Making beautiful music: One instrument at a time

Beautiful things are all around us ? there?s pretty flowers, attractive people, the song of a bird and the brave heart of a soldier going off to defend his country.
Beauty can be seen, heard, tasted, felt and smelled, encompassing many of the senses.
Newton resident Robert Fisher III shows beauty in at least three of our senses when he makes stringed instruments ? they can give off wonderful melodies, they look pretty with their scroll work and curved designs, and feel smooth and soft to the touch.
?I do it for fun,? said Fisher, who appears to be a walking encyclopedia on violin-maker history. ?It?s just something I do with my time. ? I just do it as a hobby though to see how many I can produce. ? It gives me something to do. Idle hands can be a big problem.?
To date, Fisher has made 15 instruments, he said. He mostly makes violins and was working on a bass cello in early June. The bass cello is made of hard rock maple, which Fisher said is extremely expensive. He began making the plans for the cello in 2006, and he started this hobby in 1981, he said. One time, he made a violin from the headboard of an antique bed, and he finished his first instrument around 1997.
He also was given permission by Don Reed, owner of Good Old Days Antiques south of Newton on Old Highway 81, to make replicas of a couple of violins Reed owned. These instruments were either authentic Renaissance instruments or replicas, Fisher said, adding they were crudely made.
?I became interested in (making violins) since high school,? said Fisher, a 1979 graduate of Goddard High School who attended Bethel College and graduated from the building trades program at Newton High School.
However, the roots of his interest in violins may go back to his grandmother.
?I can remember my grandmother showing me her violin, pulling it out of the attic when I was 7 years old,? Fisher said.
Fisher?s interest in violins also was piqued when he was working for Learjet and went to visit a co-worker?s home, who had instruments hanging from the walls and ceiling. The man sold Fisher a ?basket-case? 1911 violin to him for $90, which later was auctioned at the relief sale in Hutchinson. In addition, his grandmother gave him the violin she had shown him when he was 7; he still has the chin rest and bow of that instrument.
A basket-case instrument is one that?s broken, Fisher said. He repairs these basket- case instruments from antique stores. One such instrument Fisher repaired was one that was made at the same factory where the instruments played by the quartet on the Titanic were made. The violin was auctioned at the relief sale in Hutchinson that benefits Mennonite Central Committee.
As of early July, Fisher was working on a violin for his cousins patterned after the Giovanni Paolo Maggini violin. Maggini, a violin maker, died of the Black Plague in 1632 when he was in his 50s, Fisher said. Maggini originated from Bescia, Italy. Fisher likes to pattern his stringed instruments after those made centuries ago.
?I?m just replicating older designs,? Fisher said. ?They?re not exactly the same.?
Some he?s modeled after Stradivarious stringed instruments, with some of his own design thrown in. Those stringed instruments were made during the 17th and 18th centuries by the Stradivari family and particularly by Antonio Stradivari.
?He, in my book, is the best violin maker in the world,? Fisher said. ?He produced the most instruments of any maker.?
On his workroom wall, Fisher has photos of some violins that were made in the 1500s.
?Those would be some of the first style of instruments that came out,? Fisher said.
Fisher said he obtained permission from the book company to copy them at a copy shop.
Although they are on his wall, Fisher hasn?t made any of those.
?Those are early, early period violins,? he said, adding early violins were either larger or smaller than the standard-sized ones today.
Fisher taught himself to make the stringed instruments.
?I have the skill working with my hands with wood,? Fisher said. ?That was one of my God-given gifts.?
The first instrument Fisher made was the most difficult, he said, as he didn?t have half the tools he needed. Now if he worked at it constantly, Fisher said he could make a violin in three weeks.
Fisher?s only sold one of the instruments he?s made ? the rest he?s given away. He sold a violin to a man for the cost of the materials, and the man threw in an extra couple hundred dollars because he was impressed with the tone, Fisher said.
There can?t be any tone without the wood, and Fisher uses a variety of woods for his craft, including blue spruce, maple, hard rock maple and tiger stripe. Fisher obtains the wood and has Dan White of rural Newton, who has an antique sawmill, cut it.
Fisher reaps benefits from his hobby. Fisher made his own jigs, which he uses to form the sides of the instruments, steaming and bending the wood.
?Just the satisfaction of being able to build something,? he said. ?? Getting the gratification of building something from scratch. ? Carving it, scraping it, shaping it.?
In addition to making the violins, he also can play them, he said. He even demonstrated his ability and said he taught himself how to play. One violin he owns and plays is a couple hundred years old and is full size.
After he graduated from high school, Fisher said he?d go back home during the summers and play the violin at his parents? house, or as he put it, he ?squawked? in their garage.

Photos and Story by?Wendy Nugent

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