Instruments inspire career

Published in The Denton Record-Chronicle on June 4, 2014

CROSS ROADS — It’s easy to miss the asphalt driveway to the Luthier Shop. The beautiful two-story converted barn is neatly tucked behind a white picket fence in this small community a few miles south of Aubrey.

Though there is a sign branded into the fence with the shop’s name and hours, usually the easiest way to spot the violin store in a residential area off Mosely Lane is to look for the bees.

Steve Cundall, now in his early 50s, is a luthier — a maker of stringed musical instruments. He has raised bees since he was a child and uses “bee glue” in his varnish. Since his mother’s death, he has given the bees a rest so he can have more time to care for his father.

It is only 10 a.m. and the Cundalls aren’t expecting customers yet. Guests walk in and a chime calls Cynthia Cundall, Steve’s wife, down from the workshop. Cynthia steps down the creaky wooden stairs to greet her guests. As she helps them, Steve works in his lair, painting and varnishing wood for a violin restoration.

Three workbenches face the windows, and Steve works on the far right station.

To his left, a King James Bible on his workbench and Bible quotes taped to the window inspire him while he works. Instant coffee, Perrier and empty bottles of raspberry sweet tea decorate the desk.

Pegs litter a table between various sanders, carpenter’s pencils and paintbrushes, and clear bottles holding a variety of colored liquids, like an unlabeled amber substance in a Gerber baby food container dating from the mid-’90s.

Steve’s legs cross to secure the butt of the violin in his lap. His left palm rests against the neck as his fingers grip the ebony fingerboard.

He dips a fine-tip paintbrush into the rainbow of “dry color” in front of him.

His steel-gray apron protects his blue jeans and shirt from the paints and varnish.

Steve was born into an artistic family from Englewood, N.J. He started playing violin in fifth grade in Denton using his grandfather’s instrument.

That family heirloom, in the process of being re-varnished, hangs on a rack by the stairs.

When he was 6, Steve wanted to be a paleontologist, and made dinosaurs, “teeth and everything,” with modeling clay. Now, a T. Rex-capped spray bottle on his desk reminds him how far he’s come.

Until he was 15, Steve made little boxes, jewelry and flying model airplanes. Then he discovered his real talents and passion.

It started when Aaron, his brother, asked Steve to fix their grandfather’s damaged miniature violin. He made sides for it and rebuilt it. His first original miniature, a cello made of basswood, came from a drawing in a book. He still has it.

“The proportions are not really violin proportions, so I put an endpin in it and it looks like a little cello,” he said.

Steve sold subsequent miniatures for $50 each and used the money to fill up his pickup, but “that was in 1974-75, so gas was 35 to 40 cents a gallon.”

While his new instruments carry hefty price tags, his restorations run at an affordable level.

The Luthier Shop specializes in the smaller half- to three-quarter-size instruments for students with small hands; and the shop offers a rent-to-own program perfect for growing children and their parents.

The biggest industry change Steve has seen is instrument resales on the Internet and market saturation of Chinese-made instruments, such as a cello that could be Chinese but is probably Sri Lankan.

Often, buyers are disappointed by poor quality and sound. A lot of Steve’s business comes from these disappointed customers, he said.

In 1973, he and his father started the shop, repairing and renting string instruments. He taught his father how to repair and make them while making miniature violins and repairing horsehair bows in his bedroom workshop.

He graduated from Denton High School in 1977.

The summer after he graduated, Steve visited a man in New Jersey near where his family once lived who recommended that he ask Bein & Fushi, a Chicago firm that deals in, makes and restores violins, whether they would hire him.

From 1977 to 1978, Steve attended what was then North Texas State University, studying violin performance and playing in the university’s orchestra and chamber orchestra.

The orchestra went to Chicago to perform at a conference, and he packed some miniatures to show Bein & Fushi.

The firm liked his work and hired him.

The memory makes Steve laugh, since he’d never attended violin-making school, but the miniatures he made prepared him for Bein & Fushi.

He worked at Bein & Fushi as a restorer from May 1978 to June 1979, including work on priceless violins from famous historical luthiers such as Stradivari.

Steve did well at Bein & Fushi. Until he worked there, no one had taught him the proper methods for his craft and what a finished product should look like.

“They taught me how to sharpen and make my own tools, which I had already done to some extent,” Steve said.

Steve says the problem with Bein & Fushi, and many places, is their attitude: “This is the way we do it and we do it the best.”

Since Steve is partially self-taught and professionally trained, he’s unsure if the way he does things is industry standard. With help from the Internet and conferences, he finds that other respected luthiers use techniques similar to his self-taught methods.

“It’s nice to have some reinforcement from someone else who makes very fine instruments and you’re doing the exact same thing,” he said.

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