RI Artscape: In One South Kingstown Shop, Violin Repair Is A Family Affair

Jul 27, 2017

Luthiers are woodworkers specially trained to build and repair stringed instruments like violins, violas, cellos and basses. Just off the town green in Peace Dale, across the street from the public library, you’ll find Beekman Violin.

Inside, you’re greeted by cellos, violas, and violins. They hang from the ceiling and lean against the walls in neat rows. In the workshop beyond, there are instruments in various states of repair. The curved wooden bodies gleam with shades of ambers and browns from different colors of varnish.

Owner and luthier Steve Beekman is tackling a pile of broken bows. Bow repair is practically a daily task for Beekman. 

“Routine, but never simple or easy, every bow is different,” said Beekman.

Bows are all different in weight, length, and shape. A good bow can remain in use for decades. If played regularly, a bow sustains a fair amount of damage said Beekman.

“A bow could be 100 or 150 or 200 years old,” said Beekman. “And they need to be restored every once in a while because just holding a bow can actually deteriorate the wood.”

All bows are made up of two basic parts, a wooden stick and horse tail hair. To fix a bow, Beekman will remove all of the hair and replace it. While a woman and her son check out violins in the shop, Beekman threads a long lock of horse hair through the tip of a violin bow.

Steve Beekman repairing a bow in his workshop.
Credit Courtesy Beekman Violin

Beekman picks up a knife, and using scalpel-like precision, he cuts a small piece of wood. That wooden piece will go at one end of the bow, to pull the horse hair taught. Next, Beekman picks up a small silver comb and draws it through the horse hair. Combing the hair will distribute the strands evenly.

Beekman got his start repairing instruments in the early 1980s, repairing his own violin. Eventually other musicians started bringing him instruments to fix or restore. For decades it was a side job, while he worked full time as a welder at Electric Boat. These days, he’s working less with blow torches, and more with knives and chisels. 

Though it’s incredibly specialized work, you don’t need very specialized tools, said Steve’s daughter, Hannah Beekman. She’s learning instrument repair herself.

Unlike other carpentry workshops, filled with the din of saws and hammers, this is quieter work. Being a luthier involves a lot of precision handwork using things like knives and chisels, and very few modern power tools.

“It’s such an old craft,” said Beekman. “You don’t need electricity; expect to turn the lights on. You can do everything you need, make this beautiful instrument, or work on this beautiful instrument, and all you need are your hands and some very basic tools.”

But she’s quick to point out that though the tools are simple, the work is not.

“It takes an hour, for someone who is extensively trained to cut the feet on a bridge to fit the top of an instrument, which is kind of mind-blowing,” said Beekman.

Mind-blowing because the bridge looks like a simple piece of wood, used to suspend the strings above an instrument. When a musician pushes down on the string, then draws the bow across, a violin produces the notes. But this tiny piece of wood in painstakingly crafted to each individual instrument’s exact dimensions.

Credit Courtesy Beekman Violin

Another fact about stringed instruments: while woodwind and brass instruments are held together with screws and hardware, virtually all the pieces of a violin or cello are held in place by tension and pressure displaced across the body of the instrument.

Hannah’s presence makes three Beekmans in the store. Her mother, Gerianne, runs the business side of things. Steve Beekman said the family-run shop attracts musicians who like personal interaction with someone who really understands the unique qualities of each instrument.

“We’re not part of a big conglomerate, we’re a family owned small business, struggling like many other small businesses to keep it together and keep it going,” said Beekman.

On this day, Hannah is helping a very young customer – a three-year old named Emmett – pick out his very first violin. Beekman places a tiny violin under Emmett’s chin, and has him stretch his arms as far as he can to see if the instrument is the right size for him.

Being one of the only stringed instrument shops in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, Beekman Violin has come to be a launch pad for young musicians in the area.

“I really like what we have here, because we’re sort of this little node in this large network of music and musicians,” said Beekman. “From this place you can see all the things that are going on musically in our community. Which is wonderful.” 

Violins hanging up at Beekman Violin
Credit Courtesy Beekman Violin

To finish up the bow re-hair, Steve Beekman glues the wooden plug into one end of the bow, to hold everything in place. Beekman said he gets the same satisfaction he got as welder, working with his hands.

“Not only are you a wood worker, but when you’re finished with whatever it is, in this case a musical instrument. Then you hand it to somebody and they can make beautiful music, with this instrument that you either created or brought back to life.”