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Hugh Withycombe and the art of making violins in Australia

Customers are often surprised when Hugh Withycombe answers the door to his workshop. It's clear there are stereotypes associated with those engaged with violin-making as a profession. Perhaps, he muses, he should grow a beard or affect a Slavic accent. Perhaps he should start calling himself by his middle name, Morse. But really, a name like Hugh Withycombe should be enough.

In fact, he is a very youthful 43, his Gorman House studio smells of wood shavings and freshly roasted coffee, and he is well aware of the anachronistic nature of his work. He estimates he is one of just six to eight makers of bowed stringed instruments in Australia, in a world where cheaper versions are available at the click of a button.

Violin maker Hugh Withycombe
Violin maker Hugh Withycombe Photo: Rohan Thomson

But there is a certain pride in working in an environment that so meets the conventional expectations of what it should be. Violins hang all around on racks, and cellos lean against the wall. Withycombe wears an apron, and works hunched over a bench by the windows, which look out onto Ainslie Avenue. All the hand-tools look familiar, mainly because they're part of a centuries-old tradition.

"Craftspeople and artisans from centuries before could walk into this workshop, open up the cupboards and draws, pick up the tools and start working," he says.

Hugh Withycombe's violin workshop in Gorman House looks exactly as you expect it to.
Hugh Withycombe's violin workshop in Gorman House looks exactly as you expect it to. Photo: Rohan Thomson

"Because we use predominantly hand tools, and gauges and chisels and knives haven't changed... We obsess a little bit more about quantifying things and measuring things that perhaps people didn't use to do back in the day, but I suspect back in the day the really successful makers had very strong quality control."

Withycombe is certainly one to carry on that tradition of quality control. He continues hand-making violins, sometimes even using Australian timber, amid the proliferation – inevitable and unstoppable – on the market of cheap Chinese instruments. But from where he works, the art and craft of violin-making is proudly old-school.

He grew up in Canberra and, as the son of a clergyman, he attended the Grammar School.  His father held, for a time, the "wonderfully medieval title" of Warden of St Mark's Theological Library in Barton, and the family lived in the small residential flat attached to the institution.  

He finished school in 1988, took a gap year, and returned to take a up a degree in philosophy and science at the Australian National University. And, during those years, he played the cello.

The tools of the trade are still the same as hundreds of years ago says violin-maker Hugh Withycombe.
The tools of the trade are still the same as hundreds of years ago says violin-maker Hugh Withycombe. Photo: Rohan Thomson

"I recognised that I didn't have the performing gene," he said.

"I liked it, I really liked playing in groups and I didn't like playing solo up on stage on my own, and so I did it through to Year 12, then I decided no. It's an interesting kind of decision, because you recognise there's a gap between really, really strong musical people. I was a middle-field person and then after Year 12 some go on and some don't, and then the friends that go on become so much better."

He was content, instead, to continue playing in amateur orchestras, or filling in as the token string player in university rock bands. After studying for five years, he knuckled down to get what was then termed a "real job".  

"I sat the public service entry test as one does, and I was recruited into the Department of Primary Industries and Energy," he says.

"It was the coal branch that I got recruited into, and coal branch was just in the process of setting up Australia's climate change response."

This was back in the mid-1990s, and he spent three years working in Australia's early incarnation of climate change policy. It was, he says, fun in a way – he travelled the world and attended UN meetings. But he knew he wanted something more.

"It was hard to feel that you had a product at the end of the day. And I really wanted to do something more with music and I wanted to have a tangible product at the end of the day," he says.

He remembers, then, having a kind of epiphany during a trek in the Blue Mountains.

"I worked out that obviously, musical instruments must be made, but quite often when you're playing, it comes to you formed, and you don't actually think about the process of how it gets made," he says.

"In Australia in particular, there aren't that many violin makers, so it's not something you come across regularly. So I wanted to learn how to make them… I wanted to do music but I didn't want to be up on stage. So this seemed a really good thing."

He soon discovered he had a choice of either studying overseas or picking up an apprenticeship somewhere. He chose the overseas option, and was accepted into the Newark International School of Violin Making in England, a four-year course near Nottingham and Lincoln, in the Midlands.

"It's gritty, real England - you could stand on a small hill and see six power stations," he says.

Apart from violin-making, his course also involved a year on baroque instruments, and a component in repairs and restoration techniques, and he took an extra course on bow-making and repairs. He paid his way through the first two years, after which his wife, lawyer Alison Pratt, joined him, retraining so that she could practice in the UK.  

"We stayed on there for a couple of years after I finished the course and I worked down in London," he says.

"I worked for one high-end dealer and restorer, working on multi-million-dollar, old, Italian instruments, and then worked for what I'd describe as a more mid-range, more real, more applicable to what we have here in Australia shop, where there were a few nice, expensive instruments. But mostly they were instruments that musicians and students play on. More workaday instruments."

It was the latter that he preferred, and he had always planned on coming back to Australia to start a business.

"There are basically two paths that people take. They take a repairs and restoration path, or they take the repairs and restorations but wanting to come back to the making," he says.

"It's the making side of things that's probably my passion."

He returned to Canberra at the height of the horror bushfire season in January 2003, when his wife was seven months' pregnant (the couple now have two children), and he set up his business, The Avenue Violins, signing a lease at Gorman House in April of that year.

In the years since, he has made instruments from scratch, repaired and restored many more existing ones, rented out instruments to students and, in 2012, taken on a business partner, Madeleine Gisz.

Another long-time Canberran who plays the cello, Gisz, who is now on maternity leave, studied woodwork at the ANU School of Art, and violin-making in Mirecourt, just outside Paris.

She and Withycombe had stayed in touch over the years, and when she began talking about moving back to Canberra, Withycombe was also in the process of bringing more focus onto his violin-making. Gisz is similarly trained, but tends more towards the restoration of older instruments.

But while Withycombe's intent is to focus on his craft, real life is typically a lot more varied.

"A typical week for me would probably involve seeing about 15 different musicians and people," he says.

"There would be a combination of smaller minor repairs – fixing a new bridge on an instrument, making sure pegs are working properly - and I'd get an impassioned call from a parent going, 'Argh! My child's instrument's sprung a crack!' or 'The neck's broken off!', or something like that. I might have dealings with some rental customers – there's quite a lot of mature-age people who think, 'I might take up a stringed instrument', and this is a way of helping people get into it."

He also has close ties with various community and professional organisations, and works hard to maintain good relations with the teaching profession.  

He says teachers hold a great a deal of influence in his industry, in terms of what customers should invest in and how instruments should sound.

"There's so many different ways you can learn, and I try just to stay a little bit removed," he says.

"It's sometimes difficult to deal with teachers, because teachers value what we do in different ways...I really don't pretend to offer the final say on what sound will suit different things, or what set-up for a particular thing will suit a particular person."

But it's inspiring to work with customers who, whatever their background or ability, are enthusiastic enough to have sought him out at Gorman House.

"It's definitely a crossover between an art and a craft, and at times [I'm] a kind of technician," he says.

And the relationships musicians have with their instruments are as many and varied as the instruments themselves. He works with the full gamut of practitioners, from recently retired dilettantes eager to take up a new hobby, to students at the ANU School of Music, to full-blown professional musicians.

It's the people who fall into this last category, he says, that often have the most complicated and destructive relationships with their instruments.

"As a musician, you invest so much time and energy into an instrument that allows you to express all the music and creativity that you've got inside you, and you can build up a kind of love-hate relationship with the tool that you do that with," he says.

"You want it to do so many different things, and sometimes I can help change the way the tool that they're working with can either accentuate one thing or not, and hopefully, if they're in a receptive frame of mind, tell them what the limitations are with their instrument."

After more than a decade in the industry, business, to all intents and purposes, is going well, if only because of the continued demand for student instruments. And while he is inevitably competing with the online world when it comes to buying and selling instruments, he says his technical expertise is something you can't get on the internet, or even at a bricks-and-mortar music emporium.

"We all live time-poor lifestyles and quite often, it's more convenient to go to a big department music shop," he says.

"But I suppose what people don't appreciate is that, while if you half-close your eyes they all have a generic shape and a look to them, every one of them is particular, even the cheap Chinese ones."

His experience, he says, comes from looking at a particular instrument and knowing what needs to be done to make it sound as good as possible.

But it has, after all, only been about 10 years, and getting ahead in his industry involves "a slow name-building exercise, and I'm only young".

But his work, and the money he charges for it, belies the meticulous and hard-won expertise he holds. When it comes to his own instruments, he charges $15,000 for a violin, $18,000 for a viola and $30,000 for a cello. Each instrument takes many hundreds of hours to make – in previous years he could make up to five a year – and often upwards of two years to sell. And they cost a lot more, about 20-30 per cent more, than something comparable from the United States. But that's leaving aside the Chinese conundrum.

Do people ever baulk at the price of his pieces?

"To put it into perspective, you can get a reasonably good-sounding Chinese instrument for about $500-$600. It comes with a case and a bow," he says.

It's a sobering set of numbers. But Withycombe knows he has a point of difference, if only because of his background and his location. Australians, for example, are very patriotic about their timbers, and while violins are traditionally made from maple and spruce, he tries to source local wood wherever he can. It's here that Withycombe sees an opportunity to stand out in a tough, high-low market.

"I need to distinguish myself from a pretty good, really cheaply made Chinese product, and for an Australian instrument, to my mind, you need to have something that makes it Australian," he says.

"I use an Australian-grown Lombardy poplar for cellos wherever I can because it creates a great sound, and it's Australian. It doesn't really affect the price that much but it gives it that extra element to the story. Because it's more than simply a functional thing. I'm creating a bit of a story that goes with the instrument."

As the saying goes, every violin has a story. Or, says Withycombe, you just make the story yourself.