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Wood Carver Not Just Fiddling Around When Making Violins

December 31, 1989|JANET BERGAMO

Bill Scruggs is the very model of a country music fan. He's partial to embroidered Western shirts, he wears his hair long and slicked-back, and he plays a mean fiddle. He allows that he and Earl Scruggs, the country-Western great, "may be way-back cousins somewhere."

But Scruggs, an 18-year Fillmore resident, has one up on his way-back namesake.

Scruggs has skittered from bluegrass into baroque and is achieving national recognition for the classical violins he builds in his garage at night.

"Many makers spend half a lifetime before getting the results Bill does," said Robert R. Becker, a retired symphony violinist who is president of the Southern California Violin Makers Assn. "Bill has a good sense of the properties of a violin. He is one of the finest new makers around."

Becker, who has toiled over violin construction since 1942, said he once told Scruggs he would trade his rare Guarnerius violin for one of Scruggs' design--and he was only half-joking.

Venerable violin maker Henry Meissner of Carpinteria is no less glowing about the abilities of Scruggs, a former student.

"He's one of the most talented makers in the United States today," said Meissner, whose own work has been praised by no less an authority than violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman. "He really shot up like a meteor. And I admire him. We get a great kick out of his success."

It was four years ago that Scruggs sought out Meissner, who turns out 11 violins a year with his son, Fred.

"I'd been taking fiddle lessons from Phil Salazar, the bluegrass player," Scruggs recalled. "I just didn't like any of the instruments I'd played on."

So Scruggs set out to make his own violin, reading books on the arcane discipline and acquiring inspiration from craftsmen in the field.

To be sure, he was no stranger to woodworking. After high school, his grandfather started him in construction work, and Scruggs was eventually licensed as a finish carpenter. He had also made a credible effort at guitar building.

Working alone, he put together three violins. "But I felt I needed more guidance," he said.

"I wasn't satisfied with the arching," Scruggs said of the fine carving that produces the curve in the instrument's sound box. "And I really needed help with varnishes."

To prove it, he showed a visitor a violin apparently perfect in every respect--except for its greenish tinge. "This is a question of sheer ignorance," he said, chuckling.

After studying with Meissner, Scruggs no longer created green violins. In fact, Meissner urged him to enter his work in major competitions, where the instruments are exhaustively scrutinized for craftsmanship and played in a concert setting for tone.

Two Scruggs violins took prizes in the 1988 competition sponsored by the Violin Makers Assn. of Arizona/International, a contest that includes both United States and European instrument builders.

Last June, a Scruggs viola won first place and a Scruggs violin took third at a similar competition sponsored by the Violin Makers Assn. of British Columbia.

And in October, a Scruggs violin bested 105 other entries for the first-place overall standing in Arizona.

Those are heady honors for a guy who faithfully attends meetings of the Old Time Fiddlers Assn. in Meiner's Oaks, but Scruggs acknowledges his tastes are changing. With the help of his wife, Marge, he has collected a stack of compact discs featuring the world's great violinists. "There's no doubt that my violins are made for classical playing," said Scruggs, who has just sold a recent prize-winner for $3,000 to a 12-year-old prodigy.

Their sound is big, yet refined, and stems from 120 to 150 hours of work in his garage workshop.

Shelves are piled with wood slabs destined to make music. Workshop walls are festooned with patterns for violin bodies and graduated grids for the fine carving and planing that permit an instrument to sound. Surrounded by the tools of his newly adopted trade, Scruggs is truly in his element. "This is where I spend all my time," he said, smiling.

Although his work as a telecommunications engineer for an oil company often takes him out of town, Scruggs has managed to produce three or four instruments a year.

From his first encounter with the spruce blocks destined to become the top of an instrument and the maple used for the back, Scruggs considers which pieces make a good match. Pointing to a pair of matched half-finished plates perched in a corner of his workshop, he said, "I liked how these sound together--they'll make a good violin."

Scruggs uses sophisticated electronic procedures when tuning the front and back of his instruments. But he is quick to point out that he uses the old methods simultaneously, tapping for tone and flexing the wood to judge the progress of arching. "You can feel it," he said. "I want to work with the wood, not just put it in some machine."

During a tour of his shop, Scruggs pulled out a variety of tools; most are adapted from general woodworking or metal work. The only tools specifically designed for the violin maker's craft are a set of tiny wood planes, the largest no bigger than a golf ball.

There is excitement in Scruggs' demeanor as he surveys past work and looks forward to the fresh discoveries made with every succeeding instrument. Someday he wants to build a matching string quartet; two violins, viola and cello. "The only one I haven't tried yet is the cello."

But parting with his creations rings a melancholy note.

"It's hard to sell an instrument," Scruggs admits. "It's like my baby."

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