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Don Leister: Violin Maker from Richmond, Virginia
Bob Buckingham

I first met Don Leister when he had a booth set up at the Grayson County Fiddlers Convention in Elk Creek, Virginia. The quality of his work was immediately apparent upon picking up a violin and playing a few notes on it. His violins possess a warm tonal quality, and the longer you play the instrument, the more it sings. The look and feel of his instruments reveal the care put into their making. His twenty years’ experience as a violin and viola maker is evident.

Later I caught up with Leister again at the Appalachian String Band Festival at Clifftop, West Virginia. There we talked about how he got started making fiddles. Unlike some of the makers I have talked with over the years, Leister does not tap the wood, but feels he can achieve the desired end by cutting to specifications that he learned from other master builders and at workshops.

What prompted you to starting building violins?

I started playing the violin again as an adult and I wanted a better violin. In my family we all grew up making things, so being an artist and woodworker, naturally I had to make one.

Do you use unusual woods as a rule or as part of experimentation?

I don’t experiment too much with woods. American spruce and maple are about as unusual as it gets for me. The standards are European woods. Spruce from the Alpine regions in or near Italy and maple from Eastern Europe are what I like the most. Runner up, though, is American red maple and red spruce.

There are always a range of looks, weights and sound qualities from any given species of tree, but generally speaking, I like the way the European woods look the most. Cost can be a factor, though; good-looking wood with some years on it can easily get into the hundreds of dollars for a fiddle.

I’m always on the lookout for red maple around Virginia and West Virginia; you wouldn’t think it would be so hard to find –– you know, it grows on trees!

[Leister holds up a rather large piece of wood brought to him by Jimmy Costa, a West Virginia fiddler and banjo player. He is hoping to get quite a few fiddles out of this red maple that came as a gift. The quarter-sawn block ripples in the West Virginia evening sunlight.]

Is there anything new you bring to your designs?

I think the designs all came from those before me; at best, I can only hope to put into practice what I have been taught and observed. Makers generally don’t want to change too much on a model at one time, in order to know what the effects are. The violin is such a wonderfully functional and beautifully designed object, it’s near impossible to improve on it. Better to work within the design; there are a great deal of possibilities, with room for experimentation, and always a lot to learn there.

Do you favor one style fiddle over another? Say a Stradivarius over Guarneri?

I have made over forty Strad models, and am making some Guarneris now. I’ve always been appreciative of and attracted to Strad’s instruments. It has also been less difficult to get access to Strads –– reliable information and good teachers. That being said, I’m really glad Guarneri came along!

I make Strad and Guarneri models and I follow their graduation schemes, just not quite as thin as Strad did nor quite as thick as Guarneri. 

I’m going to be making a copy of an early Carlo Bergonzi that the owner describes as being between a Strad and a Guarneri in terms of sound and playing characteristics. It is a very highly arched violin, doesn’t look puffy, just beautifully made. I’m really looking forward to having a chance to make a model that is a little different, by one of the great classical makers.

Are you selling more to fiddlers or violinists?

Violinists and fiddlers both really like my instruments; it has been about an even split. Even though every violin initially has a classical set-up, every one plays and sounds different. Some players prefer a fast, easy response and others like a lot of depth. Picking out an instrument is a very personal thing.

At both festivals where we talked, Don worked into the night, fitting bridges and making repairs under a work light at his stand.  He is a dedicated craftsman whose fiddles keep garnering more and more attention. As they should.

Don Leister’s violin shop is located at 2803 Stonewall Avenue, Richmond, VA  23225; phone: (804) 920-5592.

[For the full text of this interview, along with more photos of Don at work, purchase the Summer 2011 issue!]

[Bob Buckingham fiddles, teaches, and writes in the Upstate of South Carolina.]

Photo: Laura Chessin