Tools and techniques are circa 1700, but the violins are new

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Tools and techniques are circa 1700, but the violins are new

The sign on the door says simply, “Guy Rabut, Violin Maker.” Behind the door, a 17th-century craftsman in 21st-century clothing spends his days in the company of knives, scrapers, chisels, sanders, handsaws, glues, varnishes and other materials needed to create violins, violas and cellos.

By VINCENT M. MALLOZZI

Guy RabutThese are my assistants,” Mr. Rabut said, speaking of the tools of a trade that first took center stage in the late 1600s, when Antonio Stradivari began making stringed instruments; he later emerged as the world’s most famous at the craft, the Picasso or Rembrandt of violin makers. Stradivari did his best work between 1700 and 1720; the violins he produced then earned a reputation for superior beauty and sound.

“He did not have the luxury, as I do, of power drills, computers or electric lights,” Mr. Rabut, 55, said of Stradivari. “That aside, most of my tools and techniques are identical to those he used to build these instruments back in his day.”

In fact, Mr. Rabut, whose studio is in Manhattan, travels once or twice a year to the Italian Alps, where Stradivari once fetched the wood that would help musicians make sweet music for centuries with violins that are now worth a fortune. Two years ago, a Stradivarius made in 1707 sold at a Christie’s auction for more than $3.5 million.

“Same forest, same Italian Alpine spruce,” said Mr. Rabut, running his fingers along several pieces of the smooth wood stacked on a shelf above his head.

These days, Mr. Rabut’s handiwork is a lot more affordable than Stradivari’s. He sells his violins for $22,000 each, his violas for $24,000 and his cellos for $40,000.

“And they each come with at least a 500-year guarantee,” he said with a smile. “Where are you going to get a deal like that?”

Mr. Rabut, who was waiting for a client on a recent Tuesday, walked over to a work table, sat on a stool and picked up a violin that had taken him the better part of four months to build. He took a quick peek at his watch, then dipped a paintbrush into a small bottle of varnish and began applying the finishing touches.

Rabut's instruments“It has to sound right, look right and feel right,” he said, holding the violin as delicately as if it were his own child. “Musicians get emotionally attached to their instruments. After all, they spend more than six hours a day with them nestled right under their chin, which is probably more time than they spend with their spouses.”

Mr. Rabut, who is single, grew up in Westport, Conn., playing the cello at Coleytown Elementary School and Staples High School. He still carries a guitar pick from the days when he worked in the back of a music store in New Canaan, Conn., repairing a variety of stringed instruments. “I worked on guitars, banjos, violins, cellos, you name it,” Mr. Rabut said. “I was really into this combination of craft and music, and I got smart enough to know that if I wanted to do this for a living, I needed to get some serious training.”

He attended the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City from 1975 to 1978, then returned to New York to work for a premier violin dealer and restoration company. Its clientele included the violinists Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, and a rising cellist named Yo-Yo Ma.

“In those days, we sold Stradivari instruments and others from early makers for anywhere between $300,000 and $500,000,”

Mr. Rabut recalled. “Yo-Yo’s antique cello alone cost one and a half million dollars.” Mr. Rabut eventually branched out on his own, first working in a studio high above the stage at Carnegie Hall before moving 10 years ago to his current location on West 28th Street. He breaks his clientele into three groups: “gifted musical students; professionals from big, professional orchestras; and serious adult amateurs.”

Before long, one of those customers came calling. Ken Mirkin, a violist with the New York Philharmonic, arrived with two of Mr. Rabut’s violas, one made in 2001, the other in 2003.

“I just need a few touch-ups and a few small adjustments,” Mr. Mirkin told Mr. Rabut. “Each of these has a few little dings.”

Mr. Mirkin, a 26-year member of the Philharmonic, first heard one of Mr. Rabut’s instruments in 2001.

“I was blown away by the sound,” he said. “It had this rich, beautiful warmth to it. Some violas can sound kind of dark and muddy, but this one just had a sparkling sound to it — my sound.”

Mr. Rabut immediately went to work on the two violas, assuring Mr. Mirkin that he would “review the sound, condition and overall health” of the instruments.

As he waited, Mr. Mirkin praised Mr. Rabut as a modern-day Stradivari.

“He is at the absolute top of his profession,” Mr. Mirkin said. “His instruments, in my opinion, are every bit as rich, every bit as good as anyone ever made.”

A version of this article appeared in print on November 8, 2008, on page A23 of the New York edition of the New York Times.

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