Hans Benning sits in his shop, running a tiny finger plane over the backside of a cello, painstakingly sculpting a rough slab of mountain-grown maple into a smooth and graceful contour.
Preparing the back of the instrument will require about 30 careful hours of gouging, planing, scraping and sanding. Completing the entire cello will take at least 300 hours more.
“You have to read the wood,” says Benning, owner of Studio City Music, which has been building, repairing and restoring bowed string instruments for more than four decades.
Thin and angular, with a white brush of a moustache, Benning leans in close and taps the wood with the back of his finger, cocking his ear to gauge the quality of the vibrations.
“The wood really speaks to you,” he says.
In an economy rushing frantically toward its high-tech future, Benning’s shop represents an island of stubborn, low-tech tradition.
The methods of making violins, cellos and basses haven’t changed much since Benning, a native of Germany, attended the Bavarian State Trade School for Violin Making in Mittenwald, Germany in the early 1960s. In fact, the trade has remained virtually unaltered for the past 400 years.
It was at Mittenwald that Benning met Nancy Toenniges, a fellow student, whose father opened Studio City Music in 1953. When the two graduated, they moved back to the San Fernando Valley and married. Benning took a job in the store’s workshop, and eventually took over the operation when his father-in-law retired in 1973.
Benning now works alongside his 25-year-old son, Eric, a fourth-generation instrument-builder who completed his first violin at the age of 13. (The instrument is still in use, by a musician in the Topanga Symphony. “It sounds a lot better than it looks,” Eric says.) Benning’s wife takes care of the shop’s finances and bookkeeping.
Benning and his son build about a dozen violins, violas and cellos a year. The instruments sell for between $5,000 to $25,000 each and are purchased by professional and passionate amateur musicians from around the world.
A fast-paced, high-volume operation it isn’t.
“This is not a short-term business,” Benning says, putting aside his cello and turning his attention to a violin that a customer has brought down from San Luis Obispo for a tune-up.
“Reputation is very important,” he says. “And the older you get, the more respected you become. It is a life-long commitment.”
The Bennings are among perhaps 300 craftspeople worldwide who are capable of building a world-class violin or cello.
Their craft begins with the wood, choice planks of maple and spruce that are grown in the Balkans. Benning, 54, makes several trips a year to the region to buy lumber, which is in short supply and extremely pricey as a result of the war in Bosnia. The piece of maple that he is shaping into the back of a cello, for example, is worth about $1,500 alone.
The wood must be naturally dried for 25 years before it can be fashioned into an instrument. “You have to let it age,” says Benning. “I’m buying wood that I’ll never use. My son will.”
Once the wood is properly aged, the process of cutting, bending, hollowing, sanding and varnishing an instrument can take between three and six months.
Building instruments represents only a portion of Benning’s business. Restoring and refurbishing account for about one-third of his sales, and another third comes from the acquisition and sale of vintage instruments.
In the course of his career, Benning has repaired all manner of bruised and broken instruments a Stradavarius that was washed down a storm drain during one of L.A.’s floods; a bass that plunged down the side of Topanga Canyon in an automobile accident.
He also acquires vintage stringed instruments at auctions and estate sales in the U.S. and Europe, and some suppliers use Benning’s store as a consignment shop to sell their own instruments. He currently has a stock of about 300 items, mostly violins and cellos, as well as bows and other accessories.
The stock includes a 1783 Italian Gagliano violin, which he has priced at $225,000. He also has a violin that belonged to entertainer Jack Benny an 1850 J.B. Vuillaune that Benning is selling for $85,000.
Benning estimates that he grosses about $500,000 a year in sales. About half of his customers come from L.A.’s sizable community of symphony and studio musicians.
Given such high prices, it’s no surprise that weeks can go by without a sale not that it bothers Benning much. After all, if you learn one thing over the course of three decades of violin-making, it’s patience.
Business, he says, has remained surprisingly steady in the past 35 years despite the ascendance of rock ‘n’ roll, synthesizers and the decline of music education in the public schools.
“There has always been a community of dedicated, hard-nosed individuals” willing to spend thousands of dollars on a quality instrument, Benning says, “and there always will be.”
Besides, the longer an instrument remains on the shelf, the more it increases in value. A bow that 20 years ago sold for $125, for example, today can fetch $15,000.
And Benning says he’s never considered himself a businessman in the first place. “I’d rather be a fiddle-maker,” he says.