A Storie Violin
If it weren't for the sign hanging high above the entrance, the almost hidden doorway to Storie's Violins at 127 1/2 N. Randolph might easily be missed by the passerby.
But those who open the door and climb the staircase will find something unexpected for downtown Macomb -- a violin maker's workshop.
Thomas Storie has been in business in Macomb since fall 2007, but started making violins over 30 years ago.
As Thomas tells it, his love for violins started at an early age, while he was growing up in the Minneapolis, Minn., area.
"In fifth grade I started playing the violin and then in junior high I asked my orchestra teacher -- I knew then that I wanted to be a violin maker -- I asked him what I should do, and he said 'well, go to the shops here in town, see if you can work with somebody,'" Thomas said.
"They all turned me down, and I understand because it would have taken away from their work to teach me."
Undeterred, Thomas, who also played guitar, went to the library and checked out books on how to repair guitars. Eventually, Thomas built up a reputation in the Minneapolis area as one of the best in the guitar repairing business. It was that reputation that finally convinced a local violin maker to take Thomas under his wing.
"I studied with two different violin makers and five different bow makers," Thomas said about his early training.
Making violins was originally a part-time passion for Thomas, but he always worked with his hands. To make ends meet, he worked as a construction worker, plumber and electrician.
After raising a family and settling Macomb, he decided that it was time to focus on making violins.
With help from a local bank that supplied a loan to start his business, he was able to purchase tools that weren't available to him 30 years ago.
One special tool he purchased allows him to bend pieces of wood without overworking the material.
"It's thermostatically controlled, so you can control the heat," Thomas said as he demonstrated by carefully molding a slender piece of wood around the heating device.
"I used to have to pipe, and I had a torch, and I'd heat it up and then it would get too hot and it would scorch the wood."
According to Thomas, it's important not to overwork the wood.
"Just like our bodies, you don't want stress, and you don't want any stress on the instrument, you want everything to just be sitting there and not pulling," he said.
Another special tool Thomas uses measures the density of the wood. Having the just the right density is vital for making a violin with the right sound.
Thomas also makes his own bows, which are carved out of a special wood from Brazil that is currently not being exported out of the country.
"But I purchased a large quantity of planks of wood, and so I have enough wood for ten years," Thomas said about his supply, "and I'm thinking that in ten years they'll open up the borders again,"
Every violin, Thomas said, takes between 400 and 500 hours to complete. Each part of the violin is crafted by hand, including the instrument's varnish, which Thomas makes himself. Thomas makes his instruments in pairs, which makes the work go faster.
Thomas's violins are sold in instrument shops in major cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and New York, selling for anywhere between four and eight thousand dollars.
He continues to perfect his craft, and this summer will take part in the University of New Hampshire's Violin Craftsmanship Institute, where he will learn from master craftsman Karl Roy, who directed the Bavarian State School of Violin Making in Mittenwald, Germany.
"He's taking on about 12 students from all over the world, and I happen to be lucky enough to be one of them," Thomas said.
Thomas currently works alone in his workshop, but this summer he'll have some special help.
"My youngest daughter is coming down this summer, and she wants to learn how to make instruments," he said.