Brainerd man has been making stringed instruments for more than 50 years
Any violin student of Arnie Anderson’s, or anyone who has ever purchased a musical instrument which he made, is unlikely to believe that Arnie never even touched a violin until the age of 21. For more than 50 years, he has been making violins and other fine stringed instruments. And it all began when a war in Israel changed his travel plans.
“I had been traveling in Europe on a bike and had gone through Luxembourg, France, Austria and Italy to Venice. I already had a ticket to Israel, where I was going to live on a kibbutz. Then the 1967 Six-Day War started and the boat was cancelled,” he remembered. “So instead I went to Cremona.”
One Sunday afternoon, Arnie met another young person who was going to violin-making school. He already had an interest in woodworking, and since he couldn’t go to Israel, he stayed. For four and a half years.
The little town of Cremona was known for its distinguished violin-making families. Arnie knew it as the place where Antonio Stradivari, a renowned instrument crafter, had lived and worked from 1644 to 1737. It is estimated that Stradivari produced 1,116 instruments. Around 650 instruments have survived, some worth many millions of dollars.
“It was a magical time, like a fairy tale,” Arnie said of his time in Cremona. “They let me start in the second year because I already had a college degree. After classes, I went back to my apartment where I had a workbench. Violins were our life and it was free!”
The school was government-sponsored, so Arnie received two free meal tickets per day for a downtown café. His first apartment there cost $11 per month; his last place there cost $30 per month.
During his time in Italy, Arnie and a friend collected woods to use in their violins. They went to Yugoslavia to find maple, because that’s where Stradivari got his. They went to the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy to get spruce from the same valley Stradivari used. They shipped four and a half tons of wood home before they returned.
“I’m still using it; I have enough for my lifetime and my kids’ lifetimes,” he said. “Our instruments should sound just as good as his!”
Maple is used for the back and sides of a violin, while spruce is used for the belly (top).
“Curly tigerback is found in maybe one of every 300 maple trees. We look for that just for the beauty of it,” he said.
He sold his first two violins in Italy to a man from the New York Philharmonic for $200 each.
“I thought I was wealthy,” he said.
Prior to his time in Europe, Arnie had planned to become a shop teacher and wrestling coach while attending Brainerd Junior College. He was a self-taught musician, playing the accordion by ear. A music teacher encouraged him to go into music and he earned a degree in orchestra and violin in St. Cloud. He was a teacher in Mankato for two years.
His travels began then, and included time in Banff, Alberta; Canada, for a summer music school. The next summer he went to England, where he bought a bicycle, and toured England, Norway, and into Sweden and then back to London, before teaching for another year in Mankato. It was the following summer that he went to Cremona.
For three years after returning from Cremona, Arnie had a violin-making shop in downtown Minneapolis, not far from Orchestra Hall. He had many referrals and violas were the number one seller. It was there he met his wife, Louise.
“I decided I could make violins anywhere, so we moved up here, cleared the woods and built the house. This property is connected to my family’s original homestead,” Arnie said.
This property that is steeped in tradition is located in rural Brainerd. Arnie’s grandpa was from Sweden and was living in the southwestern corner of Minnesota. When his grandmother contracted tuberculosis, the doctor sent the family to the north woods, where they homesteaded the land near where Arnie now lives.
Arnie’s handmade wood-heated log house is situated at the end of a winding secluded lane. Arnie built the house nearly 40 years ago. He cut all the logs and also acquired a few from a neighbor. His dad helped to peel logs. A carpenter was hired to help with the roof. Arnie made every window in the house, piece by piece. He also painted a decorative window high in the wall of the living room.
Arnie and Louise raised their children in the house. One daughter plays the violin one plays the cello and makes violins and a son plays the violin and makes violins.
He started teaching after a call from a doctor in Crosby about lessons for his daughter. Within four years, he had 70 students. He was giving half-hour lessons all day long, every day.
“I really enjoy teaching, but I had no time to make violins,” he said. “Now I’m down to two days, with 30 students. It’s really exciting when they start to improve and can play tunes.”
Probably the best student he has ever had is a young violin player, James Thompson.
“He’s phenomenal. He got to playing more than I could teach him,” said Arnie.
Like Stradivari, Arnie has spent his life as a crafter of string instruments. He can make a violin in a month, without varnish. The varnish process takes another month. He has made 15-20 instruments in a year. He has made a total of 370 violins, about 50 cellos, 50 violas, a few mandolins, several guitars and one bass.
“New violins take some playing time to mellow out. The process is ongoing though the life of the violin,” said Arnie.
He likes to try different instruments, different variations, and sometimes different woods. He made a “mongrel” instrument that has five strings and can play violin or viola music. It has three understrings that vibrate sympathetically.
A violin he made in 2004 was decorated with rosemaling by a lady in Minneapolis.
Nowadays, his time is given more to teaching others how make the instruments. He has nine students in their late teens and early 20s learning the craft. They pull up a stool in the workshop, with work tables along three sides. Wherever there aren’t windows, the walls are hung with rows of tools. Each student has his or her own drawer to store the pieces of their project.
Arnie is active in the Nisswastämman, an annual Scandinavian folk music festival. Every year, groups are brought in from Europe for workshops and concerts.
He is sometimes consulted about instruments. One California man came unannounced one day with a violin that he thought was a Stradivarius. He had read an old newspaper article about Arnie.
“I had to tell him it was a German factory-made violin,” he said.
Arnie’s life of woodworking, fine instrument crafting and teaching the art of playing one of the instruments has been a rich one.
“It’s a great life but there is not a lot of money in it unless you get famous,” Arnie said with a grin.
Now that he is not teaching as many students, there is more time to make instruments.
“I’m not going to retire and do nothing,” he said firmly. “I’m going to continue making them until I can’t.”