A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Brian Bishop: Third Generation Michigan Violin Maker

On a breezy fall day, as a bumper crop of hickory nuts crashed on the roof, I visited the workshop of Brian Bishop, a skilled maker of violins and violas who works out of his home in Dimondale, Michigan, just west of Lansing on the Grand River.

Brian Bishop, of Brian Bishop Violins, working on a viola top, 2013. 
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers. 
Brian was in the midst of making a viola for a graduate student at the Michigan State University College of Music, an outgrowth of the excellent relationship he has developed with MSU string faculty over the years. The workshop overflowed with tools, jigs, fixtures, jars of special varnish, and pieces of seasoned maple and spruce.

Brian Bishop came to violin making through his interest in fiddle, an instrument he took up in the mid-1970s when he began working at Elderly Instruments in Lansing. As he wrote in his blog in 2010, “It soon took over a good deal of my life.” In the 1980s he first met violin maker Keith Doerr of Union City, Michigan, and from 1991-94 Brian changed the course of his life’s work with a four-year violin-making apprenticeship with Keith and his brother Ray.

Brian Bishop, Feb. 6, 1992, holding the first two violins he completed
under his apprenticeship with Keith Doerr.
Courtesy of Brian Bishop.
Keith at the time was in poor health and not expected to live long. He took Brian as his last apprentice. Fortunately, Keith’s health allowed Brian to complete the apprenticeship. He spent three days per week over four years living with Keith, making 25 instruments. He also spent an additional two years studying with Ray Doerr, concentrating on varnish-making and developing a greater understanding of how arching and plate graduation can create different tonal results.

Brothers Keith and Ray Doerr (of Union City and Kalamazoo respectively) learned from their father, Ray Doerr, Sr. The senior Doerr was a wood pattern maker who became a self-taught violin maker. Ray Jr. and Keith were both born in the 1910s. Ray had won a Fisher Body scholarship to the college of his choice and chose to study engineering at the University of Michigan. Eventually both Keith and Ray followed their father’s footsteps in violin making.

Brian’s copy of the Violin Makers Handbook, by Ray Doerr. 
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.
While many West Michigan musical instrument makers of their generation came to the craft through skills learned in the furniture industry, the Doerrs approached violin making differently. A Brian explains, “They were tool and die guys. They were very much into their mechanical processes, and much more jig and fixture oriented than a lot of makers are. They would use tools for a lot of basic early stage processes. At the end stage, it’s all the same hand work―scraping, using knives and gouges. At the beginning it’s more machine tools, because that is what they were skilled at. Their training was to come up with ideas and applications for machine tools to do certain jobs in a cleaner, better way, or to accomplish certain goals with a mechanical process. That’s what sets them apart. Frankly, when I thought about it, I wasn’t attracted to that. I thought, ‘Do I really want to learn this sort of non-traditional method of making violins?’ In the end, two things won me over. I really liked Keith, and the other thing was, I would look at his violins, and I thought his fiddles were great. If the worst thing that happens is I make a violin as nice as this, I guess I could live with that.”

Hear Brian Bishop talk about his apprenticeship with Keith and Ray Doerr.

Brian still keeps notes from his apprenticeship with the Doerr brothers. 
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2013.
The Doerr legacy is tangible. Brian still uses Ray’s formula for a soft, flexible, oil-based varnish. “I remember well one winter when we made 10-15 gallons of varnish,” Brian recalls. “We use an oil varnish; linseed oil is the base―then you cook it 500-600 degrees. We did it in his basement, venting into the chimney. You start adding various gums and resins. A lot of guys have commented on my varnish being very attractive, sort of similar in quality to some of the old Italian varnish. That’s because its similar oiled-based varnish, as opposed to spirit varnish, or synthetic varnishes now available. So I did varnish making with Ray. Haven’t done any since; haven’t had to. I’ve got enough for the rest of my life.”

Bottles of varnish made by Brian and Ray, using Ray’s distinctive formula.
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2013.

In addition to the varnish, the shop contains tools, wood, templates, jigs, and fixtures that came from the Doerr’s after they passed away. Certain fixtures—like the iron (as in clothes pressing iron) crafted into a wood bending tool, and the bowling ball attached to a clamping plate that allows Brian to approach the task at hand from the most advantageous angle—are Doerr inventions.

Brian holding one of his instruments, which has an unusual sycamore back. 
The Doerr’s bowling ball holding fixture, topped with a clamped 
mold, is pictured to his left. 
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2013.

Brian was Keith Doerr’s last apprentice. Another Michigan violin maker, Ed McCoppin, who lives outside Monroe, Michigan, lists Keith and Raymond Doerr among his teachers, although he didn’t finish a full apprenticeship. Like many contemporary makers, he has taken a number of summer workshop classes to further his training. Elon Howe of Newaygo, Michigan, has an eclectic background that included tips from Ray Doerr but not a formal apprenticeship. So Brian Bishop remains the best example of the Doerr legacy. Twenty years later, he still remembers the words of wisdom from his teacher and mentor, Keith Doerr:

"One time I’d screwed something up, and talking to Keith, I was bemoaning the fact that this is so hard! He said, “Brian, if it was easy, everybody would do it, and you’d ask people if they wanted fries with it. He was pointing out that this is very specialized, rare thing. Even if you make one violin, you can legitimately call yourself a violin maker."

From those first 25 instruments, Brian has gone on to complete a total of 155, selling his instruments by word of mouth and through Psarianos Violins (Troy and Ann Arbor). If Keith were still around, he would smile and say, “Brian Bishop is definitely a violin maker.”

Brian Bishop, of Brian Bishop Violins, poses with the top
and back of a viola in progress, 2013.
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.

This post was written by Laurie Sommers in conjunction with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program, the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts.