Crafting a legacy

Sunday, February 4, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:06 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

FULTON — In Lee Nigh’s home, an amber-gold violin rests beside a study window, as if it were looking out onto the rainy afternoon.

His creation took more than a year, but there is still a long way to go, said Nigh, the violin’s maker.

In the following months, the violin must be “played in.” The sound post needs subtle adjustment so the tone will balance between the “G” and “E” strings. Then, he can sell it. Until then, Nigh will play the violin himself to bring out its best tone.

“This violin will learn how to sing like a violin,” Nigh said.

Nigh, 49, played the fiddle before becoming a violin maker.

Pursuing art work that could last 300 years instead of relying on a musical career to fulfill his life, Nigh became interested in restoring violins after a friend gave him a handed-down violin he found in his attic in 1995.

“It was a 1704 Tyrolean violin and was basically crushed,” Nigh said.

It was during the process of observing others trying to repair the old violin that Nigh began to wonder whether he could make his own.

Nigh’s journey began.

He was determined to make his own violin from scratch. To support himself, he found a job in a mandolin factory in Columbia in 1995, where he learned how to mass-produce the instrument.

Nigh also spent a tremendous amount of time learning about wood. For him, it is the heart of violin-making. Nigh left the mandolin factory in 1999 to work at the Old Standard Wood Saw Mill in Millersburg. Nigh spent six years at the mill, and by observing, feeling and handling the texture of the wood, he learned to determine its quality.

“Only with the right wood can a violin sing,” he said.

After working a year in the wood sawmill Nigh said he began to feel sick on a daily basis.

“I thought I had lymphoma,” Nigh remembered.

For the next two years, Nigh tried to figure out why he felt sick. He constantly felt fatigued and underwent numerous tests to try to figure out what was wrong.

In 2002, Nigh learned he was allergic to rosin ­— a component found in spruce trees and the basic material used to make violin fronts.

The allergy can be potentially fatal, and his allergist suggested Nigh never make violins again.


Lee Nigh has played the violin for more than 25 years and started to make the instruments in 1995. He also paints and says he plays just about everything with strings. (ADAM WISNESKI/Missourian)

“I was very sad,” Nigh said, pausing in memory.

The allergy forced Nigh to leave his job at the mill in 2005, but it hasn’t prevented him from pursuing his violin-making dream. Now, Nigh wears a respirator and gloves and works outdoors when possible. He has a fan to refresh the air when he is working indoors.

“The decision was made for me,” Nigh said. “It just worked out well.”

Last April, Nigh had a reaction after playing a violin. He had problems breathing and his blood pressure dropped.

Today, he is proud to play the first violin he handcrafted. He started making it in 1995, and it took him 10 years to finish. He carefully takes it out of a black case and plays a delightful impromptu. After putting down the bow, he points with pleasure at the edge of the rib.

“See the purfling point here? It is the starting point that determines all the curves,” Nigh said.

It is that detailed work of the violin that attracts Nigh. The amber-gold violin by the window was made in 2006. With delicate scrolls and pegs, it’s expected to sell for thousands of dollars.

Nevertheless, the biggest pleasure Nigh takes in making violins is to let other people express themselves in music. To Nigh, the beauty of violin-making is that it’s not only a practice of art but a creation of something useful — so that others can express their distinctive voices through it.

“Every violin,” he said, “has an individual tone.”

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