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Carving Their Own Niche : Studio City Music handcrafts and repairs violins, violas and cellos--an age-old art that is enjoying a renaissance.

July 23, 1993|R. DANIEL FOSTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; R. Daniel Foster writes regularly for Valley Life

Hans Benning sits in his shop, applying a finger plane to the backside of a cello. He taps the wood, cocking his ear to hear the dull thump of mountain-grown maple.

"Each piece of wood that goes into making an instrument is individual," said Benning, owner of Studio City Music, a store whose staff makes, repairs and restores bowed string instruments. "Making an instrument is actually quite simple. I simply cut away everything that doesn't look like a violin."

The method of making violins hasn't changed much since Benning, a native of Germany, attended the Bavarian State Trade School for Violin Making in Mittenwald, Germany, from 1962 to 1964. The trade, in fact, hasn't changed much in the past 300 years.

It was in Mittenwald that Benning met Nancy Toenniges, sent to the school by her father, Paul Toenniges, who opened Studio City Music in 1953. After Benning and Nancy Toenniges graduated from the Mittenwald school, they moved to the San Fernando Valley, married, and began working at Studio City Music. When Toenniges retired in 1973, the Bennings took over the shop.

Benning now works alongside his middle son, Brian, 23, who represents the family's fourth generation of violin-makers. Each year the pair fashion seven to 12 violins, violas and cellos and a few baroque instruments that sell from $6,000 to $10,000 each and are bought by students, country fiddlers and professionals from a wide range of orchestras nationwide.

The shop could easily be mistaken for ones in Mittenwald, a center of violin making.

An open drawer of wooden clamps is packed to the brim. On the floor, wood shavings mix with drips of hand-mixed varnishes. Century-old bending irons are shelved next to glue mixed from horse hoofs and bones. About 100 polished violins hang from the rafters in tidy rows, like so much wooden fringe.

The Bennings' craft begins with the selection of the choicest maple, which comes from Bosnia. "The supply has been cut off because of the war," said Benning, 50, who fortunately bought enough Bosnian maple from an old fiddle maker to last for a couple of generations. "Bosnian maple is very dense and grows very slow, so it sounds excellent. And the flames (grains) of the wood are beautiful."

Maple is used for the back, sides and neck of a stringed instrument, and spruce, a softer wood, is used for the top--a combination that has been used by makers for centuries. Because the wood must be naturally dried for at least 25 years, Benning continues to purchase wood during annual trips to Europe, where he also buys stringed instruments. He has a stock of 300 of them that he sells and rents out at the shop.

The process of cutting out the top and back, using heat and steam to bend sections, adding decorative strips, hollowing out the inside, joining the neck, carving the scroll and varnishing the instrument takes about 2 1/2 months.

"That's if I worked on it eight hours a day, six days a week," said Benning, who typically takes up to a year to work on his custom-ordered instruments, since most of his time is spent in repair and restoration work.

The final touch in making a violin is the placement of the all-important sound post. "It's the post that's wedged inside, between the top and the back of the instrument and just behind the bridge," Benning said. "It can make or break an instrument, because it literally connects the top and back, conveying the sound between the two pieces of wood. Wedge it too tight and you choke the sound; place it just right, and it reverberates beautifully. The French called it the soul of the violin. I think they were right.

"I never want to hurry an instrument," said Benning, who arrives at 5 a.m. to put in a few undisturbed hours of building instruments at his shop, squeezed between two mini-malls. "It has to outlast me for a long time."

It was the same enduring qualities of instrument-making that lured Brian Benning to the craft four years ago and inspired him to learn the trade from his father. "It's certainly a lot different from what my friends are doing. . . . I like the tradition of it," Brian said. Formerly a violinist for the Los Angeles based-American Youth Symphony, he also plays the piano and saxophone.

Violin-making has surged in the past 15 years, according to Costa Mesa-based American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. No violin-making schools existed in the United States 20 years ago. Now there are four--in Utah, Massachusetts, Illinois and Pennsylvania. And Benning's shop is one of about half a dozen in Los Angeles that make or repair stringed instruments.

Ed Geber and his family of cellists have frequented Benning's shop since it opened. "My wife, Gretchen, and I both teach, so we send students there too," said Geber, a Valley resident and retired Los Angeles Philharmonic cellist. "Hans is very honest. I have high regard for his work. He tells you what can and can't be done."

Benning is especially proud of his skill at carving scrolls, the ornamentation found at the top of the instrument's neck that can take the shape of heads or elaborate curls. "That's where you can really show your skill and artistry," said Benning, pushing back a shock of blond hair that matches a heavy mustache. "I'll always remember what Jascha Heifetz told me: 'Always keep making instruments. That's something that will live after you.' "

Heifetz, during the last 10 years of his life, visited Benning's shop for repairs on his 1740 Guarnerius violin, he said.

Studio City Music is a family-run business--Nancy Benning does the bookkeeping and helps with the finishing of instruments, such as varnishing and polishing. Her sister, Jane Fink, and Fink's daughter, Laura Phillips, head the sales department.

"It feels like we're all working for the same cause," said Nancy Benning, adding that Brian will eventually take over the shop when her husband retires. "We like that."

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