Rafael Carrabba Violins is one of the country’s finest violin shops. Musicians from around the globe have brought their instruments to our expert luthiers for repairs, restorations, and valuations. We sell instruments and bows in all price ranges. We also sell cases, strings, and accessories.  

Rafael Carrabba Violins is located on Queen Anne Hill at 405 W Galer Street in beautiful Seattle, Washington.

If you are traveling to Seattle to try one of our instruments, we can help you find a hotel close to the shop. More information? Please call us at 206-283-5566.


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Carrabba Violins

405 W Galer St
Seattle, WA 98119 
206-283-5566             email click here

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Tues-Fri 9-5
Sat 10-5

Bow repair and rehair by appointment 

 

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Tuesday
Oct072008

MEETING THE MAKER

Although the sale of old violins, and their siblings, violas and cellos, for millions of dollars capture headlines, there is another world of string instruments dramatically growing and beginning to get the public's attention.

That is the creation of high-quality violins, violas and cellos - a craft, a science, an art. Almost dead in the 1960s, it is now thriving on three continents.

``Only 20 years ago, there was merely a handful of excellent violin makers and bow makers. Now, there are many," said James N. McKean, a New York maker of strings and president-elect of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, which is holding its first annual meeting in Seattle this week because the Northwest has become a center for the making of violins, violas and cellos as well as bows.

While its meetings are private, the federation will hold a public exhibition tomorrow afternoon at Plymouth Congregational Church titled ``Players Meet Makers." People can meet leading makers of violins/violas/cellos and bows from throughout the United States and see and hear their instruments.

``Making a good violin is exciting because it requires so many fields of expertise," said McKean. ``You have to know about acoustics, physics, varnish, chemistry, wood. And to make a beautiful instrument, your eye has to be refined. Parameters are tight. Differences are measured in a few millimeters. Your entire world exists within this small universe.

``The greatest achievement in the field comes from Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. These unique instruments are so beautiful in appearance, sound and design, the challenge is to come as close to that perfection as possible. We work in the same continuum, cut on the same design, use the same materials and the same tools, although the band saw has been added.

``The best instruments don't wear out, if they are cared for," he said. ``Those made in the late 1500s are still being played and sound great. Nothing else epitomizes human endeavor the way the violin does. It is a perfect object for a specific purpose, a combination of beauty and function."

Thirty years ago, the ancient craft, which the Cremonese school - Amati, Guarneri, Stradivari - perfected, was moribund, although commercial grade instruments still constituted a good market. Professional musicians preferred old instruments, not only from various northern cities in Italy such as Cremona, Venice, Mantua, Turin and Milan, but also Paris and London.

Then, in the 1970s, Asians became fervently interested in string playing, first in Japan, then in Korea and Taiwan, and supply no longer equaled demand. Prices began to skyrocket, not only with the most celebrated instruments, which are limited to a few hundred and sell for up to several million dollars, but respectable instruments of any age. A $12,000 instrument in 1975 is now worth $250,000 to $300,000. Simultaneously, in that post-hippie age, people, especially Americans, renewed their interest in the crafts, and schools of violin-making began to crop up. Salt Lake City was particularly noteworthy.

``I was a music major at Western (Washington University) and was always interested in wood and music," said David Van Zandt, one of the Seattle's most notable makers of violins, whose shop is in Ballard. ``I thought I was cut out to be someone who worked with their hands and not their heads. I had a friend going to Salt Lake, so I went with him, took the examination and enrolled.

``I've been making violins for almost 20 years. The satisfaction is not so much financial, although I do well, but emotional because I'm creating something. I don't call myself an artist, but I am making things that are in other people's hands who are creating something as well. That feels good to me. I like to see people happy."

Van Zandt's speciality is instruments suitable for playing early music in period style, especially the Baroque. His clients are scattered across North America.

``The body (of the period instrument compared with the modern) is the same, but the setup is different, including the bridge, sound post, bass bar, fingerboard. The neck is heavier in older instruments and shorter. There is no chin rest."

Of course, all 17th- and 18th-century instruments were originally in this style, but they were altered to accommodate 19th- and 20th-century preferences and requirements. Van Zandt is also a restorer who returns converted instruments to their original style.

In the 1970s and 1980s, brand-new instruments had problems of uneven registers and lack of projection to tonal deficiencies and were frowned upon by professionals. That has changed.

``The quality of instruments has gotten so much better," said Van Zandt. ``Instruments being made right now are as good as they have ever been. Time will tell whether I am right or wrong."

The standard range for new instruments of top quality in the United States is $7,000-$15,000 for a violin and $15,000-$28,000 for a cello.

``Terrible instruments were made in the 18th century," noted McKean. ``The important distinction now should be between good and bad, not old and new."

One of the secrets to the great instruments from Cremona is their tone-enhancing varnish.

The exact properties of that varnish are still questionable, said McKean. The technology of chemical analysis has not quite caught up to the challenge of determining everything in the varnish, deciding what is relevant and, most importantly, their various proportions.

``The same ingredients can make very different dishes," he said.

What current research has revealed is the importance of the ground, the sealer between raw wood and varnish. It is this sealer, said McKean, that the wood absorbs directly and thus alters its vibrations.

``You ask a violin maker what he uses for a ground, and he will talk about the weather," said McKean. It is that crucial and that individual.

Even when they are intent on protecting the secrets of their art/craft, American violin makers want to share ideas and provide their profession with a high standard of expertise and ethics. Thus, the formation of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers in 1980 by 23 of the country's leading makers and dealers. To join, applicants must have a minimum of nine years of experience (six years of training and three years in business) and submit samples of their work for review, said McKean.

The federation also has constructed a Missing Property Register to aid in the recovery of stolen instruments; is involved in research projects with the Smithsonian Institution regarding varnish formulation and conservation, and has compiled a photographic database of images of 200 of the rarest and most valuable instruments and bows in this country.

In addition to its reputation for instrument and bow making, Seattle is also known for restoration work. One prominent figure is the dealer and restorer Rafael Carrabba.

The majority of Carrabba's business at his shop on Queen Anne Hill is restoration. He buys 19th- and early 20th-century instruments, restores them and then sells them, often through important dealers in New York and London.

``We can put $20,000 worth of restoration in an instrument, sell it for $100,000 and make a pretty good profit. The instruments come from all over the world."

Besides Seattle and Salt Lake City, important U.S. centers of violin making include the Bay area in California, New York, Boston and Ann Arbor, Mich. Other places are marked by outstanding individuals such as Carl Becker in Chicago and David Gussett in Eugene, Ore.

The Puget Sound area is even more renowned as a place of superb bow makers because of individuals such as Morgan Andersen on Lopez Island, Paul Siefried in Port Townsend and Charles Espey on Shaw Island.

Why here?

``Seattle is a collegial place," said Van Zandt.

``The Northwest is very desirable," agreed Carrabba. ``A lot of artists and authors are moving here. There is a strong sense of craft. The wilderness feels good to a lot of people. The city is urban, but the country is very close at hand. It's a place that lets you concentrate on your work, which is essential."

Whether it is New York or Seattle, Cremona or Beijing, the allure of making violins and bows has never been more powerful.

``Measure for measure, the basic design of the instrument has been examined by acousticians, and it is such a complex system it can't be mapped out," said McKean. ``No mathematical model is available. They still don't know how it - a resonating chamber and vibrating strings - works. That is the undefinable that science cannot reach. It is a kind of wilderness that can only be explored by intuition, like trying to find the soul in a body."

 By R.M. CAMPBELL P-I MUSIC CRITIC

Saturday, April 12, 1997

The archived online article can be found HERE

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