Miguel Melenchon has restored many violins, some hundreds of years old. But, he’ll never forget one of his most challenging projects, when a man brought a valuable instrument to his Jacksonville shop in pieces inside of a shoebox.
Violins should never get wet, but when this one did, about 20 years ago, the man just stuck it in storage and forgot about it. When he finally decided to do something about it, it looked like such a hopeless mess, “that he just gave it to me,” Melenchon says.
The sides of the violin, known as the ribs, were bent and deformed, so he slowly applied heat to the wood to reshape it before gluing it back together. He restored the bottom, top and neck and fashioned a new bridge, pegs and chin rest, as well as put on new strings.
After he carefully restored it to as good as new, and Melenchon sold it for a couple of thousand dollars.
Owner of The Violin Shop on Beach Boulevard, Melenchon says he loves making his living as a “luthier,” someone who makes or repairs string instruments. It is an ancient craft, one that dates back to the 1500s, when violins were first made, and is a rare art today.
“It’s nice to go to work where you feel good,” says Melenchon, who grew up in Spain and learned violin making in Italy. “I look around at people and the types of jobs they have, and they have a lot of stress. I don’t have a lot of stress. I work alone, and with my hands, much as people did 500 years ago.”
Melenchon grew up in a small town north of Barcelona. He went to college, where he earned industrial engineering, architecture and criminal justice degrees.
But he was drawn to becoming a woodworker, which he says is what string instrument makers are, and enrolled in a violin making school in Cremona, Italy with his brother, Rafael. Classes were taught in Italian and students came from around the world, and shortly after he graduated, Melenchon moved to the United States while Rafael went home to open a violin shop in Madrid.
The brothers did not come from a musical family, but violinmakers have historically never been musicians, says Melenchon, who used to play the violin “a little bit” and is just learning to play the cello. “A lot of people think since you make the instruments you have to be a player,” but that isn’t so. Violin makers were highly specialized wood workers, he says, who worked all day long to make everything “from scratch.”
Which is what Melenchon, who opened his Jacksonville shop 21 years ago, also does. In addition to selling, renting and repairing violins, violas and cellos, he makes them from scratch, which involves hand carving some parts, including the top, known as the scroll. He carves his signature behind the scrolls of those violins: a tiny cross.
“Who knows,” he says with a smile. “Maybe a hundred years from now someone will recognize my signature.”
FACTS ON THE CRAFT
Violins of today are slightly higher pitched than they were 300 years ago, Melenchon says. Strings used to be made from the intestines of animals, or commonly called catgut, instead of the synthetic materials used today. Gut strings produce lower and mellower tones.
The necks of modern violins are 5 millimeters longer than violins of hundreds of years ago, to compensate for the higher pitches.
A violin body has different thicknesses throughout its wood. When a player strokes a bow across the strings, the strings vibrate the wood, causing vibrations that produce different sounds in different areas of the body.
Melenchon uses a variety of tools to make and restore instruments, including hand held planers and finger planes that he uses to hand carve the bodies.
It takes about two months to create a violin from scratch; those instruments sell for $10,000 to $12,000, and are made with only very high quality wood.
Except for the pitch, which is slightly higher, and the neck, which is slightly longer, violins have not changed much in 500 years.
Customers often bring violins to Melenchon’s shop that they found in grandma’s attic, or bought at a yard sale. What they don’t realize is “that old is not necessarily good,” he says. Many violins were made in Germany in the early 1900s, in factories. Since most people couldn’t afford expensive violins, “there were a lot of cheap ones made,” he says. “As soon as I look at it, I know.” That doesn’t mean he can’t make it better than new, because “I can,” he says. “I do that a lot.”
The Violin Shop
12192 Beach Blvd., Suite 13, Jacksonville, FL 32246