Harold Evans and Larry Bowers are luthiers, part of a tiny group that may number fewer than a thousand in this country who make violins one peg, one rib and one coat of varnish at a time.

As Bowers decribes the craft, "It has all the fun of cabinetmaking, plus that extra edge. You're doing blue-collar work and making intellectual decisions about music at the same time."

Bowers works out of a renovated house and grocery in Winchester, while Evans makes his instruments in his Arlington home.

Both say they came to their craft almost by accident.

For nearly a decade, Evans had been a violinist with the U.S. Army Band. He decided to make his own violin after he found his $18,000 18th century Italian instrument was not good enough. "I couldn't afford to go to a better one -- that could run you $40,000 to $50,000. So I had this wild idea about making my own instrument."

He spent $1,000 for a set of German-made tools and took more than a year making tools and forms needed to construct a violin.

Three years later, he had his first production, a violin he dubbed Opus I. Then he got worried.

"I had no idea what it would sound like," he says. "I was sweating and shaking when I first strung it up. Imagine, after all that, if it didn't work!"

Opus I did work, and in the last three years, encouraged by that first success, Evans has made a half dozen instruments, including violas and a cello. But he is most comfortable with the violin.

"I have a good sense of how they feel and sound," he says.

Sense, rather than science, decribes both Evans' and Bowers' approach to their craft.

"Nobody really knows exactly what makes a truly excellent violin," says Evans, "and I think that's wonderful. We need the enigmatic of the world."

"You really have to feel your way with these instruments," adds Bowers. "Every piece of wood is different, and responds differently."

Bowers began his career as a luthier in 1973, when he became an apprentice at the Colonial Williamsburg musical instrument shop. After seven years, he struck out on his own.

He was drawn to the violin as the "most elegant, the most refined, the most sophisticated, whose ideals and standards of building are the very highest."

Although he was pleased with his first effort, he says he worked for five years before turning out an "excellent violin."

Bowers specializes in baroque violins. Compared with the modern violin, the baroque instrument has a number of variations including a more pronounced arch in the back and front pieces, shorter fingerboards and gut strings.

The sound, according to Bowers, also is "beautiful, fluty."

The modern violin was introduced when the great violin maker, Antonio Stradivari lowered the arches, Bowers said, giving the instrument the powerful sound it needs in modern orchestras "to speak against 100 other instruments."

But Bowers says he sees a resurgence of baroque music, and musicians who want to reproduce the original sound. "Baroque music sounds completely different when played on baroque instruments, and more and more musicians are becoming interested in reproducing [it]," he says. "This is definitely an expansionist market, especially in the Washington area."

In his workshop, Bowers turns out roughly a dozen instruments a year from a pile of air-dried wood imported from Europe. Evans has a small collection of 80-year-old wood that he bought from a retired luthier.

The bulk of the violin is carved from strong maple, and gouged and planed to thicknesses closely guarded by luthiers. The front of the instrument is made of spruce, which is soft enough to enhance the vibrations of the strings, but strong enough to take the 40 to 60 pounds of pressure exerted by those strings.

Once the back, ribs, front, neck and head are glued into place and properly reinforced, the luthiers start the tedious process of varnishing the instrument -- with five to 15 coats of their own compounds.

"Some people say that the reason Stradivari made such beautiful instruments was because the varnishes were so wonderful in those days," says Bowers, "but I think that's a lot of hooey. A good varnish will give your instrument that extra edge, but that's all it does."

Evans agrees, saying he has played his instruments "in the white" (without varnish) and not noticed much difference. "It does protect the instrument, and help keep it supple, though" he says.

It is the little things like the make of the varnish, the age of the wood and the contours of the back and front that make the difference between a mediocre instrument and a fine one, Bowers says.

And it is making those subtle differences that gives luthiers a satisfying profession, both agree.

As Bowers puts it, "In the 1950s, everything was laid out for you. You had four years of college, got married, got a job and a big house and had kids. That doesn't work anymore -- there are a lot of unemployed college graduates out there, and lots of people are scaling down their expectations."

For Bowers and Evans, the scales are musical. CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 3, Larry Bowers says varnish gives a violin "that extra edge." Harold Evans became a violin maker after deciding his $18,000, 18th-century instrument was inadequate but he couldn't afford a better one. He also has crafted cellos, a process he calls "more like cabinetmaking." Photos by CHARLES K. CROCKETT for The Washington Post