In making a violin, junior double fine arts major strings together his love for art and music

Precision, planning, patience proved instrumental in helping Mason Shackelford realize a labor of love一crafting a functioning instrument一he first envisioned in sixth grade


Photo courtesy of Shackelford

MAKING THE CUT: Shackelford’s carving tools and violin base lay on his desk at the start of what would become a year-long crafting process. From the early preparation stages to the final coat of varnish, the process was one of time and dedication. “It was one of things where time just disappears,” he said.

Madelynn Niles, A&E editor

After working on it for a summer, junior Mason Shackelford could feel the end of his project getting close. Just a few more weeks, he thought to himself, until his hand-crafted, working violin would be complete.

A few more weeks passed. Then months. Then a year.

I actually started with, you know, blocks of wood, and I went from there.

— junior Mason Shackelford

“It was one of things where time just disappears,” he said. “If I had realized I was a whole year and hours and hours away, I don’t think I would have finished it,” he added with a laugh.

The idea started when Shackelford was in sixth grade. Simply put, he just wanted to play more violin music.

“Some of my friends were like ‘Oh, you can just borrow my violin’, but then, at that point, it was more that I actually wanted to make something,” he said. “For art class, I made a cardboard viola, and ever since then I kind of wanted to combine my love for art and love for music and make something to play on.”

As a double-major at McCallum in music and visual arts, Shackelford is used to working with his hands. Making an instrument from scratch, however, didn’t prove to be simple.

“I found a website that had so much information — it would take a few days to read through all of it,” Shackelford said. “It had the sides, the front and the back, and then each of those had ten different steps, and each step had a few pages of instructions.”

According to Shackelford, the process begins with a base mold. Wood is cut and carved to form the exterior, with each movement of the knife allowing the right frequency of sound to resonate in the material.

“That’s what makes the difference between a really good violin and a really cheap one,” he said.

Shackelford performs “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert on his polished product. Video courtesy of Mason Shackelford.

Next up is carving the neck and scroll.

“At the time I thought, great, those are the hard parts, but then you have it to put it all together,” he said. “And that takes a whole bunch of angles and precision.”

The pieces are carefully placed together, and the instrument starts to take shape. Strings are put in place, and the ending seems to be just around the corner. But with each step closer to the finish line, the race seems to come to a ritardando.

“That’s kind of the frustrating part,” Shackelford said. “I finished all the carving, and then I strung it up to make sure it played, but then I had to set it down for about a month, to varnish it. And that took a long time.”

Many summer nights and a coat of varnish later, the instrument was complete.

“It was weird when it was finally finished,” he said. “It was very satisfying, but it was also something I had, towards the end, been looking at every single day, working on for about six hours, so it was very normal to just be looking at. So I don’t even think it seems like something I made; it feels like somebody else made it.”

I don’t even think it seems like something I made; it feels like somebody else made it.

— Shackelford

As for making music with his own work, Shackelford can only describe the feeling as just really cool.

“My family thought it was cool, too, but often I get the feeling that people don’t believe it,” he said. “If you look it up online, there is basically a pre-made violin with most of the parts already made, so I think a lot of people think ‘Oh, he just got that and worked a month on it’. But then I have to show them that I actually started with, you know, blocks of wood, and I went from there.”

And although his brother teases him that a homemade cello is somewhere in his future, Shackelford feels that a break from carving and crafting is much-needed.

“In the beginning, I really did think I would do it multiple times,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’ll do it once, and then next time it’ll take half the amount of time or a quarter the amount of time!’ But as I was doing it, I realized that it was only gonna shave off maybe 50 hours. Most of the process is very unique to the violin, and you can’t rush through it. Every single little part counts.”

“I have a lot of respect for violin-makers,” he added with a laugh.