When Thomas Verdot was 15 years old, he took his violin bow to a local repairman to get it re-haired. When it came back in poor condition, he thought, “I can do a better job than that.”
Following that experience, Verdot decided to be the maker of the musical instruments and not just the musician playing the instruments.
Verdot, 54, is a violin maker. Not only does he create violins, but he also repairs and restores almost any string instrument. From cellos and basses to banjos and guitars, Verdot has worked on a variety of musical instruments. If it is made from wood and has strings attached, Verdot has probably fixed it in the past 25 years.
Violins have been a part of Verdot’s life since he was 10 years old. He began taking violin lessons when he was in fifth grade and played in the school orchestra throughout middle school. Although Verdot continued to play the violin, he eventually realized he “would rather work on an instrument than practice it.”
From there, he began looking for informational books on violin making and repair. His search for good books proved to be harder than he anticipated.
“There just wasn’t much out there of any value,” Verdot said. “A couple of good books have been printed in the past few years, especially Hans Weisshaar’s ‘Violin Restoration: A Manual for Violin Makers.’ It took Weisshaar 10 years to write it because he was very meticulous in his research and methods. He gives you a thoughtful and detailed approach for a lot of complex repairs.”
While he continued teaching himself the craft of violin making and restoration, Verdot also worked at another tedious hands-on craft — shoe making and repair.
Following in his father’s footsteps, he eventually took over the family shop in Jefferson City. For 20 years, he did general repairs and specialized in making period shoes for re-enactors. His custom hand-made leather shoes typically took about eight hours to make.
At age 40, Verdot enrolled in the University of New Hampshire’s Violin Craftsmanship Institute. For six consecutive summers, he studied the art of violin and bow making and violin restoration under the tutelage of violin makers Karl Roy and Hans Nebel. At the institute, he was taught the “classical way” of violin making, modeled after famous violin makers Antonio Stradivari from Northern Italy and Jacob Stainer from Southern Germany.
“This style, with an inside mold, gives a great deal of precision as well as plenty of freedom,” Verdot said. “Unlike the French method, with an outside mold, which all tend to look alike, with very little change in the outline.”
Verdot returned to Jefferson City and worked out of the violin studio in his home. He soon found that 75 percent of his clientele were from Columbia, so he moved 30 miles north, making him what he claims to be the only “professionally trained violin maker between St. Louis and Kansas City.”
Verdot now works out of the studio in his Columbia home. He finds himself spending about 85 percent of his time repairing instruments rather than making them.
“I would prefer to only make violins, but it is hard to find the time,” Verdot said.
It takes him about 100 hours to transform three board feet of Alpine spruce and Bossnian maple into a beautiful, music-making instrument. For the past few years, Verdot has been making around two violins per year, each selling for $5,000.
While many Americans require the fastest and most recent technology in order to complete their jobs, violin making has required Verdot to be slow, patient and precise while working with technology that is over 500 years old.
Being able to work at home is another reason Verdot enjoys his job.
“I can work at my own schedule,” Verdot said. “I don’t have to be up and in the office by 9 a.m., and it is relatively low stress.”
Verdot has also made a few violas, which are slightly bigger and tuned differently than violins and banjos, but Verdot doubts he will ever make a cello or bass.
“People who play cellos make the best cellos,” Verdot said. “Basses are big and bulky and I don’t like to work with them, although they still sneak in the door anyway. I would rather work on a Ferrari (violin) than on a big Mac truck (bass).”
Even though making and repairing instruments consumes most of his time, Verdot still finds time to play the violin.
“I play more now than I ever have before,” Verdot said.
Verdot has been a violinist in the three-member band, The Skirtlifters, for the past eight years. Composed of a banjo, guitar and a violin, The Skirtlifters is a string ragtime ensemble and has performed at numerous string festivals throughout the Midwest. In July, the band will also perform at the Ulster America Folk Park in Ireland and at the Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival in Boulder, Colo. The band plans to release its sixth CD, “A Ragtime Episode,” later this year.