MODESTO — As long as there have been gift shops full of fragile things, there's been the variation on the warning, "You break it, you buy it." But at Thomas & Vessel Stringed Instruments, the business model is more like, "It's broken, we'll buy it."
In their 15th Street workshop in downtown Modesto, Steve Thomas and Gary Vessel hand-craft violins, violas, cellos and mandolins. But the bread and butter of their business, they say, is repairing those same kinds of instruments. The men purchase stringed instruments often former rentals and fix them for resale. They also repair instruments broken by owners and renters.
"We love students and children because they drop their instruments," Thomas said. "They break the necks, the bridges go missing. The most common thing we hear is 'I don't know how it happened I just opened the case and it was like that.' "
Both men play Vessel is in a band, Thomas is reluctant to call himself a musician. But they noted that some of the world's greatest luthiers have not known how to play the instruments at all. What's important is being a craftsman and listening to music enough to know how a great violin should sound.
"You have to start with a love of the violin," Vessel said. "From there, everything you do is an extension of that."
Vessel has been making violins since 1984. Thomas, a former professor of anthropology, has been crafting instruments for about eight years. The two will have been in business together three years in May.
Doing repairs and selling repaired instruments would be enough to keep the doors open, but "making them is something we can't help ourselves," Thomas said.
"It's really damn fun," Vessel quickly added as the two sat at benches along the same wall of their shop.
"We're out of control," Thomas said.
Some of the instruments are produced to have inventory in stock, others are made upon request. The tricky thing about the latter, Vessel said, is that you do your best work when you're inspired, and inspiration and requests don't always come at the same time. Of course, he joked, inspiration sometime comes from his checking account, such as when he has his eyes on a fine instrument he'd like to buy for himself.
"So much of it is emotional for me," Vessel said, recalling that he once told himself he'd never make a cello again because it's so much work. But studying in Germany, he saw a cello that was such a work of art, he was compelled to undertake one again.
To the untrained eye, a violin is a violin is a violin. And it is true that there are certain "rules" to making them: Backs, necks and sides always are maple, the front is spruce, the black pieces are ebony.
There also are schematics available of some of history's great instruments. Thomas, for instance, is finishing a violin that's a replica of a Guarneri "del Gesù" "Plowden" made in 1735.
But he and Vessel can attest that no two instruments are the same. There's no way they could be. No two trees are the same, and even within one tree, the wood changes dramatically along the length of the trunk, they say.
Also, crafting an instrument is unforgiving. Shaving away a thickness of two- to three-tenths of a millimeter can make the difference between a violin that plays well or doesn't, Vessel said. That's why it takes at least a couple of months to create one, he said, and why "when they sell, they're not cheap let's put it that way."
Thomas just sold a cello to a musician in Alabama. The men have other instruments out getting "test drives," as well. It's not enough for a musician to like an instrument, Thomas and Vessel agreed they must fall in love with it. There are two kinds of musicians, they said: those passionate about their instruments and those in the market for replacements.
Bee local news editor Deke Farrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2327.