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Violin Maker Keeps Family Tradition Alive

  • June Soh

Keeping his family's tradition alive is important to Richard Maxham, 23, a fifth-generation violin maker whose family started crafting the instrument more than a century ago.

“These are the tools that I inherited from my grandfather," he says while making his second violin from scratch at his home. "Some of them came from my great-great-grandfather’s workshop as well."

He says violins are inseparable from him. “I was always fascinated by my grandfather’s work on violins. When I visited the shop, it always seemed like something that I wanted to do. But as I got older it became something I felt I had to do.”

His great-great-grandfather started making violins in Pennsylvania in the 1800s. The next two generations carried on the tradition. However, according to Richard, his father - a violinist and music critic - wasn't interested in being a craftsman, although he taught his son how to play one.

'Keeping the tradition that my family has started is really an essential thing to me,” Maxham says.

After graduating from college last year, Maxham made his first violin in his home town of Lynchburg, Virginia with the help of a mentor.

He spent approximately seven months working on making the violin and some two months varnishing it.

He took the instrument to the Potter Violin Company near Washington, D.C. and landed a job repairing violins. When he masters that, he will move on to making them.

“Richard knows he can make violins, and he can do as good a job as his predecessors," says Dalton Potter, the company's president. "All he has to do is keeping doing it every day, getting better, getting better, and getting better.”

Potter sells and rents a wide range of instruments, from factory-produced violins to fine hand-made ones from around the world. Prices range from a few hundred dollars to $60,000. The company has six violin makers, called luthiers, including Potter himself.

“High-end violins are servicing people who are professionals that are playing in orchestras like the National Symphony, Washington Opera House Orchestra, Kennedy Center,” Potter says.

Serious music students are also interested in the high-end violins.

Marissa Murphy founded Washington Suzuki Strings, which offers violin classes. She bought her violin from Potter.

“A talented student, a committed student, can sound good on anything. Do we want to help that child that student by having a great instrument? Yes," says Murphy. "When a student is able to make a beautiful sound and beautiful tone and vibrates and rings and it makes them feel that, they fall in love with their sound.”

Maxham wants to craft those great instruments and contribute to the world of violins. “I hope to leave behind a legacy through the violins that I make."

And he hopes while doing that, the memory of his grandfather will live on.