By Beth Ann Downey
While most professions are aided by technology and modern advancements, Robert Gordon III of Belsano has competitors in his business that have been dead for hundreds of years.
Mirror photos by?J.D. Cavrich
Robert Gordon III of Belsano uses a micrometer to measure the thickness of the back of a replica Stradivarius model 1718 violin that he is making in his Belsano studio.
This is because Gordon is in the business of violin making - a functional art form for which pieces made in the 16th- and 17th-centuries by Gasparo da Salo, Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivari still sell for millions of dollars in modern auctions.
Using the molds of some of these great makers' most famous pieces and fashioning his instruments using modest hand tools, Gordon works daily in his home studio and sells his pieces both locally and throughout the nation. He works to carve a name for himself with his craft, unabashed by the more than 400 years of tradition that came before him.
"Stradivari, his golden period started when he was 57 years old," Gordon said. "I'm 57, so I'm pretending this is going to be my golden period."
Gordon made his first violin when he was 13 years old under the guidance of his father, Robert Gordon Jr., a maker with multiple awards and more than 180 pieces to his name at age 82.
"I wouldn't be doing it without the inspiration of my father," Gordon III said. "He was a factory worker, and came home every night and worked in the back of the house, where he had a little room. He set a tremendous example of the will to make. A lot of his instruments today other makers really like because he never came from a school that said you have to do it this way. His were coming right out of the creative spirit he had."
Gordon III apprenticed under Vahakn Nigogosian in the early 1990s, but also fell into repair and restoration work. He and his father opened a repair shop in Pleasantville in 1988, then Gordon III opened another in Indiana in 2006. Gordon III shut down the Indiana operation just three years ago in order to have more time to focus on making violins. He now only works with previous repair clients in the hope that he can go from making two instruments a year to two a month.
"I've got 30 under my belt," he said. " I have to make that transition or else I'll just be another guy out there lost in the violin making world."
Wood and mold selection are the most important contributions to a violin's tone and quality, Gordon III said. He uses maple for the necks, backs and sides of his instruments, and imports red spruce from Canada for the top wood.
And though he said that Stradivari himself would probably use electricity if he was alive and working today, Gordon III still chooses to carve his wood by hand.
"I think that by using a [finger] plane and using a gauge, you can feel the quality of the wood much better than using a sander or anything of that nature," Gordon III said. "Anything power tools takes away from the sound. I like to hear the crispness of the wood."
Gordon III's craftsmanship and attention to detail has not gone unnoticed by buyers.
Julie Gilchrist, who has been a violinist with the Johnstown Symphony for more than 35 years, bought one of his violins in 2004.
She said it continues to look and sound beautiful, from the scroll to the chin rest.
"The love that he puts into his instruments, you can see why they're so wonderful," she said. "I feel that there has not be a Strad out there that's as good as she is."
Gordon III said musicians are usually most concerned with tone when it comes to purchasing a violin, but collectors are also focused on condition and beauty.
This fact has led Gordon III to adapt various "tedious" varnishing processes, as well as "antiquing" his pieces to make them look old and worn.
"What we're dealing with is functional art," Gordon III said. "You can't just make something that looks good. If it doesn't play, nobody cares. ... You're caught in a world where you at least have to make it presentable. Then the idea is to make the tone be exceptional. That's what I try to do."
He said his instruments are sold for an average of $8,000. Though it's better than the millions one might have to pay for a good antique, he acknowledged that it's also a little pricey for anyone just learning the instrument or playing as a hobby.
"But that's nothing to spend for a violin if you're going to make your living all your life off something," he said. "That's the idea behind owning a violin, is having it all your life. You're just renting it, basically. Then, when you die, it goes to somebody else."
To help "advance the art" of violin playing and making for future generations, Gordon III also donates his time and expertise by doing repairs for surrounding school districts.
Julianne Laird, the junior high school orchestra teacher and third grade violin instructor for the Indiana Area School District, said she couldn't offer the opportunities she does without his help - including allowing every third grade student in the district to take a violin class.
"It helps out tremendously because we have only a certain amount of money we can spend on repairs," Laird said. "With Robert's assistance, we can purchase parts and rely on him to do the repairs. ... He has made a complete difference in the life of every kid who comes through the school district in the third grade."
Gordon III said he strives to complete 200 instruments in his lifetime, but would also like to continue learning new things and innovative techniques to make him better at his craft. He added that the best thing that has happened in his career was being accepted to the Violin Society of America workshops held at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, each summer. For the past 20 years, he has gone to learn from other makers in the communal atmosphere that the workshop provides.
"It's been a remarkable experience for most of the people I know [who have gone]," he said. "Some people don't thrive in that environment, but in general, it works if you leave your egos at the door. ... I think it's important that makers share at some point. You can't make in isolation because you end up making mistakes and repeating them but not realizing."
Gordon III will also continue to become a better player. Having been classically trained as a child, he has been playing for longer than he has been making violins. Nowadays, he's more likely to play bluegrass music with his band, Gordon Glenn, which puts on concerts for friends at Gordon's home every Wednesday night. Gordon's wife, Sally, is also in the band as an upright bass player.
"Our life is quite a bit of music," he said.
Visit www.robertgordoniiiviolinmaker.com/ to learn more about Gordon III, or call 418-8412. Visits to his Belsano studio can be arranged by appointment only.
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.