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Good Vibrations  

author: Denise Rudnicki

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Shaping wood and metal into musical instruments is a patient, poetic combination of art and craft, and fiendishly difficult. There are people in these hills renowned for their craftsmanship. Denise Rudnicki hits the road to find a few

“Do you hear that?” Steve Denvir holds a thin spruce board to my ear. He taps it. Tap, tap, tap. The wood purrs and hums. “That wants to be a guitar.”

We are in Steve’s garage workshop at his home in Baltimore in the rolling hills of Northumberland County. The spruce sings its siren call to Steve, and so do the 60 other pieces of wood in his shop – more spruce, maple, mahogany, rosewood, cherry, ebony and other tropical hardwoods. “Choose me,” they murmur, but they must be patient. Steve only makes four guitars a year. He would like to make more but he hasn’t fully retired from his work as an award-winning advertising copywriter. This move to Baltimore from Toronto two years ago with his wife Lisa, and Duffy and Charlie, their Golden Retrievers, is part of a long-term plan to focus on freeing the inner guitar from pieces of wood.

Steve got hooked on making guitars about 15 years ago. It started with furniture. He made arts-and-crafts tables and chairs in his garage in the Beaches, learned to bend oak when he tried his hand at making Windsor chairs, and as he was already playing guitar, it was an easy next step to deciding to make one.

The first one took two years. It did not go well. “I over trimmed the top,” he says with a grimace. “I attached the bridge and was stringing it and then I heard it crack. I thought I was going to be sick.” At this point, most people might be inclined to give up their dream of being a guitar maker but not Steve. He took it apart and started again. And he’s been learning from his mistakes ever since.

He’s made 15 acoustic guitars since 2010. Each one involves about 150 hours of chiseling, gouging, sanding, gluing, varnishing…and sometimes redoing a step. It takes time to coax wood to become a guitar. “Each and every guitar is a landmine of mistakes,” he says. “They say great guitars are built on the cusp of destruction. I’m not sure I buy that but it is a balancing act between lightness and responsiveness and integrity of structure.”

As he became more dedicated to his craft, he studied with some of the greats, including Ervin Somogyi in Oakland, California, whose guitars start at $35,000, and Linda Manzer in Toronto, who makes guitars for Pat Metheny, Bruce Cockburn, Carlos Santana and many other accomplished musicians. She has a lovely Indian rosewood guitar for sale that Bruce Cockburn toured with for 10 years. You can have it for $25,000.

Steve laughs at the suggestion that this guitar-making thing could earn him some serious money. “I got into making guitars because I didn’t want to be corrupted by all the money in poetry,” he says. “It’s really hard to make a living at this. You know what you’re getting when you buy a Manzer, but my guitars? A Denvir? No one’s heard of him.”

David Fleury has heard of him. He has two of Steve’s guitars. “I got one of his early guitars for a bottle of Scotch and $500,” says David from his home in Toronto where he works as a professional musician, scoring movies and commercials. He uses Steve’s guitars in commercials. “Steve is self-deprecating,” he says “but he is an artist. I love his guitars, how they lay on the finger with the strings so balanced, how they resonate so beautifully, how they are so responsive.”

There’s that word again. Responsive. Steve says it means a guitar can be played softly and still generate a big sound without breaking up. To illustrate, he puts on a CD of Tony Rice, who he calls one of the finest acoustic guitarists alive. “Do you hear that?” he asks. “Rich, full, ringing. The bass and treble are perfectly balanced. That’s responsive. I want my guitars to be played by people like this.”

Right now, he is making a guitar on commission for a professional hockey player in Switzerland. It will be made of Lutz spruce, African padauk, mahogany and ebony. “Part of the alchemy is mixing and matching the wood,” he says. “Any moron can make a guitar. Making a great guitar? That’s the work of a lifetime.”

Steve is sanding the mahogany neck of this new guitar. He sits on a stool and makes shoe shine motions, up and down. In his sweat pants and Salomon sneakers, and wearing his Optivisor, which is basically a magnifying glass that he wears on his head, he looks utterly at peace. All that matters is this – shaping the perfect guitar neck. “How long will that take?” I ask. “I have no idea,” he says. Does it matter? This is after all, the work of a lifetime.

There is a jaw-dropping array of stringed instruments in Luke Mercier’s workshop north of Trenton. They’re everywhere. Violas, Italian mandolins, a sitar, a full-sized harp, a 100-year-old child-sized German cello, a Chinese lute called a sanxian, a Jamaican gourd banjo, a hurdy gurdy or mechanical violin and regular violins, about 135 of them in racks lining the walls. I feel immersed in rich colour – mahogany red, warm gold, honey maple.

Luke Mercier is a luthier, from the French word for lute. It means someone who makes and restores stringed instruments. His journey to becoming a luthier began 25 years ago and was, he says, a bit of a fluke. He was in his final year of high school and trying to choose a co-op placement. Because he had a keyboard background, he thought he might like to learn how to make harpsichords.

He had just borrowed a violin from school and was walking home with a friend, who said it might be more practical to learn to make violins. “He suggested I look inside the violin for a label and before we made it through the school field I took the violin out of its case and had a peek inside. The label read ‘Copy of Antonio Stradivarius distributed by Geo. Heinl & Co. Ltd Toronto’. I suggested this to my teacher as a co-op placement and the rest is history.”

Luke’s 15-year apprenticeship with Heinl & Co., Canada’s foremost violin house began when he was 18 years old. “It was magic way beyond being a kid in a candy store,” remembers Luke. “Wall-to-wall violins, violas, cellos, double basses . . . the smell of wood, hot glue bubbling on the stove and a busy workshop filled with happy, instantly likeable master craftsmen. The kind of place you didn't want to leave.”

Ric Heinl, a fourth-generation luthier with Heinl & Co. says Luke had a rare and immediate understanding of what he calls “fiddles”. There’s a photo of a young Luke in the Heinl workshop with a rare fiddle – a 1733 Stradivarius Rode worth $6 million. Ric laughs at the suggestion that it’s a risk to put such a valuable instrument in the hands of an apprentice. “With a restorer, it’s the safest place it could be.”

I think about this in Luke’s workshop when he places a wisp of a violin in my hands. Its past is a mystery: Built around 1700, it could be Tyrolean, Flemish, maybe Turin-made, says Luke. The violin weighs nothing. It feels as thin as a wafer and as brittle. There is a quiet moment while I think about the sounds this tiny instrument can make in the hands of someone like Itzhak Perlman: lustrous, sparkling, angry, haunting, sweet.

Yet it can take time for a violin to learn to express itself. Luke says it may take five years to grow into its sound. “You make the instrument. Then it has to learn how to vibrate.” The sound is often unique to the maker, even when the maker is copying an old violin – a Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati. “When I make a violin,” says Luke, “there is a characteristic Luke sound: evenly balanced across the strings and very responsive when played softly. Part of me goes into that sound.”

Luke is an old-school luthier. He uses antique clamps, hand-made knives, and old-world varnishing techniques. His workshop is a gorgeous, chaotic jumble of creativity – brushes, chisels, moulds, gouges, thumb planes and pieces of instruments are scattered on his workbench, including a 1925 Martin guitar, and violin backs and scrolls.

Scroll, bridge, frog, heel, ponticello, nut, sound post, purfling, belly thickness. Violin makers have their own language. Luke is talking about the violin’s scroll, that curly bit that looks like a shell at the end of the neck. “It has nothing to do with the violin’s strength or sound or playability,” he says. “But each scroll is unique to the maker. It’s the place where the violin maker can really express themselves.”

Luke left George Heinl & Co. about 10 years ago and moved to Spring Brook in the township of Stirling-Rawdon north of Trenton. He built a house on a country road with his wife Janet, began a family and launched his own luthier business from a home workshop. He is the only luthier with his skills between Toronto and Ottawa.

“I don’t want to put him on too high a pedestal,” says Ric Heinl, “but people cannot know how talented he is. What makes a great restorer is that they never impose their own thoughts on an instrument. They interpret the piece.”

Luke points to two current pieces he is interpreting, a cello from Peterborough and a double bass from Uxbridge. He will close seams, mend dings, repair a snapped bridge and smooth out many nicks and scratches. “Restoration is my bread and butter,” he says. “I might build one instrument a year. Last year I built a cello and the year before that, a double bass.”

The bass was commissioned by a friend, Tim Hadley, who played and toured with Stompin’ Tom for 13 years. “Tim really had to twist my arm to make that double bass,” says Luke. “It was a massive undertaking. It took over 500 hours but I enjoyed it immensely.”

“It’s like a ripe peach,” says Tim from his home in Trenton. “Luke brought something beautiful into the world and I get to use it for a while. It’s based on a bass that is over 300 years old. Hopefully, someone will be playing it 300 years from now.”

That is every luthier’s dream. “Owners are really just custodians,” says Luke. “They have a role to fulfill; an obligation to take great care to insure proper maintenance and routine check-ups so that the instrument may be around to be enjoyed and treated with the same respect by the next player in line. As for my own legacy as a violin maker, I don't have too high an expectation – just a blurb among the huge list of approximately 10,000 instrument makers would suffice.”

Nothing suggests I am about to cross the threshold of greatness. There is no sign, just a name on a mailbox at the end of a country drive. There is no big factory, just a one-storey building dominated by a moose skull above the door. I’m not even sure I am in the right place until I peek through the office and see all the bassoon parts standing up in racks.

This is Ben Bell Bassoons, arguably the best bassoon maker in the world. This is the workshop Ben built in 2007 behind his house in the countryside outside Lakefield, and that is the moose he shot with a bow in 2011. “It holds the all-time Ontario record for the 48th largest moose rack,” he says. He is very proud of that moose. And what about being a world-class bassoon maker? “No one makes bassoons as good as mine.” He taps photos on his wall of fame to show the many professional musicians playing his bassoons in orchestras around the world. “Venezuela, Milan, London, Lyons, Paris, Amsterdam, Montevideo . . .”

That morning, a bassoonist came to his workshop from Syracuse. “He’s been playing the same bassoon for 30 years,” says Ben. “He never found one he liked until he played one of mine. He’s buying Ben Bell Bassoon #160.”

That’s a lot of bassoons. Ben made his first 27 years ago after spending 10 years as an apprentice with Frank Marcus in Toronto, learning to repair bassoons. “I made it to prove to my repair customers that I knew enough to be trusted with their ‘prized instruments’,” he says, making quote marks with his fingers. He took that first bassoon to Los Angeles and came home with five orders. He’s never looked back.

The bassoon is the unobtrusive bass voice of the orchestra, often an anchor; seldom a star. It has a chameleon-like quality, thanks to its three-and-a-half-octave range, which is more than any other wind instrument. Sometimes dignified, sometimes comical, sometimes majestic, the bassoon takes on many characters. Think the Grandfather’s Theme from Peter and the Wolf, or the marching broomsticks in Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice, or Vivaldi’s joyful Spring Concerto. The bassoon is there and it just might be a Ben Bell bassoon you’re listening to.

It can be difficult for musicians to explain why they love Ben’s bassoons, at least in language that is easily understandable. Testimonials on the Bell Bassoon site rave about soft attacks, sonic personality and forte dynamics. Translated, it means Ben’s bassoons sound better than any others and are a joy to play.

We are in Ben’s music room. This is the room he designed so that it would be acoustically perfect for his clients to play their bassoons. In the middle of the room is a bassoon so highly-glossed it seems to shimmer and burn a fiery red. Its 30 silver-plated keys with very long levers give it an almost Steampunk look. It stands about 1.3 metres tall but is actually a very long tube folded back on itself in a U-shape. Unfolded, it would be 2.5 metres long.

Ben attaches a double reed made of cane to the bocal, the arched tube bassoonists blow through, and makes a low, rumbling hum that vibrates in the chest. It’s remarkably comforting and as graceful as smoke. He demonstrates the bassoon’s range and versatility, and it becomes clear that he plays the instrument very well. He’s been a member of the Peterborough Symphony Orchestra for 18 years, along with his wife Leah who is the principal horn player. But even though he’s good at it, playing music is not his passion. “Making something over and over but never playing it yourself is not a good thing.”

I remark that this bassoon he is playing is a work of art. “It’s a complicated machine,” he says. There is no doubt that there is a certain machine-like feel to the process. A Computer Numeric Control machine makes all the maple wood parts, and with a workshop full of grinders, drill presses, sanding belts and polishing wheels, it is like a metalwork shop in many ways. That high gloss I’ve been admiring? MeGuiar’s Ultimate Compound car polish from Canadian Tire.

Bell Bassoons sell for around $40,000. He and his staff of three, which includes his son Derek, shape maple, brass and nickel silver into 14 bassoons a year, each requiring about 250 hours of work. “My goal is to create quality, professional instruments,” says Ben. Any suggestion that this might be a bit of an understatement, and that there might something magical in the creation of the very best musical instruments for extremely demanding clients is met with a puzzled expression. “It’s all just putting one foot in front of the other. I’m too Canadian to get a swelled head.”

As I put my car in gear and head home to Port Hope, I think about what these three men have in common. Tucked away among the hills and in the woods, they are inspired by beauty and solitude, ruled by discipline and hard work, and are modest and level-headed. Their shared hope is a simple one: that their instruments will bring joy for many years.

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