Luthier marks 20 years

In two decades, Hanes has repaired more than 5,000 instruments and built 50

Posted: Monday, June 02, 2003

The String Shop has a fresh, slightly spicy smell: part wood and part dandelion wine, which owner Jim Hanes likes to make in his limited spare time.

The rest of his time, apart from occasional walks, gardening and reading, is spent inside the yellow building on Third Street, repairing broken bridges, cracked necks and other violin and guitar casualties.

A luthier, or maker of stringed instruments, Hanes, 49, has operated his store for 20 years and repaired more than 5,100 violins, cellos, violas and guitars. He has built about 50 violins since quitting his former career as a marine biologist and completing his apprenticeship in Maryland 23 years ago.

Hanes began fiddling in college, and still plays regularly. He lives downtown with his wife, Salty, who owns the Spirit Bead shop on Fifth Street.

He is from Seattle, but arrived in Juneau on the ferry in 1975 to work for the Department of Environmental Conservation. He also worked in the Arctic as a marine biologist for several years, but eventually determined that he would have to obtain a doctorate in order to get meaningful work in the field.

"I hate academia," he says. "I wanted to work. They were just talking."

He was drawn to violin-making at the age of 27 - a good deal older than European apprentices centuries ago, when 19-year-old boys were considered too old to learn the trade.

"I had played the violin and learned a little bit about how they were constructed. That intrigued me a great deal," said Hanes, who grew up working on model airplanes. "To me it looked like one of the ultimates of woodworking."

What hooked him was the delicate balance between science and art: the precision necessary to shape planks of maple into the violin's voluptuous shape, the artistry of a gently curved scroll.

It can take an apprentice 500 hours to build his first violin, but it's a long time before apprentices are allowed to try.

They begin learning the trade by scraping a set of ribs, the portion of the violin that connects the front and the back and gives the instrument its depth. The ribs must be scraped until they are a millimeter thick, give or take about one-tenth of a millimeter.

It's precise and tedious work, and a no-nonsense master luthier like the one Hanes learned from may snap a poorly scraped set of ribs into pieces and send an apprentice back to work with a fresh piece of maple.

A hand-crafted violin requires $400 to $500 in materials, and at least 150 hours of work, Hanes said. Most of the violins in his shop now are factory-made, but Hanes reworks them to improve their sound.

"We luthiers have a tendency to do what the factories don't do. When they set them up at the factory, they're trying to make as many units as they can with the least amount of labor," he said.

Friend Bob Banghart, a Juneau museum designer who used to build electric guitars, violins and mandolins, said Hanes' experience and dedication is evident.

"For a community of this size to have someone of his caliber is great," Banghart said. "The guy knows what he's doing."

Banghart owns a Hanes instrument - a rather unusual mandolin.

"It's novel in that he applied some of the technical processes of violin design to the manufacture of the instrument. The top and back plates extend beyond the ribs like the violin," Banghart said. "It's got a very unique sound; very big, very clear."

While Hanes has done some experimenting with his craft, he stresses that there are rules and processes that can't be fudged when it comes to building a violin.

"It's either right, or it isn't. I love that you can't just buy a book and go do it," Hanes says. "My master always said, 'You'll have it down when you've built 100 instruments.' Well, I haven't built 100, and I don't quite have it down."

After 23 years and a two-and-a-half year apprenticeship, that's difficult to believe, particularly when Hanes brings out his piece de resistance, the "89 Thunderbird." It's a beautiful blond instrument with a Native-inspired design on the back: a bird drawn to echo the violin's curves. It took him more than 200 hours to complete.

"It's easy to make a music instrument, but it's hard to make a musical instrument that plays well and sounds beautiful. It's even harder to make a musical instrument that a player, a good player, is drawn to," Hanes said.

Masha Herbst can be reached at

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