Early instrument maker
Judith Kraft, alongside a selection of her instruments
Judith’s workshop in the 10th arrondissement is tucked away in a courtyard behind huge iron gates where tall white buildings house workshops and motorbikes and cars are squeezed against the walls. There are lines of plants in terracotta pots and a small white dog.
Judith greets us in her office where a history of her instruments line one wall – some with painted gold detail and others showing fine wooden marquetry work.
She makes instruments on commission for professional and amateur musicians, ranging from promising students through to well-established performers from all over the world. She also creates instruments for Swiss and French music conservatories and does restoration work on old viols.
In her light and airy workshops, we find a large store of seasoned wood including many triangular shapes ready to form the instrument, and shelves holding a rich assortment of spirits, glues and waxes.
Judith's reserves of wood
She speaks about how she sources the wood in the Jura and how you can tell the age of an old instrument, as well as judging the climate over the years, through the stripes appearing in the wood.
There’s a half finished instrument in a vice on a workbench and Judith runs through the process of creating her instruments for us, each of which takes a couple of months to complete. All the tools of Judith’s craft line the walls, including a fine selection of blades.
Judith talks of the pleasure both of making the instruments, and of hearing them play in the hands of their final owner.
Judith Kraft in her workshop with a pupil in the background
Judith Kraft (00:15):
The main woods that we use for these instruments are spruce, and most of the spruce comes from the Jura Mountains near the Swiss border. There’s this whole science that’s been devised in the past, I don’t know how many years, called dendrochronology, which is studying either the climate using wood like this, or identifying the age of wood, say in an old instrument. It’s like a barcode, and you can really tell what the climate was like over a period of 10, 20, 30 years in each stripe here.
Sarah Monk (00:52):
Hi. This is Sarah with another episode of Materially Speaking, where artists and artisans tell their stories through the materials they choose. You’re listening to Marin Marais, Pièces de Viole, Livre 2, Suite number 2, number 38, Cloches ou Carillon, performed by Salomé Gasselin on a viola da gamba which was built by today’s guest, American born luthier, Judith Kraft. Today, Mike Axinn and I are in Paris to meet Judith in her workshop, located in a vibrant corner of the 10th arrondissement, where natural wine and cheese shops butt up against a more cosmopolitan offering of phone shops and exotic vegetables.
A photo shoot is taking place in the street, and also against the backdrop of a stained glass window. Judith’s courtyard is hidden behind huge iron gates, where tall white buildings house workshops, and motorbikes and cars are squeezed against the walls. There are lines of plants in terracotta pots, and a small white dog. A few young workers from other units lounge against the wall having a smoke.
Up winding wooden stairs, Judith greets us in her office, where a history of her instruments line one wall, some with painted gold detail, and others with fine marquetry work in wood. We ask her to introduce herself.
Judith Kraft (02:11):
I’m Judith Kraft. I’m an instrument maker, [French 00:02:15] in French, or maybe [French 00:02:17]. I haven’t quite figured that one out. And I make mostly early instruments, viola da gambas, but also medieval fiddles, rebecs and such. The viola da gamba is really a whole family, like the family of the violin, viola, cello. It dates from the, I would say, late 15th century. There are various theories about where it started, but the one I like best is that it started in Spain, as the vihuela, which is their guitar, and it’s really a close cousin of the guitar, because it has traditionally six strings, except when the French added a seventh string. It has a flat back, frets, and it’s tuned similarly to the guitar in fourths and thirds, and one third in the middle. But it’s played with a bow, so it’s sort of a bowed guitar.
My plan was to learn how to make violins, and when I looked for somebody to teach me how to make violins when I arrived in France, I found somebody who was willing to do it, except he’d never actually made violins. So I started making harpsichords and medieval instruments, with the idea of eventually making a violin. This was in the early 1970s, so people were starting to get interested in viols, but there were hardly any instruments around, so somebody ordered a viol from us, and then somebody else, and I sort of discovered it as I built them. I thought, "Once this fad has run its course, I’ll be making violins." But apparently it was more than a fad. So here we are, some 50 years later, and I’m still making viols.
But I always liked doing things with my hands, just tinkering about, making little things, or if I had a few pieces of paper, I would do cutouts and collages. When I was in nursery school, I was in this progressive nursery school where they actually had us using tools. I have a photo of it here that I’ll have to show you. It’s a photo of me at age four, very highly concentrated on my work, as you can see.
Sarah Monk (04:16):
And with a very large saw, if I may say.
Judith Kraft (04:19):
Sarah Monk (04:20):
Health and safety wouldn’t be dishing them out nowadays.
Judith Kraft (04:23):
No, it’s remarkable. I mean, we had hammers, we had nails and everything, and I remember distinctly just the joy of doing this. We were making bird feeders.
Sarah Monk (04:33):
I think it’s interesting, isn’t it, that sometimes we do things when we’re not conscious, or as [inaudible 00:04:37] very young.
Judith Kraft (04:38):
Well, I was really conscious of it. There was just something really important about it. It’s something that really stuck in my mind, and I always remembered it. Well, I should I guess tell the story in order. I went to university in the United States, where I was born, for two years, and got disenchanted pretty quickly, so I left. But I was already playing violin, really as an amateur without any idea of wanting to put in the work to become a professional. But before I left school, I went to see a violin maker, I think to have my bow re-haired, to have some kind of work done. And so I found myself in his workshop, surrounded by these old pieces of wood, parts of violins, tools, workbenches, and it just suddenly dawned on me at that moment, I want to work in a place like this. This is what I want to do. I want to work here.
And that’s really what sowed the seed, the desire to do this. But I think the idea of working with wood was more carving it, not just sawing and gluing and screwing things together, but actually with violins or viols, you bend the wood, you gouge it, you sculpt it. It’s a different kind of work. And that part of it also drew me. Between that and actually making an instrument that’s going to have a sound and, to be able to play it afterwards.
Sarah Monk (05:56):
Should we talk about where we are now, your workshop?
Judith Kraft (05:58):
Yes. This has been my workshop since 1986. In a few years, it’ll be 40 years. This is absolutely the dream place. It’s in a courtyard off a fairly busy street, so very quiet, with big windows that let in lots of light. In fact, sometimes it’s too much light. In the summer, it’s light all day until I leave. Sometimes you need to have a controlled light so you can work on the arching, and that’s impossible in summer.
Sarah Monk (06:26):
Is that because of the shadows?
Judith Kraft (06:28):
Yeah, there’s no shadow. I sometimes I’ll be working and the light is streaming in, so I turn this light on, and what happens is it shades. It makes shade instead of light. But aside from that, it’s absolutely wonderful having high ceiling, big place to work.
Sarah Monk (06:43):
And you’ve got a number of work benches, and then a lot of wood seasoning. Can you tell us a little about the wood and the source of the wood?
Judith Kraft (06:49):
Sure. This is really my entire stock of wood. Some people have huge amounts of wood, and I have a fairly small amount. The main woods that we use for these instruments are spruce, and most of the spruce comes from the Jura Mountains near the Swiss border. And the other main wood is maple, which is used for the sides and the back of the instrument, and the neck. I think a lot of it comes from Bosnia, but it grows everywhere, pretty much.
Mike Axinn (07:17):
What’s the difference between the spruce and the maple?
Judith Kraft (07:20):
Well, the spruce is resinous wood, and a resonant wood. I don’t know if there’s any connection. It’s the most resonant wood that we know. The sound travels faster in spruce than it does in anything else. But the downside is that it’s a wood that splits just as fast as it vibrates. So if there’s a little… If you hit one end of it, it’s going to split from one end to the other in no time. So it’s fairly fragile, so it’s used only for the table, the front, whatever you want to call it, of the instrument.
This is the front, and so you can see the dark and light alternating veins. And the dark is the wood that’s been growing in a colder season, and the light part has been growing in a warmer season. And you can really tell what the climate was like over a period of 10, 20, 30 years, in each stripe here. What you want is fairly thin, dark pieces, and for them not to be too distant from one another, which is why the wood has to come from the mountains at least 1,000 meters altitude, because otherwise the warm season growth is going to be too great, and it’ll make it too wide.
Mike Axinn (08:31):
It’s so interesting that you have essentially a map of the climate over time.
Judith Kraft (08:36):
Yes. No, that’s true. And in fact there’s this whole science that’s been devised in the past, I don’t know how many years, called dendrochronology, which is studying the climate using wood like this, or identifying the age of wood, say in an old instrument. It’s like a barcode. So if you give a sample of how the veins are spaced, just of what they look like, there are people who have these databases and can tell you that it comes from a tree in such-and-such an area that was cut in a certain year, or approximately. You don’t know exactly, but you can know if there’s an 18th century instrument, and they discovered that the wood on the front was actually growing still in the 19th century, then something is amiss.
Mike Axinn (09:23):
What does it mean for you that you came to France and that you’re working in France?
Judith Kraft (09:28):
I was traveling around Europe, and at one point a friend said, "Why don’t you come to Paris?" She was a childhood friend who was living here. She had come because of May ‘68 and everything going on. She said, "If you come to Paris, we could share an apartment.2 So I took her old au pair job, which happened to be with two musicians, and they’re the people who recommended this instrument maker to me.
Mike Axinn (09:49):
What is your day like?
Judith Kraft (09:51):
My day, let’s say, once I get to the workshop, I get here at sometime between 9:00 and 9:30 in the morning, and sometimes I know exactly what I’m going to be doing, and other times I don’t quite remember what I left off the day before. So I go look at my work bench and see what’s there, and that reminds me, and I just pick up where I left off. Sometimes I’ll have people who come in to have an instrument adjusted, particularly having the sound post adjusted, or if there’s some problem, I’ll deal with that. Having made so many instruments over the course of these years, there are a lot of them, and enough of them around here. Sometimes there are people who will make an appointment, and they usually come by appointment. They don’t just show up on my doorstep. So it’s a combination of fixing some instruments and mostly building new ones. That’s my main work.
Mike Axinn (10:44):
I noticed you’re smiling when you talk about this. So what are your moments of joy?
Judith Kraft (10:49):
Well, I’m really happy when I arrive here in the morning. I love the space. I love what I do here. And I realized just recently that I pretty much recreated what I remember of the workshop that I saw. It’s actually nicer than the one that I saw, I think.
Sarah Monk (11:04):
Would it be possible to give us an overview of the process of making…
Judith Kraft (11:09):
Sure. Well, once I’ve acquired the wood, and that’s not a process that takes place here, I go to the Jura and very happily walk through piles and piles of wood and shoes, it’s my favorite shopping spree. Once the wood is here, when I start building one, I usually start with the front, which is the key piece. And I don’t know why I start with that, but I guess it’s something I can make and then set aside until the rest of the instrument is ready.
Historically, there are different ways of making the front of a viol, and of course it’s arched. So there are two basic ways of making the arching, which I can show you. This is the way it’s made, say, on a violin or cello, which is you take two wedges of spruce, glue them together, and then you just start carving, and you carve the arching out completely with gouges, which I’ll show you. There’s another technique that was mostly used by the English, who made lots and lots of viols, that consists in bending on a hot iron. You bend a central arch, and then two midway pieces, and then little wings on either side. So you end up with either five or seven pieces, depending how you want to count. But anyway, five lengths of wood that are glued together and that makes the arching.
Sarah Monk (12:31):
What sort of adhesive do you use?
Judith Kraft (12:34):
It’s animal glue. You put it in a little jar with water, and then you double boil. It’s great glue, because it lasts for centuries. But you can also unglue it if you need to.
Sarah Monk (12:46):
So after the front, what do you work on next?
Judith Kraft (12:48):
Well, you have to glue a bass bar that adds a little bit of structure to it on the inside, on the bass side, why it’s called a bass bar. And on the treble side you’ll have a sound post, but that gets wedged in at the very end. The sound post is a little pillar, and it’s just wedged between the back of the instrument and the top, and so it shortens the vibrations, which is what you need for the treble side, and also transmits the sound from the front to the back. So it’s a multipurpose type thing.
Mike Axinn (13:19):
Do you fashion an instrument based on the customer?
Judith Kraft (13:23):
Sometimes, and to some extent. Most people who come to see me want one of my instruments, so they’re the ones who are making that decision, and the instruments don’t vary that much, but I can adapt somewhat to what somebody’s going to be doing with the instrument.
Sarah Monk (13:38):
So after that, where does the instrument progress to?
Judith Kraft (13:42):
Well, you have to make the sound holes, which are like little C’s in this case, and a violin would be like an F. This is really a traditional shape, but it can vary. It can be bigger or smaller or narrower, and that does change the sound. For someone who sings, if you have your mouth open, "Aah," or "Ooh," it works that way. If you have very small C-holes, it’ll give somewhat deeper, more covered sound, and if they’re wider open, it’ll be a little bit brighter.
So now that we’re done with the front, I set that aside, and I start working on the back and the ribs. And the back is just a flat piece of wood that’s planed, jointed, and then you have to make a bend here.
Mike Axinn (14:26):
Gosh, that’s beautiful.
Judith Kraft (14:27):
Then you have to plane the ribs and then bend them on a bending iron, which… This is a modern electric bending iron. Anyway, this is the kind they used to have, and they would just stick it in the fire and then take it out and put it in something and then bend. I used to use these, with a little heating thing underneath. The electric one is much more convenient, and much easier to control temperature-wise.
Another difference with the violin family is that, in the violin family, you have linings, which are little strips of wood glued to the inside of the ribs to enlarge the gluing surface, and that reinforces. And also in the corners there are little corner blocks. With viols, for the most part, you use either strips of linen or parchment to reinforce the inside. Everything is more lightly built. So then we get to the neck. Once you have the body like that, then the neck in this case is a separate piece completely, and if you’re going to make a head or whatever kind of carving, you do that.
Sarah Monk (15:32):
This particular neck, which has got a beautiful ornate carved head, and some intricate lacework, is that traditional? Is that…
Judith Kraft (15:41):
It is traditional.
Sarah Monk (15:42):
And all of this work here you did by hand?
Judith Kraft (15:45):
Sarah Monk (15:45):
Judith Kraft (15:46):
Yeah. I have these little gouges that I use.
Sarah Monk (15:50):
Beautiful [inaudible 00:15:51] wooden handles.
Judith Kraft (15:52):
The very next thing, which is what I was starting to do here, is this is going to be the fingerboard. And then on the tailpiece, there’ll be another piece here that holds the strings, and then it goes over the bridge. That’s how the setup will go, and I have to adjust the pegs. But in between there is varnishing. For the strings, I use sheep gut, and there are all kinds of good sheep gut string makers now. When I first started making instruments, there were three main places where gut strings were used. One was musical instruments, another was surgery, and the other was tennis. Well, in tennis, they don’t use it so much now. In surgery they don’t either. But with musical instruments, we use it more than we did before. In the early ’70s, we were happy if we could find beef gut, but now sheep gut, which is the kind of gut that was used on these instruments at the time, and has really a much sweeter sound than the beef gut, not quite as hard.
Mike Axinn (16:54):
I guess there are different grades of strings in thickness.
Judith Kraft (16:56):
Oh, yes. The top string is always the thinnest one, and then if you want a lower note with the same tension and the same length, you have to have a heavier string. So they get thicker and thicker as you get down toward the bottom. And in modern times, modern times that is, dating from the late 18th century, they started winding metal around some of the strings, so that made them heavier, and they didn’t have to be such thick strings. But now, realizing what we lost with that also, people have started, mostly in England actually, making thick gut strings that are flexible enough to be able to be played even really thick and on low strings.
Sarah Monk (17:36):
And the varnish, what happens before you string it?
Judith Kraft (17:38):
There are different kinds of varnish. A lot of people use oil-based varnish, and I use spirit varnish. It’s sort of a French tradition, but it’s what I learned, and for me, it’s the easiest kind to make. You can actually varnish in a fairly dusty place like this without having to worry about the dust sticking forever, because it dries really fast.
Sarah Monk (18:00):
So that’s a handful of lovely amber flakes.
Judith Kraft (18:04):
Yes. So you take the lovely amber flakes, put them in a large jam jar, fill it up with alcohol, I think 95%, which I don’t think you can get in England, but you can get here.
Sarah Monk (18:18):
We know that, actually. But you can get it in France, yes, because those of us that like making liquor…
Judith Kraft (18:26):
With that? I don’t think this is the kind you would want to be drinking, but it’s really good for dissolving those little amber flakes. Usually you’ve prepared the wood in some way. For example, on this one, I’m going to put a coat of gelatin, which is… It could be light glue, but it just happens to be gelatin. And that will seal things a little bit. And then I put chicory, sort of like a coffee substitute, it stains the wood all over. And then I use the varnish that I’ve prepared with alcohol. And I put on, I don’t know, six or eight coats, very thin coats. And then at the end I do a French polish, which is mostly alcohol with a little bit of varnish, and it gives it a finer sheen than it would have otherwise.
Unlike in the violin family, where they have all of these pre-cut bridges, my bridges are always a little bit different each time. So I have to start with a piece of maple like this, and then cut it into a wedge, and have everything flat, and then make it into a bridge.
Sarah Monk (19:34):
Wow, that’s pretty.
Judith Kraft (19:35):
It holds the strings off the top, and just barely off the fingerboard, and it transmits the sound from the vibrating string to the top of the instrument, which then distributes it to the rest of it. So really the principal thing with these instruments, this is true with violins or anything, is getting a balance between the structure and how it’s going to vibrate, where it’s going to vibrate.
Mike Axinn (20:03):
How long does it take you to make an instrument?
Judith Kraft (20:07):
Couple of months. Two or three months, depending on the size and the detail and involved.
Sarah Monk (20:15):
How about the bows? Do you make the bows as well, or do you outsource those?
Judith Kraft (20:19):
No. Well, it isn’t so much that I outsource them, but the musicians will go see a bowmaker. It’s really a different job. It’s different wood, different ways of using it. Some people do both, but I don’t, and I know some really good bowmakers.
Mike Axinn (20:32):
So you have relationship to the bowmakers?
Judith Kraft (20:35):
Sarah Monk (20:35):
And what about the relationship, both of you, with the musician, and how you get it to play the way they want to play? Because you have yourself, and then the bowmaker, and then the musician.
Judith Kraft (20:47):
Well, that is really an important part. I mean, once the instrument is finished, so to speak, and you put it in the hands of the musician, the musician will play and then say… There can be some very basic things, like the curve of the bridge may not be quite right, or the response might not be exactly what they want, or it may be fine in the beginning and after six months they may want some adjustment. And the instruments always need adjustment after about six months anyway. There’s some musicians who think, "The instrument isn’t sounding good. There’s something I’m not doing right." And they keep on practicing and practicing. And then there are others who, as soon as they set the bow to the instrument and it’s not sounding right, they think, "There’s a problem with this instrument." So usually the truth is somewhere in between. I get to see instruments quite regularly that need some sort of adjustment, particularly after a hot and dry summer or a damp season or before a really important concert or competition or something.
Mike Axinn (21:41):
How important is your own musicianship to all this?
Judith Kraft (21:45):
I used to be a competent amateur, and I guess I still am. When I finish an instrument, I can get a sound out of it. I can’t tell everything about it that a really good musician can, who will come and play and say, "This works really well up in these high notes," or plays an extremely fast passage and says, "The response is good," or it isn’t. Those are things that I can’t always tell on my own, but I have enough people around who can do that.
Sarah Monk (22:09):
Is there a growth in players of these instruments at the moment then?
Judith Kraft (22:13):
There has been a constant growth over the course of the 50-odd years that I’ve been making them. Yeah. There are a lot of them in France, partly because somehow there ended up being many places where you could learn. There’s a whole system of conservatories and music schools all throughout the country, and I think there’s something like 80 schools or associations, organizations, where you can learn how to play the viol. And that’s a lot.
Sarah Monk (22:39):
Do you sign your instruments at all?
Judith Kraft (22:41):
Sarah Monk (22:42):
What and where?
Judith Kraft (22:43):
Inside, there’s a back plate that runs across the width of the instrument, and it’s to the left of that.
Sarah Monk (22:50):
So can you describe what we’re looking through? This is the…
Judith Kraft (22:52):
This is the C-hole or the sound hole, on the bass side of the instrument. And usually a label even on a violin or whatever will be on that side.
Sarah Monk (23:02):
So it’s got your name, Paris, and the year, which is this year.
Judith Kraft (23:06):
Yes. It’s for a musician whom I’ve made several instruments for named Robin Pharo, and this is a treble viol, and I made him an English bass viol and also a French bass viol. Most viols had six strings, and in England, they were certainly six-string instruments in the first part of the 17th century, when it was a really important instrument, and they made some incredibly beautiful instruments and music also to go along with it.
Mike Axinn (23:35):
Judith Kraft (23:36):
This is the wall of fame. It’s recent instruments, but also old ones. For example, this was my first bass viol. It dates from, I don’t know, 1970-something.
Sarah Monk (23:47):
Is it hard to let them go?
Judith Kraft (23:50):
[inaudible 00:23:50] instruments I’m happy to see go because they’re going to go to people who are going to appreciate them, and make them sound even better. I mean, if I kept all of my instruments, this room would be full to the ceiling.
Sarah Monk (24:00):
Tell us how it is, when you go to a concert and you see your instrument being played.
Judith Kraft (24:04):
Well, in a way, it’s really nice. Sometimes I wish it weren’t my instrument, because I’m listening more to the instrument than to the music, or thinking, "Why doesn’t this sound better? What’s going on?" But for the most part, it’s really nice to actually know that the second life of the instrument, outside of my workshop, which is actually to be used in public or in the hands of the musician, is really happening. And also it can inform me about how the instrument sounds with other instruments, or in a particular hall, or particular music. And it’s really why I make the instruments. Honestly, part of it is because I really like building them, and part of it is I like the fact that they become instruments that people use in the end.
Sarah Monk (24:53):
So thanks to Judith Kraft. You can discover more about her on her website, judithkraft.net. Today’s music was Marin Marais, Pièces de Viole, Livre 2, Suite number 2, number 38, Cloches ou Carillon, performed by Salomé Gasselin, and is from the disc Récit, courtesy of Miramar. As with all episodes, you can find photographs of her work on our website, materiallyspeaking.com, or our new Instagram account, @materiallyspeakingpodcast. If you’re enjoying Materially Speaking, please subscribe to our newsletter on our website, and we’ll let you know when the next episode goes live.