Tom Simensen’s workspace is a musical treasure trove.
In the garage adjacent to his Kalispell home, violins hang from a tree-like display, like sonorous branches of gleaming wood. Bottles of finish, carving tools and instruments in various stages of completion cover tables and walls. Even the ceiling is decorated in large posters of beautiful red-hued violins. Lighting the space is a chandelier made of shower heads, piping and other metal accoutrements — an homage to Simensen’s day job as a plumber.
But in this space, he isn’t a fixer of things, but a creator.
He turns panels of wood into usable art. An eagle’s head is carved into the scroll of one instrument, while another features a cameo inlay and on a third, the strings are bound by a fleur-de-lis tailpiece.
Simensen eschews the traditional violin silhouette and instead favors unexpected elements and bold shapes — think a touch of gold leafing here or a purple wood detail there.
“A lot of [other violin makers] have been trying to copy the same violins for 400 years,” he said. “I really go for the alternative shapes and the different woods. I just like to push the envelope a little bit.”
Simensen came by woodworking at a relatively young age — honing his love for it in high school shop class. In time, he could build most anything he set his mind to — china hutches, decorative shelving and roll-top bread boxes.
When his wife would spy a particularly fine piece of furniture his response often was, “well, I can make one of those.”
Simensen’s children also took note of their father’s skill.
When his son, Toby, selected the violin to play in the fifth-grade school orchestra, he asked his father to make him one.
“Why didn’t you pick out a trombone or something?” Simensen remembered thinking. Nevertheless, he agreed to accompany Toby to Kalispell’s ImagineIF Library to look for a book on violin making.
Much to his surprise, such a title did exist: “The Violin Builder’s Primer.”
“Before I even had that one finished, I was already starting one for my daughter,” Simensen said. “I knew it was something that I really enjoyed. And that’s how I got started.”
Now, over 20 years later, he’s still at it.
To make a violin, Simensen shapes the ribs of the instrument around a mold and reinforces the thin wood with an inner lining. From there, he’ll cut the front and back pieces of the violin to match the shape created by the ribs. He’ll then carve the back panel so it’s graduated in thickness from the middle out, which helps give the violin a good sound. Simensen also adds purfling, a decorative lining around the edge of the instrument, to help reinforce the wood and add to its visual appeal. The f-holes are then carved onto the face of the violin and the neck and scroll of the instrument are added before, finally, varnish is applied.
Simensen calls his operation Fat Cat Fiddles and has produced about 25 instruments in his violin-making career.
As for playing them? Not so much.
Simensen steadfastly refutes that he is nothing more than an entry-level violin player with a repertoire of a couple dozen songs — “mostly waltzes, slower songs.”
He leaves the assessment of his work in the hands of more experienced players, noting that “people that play them seem to really think they sound great and that’s what I go by.”
Simensen is largely self-taught, having learned most of his craftsmanship from books, trial and error and a few tips from other artisans. The more knowledge he gained, the more Simensen began to experiment. The standard for violin-making is a combination of maple for the sides and spruce on top, but Simensen has enjoying using other varieties such as Port Orford cedar, redwood, Western red cedar and Alaskan yellow cedar.
A violin might take him between six months and a year to make, although it was a staggering 19 years before he completed his eagle-themed masterpiece.
Over the years, Simensen has taken time off from violin-making, but the passion for his art has never left him.
“You get busy in life and you put it away for a while,” he said, “but it’s always there.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.