String theories: Three luthiers on how they learned their crafts

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  • Fiddleback maple from the Carpathian mountains is used for the back of violins made by Marten Cornelissen, of Northampton. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Violins made by Marten Cornelissen rest on a table at his home. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Violins made by Marten Cornelissen hang on a rack at his home in Northampton, Dec. 13, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Marten Cornelissen, of Northampton, planes the back of a violin at his workshop in Northampton, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Violin-making tools and parts rest on a workbench at the home workshop of Marten Cornelissen in Northampton, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Marten Cornelissen, of Northampton, holds a piece of fiddleback maple in a room at his home where he stores wood used for making his violins, Dec. 13, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Marten Cornelissen, of Northampton, planes the back of a violin at his workshop in Northampton, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Marten Cornelissen, of Northampton, planes the back of a violin at his workshop in Northampton, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Marten Cornelissen, of Northampton, planes the back of a violin at his workshop in Northampton.

  • Marten Cornelissen, of Northampton, pauses while planing the back of a violin at his workshop in Northampton, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Marten Cornelissen, of Northampton, planes the back of a violin at his workshop in Northampton, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Violin maker Marten Cornelissen at his workshop in Northampton, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A go-bar clamping system holds glued ukulele parts together at Snowshoe Ukulele in Chicopee, Friday, Dec.14, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Violin-making tools rest on a workbench at the home workshop of Marten Cornelissen in Northampton, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Above, Stephen Beauregard, owner of Snowshoe Ukulele Company in Chicopee, carves the neck of a ukulele in his workshop. Top left, the Snowshoe Ukulele label and logo are shown through a sound hole. STAFF PHOTOS/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Violin-making tools and parts rest on a workbench at the home workshop of Marten Cornelissen in Northampton, Dec. 13. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The Snowshoe Ukulele Company label and logo are shown through a sound hole at Stephen Beauregard's workshop in Chicopee, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stephen Beauregard, owner of Snowshoe Ukulele Company in Chicopee, fits the neck of a concert ukulele in his workshop, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A mother-of-pearl inlay of a snowflake on the head of a ukulele made by Stephen Beauregard, owner of Snowshoe Ukulele Company in Chicopee. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stephen Beauregard, owner of Snowshoe Ukulele Company in Chicopee, fits the neck of a ukulele in his workshop, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • At left, Beauregard cuts a mother-of-pearl snowflake in his workshop. The snowflake will be inlaid on the head of a ukulele.

  • Stephen Beauregard, owner of Snowshoe Ukulele Company in Chicopee, works on a ukulele in his workshop, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Roasted bird's eye maple is used on the neck of a Healy guitar. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Trevor Healy, who is the owner of Healy Guitars, slots a bone nut on a Healer, one of his electric guitars, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018 at his workshop in Easthampton. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stephen Beauregard, owner of Snowshoe Ukulele Company in Chicopee, works on a ukulele in his workshop, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stephen Beauregard, left, owner of Snowshoe Ukulele Company in Chicopee, fits the neck of a ukulele in his workshop.

  • Trevor Healy works on the final alignment of a neck joint on an orchestra model acoustic mahogany guitar at his workshop in Easthampton, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Trevor Healy strums a 12-string guitar he made in 2011 at his workshop in Easthampton, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Trevor Healy works on the final alignment of a neck joint on an orchestra model acoustic mahogany guitar at his workshop in Easthampton, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Trevor Healy works on the final alignment of a neck joint on an orchestra model acoustic mahogany guitar at his workshop in Easthampton.

  • Trevor Healy uses sandpaper to fine tune the fit of the neck on an acoustic guitar at his workshop in Easthampton, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The head of a left-handed Healer guitar made by Trevor Healy, owner of Healy Guitars in Easthampton. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Trevor Healy, left, owner of Healy Guitars, looks at a guitar that Sander Weston has been sanding at his workshop in Easthampton, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Trevor Healy cuts a pick guard for an electric guitar at his workshop in Easthampton, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A Healer bass guitar, left, a Growler guitar, and a Healer guitar are available for purchase at Healy Guitars in Easthampton. At left, Healy cuts a pick guard for an electric guitar at his workshop. STAFF PHOTOS/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Trevor Healy solders a capacitor on a left-handed Healer electric guitar at his workshop in Easthampton, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/16/2019 3:34:53 PM

As a child, Marten Cornelissen, who grew up in the Netherlands, was captivated by the airplanes that flew over his house during World War II. He went on to build model airplanes, and eventually studied engineering to further this interest. 

But when he purchased a broken violin when he was in his early 20s, he found his true calling: making stringed instruments. Rather than taking it to a luthier, he decided to fix the violin himself.

Cornelissen, who now lives in Northampton, is one of several luthiers in the Valley. He’s best known for his violins, having practiced his craft for approximately 60 years. 

In 1963, Cornelissen entered an international competition for luthiers, which he described as both a motivational and humbling experience.

“I had gotten very inspired and also very clearly realized I was an amateur,” Cornelissen said on a recent evening at his house. 

But Cornelissen attracted the attention of more experienced luthiers who saw potential in his work, and when he returned to the competition in 1966, he took home second-place honors. 

Decades later, Cornelissen has made more than 600 instruments — mostly violins and violas, but also cellos and guitars. 

Now 82 years old and legally blind, Cornelissen’s output has slowed, though he still considers making instruments his calling.

“If I had to start again and someone said, ‘What would you like to be?’ ” he said, “I would like to be a violin maker.”

‘The accidental luthier’

Over a decade ago, Stephen Beauregard got interested in the ukulele, partly due to the instrument’s easy portability — it was easier to fit into the car when he took his children on camping trips.

There was just one problem: He couldn’t seem to find ukuleles anywhere.

“I built one because I couldn’t find one,” said Beauregard, who already had experience building guitars.  

Soon after, Beauregard was “chasing after different sounds” with his creations, and more people wanted to join in. He found his first customers on camping trips, where “it seemed like everyone wanted them.”

“I’m the accidental luthier,” said Beauregard, who runs Snowshoe Ukulele Company in Chicopee. “I wasn’t supposed to be doing it, but I can’t picture doing anything else now. It’s what I want to do.”

While Beauregard struggled to find a ukulele in 2004, the instruments have experienced a renaissance in recent years, making their way into the hands of players of all skill levels. 

A significant factor in the instrument’s popularity is its accessibility, Beauregard said, noting that the ukulele is easier to learn than the guitar due to its having fewer strings and requiring less finger dexterity for chords. 

“If I sat down with you with a couple ukuleles, in a half hour I could have you playing a few songs,” Beauregard said.

The beauty of functionality

While Beauregard’s introduction to his craft came about inadvertently, Trevor Healy of Healy Guitars in Easthampton said that he had considered making a guitar for a long time.

Like Beauregard and Cornelissen, Healy had prior experience working with his hands, having made jewelry in college. But the push to finally make a guitar came about when he saw a friend accomplish the feat.

“They were beautiful and wonderful,” Healy said of the instruments. “Basically seeing  a peer of mine that had built an instrument, that was all I needed. I was ready.”

Healy, who began taking private guitar lessons as an adolescent, said that the one-on-one lessons, which can place greater focus on refining guitar skills, inspired him to “focus on the details of functionality as the highest point” in guitar making, which he considers the cornerstone of his shop, where he works with two other luthiers.

“That’s what I consider to be the primary focus of what I’m doing,” Healy said. “Not just slapping pieces together that will make what you could call a guitar, (but) that it’s a highly functional musical instrument.”

Healy has now been making guitars for about 20 years, but he says that crafting each instrument is unfailingly a unique experience. 

Variations may be functional, but even an aesthetic change such as repainting a guitar can alter a customer’s experience with an instrument.

“There are these moments you can catch where hopefully you respond to that person in a way that allows them to see that you’re capable of making some small change that will make their instrument more functional,” Healy said, “or that I can make an aesthetic decision that’s going to change how they feel about the instrument ... so there’s really never been a time that I’m not excited about the work.”

Working with musicians also served as a significant motivation for Cornelissen and Beauregard, with Beauregard highlighting the “artistic road” that luthiers travel with clients.

“To me, I’ve built so many, it’s just a ukulele, but the artistic creativity people go through to come up with a ukulele that’s unique to them, that’s what drives the process,” Beauregard said.

“When a really good player plays, that’s thrilling,” Cornelissen said. “It’s beautiful, and the idea that you could make an instrument that could possibly sound that way, I’ve never gotten bored by it.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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