Area luthier expands operation
Paolo Marks has been making violins and cellos for years now, and he's been playing music most of his life. You may have seen him playing at the Pocahontas County Farmers Market, performing at local weddings, or tooling around the southern end of the county in his characteristic Volkswagen mini-bus.
Marks said he's been playing the cello since he was six-years-old, but he didn't start playing the violin until he was in his early 20s.
“I actually never played the violin, until after I made my first one. After I made my first violin I figured I'd better learn how to play it,” smiled Marks. “It's not the greatest instrument because I was still learning. It's hard to get rid of your first instrument though, for nostalgic reasons. I'll never sell it. The first instrument is always going to be rough, but it sounds fine.”
Marks said he loves hand tools and has worked with wood most of his life.
“I've always made things with my hands — furniture making, carpentry,” he said. “So it just seemed logical to try it. When a program was offered at the school I went to, I checked it out and really just fell in love with it right away. It just seemed like something that could keep me interested for the rest of my life.”
Marks said that's what a good instrument can do — really inspire someone. He said after finishing school, he apprenticed with a couple of different instrument makers around the globe.
“One of them was in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia,” he said. “That was a lot of fun. Just a really neat guy up there. He did it all — violin making, guitars, mandolins, Celtic harps. I did that for a while, then I went back to where I grew up in Loudon County [Virginia] and opened up a shop there for a couple of years. Then I decided that I wanted to learn even more about violin making, so I went to Amsterdam for two years and apprenticed there with two great violin makers. They taught me in a year what would have taken me twenty years to learn by myself.”
“That's the interesting thing about violin making. It's still a craft that is passed on from one maker to the next,” explained Marks. “That's the best way to learn how — to make a violin with someone who has been doing it for thirty or forty years. That apprenticeship-way of learning is how it's always been done with violin making, and it still exists. It's not as formal as it once was, but it's still the best way to do it.”
Marks, originally from the Winchester, Virginia area, said he came to Pocahontas County about six years ago.
“We came because Erica, my wife, got a job at High Rocks. That's what first brought me here. I knew that this area was rich in music tradition and it was something I wanted to explore when I got here. I was always looking for a place like this. I really found a home here in Pocahontas County.”
Marks was recently featured in West Virginia Living magazine.
“It was for the winter edition. It was a nice little spread,” Marks said. “The writer documented the making of a violin from start to finish.”
Marks said a “luthier” is a generic term for instrument maker.
“Instruments with strings — guitars, mandolins, violins,” he said. “It comes from the French word lutiér. A lutiér was a maker of lutes. This was back 500 years ago when violins weren't as popular. The most popular instrument around were lutes, so they were called luthiers.”
Some folks think a classical violin and a fiddle are the same instrument, separated only by regional terminology, but according to Marks, there's a slight difference.
“The actual instrument is basically the same,” explained Marks. “A great fiddle player can play the same instrument a great violin player can play. They're set up the same. Everybody has their slight preferences for their set-up. Most fiddle players like a flatter bridge, so they can play double-stops easier. The distinction lies more in the music.”
Marks said in his career, he's made about 30 violins, eight or nine violas, a cello, and his most recent accomplishment — a mandolin.
“I repaired a couple before, and I've played the mandolin for a couple of years, but I'd never made one. I'd just made violins and violas for the past fifteen years, so it was very refreshing to make a different instrument. Every instrument is very rewarding, but making a completely different instrument — it was good practice.”
When he's crafting a new instrument, Marks said he uses traditional designs from luthiers before him.
“You don't have to start from scratch,” he said. “There's so many great instruments out there that exist. So I based my first mandolin off a standard model — an A-style mandolin. Then I altered it slightly, not in any dimension that would change the body laying, those are all still the same.”
Marks said when it comes to making a violin or mandolin by hand, the process is actually very much alike.
“The construction of the instrument is very similar,” explained Marks. “I use pretty much the same wood for mandolins as I do for violins, and the actual technique is the same — so it wasn't a huge stretch for me to make a mandolin. It was kind of using what I already knew and adapting it.”
Marks uses a variety of different materials when he's making an instrument, and some of it comes from right here in the state.
“The maple for the back and the sides is West Virginia maple, it's a red maple. It has a very deep figure in it. This tiger flame pattern that you see is unusual to find in a tree. In every tree you might have a little bit of that, but to have that in the whole tree is very rare. It's what violin makers are seeking in their wood. It gives it a very striking visual appearance.”
“For the top I used spruce. I get my spruce from Eastern Europe — Romania. It's a little bit of a different species than we have here. It's the same spruce that I use for violins. Then the interior blocks and linings are made out of mahogany.”
Marks said it'll take him about three months to make a violin from start to finish.
“The first mandolin I made also took three months,” Marks said. “Part of that was because it was the first one. I think the next one will take less time. There's certain parts that take longer, like the fret board. For a violin, you don't have to put any frets in, but the mandolin you have fret-work and that takes more time.”
According to Marks, crafting an instrument is totally different from other woodwork, but he still uses mostly hand tools — chisels, gouges, files and scrapers to take off very fine shavings.
“You're working with a scale that's condensed as opposed to furniture making or carpentry. When you're working on a house or a table, you're working to a 1/16 of an inch, or 1/32 of an inch. With violin making, we work to 1/10 of a millimeter, so it's very small variations and clearances. You need to have tools that are capable of reaching that level of refinement.”
Marks also uses different measuring tools — compasses, dividers and calipers, but he said nothing is as precise as the naked eye.
“When it comes down to shaping the arching and smoothing out the inside, it comes down to your eye. You can train your eye to be more accurate than any measuring device. If you look at the arching or the contours of the inside, in the right light, you can see the smallest imperfections.”
Marks said every piece of wood is different, and you get a different sound from each piece, even if it came from the same tree.
“If I made this back exactly the same as the one I did before, it wouldn't sound the same,” he said. “It would sound about the same, but you need to take into consideration the actual wood — it's different on every instrument. Maple is considered a hardwood. It's a lot harder than spruce, which is used for the top. It's not overly hard, but it has the right density and elasticity for violins and mandolins.”
Marks uses hide glue to attach the different components of an instrument.
“There are several advantages to hide glue,” he said. “Acoustically it's very good. When it dries, it's very brittle. You have to heat it up and apply it hot. It sets in just a minute or two, so you have to work quickly with it. Many wood glues have a little bit of rubberiness to them — not ideal for acoustics. If in the future, say twenty years, an instrument needs to be repaired, with hide glue, it's very easy to do that. You can take off the top cleanly.”
Marks has a website, paolomarksviolins.com, and oftentimes a customer will commission a piece from him, but most of his business is word-of-mouth.
“If I don't have anything commissioned, I'll just work on the next instrument. When it's done, I just show it around. I don't make that many instruments, maybe four a year, so it's not like I'm mass-producing them.”
Ivan Cales, originally from Summers County, has been living in Pocahontas County for about three years now. He said he first met Marks at the local swimming hole in Lobelia. Cales said he's pretty green when it comes to the mandolin — he's only been playing for about a year or so, but he said he's proud to own Mark's very first mandolin.
“I had one of those really cheap ones, I didn't like the way it sounded or the way it felt,” Cales said. “I stopped. Then just on a whim, I ran it by Paolo. He said he always wanted to make one. This gave him the opportunity. It sounds sweet. It's easy to play. I thought to myself — the man's an artist.”
Marks said instrument making is a very practical art, where the finished product has a real purpose.
“It's something that is physically rewarding, to sculpt the wood and to design different models. I've got two other orders for mandolins since that one. It's been fun. I hope to make a lot more.”
Angelo Jiordano may be contacted at email@example.com