Sitting amid the curling blond shavings on his basement work table, R.W. McCluskie picks up his work in progress and considers its source. “It’s quarter-sawn spruce, which means the grain runs up and down,” he says. “You always use quarter-sawn spruce. It’s the magic wood for tone production.” Using the same kind of materials and methods from centuries ago, McCluskie, a luthier who works out of his home in Potomac, Md., turns out one violin or viola a month. Just last month, he made his 400th. Now he’s working on his 401st.
The soft-spoken McCluskie, who has made violins and violas in Montgomery County for 30 years, says he imagines that 400 is a large number of instruments to have made. He hasn’t met anyone who has equaled that, but, he says, “I don’t get out all that much.”
There are violin-maker associations and conventions, but McCluskie isn’t much of a networker. “I’m happiest when I’m here working,” he says. He also chose not to have his own retail shop or to repair violins, so he has been free to make so many new instruments.
Not that the McCluskie violins look new.
Indeed, his designs are modeled after those of 18th-century masters Antonio Stradivari and Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri, and stained to evoke a decidedly antique appearance.
“I go for about a 100-year-old look,” McCluskie says — not to fool anybody, but to fulfill consumer demand.
“There’s been such a prejudice against new instruments for so long,” he says. “I blame the violin dealers. They push this idea that the only good violin is an old violin, and it’s not necessarily true.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that the old instruments are a lot more temperamental. They’ve been repaired and are much more sensitive to temperature and humidity. And they’re also built for smaller-style halls. They all had to be reworked with modern strings to work in modern concert halls, so there are some issues with them.”
McCluskie largely avoids competition with the past by concentrating on violas instead of violins; he figures he has made about 300.
Not much music was written for viola, McCluskie says, until Joseph Haydn began writing string quartets in the mid-18th century.
“It was a much less common instrument,” he says. “The modern violist doesn’t have as much choice. They almost have to look for a new instrument.”
And with violins, he adds, “you’re not only competing with other contemporary makers, you’re competing with all the old instruments that are out there and still playable. And they’ll last 200 years or more if they are well cared for.”
The very old instruments, too, have high price tags. A 1741 Guarneri, for example, was on the market five years ago with a starting bid of $18 million.
“At those prices, obviously musicians can’t afford it, so they’re being bought by collectors as investments,” McCluskie says.
His violins, by contrast, sell for about $8,000; his violas, about $9,000.
“That’s sort of the low end of what contemporary makers are charging,” says McCluskie, who puts at least $500 in materials into each instrument. “A lot of them are charging in the $10,000-to-$20,000 range nowadays. I’d just as soon keep the price affordable for students and make more instruments. That’s fine with me.”
McCluskie’s instruments are sold directly through select shops, but not to beginning students. Instead, they go to what he calls good students — “people going away to conservatory, music schools, or amateurs who are serious players who want a good instrument.”
Others customers are established classical musicians such as Lynne Levine, a violist with the National Symphony Orchestra who was hesitant to play her 19th-century Italian-made Cavani viola in outdoor programs in the summer and wanted something durable. She turned to McCluskie.
His instruments also have earned accolades from folk musicians.
Award-winning Virginia fiddler Rickie Simpkins, who often tours with Emmylou Harris, says his McCluskie violin has “great power, instant response, is well balanced and magnificent from the artistic point of view.”
Says fiddle musicologist Walt Koken: “The true test of an instrument is in how it plays and sounds, how comfortable it is to bow, how it responds, and its dynamics. In these respects, his instruments are top of the line. In my 40-plus years of fiddling, I have rarely come across such quality.”
McCluskie’s first exposure to the violin was when he was 7 and growing up in northern New Jersey. His parents put him in Suzuki classes.
“I enjoyed it,” he says, “but not enough to be a serious student. So I played and quit for a while in high school, but then I got interested in folk music and fiddling, and I still do that.”
(In fact, McCluskie and his wife, Carolee Rand, who is a systems engineer by day, are in a string band called the Little Dust Ups, which plays at local dances.)
But it was instrument-making that caught McCluskie’s fancy, in part because of his associate’s degree in forestry.
“I did a little bit of carpentry, so I had a basic knowledge of tools,” he says. “Music and wood.”
On a trip to Tanglewood, his parents heard about Boston’s North Bennet Street School, which trains students in traditional trades and fine craftsmanship, and brought it to his attention. He signed up for the inaugural violin-making class with Raymond Melanson and stayed at the school for two years.
McCluskie came to the Washington area in the mid-1980s to work at the Violin House of Weaver in Bethesda, Md., where he made instruments for 17 years. After four years at the neighboring Potter Violin Co., he decided to go out on his own.
Although he uses many of the same methods from hundreds of years ago, McCluskie often begins his process by roughing out designs with power tools.
“The old makers, they didn’t have band saws and drill presses,” he says. “But I think anything that gets you to rough stuff out quickly is fair game. It saves time.
“There are a few people who don’t believe in power tools, but their instruments are a lot more expensive. They’re not going to make as many instruments.” Besides, he adds, “your hands are only good for so long.
“My hands are still pretty good,” he says.
And at 59, McCluskie has no problem setting a new goal for instrument making: “Why not 500?”
Catlin is a freelance writer.