Photo by Shane Harms
Van Zandt in his workshop.

A different mark in the wood: Local filmmakers give inside view into a luthier’s passion

Tegra Stone Nuess and Ed Sozinho have opened the door to a place not many people get to see by making "Analog 128, The handcrafting of a violin," -- a seven and a half minute film that follows David T. Van Zandt crafting his 128th violin at his home work shop in in Ballard.

Nuess wrote on her blog,, “In this highly digitized world, we were intrigued by the age old craftsmanship, the process and the art of creating an instrument by hand.”

Van Zandt and Sozinho are neighbors and have been friends many years. Sozinho said that he has admired Van Zandt’s work and thought that it would make a great film by documenting his craft.

Normally Van Zandt can construct a violin in about eight weeks, but with all the shooting and coordinating schedules the project took about 16 weeks to shoot.

Sozinho said that he has been a photographer for the ten years and started making films the last couple years. Sozinho and Nuess shot the film using a Cannon 5Dmark 3 camera and used a practical lighting arrangement -- that is, he used the light that was already used in the room so as not to disturb Van Zandt while he worked.

“Film is just like a still photo and it can say a lot the way the film is shot especially to a craftsmen in his studio. A practical, low light was used and we made it as simple as possible. There was no storyboard or direction from us. …This is David’s world and I tried to stay out of the way and be respectful so David could work. I couldn’t say ‘ stop, can we do that again?” I just had to shoot as he worked,” said Sozinho

Sozinho has much of his projects on his website and the the actual film here. Originally an architect, he plans to make more films that follow the the artistic process found in the buildings and other architectural projects. .

“Watching David and making this particular film inspires me make more films --that’s my craft and that’s what I want to pursue,“ said Sozinho.

The Ballard News Tribune visited Van Zandt in his workshop. The space was bright and clean and there were curled wood shavings on the worktable and floor.

Van Zandt said that he used to make kites when he was younger and that’s how he knew he could work with his hands, though he did not decide to build violins until college. He said he was studying to be a vocalist at the University of Washington.

“It was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to make it as vocalist and at the time it was easier than it is now to find someone to teach you to make violins.”

Van Zandt said that his teacher was trained by the German tradition of violin making.

Van Zandt said that traditionally maple is used for the scroll, neck, sides and back. The top is made from spruce. Van Zandt binds two pieces of long thin spruce for the top, and both the top and the back are tediously carved to make to "rough arch" the shape. Van Zandt said he enjoys the work and that violin makers have to have the ability to work within one tenth of a millimeter.

He explained that the vibrations springing off the back make the sound of the instrument and that the back pumps in and out while the top moves back and force. Spruce is a lighter wood and so if there’s less mass on top there is less energy needed to get it to the move. “The back acts more like a spring so you need it to be strong in all directions – that’s why maple is used,” said Van Zandt.

As the video indicates, carving the back is a longer and more delicate process where a larger piece of wood is carved down to widths measured in millimeters.

Though there are some “easier” phases of the craft.

“I have the most fun carving the neck and the scroll. Carving the scroll for me is like eating desert.”

Carving the scroll
Van Zandt at his work shop carving the scroll. Photo by Shane Harms

Van Zandt derives much of the violin characteristics from the Plowden 1735 violin. “It’s surprisingly consistent. The model is built on the traditional design because it offers the type of sound that follows certain rules and that people have come to expect in classical music.”

Van Zandt builds his own tools and molds for his violins and even makes his own resin used for staining and ceiling the wood. He said that it has a more ruddy orange color to it that her prefers.

“When ever you pick up a tool, you are always going to use it in your own way. You’re going to make a different mark in the wood,” said Van Zandt.

“And so a personal stamp that you might find in my work is how I use the tool and some of the characteristics of that are marks left in the wood. I can spend days making certain marks completely smooth, but sometimes its not needed. It’s like a painter being defined by their brush marks.”

Much of Van Zandt's work can be viewed on his website

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