17 April 2024

Weaving a symphony of tradition and innovation - Makers Spotlight with Rory Boardman

By Lark Music

In a neat little town near Belfast, Rory Boardman, like many others, followed in his father’s footsteps to become a violin maker. However, the combination of learning from his self-taught father, who passes down more than 45 years of violin making experience, and Rory’s experience as an engineer, leads to a unique, yet refreshing perspective on the art of violin making.

The Maker

Where are you from?

Donaghadee, Northern Ireland

How has this impacted you as a maker?

There aren’t any major music shops in Northern Ireland, so I made the decision quite early on to take my newly made violins to violin shops on the mainland to sell there.

What made you want to become a maker?

My father has been a maker for 45 years. Throughout my childhood, he worked in a workshop next to my childhood home. So, being around violin family instruments and a busy workshop is something I have always known. Following a career as a seafaring marine engineer, I finally decided to try making one in 2018. At the time I viewed it as a one-time project, but it quickly turned into an obsession and now I can’t stop! I am very lucky to share my father’s workshop and learn from his considerable experience every day.

What type of instruments do you make?

We make mostly violins in our workshop, for all types of players. Although our customers are mostly classical players, we do have some who are folk (“trad”) players. To a lesser extent we make violas. Dad has made some cellos, but I am yet to take the plunge!

One violin model that has proven popular is based on the work of Thomas Perry, an 18th century Irish maker based in Dublin. With very distinctive arching and f-holes, these violins are really easy to play and produce a surprisingly consistent sweet tone. The Irish connection is great too.

Are you also a player?

I started playing the violin very early (I was 4). I studied the Suzuki method, and then rose up through the grades at the City of Belfast School of Music, playing in all the local youth orchestras. More recently, I have been playing Irish Traditional music. I have a weekly lesson and play in sessions in the pubs around Belfast quite regularly.

What is your favourite genre to listen to?

I love listening to Irish Traditional music. Learning the tunes and their history, and then playing them with friends is a source of great pleasure.

Being a Maker

What do you think makes your instruments unique?

I learned from my father, and he himself is self-taught. So, our instruments are unique in that they are not of a certain “school”. My father’s style has developed over a lifetime, and what I am doing now is my own take on that. I am very lucky to be a second-generation maker and having that continuity has really helped me get going.

What techniques do you employ to achieve the desired effects you’re looking for?

I always start with an internal mould using the measurements of the instrument/maker I am using as a start point. But, for the most part, that is where the “copying” ends. After that, I use my eyes and my hands to guide me.

How did you arrive at this style?

My style is very much a continuation of my father’s work. I aim to keep this “Boardman” style and make it my own. I never know when an instrument is finished until it is; I just work until I’m happy. I will be interested to see what I am making in 10 years’ time and how I feel then about what I am making now.

Do you do anything controversial? How/why do you think other makers would do this differently?

I come from an engineering background, and I approach the construction of an instrument from this mindset. I don’t believe everything should be done a certain way just because “that is how it has always been done”. I don’t ever feel like I need to re-invent the wheel; but if something doesn’t make engineering sense to me, I start to ask questions.

What modern techniques do you employ? What do you do the old-fashioned way?

We have a few workshop-standard modern tools which we use. A bandsaw, table planer, circular saw, bobbin sander and disc sander. All of these are hooked up to a vacuum to keep dust and mess to a minimum. These tools just speed the process up a bit, to give us more time to focus on the finer details. Everything else is very much “old fashioned”.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the makers of today?

With inflation and the rising cost of living, makers have to put their prices up to make a living. Certainly, in Northern Ireland, musicians’ pay is not rising to reflect the economic situation. This has the knock-on effect that they have less to spend on contemporary instruments.

How do you think we could solve this?

I think an economist would be better suited to answering this question! But at a local level, more funding from local arts councils for players and makers would definitely help.

How can companies like Lark Music help? What are we doing well and what could we do better?

Lark Music already does a great job supporting contemporary makers. More events are required which introduce players to makers. Especially music students and their teachers at the crucial stage of their early careers where they need a better instrument to take their playing to the next level.

If you could change one thing about life as a maker, what would it be?

I would have more of my making friends around more of the time.

If you had a time machine and could speak to any maker in history, who would it be and why? And what would you ask them and why?

Guarneri “del Gesu”. I would like to see his attitude to the work, see how he executed his ideas in real-time, and buy him a few drinks in his local pub afterwards.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I would tell myself to give violin making a go a few years earlier than I did.

Are there any musicians you want to play your instruments, and why? What do you think they would say about them?

I would love some of the rising stars in Irish Traditional music to play my instruments. There are some really exciting young musicians coming out of the local music scene here, and they deserve to be playing instruments that make the most of their talent.

What was your favourite instrument you’ve ever made, and why?

I hope that my favourite instrument will be the one I am about to finish…but, let’s see! For now, my favourite is a joint project I’ve just finished. A violin made with my friend, Kathrin Hügel, based on the 1735 “Baron Knoop” by Carlo Bergonzi. We saw it at the BVMA Conference last year and decided we had to make one. We travelled to each other’s workshops (she is based in Strasbourg) and made it in two very intense weeks. I finished varnishing and setting it up a few weeks ago and I’m really happy with how it turned out.

Do you remember your first instrument? Tell us about it.

My first instrument was a passion project. It was meant to be the first and last one I ever made when I started it, but violin making is addictive. I took my time, and my father was there every step of the way to show me the ropes. I loved every minute of it and was really pleasantly surprised when it sounded even better than I wanted it to.

Without moving anything, show us a picture of your workshop, as it is, right now.

I have attached a few photos!

The Future

What instrument are you working on at the moment?

I have just finished the woodwork on a violin loosely based on the “Betts” Strad and I am now preparing for my next joint project which is very exciting. I will be making a viola based on an instrument made by Anselmo Bellosio, an 18th century Venetian maker, with three very experienced makers I met through the BVMA. It will take me out of my comfort zone and it’s going to be a lot of fun.

Is it for sale?


What do you have planned for the future?

I want to start entering competitions, but this is a long-term goal after I have gained a bit more experience.

Is there anywhere you want to travel for work?

I have travelled so much already in my seafaring career that I am very happy to sit still in the workshop! However, there are some great people I have met through the BVMA whose workshops I would like to spend some time in.

What interests do you have outside of music and making?

Motorbikes, sailing and learning silly/dangerous sports that I’m not very good at. Skiing and kitesurfing are the two most likely to need my travel insurance at the moment.

If you achieve instrument maker fame, what would you like to be remembered for?

I would want to be remembered for the quality of my workmanship, and having my own distinctive style.

Controversial opinion?

Buy a local contemporary instrument; you will not regret it!

It was a pleasure to speak to Rory. We would like to thank the British Violin Making Association (BVMA), as without their continued efforts to support makers we would never have met Rory!

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