LEEDS – Just off the interstate in the town of Leeds is a small, unassuming building that is easily passed by without notice. Dome-shaped with a budge in the top for an upper floor, as the building’s owner says, it’s not much to look at, but once you step inside, you enter a whole new world.
As the door opens a bearded man with a broad smile bids guests enter, and immediately the outside world disappears. Right by the door is a stone bench with a straitjacket draped over it, and hanging from the ceiling are countless slats of wood – but this is just the beginning. As the guests are led by their host around the corner, molds for violins, violas and cellos line part of the wall and work stations abound where such instruments are crafted.
The bearded man then sits his guests down and exclaims: “Before we start, I have an exciting business opportunity for you!”
He sees the looks of surprise and skepticism and asks for only a few minutes and proceeds, attempting to sell a business in which the product you create can make you a fortune as it will only get more valuable with age. Yet, what do you have to do to buy in? Well, first you have to be willing to work countless hours and deal with lack of sleep and possibly missing a few meals here and there; put at least $2 million into materials for your fortune-making product, and be crazy. You must train 30-60 years, and also deal with the possibility that your work will not be recognized until after you’re dead.
Welcome to the life of the master violin maker, the man says as he introduces himself: Kevin Lee or, as he refers to himself, “The Master Luthier.”
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Videocast by Dave Amodt and Sarafina Amodt, St. George News
The world of the masters
A luthier is another term for a violin maker. Lee said he is not just another violin maker however, but a master craftsman whose work stands on par with the likes of Jacob Stainer, Gasparo da Salo, Antonio Stradivari, Joseph Guarneri and others.
“Yes, I lay claim to the master’s title,” Lee said. “I have had people say: How dare I compare myself to them?”
Lee has been crafting violins, violas, cellos and cases to go with them for nearly 33 years, he said his instruments have gone toe-to-toe with Stradivarius and Guarnerius violins on stage. Indeed, Lee said he has spent a small fortune backing up his claims. In order to learn how the old masters built their master instruments, he said he has travelled the world to visit and play famous violins built by Stradivari and others. He also claims to have learned the secrets of their varnishing techniques, and has delved into many of the myths and legends surrounding past master luthiers. Along the way Lee said he’s debunked a few of the old stories, yet found bits and pieces of truth in others.
One legend he spoke of involved Stainer. He said the man went mad near the end of his life and was left in a straitjacket on a stone bench for a number of years – hence the reminder of the old master by the front door.
Lee said his violins have been recognized by Stewart Pollens, a fine musical instrument expert and restorer and curator at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, as well as the late Jacques Français. Français was an appraiser of rare violins who appraised a violin made by Lee at $30,000 in 1999. Lee said that it is the only appraisal Français, a world-renowned appraiser, ever gave to the work of a living violin maker. Français died at the age of 80 in 2004.
If he had been thinking at the time, Lee said, he would have cancelled his plane ticket home and spent a fortune on getting the word out about Français’ appraisal to a living violin crafter, rather than a long-dead one. Instead, he went home. “I was very, naïve,” Lee said.
If Lee truly is a master luthier on the same level as “the old masters,” he said he is the first one in 250 years according to what Francais told him.
“I know I sound arrogant and full of myself,” he said, “but you have to know what you can do.”
What makes the work of a master luthier different than top violin makers, Lee said, is that the masters go the extra mile and never make copies, always originals.
“The moment any master makes a copy, they sell their souls,” Lee said. As such, each violin he crafts is a unique piece.
He also told the story of a woman who ordered a violin and wanted it to remind her of her late uncle. Lee said the woman described her uncle as having a deep, gruff voice and always chewing cherry tobacco.
Lee said tobacco is actually used when creating a violin and its case. So he used cherry tobacco in the crafting of the case, which gave off a scent recognized by the woman. As for the violin, he designed it to produce a deep, gruff sound. When the woman played it, she said, “It’s my uncle.”
“That’s when I took my first true leap into the world of the masters,” Lee said.
What goes into one of Lee’s violins?
In order to craft a master violin, you must first take wood that has been dead for a few decades or a few centuries, Lee said. One must have quality hide glue from a cow that’s been dead for a couple of years, too. Next, you needed authentic Baltic amber that is 65 million years old and, what he called, “Dragon’s Blood.”
The “blood” is actually red-colored resin that secretes from the Dragon Tree and is one of the substances used in the varnish Lee uses for his violins. He said he gets his “Dragon’s Blood” from Germany and his amber from mines in Italy.
“You can imagine the cost,” he said.
As for the wood used for a violin, it can make or break the instrument, Lee said.
“Choosing the right wood is like making a good marriage,” he said.
Violins made in more humid climates, if left out in the desert, would quickly dry out and crack. However, a violin built in the desert could be left out in the sun all day and still be fine. He said the dry climate of Southern Utah is perfect for curing wood – the wood he hangs from the ceiling of his workshop. The process of curing and aging the wood is a long one, though. Lee said violin wood could take between 10-15 years before it is ready for use, while wood used for cellos could take between 25-30 years.
Though Lee said the desert is the best climate for violin crafting, the market of Southern Utah isn’t exactly that of New York City. If he lived there, his violins would sell for more than they do locally. However, he said, “I will not compromise my quality.”
In markets like New York City, Lee claims the average price of one of his violins is around $50,000.
Lee said he had a lifetime supply of wood for himself and his children, and that it’s estimated worth is at least $2 million.
During the overall creation of master violin and an accompanying case, Lee wears the hat of a blacksmith, machinist, leather worker and jeweler.
Selling the dream
“Nobody wants a new violin,” Lee said. “They want an old violin. My dream is to get people to want new violins.”
The older violins are the ones by the old masters, he said. A genuine Stradivarius and the like are centuries old and continue to grow in value and have a distinct sound, he said. Ironically, for some of the old masters, like many a painter, they were not revered for their talents until after their deaths.
Lee said he has compared his violins with those of Stradivari and Guarneri on the concert stage before unknowing audiences. One man said Lee’s violin sounded angelic and was willing to pay a great deal for the instrument, Lee said, but changed his mind as soon as he learned it was the creation of a newer craftsman.
To help people become more acquainted with his work, Lee began writing stories that were a blend of real people and places, fantasy, and the legends surrounding the past violin makers. So far he has written a trio of books called “The Luthier’s Diary Series.” Books in the series include “Two Trees,” “Choice of Love: The Book of Honor,” and “Clay Angel: The Book of Dreams.”
Sales were going well when the first books were initially published, he said, but that came to an end when the post-9/11 recession wiped out his publisher. On his own, he has managed to sell some 15,000 copies since.
Lee hopes that a successful run with the books will get more people interested in his violins, thus “selling the dream.”
How it all began
Lee first picked up a violin when he was 6. His mother was a concert pianist and she was determined one of her children would be a concert violinist. Lee’s older brother wasn’t interested, so it fell to him. He liked it, he said, but ran into a snag when being taught from the technical school of music. After a time he stopped playing.
The family moved to Leeds during Lee’s teenage years, and following graduation he said he fell into depression. That changed the day his older brother came home with a master violin and asked him to play. Lee resisted at first, but ultimately gave in.
“I played one note and it changed my life,” he said.
Despite this, Lee remained in a state of depression until salvaging a record player and records from the dump one day. A song called “Talk to the Angels” played, and led to Lee’s praying that night. The next morning he said he found “an angel” on the doorstep of his home and decided to follow her – and has ever since.
Lee left home with his future wife, and along the way picked up a sponsorship for his violin playing that provided quality instruments and instruction.
“I was on my way in two to three months,” Lee said, but it didn’t last. Lee’s sponsor found out he was engaged and gave him an ultimatum – marriage or the sponsorship.
Lee chose marriage and the sponsorship was pulled. While this could have stopped him, it was merely a detour into a new phase of life: Lee would be a violin maker.
“If I can’t be the greatest violin player in that ever lived, I’ll be the greatest violin maker that ever lived,” he said.
Lee’s grandfather had in old cabinet shop that had been locked up. Lee decided to take it over and made his first violins there which, he admitted, weren’t that very good. Along the way he attended the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City, and visited other violin makers. He also traversed the county and Europe in order to visit private collections, museums and other places where instruments crafted by previous master luthiers resided.
Lee continued to play the violin as well, as a way to prove to skeptics who doubt his ability.
Unfortunately, due to crippling Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in his hands brought on by hours of carving, as well as an old spinal injury that numbed parts of his hands, Lee had to close shop for about six years. Recently however, thanks to a successful surgery, Lee is ready to open his shop again as well as play his violins on a more consistent basis.
“This is who I am,” he said.
Ed. Note: St. George News offers this story from the subject’s perspective. Verification of values is recommended to any interested buyer; it being a unique market and one not particular to our region, doing so is beyond the scope of this report.
Copyright St. George News, StGeorgeUtah.com Inc., 2013, all rights reserved