WELLFLEET — Henrike Hahn likes figuring things out. At the moment, she is figuring out how to repair a small handmade French violin with a broken scroll. The violin, looking rather nude without strings, bridge, chinrest, or pegs, rests on a cradle on Hahn’s worktable. It found its way from Boston to her Wellfleet shop after its owner was told the violin wasn’t valuable enough to make the repair worthwhile.
But Hahn took the job. “It’s a lot of work for a violin like this,” she says, but she finds some jobs worth it for reasons that perhaps not all violinmakers would share. The violin belongs to a young girl, she says, and when Hahn is finished, “it will sound nice.”
She positions the instrument so that the wooden scroll gleams in her lamplight. “I had to figure out how to fix it so that it will hold,” she says. A small iron clamp will hold the parts together until the glue dries.
Hahn, who is known as Henni, grew up in Munich, Germany, is a cellist — though she says she doesn’t play much these days except to test the instruments she restores. When she was young, she had an “old and very pretty” seven-eighths-size Mittenwald cello she loved. Then, when she was 14, she was given a book about how violins are made.
“It talked about the violinmaking school at Mittenwald,” says Hahn. “I read that and thought, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ ”
At 19, she left home to enroll in the Mittenwald School of Violinmaking. The school was small in 1978, says Hahn, with just 45 students, five of whom were women.
After graduation, Hahn spent her journeyman years in Bavaria and Holland, building Baroque instruments, before crossing the ocean to New York City for a job at Moes & Moes, a luthier shop owned by Peter and Wendela Moes, who had also studied at Mittenwald and were known for their devotion to restoration. (The Moes continue building and repairing violins but now have their workshop in Warrenton, Va.)
Hahn took her Moes & Moes experience on a roundabout path to Cape Cod, with stops in Katonah, N.Y. and Chicago. She missed old friends made during her time on the East Coast, and with assurances from Boston shops that they’d send contract work her way, plus help from friends here, she settled in Wellfleet in 2016.
Her house in the woods is small and sunny. An open doorway divides her studio and living spaces. Her big dog gently guards the front door.
“These days, I mostly do restoration,” says Hahn. Most of the instruments in her care come from shops in Boston and New York City, or from auction houses that specialize in instruments, like Tarisio in Manhattan. But she also has individual customers: the concertmaster of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, for example. His mother lives in Wellfleet, she says, so he brings his violin to her a few times a year.
Her luthiers tools range from an imposing electric bandsaw — besides her grinder, the only power tool she uses — to a narrow, sharpened bit of metal only a few inches long. Some of the smaller tools are beautiful: smooth, glossy wooden handles ending in metal wedges or blades.
Behind the bandsaw there is a pile of unfinished wood planks. “This is cello wood,” says Hahn. “I have a lot of it in the basement. When you go to violinmaking school, you start buying wood. It needs to be old when you use it — aged.” Hahn mostly has wood that is 30 or 40 years old, from the 1980s and 90s. “I have been buying wood my whole career,” she says, “but I’ve stopped now. I have much too much!”
Most of Hahn’s collected wood is maple, a hardwood. “Classically,” says Hahn, “it’s maple for the back of the instrument, the scroll, and the ribs.” The ribs are the pieces of wood that make up the sides of a stringed instrument, connecting the top and back plates and completing the soundbox. The neck is usually maple, too. “Sometimes you’ll use poplar or willow,” says Hahn, “especially for cellos. Not for violin — too much.” For the top plates, she says, she uses spruce, a softwood.
“It has to be wood of a certain quality,” says Hahn. “The best is if it grows right at the tree line in the mountains.” That kind of wood grows slowly, she explains. “A lot of American wood, which is used by American makers, modern makers, it grows faster, and it works differently.” She has a lot of old wood from Italy, southern Germany, and Austria. “It has to be cut during a special time, when there is no sap in the tree. After the first frost, the beginning of December.”
Good wood is important, says Hahn. A basic. But the luthier’s art takes more than the basics: “You have to know about how the acoustics of a violin work,” she says. “You have to know about the graduations, the model, how you set up the angle of the neck, where you place your f-holes” — the openings shaped like lowercase “f”s on the top plate of a violin. These are the portals through which the inner vibrations of the instrument reach the outside air.
There are aesthetic points to consider: the flame of a maple back plate, for example. Hahn picks up another violin in her shop. “This is a nice Italian violin,” she says. The back plate is a type of Italian maple, with rippling flames in hues of brown and amber.
Varnish, which gives a violin its shine, lends both aesthetic and acoustical properties. “French instruments sound very bright,” says Hahn. “Usually, they have a very hard varnish. That changes the acoustics, because it changes how the top plate moves and so changes the vibrations.” Old Italian instruments are different, she says, because, among other reasons, the varnish is on the soft side. When Hahn makes a new varnish for an instrument, this is what she strives for; softer varnishes, she says, don’t interfere with the sound of the wood.
Every instrument has a distinct personality, says Hahn. Some have a sound that mixes well with other instruments, and those are better for chamber music. “Then you’ll have instruments like, for example, a Montagnana cello, which is harder technically to play, because it’s harder to make speak. It would not mix so well in chamber music. But it has this incredibly warm, chocolatey sound that comes out when you play the Bach cello suites.”
Fiddlers want a different sound, says Hahn, than classical players. And she says personality also has to do with aesthetics. “An old German instrument with a high arching and very curly f-holes, and the scroll is also very feminine” is a different character than “A late Stradivarius, or a French violin, which is very cleanly made, but usually with flat archings.
“It’s a lot of thinking,” says Hahn about her process. Especially when she works on really valuable instruments. “You want to do it perfectly,” she says. “There is no margin for error.” Often she invents things, like the clamp combination that holds together the scroll of the small French violin. “There are some routine repairs where you know what to do,” she says, but not always. “It’s never boring. It kind of keeps you on your toes.”
Recently, Hahn had a Zosimo Bergonzi violin here from a shop in New York. Zosimo was the son of Carlo Bergonzi, who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries and was a distinguished luthier from Cremona, Italy.
“The middle of the back plate was broken out and was glued back, and it didn’t fit,” says Hahn. She had to take off the back plate, make a plaster cast, and refit it, all the while handling an open, imbalanced violin.
“There were times when I was lying in bed at night, thinking about how to do it,” she says. “It took me a while to figure out how to go about it, but it came out fine. And it sounds really good.”