Where music, wood and the world collide

By: Jael Pembrick - Staff Writer

LAURINBURG — John Schmidt is well traveled, and over the years has ridden the strings of creating 20 violins over his lifetime — so far — in different countries.

Now that he is retired and settled into the Laurinburg community, he is still creating. Schmidt continues to make the string instrument by hand as a hobby and has even taken that creativity to another level by offering free classes. The only requirements are that his students have an interest and that they purchase the parts to create the violin.

His classes work in a green workshed, where they are in different degrees of constructing and shaping their personal violins using handtools. Whether it’s bending the ribs, scraping the inside, or gluing pieces together with horsehide glue, the entire process is hands-on, with Schmidt as their guide.

His students aren’t only Scotland County residents, either.

Jimmy Volker drives two hours from Raleigh to take the class. He is studying at Surry Community College in Mt. Airy, to be a professional violin maker and takes classes to learn how to play. He says he is sees the value of the free teaching along with the skills and socialization.

“Most authentic schools offer classes for around $12,000 per semester,” Volker said. “The schools supply the wood so they take the instrument after you’ve made it. They get to keep three out of four instruments you make.

“Your graduating year, you make your own instrument out of your own wood and you get to keep your last one,” he added. “It’s a big turnoff for me.”

The setting is made comfortable and informal by Schmidt, which attracts students from college to retirement age. Kathleen Purcell enjoys the time and speaks highly of Schmidt.

“It’s really about John and how he adds to the community,” she said. “He gives his time completely, this is just a great experience.”

Many of the students plan to pass it down through their family lines.

An Army veteran and father, Gary Robertson says he is trying something new for his daughter, Amy.

“I work with wood but not like this,” he said. “I can hammer it and saw it, but (violin making) is new to me.”

His daughter took the class first and invited him to try it by working on her violin. Now, he wants to make one of his own and has ordered his parts.

Robertson is used to using a rough touch with wood, but in violin making, the aim is a soft and smooth finish for the string instrument.

“I (used to) sand everything with 100 grit, he (Schmidt) is using 2,000 and 3,000 grit,” Robertson jokes.

The classes use numerous handtools, carving and scraping, which take a lot of focus and time. Starting with two blocks of wood that are glued together, the outline of the violin is drawn. Students use the wood-cutting machines to get the “S” shape. After that, the real work begins.

Holes are drilled in different depths of the wood and the students scrape down until one can no longer see the holes and begins to form the smooth inside of a violin. Some parts of the sides have to be bent by a burner and leather, and that is just one side.

There are 27 lessons in all.

“It takes around 200 man-hours to make a violin with your hands,” Schmidt smiles.

He talked proudly of his family and how being good with his hands has been passed down his bloodline. Sharing that his grandfather was a master machinist for the Union Pacific Railroad, his mother was a pianist and his father a doctor, it proved true through his childhood that he had the gift too. Schmidt paused in appreciation, mentioning how his father always had a small workshop in the basement set up for him when he was young. As a boy, he grew up building model wood airplanes. In college, he got a chisel and kept at it until it was sharp.

“There is something in me that is attracted to it. I like to polish steel. I like to make things with my hands that are precision,” Schmidt laughed, “and I like music.”

At the University of Wyoming he earned his degree in physics, then moved to Buffalo for 10 years to teach high school physics — where a professor encouraged him to make a violin and he credits Billy Hamilton for teaching him how to bend the wood. With those skills gained and the knowledge of sharpening tools, he made his first violin and hasn’t stopped since. He moved to Saudi Arabia where he taught science, and created a violin there.

”I’m not sure, but I think I’m the only person who has made a violin in Saudi Arabia — and I actually sold it there,” Schmidt said.

He and his wife also taught in then Czechoslovakia in 1985. Coming back to the United States, he settled in Maryland and continued with his violin making. He remembers giving his 10th violin to a woman who played the instrument.

“The agreement was, as long as she kept playing it, she could keep it,” Schmidt said. “But if she stopped playing it, she had to give it back. She was in a music group (and) they made and still are making CDs.”

He reports that, years later, she still comes back and thanks him.

Since Schmidt has settled in Laurinburg, he calls it “the most polite town in America.” He has added to his violin-making by creating special knives for violin-makers, which he sells online with sales all over the world.

On Monday, Schmidt had seven students in his class. His normal class size is three to four students, but with his classes growing, there isn’t much space left and he thinks a shop in town would do well.

“I envision a craft center where crafts (are taught) at a high level, it could go here and I think more people want to take advantage of this, but we need more space,” Schmidt says.

“He just has this dream of having this shop in town — an arts and crafts center — where there are people teaching different types of things and he can offer this,” Purcell adds, “This is very rare; he obviously has the skills.”

To get involved with his class, call Schmidt at 910-276-4179 or visit 525 Everett St. in Laurinburg. His website is www.jpschmidtviolins.com.

Jael Pembrick can be reached at 910-506-3169 or [email protected]

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Teacher who has seen the world, wants to share his skill with community

Jael Pembrick

Staff Writer