My personal story is about endings and beginnings, father, son, and daughters, completing one circle and starting another.
My father, Henry Finck, was a professor of anatomy at the University of Pittsburgh; at home he was a craftsman in leather, weaving, and wood. He had a little shop in the basement when I was growing up, and that’s where I found my interest in woodworking. When he was a 13-year-old, he was already a precocious woodworker with an entrepreneurial bent—he purchased an industrial-quality jigsaw and started reproducing gingerbread trim for Victorian homes in his Baltimore neighborhood. He took up playing violin around the same time. Years later, his musical and woodworking interests would combine.
I was 10 when my father began planning his violin-building quest. At first I was puzzled when he told me he would start by building a guitar, then a viola da gamba, and then, finally, as if making a staged assault on Everest, the violin. Why not just build the violin, I wondered? Of course, I wasn’t grasping the benefits of building skill upon skill that this sequence offered.
My father had a lot on his plate with his job and three children to help raise, and progress on the violin project was slow. In high school I took up playing guitar and must admit I nagged my dad quite a bit to finish the guitar he had started. One summer, applying a bit of “child psychology,” I set about building a guitar myself with the hope that he might be spurred to complete his own. It never occurred to me that I would actually finish my guitar, let alone ignite a passion for fine woodworking and discover a career, but all of those things came to pass. In the mid-1980s I spent two years studying furniture making under James Krenov, and afterward I opened a shop and began building furniture.
By 1999, when I was 13 years into my furniture career, I was married with two young daughters and had assumed the role of primary child caregiver. At one point, running short of ideas on how to spend time with the little ones, I took my daughters, ages 2 and 4, to meet a woman offering Suzuki violin lessons to very young children. Since that first lesson, the girls have never put down their fiddles.
In time my father did finish his guitar, but the viola da gamba was only half-completed at the time of his death, and the violin was a dream never realized.
After my father died I was struck with the notion that I ought to build a violin. His unfinished viola da gamba and his unfinished dream were urging me on. Also, my older daughter was in need of a better instrument. Bolstered by a lifetime of woodworking skills, several feet of bookshelf dedicated to all aspects of the violin, most of the necessary tools, and some choice wood, I decided that the time was ripe to begin. And so I did.
Wonder of wonders, that first violin came out very well. And you can’t very well make a violin for one daughter and not the other. Both daughters took to their new violins right away, and I’m honored to say that they continue to play them today as professional violinists.
As that first violin took shape it hit me with the deepest certainty that I had come across my calling. I felt completely at home every step of the way. I shifted my career path soon after from furniture building to focus on making concert-quality violins and violas.
I’ve come to think that building a violin is a little bit of a nod toward making one’s mark in the world. So many of us look back over the generations and we see a grainy photograph of an ancestor, and that is often all that we have of them. But with the violins, my kids’ kids and their kids have something that can be handed down that’s tangible—but it’s alive too. If those future relatives are also violin players, well that’s an incredible connection through the generations.
Now, as I begin carving a violin, I think of the dreams of my father. And although I miss him greatly, I am comforted remembering him this way, and I often smile and silently thank him for propelling me along this beautiful path.
—David Finck makes violins and violas in Valle Crucis, N.C.
From Fine Woodworking #274