Blind River- People
SATURDAY. NOVEMBER 4,1995
District Section C
EDITOR: TOM KEENAN 759-3030 (ext. 257) FAX: 759-0102
Part music...Part Magic
Story and photos by NORLYN PURYCH
Special to the Star
Lucien Pilon playing one of his handmade violins.
Pilon carves the back plate with chisels and finger planes.
Self-taught violin-maker says playing and creating is a 'gift'
"It's like a living object after it is finished. I get great satisfaction from hearing someone play an instrument I made."
— Lucien Pilon
Lucien Pilon is a woodworker and a musician, and - to me at least - he must also be a magician. How else to explain his ability to take a block of wood and turn it into a beautiful work of art that can be caressed by human hands into producing sweet strains of melodious music.
A sense of wonder engulfs me as I enter the Blind River workshop where Pilon hand crafts violins. The feeling is magnified by my own lack of knowledge and experience in the musical field. I feel wonderfully out of my element.
The workshop, about 14 x 22 feet in dimension, has a wood stove in one corner and a floor to ceiling pile of wedge shaped, quarter cut blocks of wood ready stacked against one wall. The surface of a small work bench is encircled by an array of hand tools. It sits in front of a north-facing window in which hang two gleaming samples of the works of art created here. Perhaps, this would be better called a studio.
Opposite the workbench is an imposing pine cabinet. Inside its glass doors can be seen over a dozen more lustrous and shapely violins, each one unique.
After reveling in the delicious atmosphere for a moment, I begin quizzing the artist-craftsman. When asked about his background and personal history, he balks a bit, and asks me to keep that angle of the story to a minimum, it's been covered enough in past stories, he insists. This time, he wants his violins at centre stage.
Just a short prelude. Now a grandfather of six, Lucien has always lived in Blind River. Both sides of his family have a violin playing tradition. He began teaching himself to play when only eight years old.
Lucien's wife Loretta plays guitar and three of his four grown children are musicians. Loretta and Lucien still play at local events on occasion, though Lucien now prefers to devote his time to making violins.
Lucien plays old time music, the type some insist on calling fiddle music. Really, Lucien explains, there is no difference between a fiddle and a violin — it is just a matter of expression.
Pilon's woodworking history also goes back to childhood. He has been a builder of boats and a shaper of gun stocks for decades. He built his own log home and still builds the odd cabinet, but since 1985, violins have become his priority.
"I feel I should stick to that most of the time," he says, It's what I like doing - it satisfies me - It's like creating a work of art. It's like a living object after it is finished. I get great satisfaction from hearing someone play an instrument I made.
I can only imagine!
His years working as a lumber grader (at the McFadden Mill) helped give him a good "feel" for the properties of wood. Being a connoisseur of wood is one of the essential talents for this hobby.
Completely self-taught, Lucien has been learning through books and practice since he began repairing string instruments as an adolescent. But there's something extra at work here too. I call it magic — Lucien calls it "a gift" when he explains how playing and creating violins "was a natural thing" for him.
To help me out, and to make sure I get the story right (a violin maker must also be a perfectionist), he has prepared some notes for me. But I have no intention of missing out on a personal explanation and demonstration. So I plead. "You must make me understand so I can make the story understandable."
Lucien's own reverence for this work is revealed in his notes. "The violin maker is an artist expressing himself through his work in every individual violin he makes." he begins. "When completed, the 70 parts of the instrument must be in perfect harmony with each other.
"Success lies in the construction and the fact that all parts are in perfect harmony with each other. The back and belly are well tuned, the air volume capacity in the violin is of the right amount, the arching being right for the quality and density of the wood used — then all is well and a masterpiece in sound and structure is born," Lucien writes.
First, the wood is selected. Flame maple is used for the head (the "curled" end the tuning pegs go in), sides and back of the violin. It is used for its beauty as well as for the tone it lends the instrument. The term "flame" refers to the growth habit and grain of the maple tree rather than its species.
Purchased in wedge shaped, quarter-cut blocks, European flame maple, dried indoors for at least five years, can cost several hundred dollars per piece. The cost of materials alone for one of Pilon's violins can run anywhere from $500 to several thousand dollars depending largely on the age of the wood used.
In recent years Pilon has started searching out suitable local maple which he cuts and dries himself. The top plate (belly) of the body is carved from very fine-grained softwood (usually spruce, sometimes pine).
The final tone of the instrument depends greatly on the density of the wood used. It must be flawless, not too soft or hard, and of perfect, matching grain. Selecting the right wood is crucial, a matter of judgment, experience, even instinct and is based on how the wood looks and feels. Even two pieces cut from the same block aren't likely to be exactly the same and every piece requires different carving to calibrate it correctly.
Only in a hand carved instrument can a violin's resonating chamber (body) be custom shaped according to the wood it is made from. Factory made violins, available for as little as $150, are all cut the same, regardless of variations in the wood used. '"They are made for people who think they want to learn, but don't want to spend a lot of money," Lucien says.
The tools Pilon uses are little different than those used by the famous instrument makers of the 1600-1800's. Chisels, gouges, tiny finger planes, scrapers and small carving knives, files and rasps — all kept very sharp — and calipers to precisely measure thickness.
Hide glue is used to hold everything together — no nails, screws or staples.
Pilon makes violins of several types — copies of the old masters, Stradivari and Guarneri, and a third that combines features of the other two.
The maple for the back, head and sides (ribs) of the violin is chosen so that it matches for grain and quality. The wood block chosen for the back is sawed in half, then glued together in "butterfly fashion," creating a seam with matching grain up the centre of the back.
The back plate, top plate (belly) and head are carved to shape — not bent. The back, cut slightly larger than its finished size with a coping saw, is clamped to a board for carving to the proper arch on the outside, then it is carved (hollowed out) from the inside to the correct thicknesses. When finished, the back plate will vary from a thickness of about 5.5 mm at the acoustical centre down to about 2.5 mm in some places. Variations in thickness must gradually and smoothly merge with each other. The denser the wood used, the thinner it must be carved.
The same process is used on the top plate but the thicknesses and tuning are different. The top and bottom plates are tuned as they are carved by striking the wood in nodal areas. Further shaping is done until the sound is right. The "f" holes are cut in the top plate and a strip of wood — the bass bar — is shaped and glued on the inside surface.
The sides, or ribs of the violin are actually six pieces of 0.9 mm thick maple glued to six corresponding pieces of lining wood (Pilon uses willow) that is 2 mm thick. They are shaped to the proper curve using a heated bending machine, then glued to end and corner blocks that are held in place on a mold. After the back plate has been glued to the bottom edge of the ribs, the mold is removed and the top plate is glued to the top edge.
The addition of the purfling, three strips of wood laminated together then glued in a groove around the edges of the top and bottom plate, lends beauty as well as protection for the delicate edges of the instrument.
The head and neck are carved, fitted with an ebony finger board and installed on the body, followed by the sound post, pegs, tail piece, chin rest and strings.
To Pilon, installation of the sound post marks the birth of the violin.
It is a small, cylindrical piece of wood which is fitted snugly between the back and belly under the bridge. It transfers the vibrations of the strings from the bridge and belly to the back plate.
He writes: "Now the violin is alive. It is tuned to pitch and played. This is the time of relief and rejoicing — one must not be so hasty as to criticize the sound. Starting now the tone will improve continuously, from now on every minute, every hour, every day it gets better and better — one cannot expect anything else from this beautiful wood."
At this stage a violin is said to be "finished in the white."
Still to come are eight to 12 coats of special varnish, carefully dried and polished between coats. Air drying can take up to two weeks between each coat so Pilon uses an ultraviolet drying cabinet that reduces the wait to two days.
"Now with the varnish applied and further adjustment done — the parts will harmonize more with each other — it will settle to a much more harmonious tone," Lucien writes.
At first the violin's 70 parts are strangers to each other, he explains, but over time, as the violin is played, the vibration helps the pieces to accommodate to one another, resulting in improved tonal quality as the instrument ages.
For Lucien, every one of the 160 hours it takes to make a violin are a labor of love-with no mistakes allowed. (In 10 years he has never wasted a block of wood.) No wonder he feels a sense of attachment to his creations. "It's like raising puppies," he said, "you want them to go to a good home — to a good player who will look after it and appreciate its tone."
Somehow, it seems beneath his workmanship to compare his violins to puppies. But I'm no judge — so I asked some 'experts.' three people who play them. All three commented on his fine workmanship, and they seemed especially impressed with the finish he achieves.
Blind River musician, Marc Provencher owns one. Purchased just a couple of years ago, he already considers it a family heirloom.
"It's beautiful. I find the sound is really deep and rich compared to others I've played. I am totally in awe of him being able to make them. As soon as I heard them. I had to have one. When it is someone you know and everything, well — I'm really happy I have one — It is one of my most valued possessions," he testified.
Sault Ste. Marie fiddler Chris Harman is in the process of buying his second Pilon violin. "I'm very impressed with Lu's violins, they're wonderful," Harmon said.
He views Pilon as an artist whose works will be worth more with time, making them a good investment. He figures the one he purchased four years ago has almost doubled in value already and he fully expects that, "two hundred years from now, they will be appreciated even more."
He called Pilon's workmanship "just amazing" and told of the experience of selecting his first from an array of 17 violins Lucien had laid out on his dining room table for inspection.
It verified what Lucien had told me — it's good to have a selection of violins available for prospective buyers to try, because every player has their own preferences. Trying several helps them select the special one that sounds and feels best to them, and things like string height can be personalized to fit the buyer.
Harman agreed. He picked his based on its feel and tone. "It fits well in your arm, it feels like it wants to be played, it sounds good," he said.
Sudbury resident, Archie Canapini is a retired professional musician, classical violinist, and teacher of violin who has played several of Lucien's violins.
"Lu is a professional. His violins are very finely finished and they have character," he commented.
"His tone has all the ingredients — mellowness, volume, sweetness and carrying power — Lu Pilon has accomplished it all. If he was living in a larger city, he'd be well known."
Talking to these learned musicians has made me realize it isn't just my ignorance that puts me in awe of Pilon's ability. They feel it too.
And, come to think of it, now that I know something about it, I'm even more impressed!
Pilon didn't want the prices of his violins to be published. He was afraid potential buyers would be misled since the prices vary within a large range depending on the quality of tone of the violin..
"I'd rather have people call, and talk to me about it,he said. He also repairs string instruments. Reach him at 705-356-7294.