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May 2009

If you want a classic craft to succeed, don't fiddle with it

by Alan Coggins

Working from home, I get to hear a lot of radio talk shows and I am invariably frustrated when the day's guest is a small-business expert giving out advice on how to succeed in your latest venture.

They always roll out phrases such as "keeping ahead of the opposition", "the need for constant innovation", "investment in research and development", "a willingness to be flexible", "the importance of thinking laterally and never standing still", and so on.

All generally useful advice, I'm sure, but completely irrelevant in my case.

I am involved in a business where my competitors have been dead for 250 years and still they outsell me. In my work any attempt at innovation would be financial suicide, doing something radical would see most of my customers desert me, and even the slightest deviation from the norm is looked on with disdain. In fact, I am ideally expected to carry on doing things in pretty much the same way as they have been done for the past three centuries.

Most people believe that my craft was perfected by a man in Italy called Antonio Stradivari and since then it's basically been all downhill.

I am an anachronism: a violin maker working in the 21st century, when violin-making was all the go in 1700.

Today's world isn't the place for someone like me. I make a product that will not only be good for the next 300 years, but will actually improve with age - not exactly what you would call built-in obsolescence. This is a rather unusual concept at a time where computers are out of date before they are unpacked from their boxes, where to be seen in a car more than a few years old is a social disgrace and where people change their houses almost as often as they change their socks.

We also live in the age of apparent perfection. Profile routers, laser-cut edges, injection moulding - modern manufacturing processes ensure that almost every object we see and handle is perfectly formed, symmetrical and flawless (at least until the warranty expires).

So the ability to produce something exact and beautiful just by working slowly and carefully with only a few simple hand tools is not particularly understood, let alone appreciated.

Most visitors to the workshop find my painstaking approach unsettling. After about five minutes they begin to suggest faster, more efficient ways I could make a violin, usually by introducing some sort of mechanisation or mass-production. It is particularly incomprehensible to them that there are actually many things about our craft that, even with 300 years of technological advances, have still never been bettered. The animal glue, for instance, that Stradivari used is still the best glue for the job. We have invented stronger glues, certainly, but they don't have the necessary qualities of reversibility combined with just the right amount of strength.

In a way it is strangely relaxing not to have to worry about devising new and different ways to do the same job. I look with sympathy at other businesses who spend half of their time coming up with gimmicks to make their widget stand out in a crowd of similar widgets. Nor do I have to spend much time on researching developments in violin making, testing the latest materials or trying out new methods.

In fact, a violin maker's claim to fame usually depends on advertising his complete lack of invention: "varnish as used by violin makers in Cremona circa 1700", "violas based on a model by Andrea Guarneri of 1676" and so on. On the other hand, this puts us in the position of having to prove ourselves against 300 years of competition.

Unfortunately, the current fascination for owning the newest and latest merchandise does not extend to most string players, who readily perpetuate the great myth that "old instruments are better than new". In reality it is like most things in life - some old things are wonderful and deserve great respect, while many others should be taken out and quietly given a decent burial. And modern instruments fall somewhere in between.

However, such is the aura of the older instruments that people will happily spend thousands of dollars trying to change a sow's ear into a silk purse before they would even begin to consider trying something new.

Still, it's a peaceful life - and I do get to listen to a lot of radio.

Alan Coggins is a violin maker from Blackheath, NSW, Australia. He is a regular contributor to 'The Strad' magazine and his book on Australian violin makers will be published later this year. You can read more about his work at