Monday, December 12, 2011

Sofia Violins: A History Lesson Pt. 2 Field Trip

I met John Welch in late October at a wedding reception.  He was chatting up my wife, who in turn was holding our daughter Marina near the water fountains just outside the bathrooms near the banquet room.  They had talked for sometime; and after a brief introduction from my wife (who was also meeting him for the first time), I went back into the din of the wedding reception to make sure my crazy dancing son was keeping it safe.  My wife told me later that he was incredibly charming, and he was totally smitten with 2 of the 3 most important women in my life.  I was totally stoked to learn he was the CEO of Sofia Violins in Indianapolis, and he was more than happy to let us come for a visit - his only requirement was that I bring along my wife and daughter so he can say hello.

The date for the visit was Dec. 9th - this past Friday.  I wasn't sure what I'd get, but I couldn't help but be excited.

Sofia Violins is located in downtown Indianapolis in the historic Stutz Building.  After climbing 3 flights of stairs, we found John's office amongst the various photography and art studios.  (The windows and ceilings are high on each floor, but the rooms themselves small and affordable - perfect lighting/perfect price for photographers and painters.)  John greeted us and after a brief exchange of pleasantries, we were escorted to the shop next door.  I didn't know what I was going to get, but I had assumed two things:  1, that the family would have to stay out of the workshop, and 2. that the workshop would have people hustling around, attending to loud, compact car-sized machinery that was more or less guided by computers.  I was wrong, so wrong.  And that was when the place began to charm me.

I said goodbye to the family; John surprised me by saying they were most welcome to come in as well - yet another pleasant surprise.  I knew they'd like it too. We opened the door into a one room shop with a large closet for spraying finishes onto the instruments.  There were only two men in there, both hunched over their benches working on a single violin.  It was quiet except for a small radio playing the news, and the only large machinery in there was a drill press and a band saw.

They both stopped what they were doing and answered all of our questions, showing us around the shop.  They were very focused on us, taking their time and giving the visit a very pleasant, friendly vibe. I asked some general questions about the shop, and what I've gathered is this:

  • Sofia Violins are made from parts shipped from the Czech Republic.
  • One of the luthiers (Todd Matus) also builds his own violins there - from scratch.  As he was working on several instruments, we got to see pretty much every stage of construction, from planing the top from the tone wood to finishing and varnishing the instrument.
  • 48% of the instruments made in that workshop are purchased overseas, mostly in Europe.
  • All manner of players play Sofia Violins, from pros using it as their main instrument to students still learning their way.
The beginnings of the back of a viola.  This part is done completely by hand to achieve just the right thickness.
Auggie was totally enthralled too - he was tugging at my shirt, dying to play one of the violins.  I was a little wary of this, but the guys in the shop insisted.  Perhaps this is a musical possibility for Auggie?  Anyway, Auggie was just as fascinated with the construction as I was.  At Auggie's request, Todd graciously bagged up some wood shavings for Auggie to take home.
Luthier Todd Matus shows Auggie how to plane a neck in preparation for gluing on the fingerboard.
I think the smells were about half of what entranced me with that place as well - the varnish has a very particular, pleasant (if a tad strong) smell that reminded me of when I went up the the Englehardt factory to get my upright bass.  My bass maintained that lovely, earthy smell for years.
Works in progress.
As I have always fantasized about building upright basses, Todd has offered to help me with any advice he can.  I'm going to think on it, but I feel like I'll be ready to take him up on his amazing offer once the holidays are over.  

I was also delighted to find out that Todd Matus is a professional photographer who had taught for years at the Herron School of Art.  Those who know me know that photography is something that is near and dear to my heart as well, so it's yet another thing to geek on with him.
A ukulele that Todd's wife started that he is finishing.  Here's some footage of a Matus uke in action.  Perhaps my next uke will be a Matus uke?
We stayed for probably about an hour - aside from a squirmy one year old, it was a very leisurely visit.  I hope to go back very soon.  I'll post more photos later on this week.
From left to right:  Duder, Sofia Violins CEO and all around great guy John Welch, me,  and Auggie.


  1. What an awesome Mr. Rogers experience you had! I remember you talking about building your own bass. A very romantic aspiration (No bromance intended; the mysterious, emotional, idealized life kind of romantic). I like that Auggie wanted to keep some wood shavings.

  2. Thanks Ben!
    Yes it was amazing. I'll probably schedule a follow up trip. I'll take some video this time too. It was very positive - everyone there (All 3 of 'em!) were incredibly friendly.

    Sadly, I haven't moved towards the goal of building one yet. I just need to create a plan and execute. The first step of any venture is always the hardest, right?