‘Here I was, in a top London violin shop….in my wildest dreams I never thought I’d be working in a top violin shop.’ Andy Quelch laughs as he describes his first weeks at Bridgewood and Neitzert some seven years ago, and it is no surprise as I hear the journey of this modest luthier who inhabits the top floor workshop. I met with him to hear his story.
Andy was raised in rural Berkshire and Wales. His father was a farmer and joiner and Andy grew up around woodworking. He left school at sixteen and went straight into building and agricultural work, playing guitar for fun in the evenings. Working on building sites he met a friend Bill Steele who introduced him to bluegrass music, and the playing of Tony Rice and Clarence White. His journey into lutherie was a slow one, started with this love of acoustic music.
Strapped for cash and wanting a decent banjo, Andy sent off for a blank banjo neck from Stewart Macdonald and started to whittle away in the evenings, using the skills on hand tools he had learned from his Dad. Sadly, he ran out of money to get the parts to take his banjo to the next stage, and the space to devote to it so he put it to one side. His life of building, plastering and music continued.
Then about five years later Andy wanted to make a change in his life. ‘I felt I needed a vocation having done various labouring jobs and thought of combining music and woodwork.’ Driven again by his love of music, Andy’s first thought was to make a guitar. He researched courses and City and Guilds put him in touch with Newark International School of Violin Making. When Andy called, he got straight through to the head of the violin department, as the guitar school was closed. This chance conversation led Andy to become excited about the prospect of violin making and an interview was arranged.
Andy headed to Newark for the interview, ‘it felt a little daunting, as if I went for it, it meant upping sticks and moving. I didn’t know what to expect but it was also exciting seeing the violin school’. Andy describes the ‘interview’ which was a practical assessment during which he had to make a tapered dovetail joint and draw a violin bridge. He took a piece of furniture that he’d make as a gift for his wife at the time – a nice ash table with a draw to keep jewellery equipment which he showed to tutor Kerry Boylan who was doing the interview. There and then he offered Andy a place as a foundation student.
Excited and nervous, Andy bought a book and a few basic tools and practiced a bit in between working for the family firm of joiners. ‘When I had a spare bit of time, I’d have a go at carving a violin back out of ash, which was very difficult to carve being structurally very different to maple’. The confirmation letter arrived that summer confirming the place and that Andy was going to start in the first year, not the foundation year. He phoned up to see if there had been a mistake but was reassured that they felt his woodworking skills were good enough to go straight into the first year. ‘I was lucky at that time as the course was free to EU students. I worked part time to pay my way through stacking supermarket shelves and doing commercial cleaning. It was a struggle but well worth it. It was the best thing I ever did’.
The course started with the basics – how to build a violin from scratch – starting with making templates and moulds out of plywood. Andy describes the tutors as enthusiastic and helpful. ‘I remember one instance where I was doing the outline of my first violin. I showed Bob Payne and he commented that I needed to take a tenth of a millimetre off. I was used to working within tolerances of an eighth to a quarter of an inch and I thought … wow!’. Andy describes this intense ‘eye training’, and the experience that fourteen years has now brought him. ‘Now I can see. I can look at something and test myself. I predict the measurement then measure with callipers and I generally find I’m right. As well as the skills with tools, a lot in successful restoration is in your ability to see. You have to step back and look at the whole instrument’.
The first two years of the Newark course consisted of making two Stradivari model violins in the white (no fittings or varnish); a Guarneri model viola, fittings (e.g. ebony work, varnish) and basic repairs: peg hole bushing , crack repair, edge and corner replacement, sound post patches and retouching. The course also covered violin set up (bridges and sound post). Andy recalls his first sound post ‘It took me three days to get a sound post that I was just about happy with and I remember showing it to Peter Smith (now Head of School). He looked me and at the pile of wasted sound posts at my bench and said, ‘OK you’ve suffered enough now, that will do!’.
The third year was spent frantically trying to finish off the work from first and second year, academic assignments and making a cello. Finally, the students were faced with making a ‘pre-test’ violin and a test violin. Andy describes the test, ‘we had five weeks to make a violin in strict eight hour working days. It was set up but not varnished and judged by a panel of respected luthiers’.
Andy passed the course with a merit and moved into full time repair work, supporting various violin shops with repairs that they could not accommodate from his workshop at home in Staffordshire, and back in Wales with his family. Still building up his experience and contacts after studying he also helped a bit with the family business to make ends meet. Coming back into the joinery with his new skills gave an opportunity for a new source of banter, …‘it’s not a violin Andrew, it’s only a window’.
Andy’s break into full time restoration came when a friend of his let him know there was an opportunity for a restorer at a violin shop in Hitchin, Herts. He got the job and stayed for six and a half years; the last four of which was managing the workshop. Here his skills grew quickly as he worked on repairing an interesting range of instruments. Andy remembers a particular highlight, ‘There was a regular customer with a Ruggeri violin on which I did various bits of maintenance work. It was a big honour for me to look after something like that’.
Through the grapevine Andy heard that Bridgewood and Neitzert were looking for a restorer. He’d been looking for a step up in career and had met owner Gary Bridgewood whom he describes as ‘a really nice guy, very knowledgeable and also down to earth’. The shop had one of Andy’s violins for sale and Gary had given Andy advice over email in the past. Andy came in with a portfolio of repairs and a week’s trial was arranged. Up against ten other candidates from across the world, and in the knowledge that a position in such a prestigious workshop was a rare opportunity, Andy describes his trial week as ‘daunting’. Not only that, but he had to wait until four other candidates had completed their week-long trials before he heard whether he had been successful. Six nail biting weeks later, Andy heard the good news and joined the Bridgewood and Neitzert team.
Andy describes his life at Bridgewood and Neitzert, ‘I feel that my knowledge of lutherie has just come on leaps and bounds’. ‘Working with Gary, being exposed to such a range of high-end instruments and top-level performers has really raised my skills’. The opportunity to undertake complete restorations has also been important as the detailed work on sound adjustments. Andy recalls a moment soon after he joined the shop. ‘I looked down on my bench and there was a Ruggeri violin and a Thomas Kennedy cello with an unusual figured back. I remember thinking of the history, let alone the sheer financial value of these instruments in my care.’
Asking Andy about his future aspirations he says, ‘I’d like to make another violin at some point. Having learnt so much from repairing and seeing old instruments and having confidence and skill with the tools I have now, it would be amazing to see what I could make’. And for job satisfaction? ‘The biggest pleasure for me is having an instrument come into the shop that is in serious need of repair and putting in the hours get it back into playing condition. Seeing a player, over the moon with the transformation of their instrument ….. that’s really satisfying’.