A musical instrument has often proved to be transformational for those who buy one or receive one as a gift. The instrument gives you a chance to learn a new skill, play classical favorites, and create stirring new melodies.
The southeastern Connecticut region has proved to be a surprisingly robust area for musical instrument production. Some craftsmen work in home-based workshops, while others are part of companies employing several people. Many of the companies have been producing instruments for decades.
We spoke with four professionals to learn more about the musical instruments built in this area and the people behind them.
Tom Clark sees his violin making as virtually inseparable from his volunteer work offering music and musical education to the community. In addition to creating the string instruments, he is president of the New London Community Orchestra and offers free violin lessons at the city’s library twice a week.
Clark began building violins as a hobby about 20 years ago, when he was working in publishing. He now does the work out of a converted sun porch in his New London home, where he also repairs and restores instruments that have been donated to the orchestra.
“I’m so lucky to be able to do all the things that I do,” says Clark. “I can be the guy who puts the first violin or cello into the hands of a child.”
Clark describes violin making as a wood-carving project. The wood for the instruments arrives in blocks, which he seasons in a wood loft in his garage.
Once the wood is ready, it is carefully carved into plates for the front and back of the violin as well as the ribs for the side. The neck is also shaped by carving. The final assembly brings the pieces together, along with the final touches such as the strings and varnish.
“It doesn’t really take a lot of space,” says Clark. “It’s zero machinery. All it really is is a couple of drawers of hand tools.”
What little electricity is used in the workshop is offset by the power produced from solar panels Clark recently had installed on his home. He suggests that it is “indisputably true, but impossible to prove” that handcrafted instruments sound better than machine built ones.
To that end, Clark seeks to replicate the classic practices of instrument building as closely as possible. He makes his own varnish, as well as the glue used to hold the violin together. His designs are often based on the famed creations of Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri, and many of his tools are also modeled on the ones these luthiers used. One such tool, built from scrap wood, makes small punch holes in the violin case that can be carved out to achieve the desired thickness of the wood.
“It’s all about some key dimensions, like the thickness of the plates” says Clark. “The differences are very minute. It comes down to tenths of millimeters.”
Clark’s work, which includes repair services, put him in touch with several musicians in the community. When he realized that many amateur players were interested in having a place to practice, the New London Community Orchestra was formed in 2011.
The orchestra employs two professional teachers to conduct the free violin lessons. Clark says his work in restoring donated instruments has helped to keep costs down, along with donations and the proceeds from community concerts.
“We’ve been lucky, because the community has been amazingly supportive of our efforts from day one,” says Clark.
Although he says the market for new instruments has declined significantly, Jake Kaeser is always happy to get new orders. He recently completed a piano for Wesleyan University, modeled after one Mozart would have played.
“Every once in awhile I get a gem of a job like that, where I get to do it all,” he says.
Kaeser formerly worked at Zuckermann Harpsichords International, starting in 1978. He started Kaeser Instruments in 1992, producing new instruments and replacement parts in a New London workshop.
The handcrafted parts—including keyboards, piano parts, and cases—are designed to either upgrade existing instruments or provide supplies for new ones. Harpsichord jacks, which are used for plucking the strings of this instrument, are one of Kaeser’s specialties. He often replaces plastic jacks with ones identical to those used in the 18th century, with a tapered wood body, holly tongue, and a spring of boar bristle.
“These will work for 100 years before you need to swap it out,” says Kaeser.
Kaeser builds a completely new instrument when he gets a custom request. He has several of his own designs and variations, and is always especially careful when choosing materials. The process usually takes three months to complete from design to build, with more time required if the instrument is more ornate.
In addition to his work with harpsichords and pianos, Kaeser occasionally builds guitars. He was the bass player for the band The Weird Beards, and currently plays with another group called The Jampson Jubilee.
Kaesar says he is hoping to find someone to pass the knowledge of his craft to. He says the skills involved in harpsichord building had to be rediscovered due to a gap in knowledge a couple of centuries ago.
“There was no one around who had built these instruments in the late 18th century. They were all gone, so the expertise was lost,” he says. “We don’t want to see that happen again.”
For more information on Kaeser Instruments, visit harpsichordjacks.net.
Upton Bass String Instrument Company
Gary Upton, a skilled bassist, knew his instrument wasn’t producing the sound it was capable of. It was difficult to find a good luthier in the region, so he decided to take on the challenge of upgrading the bass himself.
“Because Gary is Gary, and he’s a ‘roll up your sleeves’ kind of guy and has one of the best reverse-engineering brains out there, he bought some tools, read some books, and got his hands dirty,” says Eric Roy, president of the Upton Bass String Instrument Company. “He got his bass to where he wanted it, and some other bass-playing friends took notice. They asked him to set up their basses too, and it spread from there.”
Founded in 1999, Upton Bass now employs six full-time employees in a workshop built on a historic mill site in Mystic. The company produces basses and cellos, repairs any instruments in the violin family, and sells used and vintage basses as well as a variety of accessories.
The process of building a bass begins with the ribs, or sides. Once these are shaped, the top, back, and neck can all be set. The bass is then varnished and set up to make a complete instrument.
It takes up to two months to complete a bass, and Upton Bass typically produces 100 or more of the instruments each year. Their prices have ranged from $2,000 to $32,500, with most selling for $5,000 to $6,000.
Each bass is pre-ordered and built to a customer’s needs. Some prominent musicians who have purchased from Upton Bass include Gary Karr, John Patitucci, Eric Revis, and Travis Book. The company began producing cellos last year, and these instruments have been purchased by musicians such as Blaise Desjardin of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and John Ehlrich.
“People buy from us, at a greater expense than cheaper imports, not just because were one of the only ‘Made in the USA” shops of our kind but because they trust us to do it right, to do it better than everyone else, and to do it with quality materials that they can feel good about,” says Roy. “Our customers are voting with their dollars too when they commission an instrument from us.”
Upton Bass instruments take their inspiration from a number of “schools of design,” including the iconic regions of Mittenwald, Germany, as well as Northern Italy and early American workshops. The company’s first cellos were based on a 1736 Domenico Montganana model. Upton Bass has also started producing travel basses, which include removable or adjustable necks to allow the instruments to be transported more easily.
The company’s workshop is an enormous post-and-beam red barn, raised in August 2012. The shop is built on the footprint of a mill dating back to 1818, and designed to match the foundation to present a historic, handcrafted appearance.
Upton Bass has also committed itself to a number of environmental initiatives. These include the use of sustainable wood and recyclable packing, while scrap wood is used to heat the workshop. All of the workshop’s energy is provided by the state’s Clean Energy Options program, and the company hopes to add solar panels to its roof in the future.
For more information on Upton Bass, visit uptonbass.com.
Zuckermann Harpsichord International
Company legend holds that one of the most enduring products offered by Zuckermann Harpsichord International came about because of a backlog of orders. Wolfgang Zuckermann was getting more requests for harpsichords than he could keep up with, so he began suggesting that he could simply send a customer the parts so they could build the instrument themselves.
Zuckermann founded the company in 1958, and began offering harpsichord kits the next year. ZHI still offers these kits, which include precision-cut parts and manuals as well as patterns to decorate the instrument. It also continues to build complete harpsichords in a workshop near Stonington Borough, employing 10 workers.
In the main area of the workshop, woodworkers cut, steam, and shape the wood for the harpsichord cases. Designs are drawn up in the drafting room, and each of these drawings remains on file. Several gauges of wire and other supplies are stored at the end of the workshop, ready to be shipped out to customers for restoration purposes. In a studio space, artists use paint or gold leaf to create beautiful decorations on harpsichord cases.
ZHI became particularly prominent in the music world when David J. Way took ownership of the company in 1970. He moved the company from New York to Stonington and shifted the focus to recreating the historic look and sound of antique instruments from the 16th to 18th centuries. In addition to harpsichords, ZHI creates instruments such as clavichords and spinets.
Aymeric Dupré la Tour, a harpsichord player and musical curator at ZHI, says harpsichords are unique in that they serve several functions. The final product can be seen as not only a musical instrument, but also a piece of artwork and furniture.
“In a way, we’re a cross between an instrument maker, furniture maker, and restorer,” says Dupré la Tour.
Instruments built by ZHI have been purchased by a number of prominent musicians and institutions, including The Juilliard School, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Philadelphia Philharmonic, and Shen Yun. In 2016, Billy Joel asked the company to build him a clavichord.
Although ZHI builds a core group of instruments to comprise its kits, its production is largely project-based. Some are custom-built for a buyer, while others are built on spec.
“The demands of our customers don’t necessarily yield a set number each year,” says Richard Auber, who took ownership of ZHI after Way’s death in 1994. “It really depends on what we’re being asked to do.”
Auber says ZHI also looks to create solutions to issues often encountered by harpsichord players. The music stand for a harpsichord is usually carried separately, but some ZHI instruments allow it to fold down into the case. The harpsichord built for Shen Yun used spruce wood with a cherry veneer, allowing it to match the look of other instruments in the orchestra without being too heavy.
ZHI has been a regular participant in the Stonington Sounds Musical Festival, which began in 2015. The night after the Stonington Christmas Stroll, visitors packed the ZHI showroom to hear a musical soiree featuring live harpsichord performances by staff and guests.
In addition, the company connects to the community through its internship program, which is offered in the summer and winter. Participants often have an interest in music or building musical instruments, but Auber says the program will consider all students.
“I would love to have interns from outside those areas,” he says. “I would love someone who would be interested in some of the high-tech things we could do.”
For more information on Zuckermann Harpsichords International, visit zhi.net.
MORE MUSIC MAKERS
The companies featured in this article are only some of the musical instrument specialists in the region. Here are some other instrument builders who work in the area:
Bennett Early Keyboards
John and Bonnie Bennett run this Westerly business, which focuses on the building and maintenance of keyboard instruments such as organs, clavichords, and harpsichords. The instruments have been built for universities and churches as well as individuals. The Bennetts also offer tuning and concert preparation services. bennettearlykeyboards.com
Sean Lombardozzi, the son of a professional musician, creates handmade guitars in his Westbrook workshop. In addition to his own models, he can customize instruments at a customer’s request. Lomdardozzi also offers repair services. 179 Horse Shoe Drive, Westbrook. lombardozziguitars.com
S.L. Huntington & Co.
Since 1988, Scot L. Huntington has been working to build pipe organs inspired by historic designs or restore organs from the 18th and 19th centuries. S.L. Huntington & Co. is based in the Velvet Mill in Stonington and has worked to restore or build organs for churches and other organizations throughout New England. 22 Bayview Ave., Stonington. slhorgans.com
Smith Creek Mandolin
David Smith builds mandolins, archtop guitars, and bass guitars. He also offers a wood carving service for independent instrument builders. 46 Summer Street, Westerly. smithcreekmandolin.com
Kim Walker has been building handmade stringed instruments full-time since 1973, and currently works out of a North Stonington workshop. His guitars are inspired by pre-World War II models, and he tap tunes each finished instrument to ensure the best sound quality. walkerguitars.com
Editor's note: This feature appears in the fall issue of Aspire magazine. To read the complete issue online, click here.