About 25 years ago, at the age of 11, when I was a pupil at Kilquhanity House School, I embarked on the challenge of making my first instrument. This was a crude mandolin which took me 2 years to complete during my one or two woodwork classes a week. I am grateful to my teacher Richard Jones (now a professional maker of renaissance viols), who persuaded me to lower my ambition of making a guitar for my first instrument, or I might not have finished it yet! With Richard I developed a great respect for the materials I was working with. We used local wood (sometimes as local as trees that had been felled a few yards from the workshop) that was properly cut and seasoned before being skilfully worked into beautiful and useful items.

When I left school I still had ambitions of being a guitar maker and so enrolled on the instrument making course at Anniesland college in Glasgow. It was here that I first worked on violins, learning how to fit pegs etc. and was immediately taken by them. The work involved in carving scrolls and shaping arching held a great appeal for me and so from then on I focused all my energies on violin family instruments.

After Anniesland I studied for 2 years at the London Metropolitan University with the violin and gamba maker Shem Mackey. Here I continued to develop my skills as a violin maker. In particular I focused on understanding the arching and thicknessing of the violin plates. I also made my first foray into the cooking of my own varnishes as well as studying the cellular structure of different woods and learning a bit about acoustics.

I then attended the final 2 years of the violin making and restoration course at the world renowned Newark School of Violin Making. This was an exciting time. With between 80 and 100 violin makers in the building, from all over the world, there was a lot of different approaches, techniques, and ideas to absorb. I was able to learn about the ethics of restoration and all the intricate techniques for repairing these instruments from some of the best restorers in the country. It was also at this time that I really started to study the great instruments of the Italian masters. With fellow students I religiously visited the auction houses every season to see the different masterpieces that were up for sale and also paid visits to the RAM collection where we were able to handle their finest exhibits. My work greatly improved! It was also at Newark that I met my wife to be, fellow violin maker Marion Bennardo. We both have a very different approach to our work, but we continue to influence each other and we keep each other on our toes in regards to the quality of our making.

Over the course of my studies and for sometime afterwards, I also made an effort to learn to play the instruments that I make by taking violin lessons when the time was available. My limitations in this field are only too obvious but even with my limited experience of playing I feel it has given me a great deal of insight in to what players are looking for.

After Newark I set up my own workshop focusing mainly on making violins and violas but also collaborating with my wife in making cellos. Although my training officially ended in 2006, really that was just the start of the journey. I am continually working with musicians to develop the tone and playability of my instruments,  travelling, sometimes hundreds of miles, to study the master works of Stradivari, the Guarneri’s etc., as well as those of my contemporaries, and putting time aside to study in depth all aspects of my craft.

Douglas MacArthur
Commissioning an instrument