Friday, August 17, 2012
Can;t play a lick, but they make beautiful music
Member of SML Woodturners gets a late start making mandolins, but he's learning from the best.
Most of us would love to be able to make beautiful music. And most of us fall far.
For W.K. Webster, the dream is a reality despite not knowing how to play a musical instrument. He makes instruments, mandolins and fiddles to be exact.
The Callaway resident is relatively new to the instrument-making business. A member of the Smith Mountain Lake Woodturners, he started making fiddles about 10 years ago.
Five years later, he made his first mandolin. The master woodturner has caught on quickly and is learning from whom he considers to be the best - Arthur Conner of Floyd.
"The first fiddle I did, I bought a kit," recalled Webster. "I started on it, and I didn't know what I was doing, and this guy told me you ought to go up and see Arthur Conner. A friend of mine took me up there. I found out Arthur is the kind of guy who would help anyone. He showed me everything there was about making fiddles."
When asked why Webster and others seek his guidance, Conner's answer shows his humility.
"I've been trying to make a fiddle for over 40 years, and I guess W.K. heard about me and came up here to ask me some questions," Conner said. Chances are, if you are a country music fan, you have heard music made on one one of Conner's handmade instruments.
Gene Elders has played Conner's fiddles while performing with George Strait. Lyle Lovett, Joan Baez, Ricky Skaggs and Lucinda Williams are other musical greats who have played Conner's instruments.
"God gave me the gift of carving, and I like to pass it along," said the 88-year-old Conner. "Carving and music have kept me alive."
When Webster set out to make his first mandolin, he again turned to Conner. Webster had already made a few fiddles when one of his friends came by to ask him to make a mandolin.
"He said he would buy a pattern if I made it, and that's how I got started," Webster said.
Patterns are a thing of the past. Now Webster chooses a piece of wood and finds the fiddle or mandolin that is hiding inside.
According to Webster, spruce is used to make top-of-the-line instruments. Virginia maple is said to be good for sound quality.
In his own back yard, Webster said he harvested "a real nice curly maple."
Both Conner and Webster make their instruments by hand. It can take up to a month to complete one. It is a painstaking process; the measurements have to be exact.
"It's a complicated process," explained Conner. "A little knick [mistake on the measurements] on a violin changes every note played on the instrument."
"Everything is measured," added Webster. "It's an art to get the sound that you're looking for. I use millimeters, and it's got to be real close. I do it all by hand - measure it by hand, cut it out by hand and scrape it out by hand."
Some people who make instruments use a CNC lathe so they can turn out instruments at a faster rate, said Webster. The machine tool rotates the instrument on its axis to make it easier to perform various operations such as cutting, sanding and drilling.
Both Webster and Conner use a more organic process. They are not trying to compete with machine-carved instruments, and they like the satisfaction of creating something that is as beautiful to look at as it is to hear.
"My wife and I were at the Galax Fiddlers Convention, and I had a couple of real good players playing my fiddles," said Webster. "They loved the sound of them, and they can really make them sound good. It's really satisfying to hear someone play them well."
Neither Conner nor Webster can play the instruments they make, but they make instruments musicians love to play. Webster's creations can go for as much as $1,500. He sells most of them through music stores such as the Fret Mill in Roanoke and Mitchell Music Company in Floyd.
At 66, Webster knows he has much to learn about making instruments.
"Maybe by the time I'm 88 I'll be as good as Conner. I still have some time."