instrument a rather unusual mandolin.

''It's novel in that he applied some of the technical processes of violin design to the manufacture of the instrument. The top and back plates extend beyond the ribs like the violin,'' Banghart said. ''It's got a very unique sound; very big, very clear.''

While Hanes has done some experimenting with his craft, he stresses that there are rules and processes that can't be fudged when it comes to building a violin.

''It's either right, or it isn't. I love that you can't just buy a book and go do it,'' Hanes says. ''My master always said, 'You'll have it down when you've built 100 instruments.' Well, I haven't built 100, and I don't quite have it down.''

After 23 years and a two-and-a-half year apprenticeship, that's difficult to believe, particularly when Hanes brings out his piece de resistance, the ''89 Thunderbird.'' It's a beautiful blond instrument with a Native-inspired design on the back: a bird drawn to echo the violin's curves. It took him more than 200 hours to complete.

''It's easy to make a music instrument, but it's hard to make a musical instrument that plays well and sounds beautiful. It's even harder to make a musical instrument that a player, a good player, is drawn to,'' Hanes said.

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