[Editorial note: The first section of this article (posted Monday, July 3), said that Helen Hannah has been interested in music "from the time I can remember." Duncan Hannah, her husband of 50 years, discovered his talent for woodworking, and in particular for making stringed instruments, after he married Helen.]

Part 2

Music is part of life in the Hannah home

[JULY 10, 2000]  Duncan Hannah has always kept his woodworking hobby just that Ė a hobby. He does not sell his work but gives much of it away to his children or to friends. He is presently working on the case of a grandfather clock that will go to his daughter. The other five children already have grandfather clocks.

"Iíve made quite a lot of stuff for the kids," he recalls. "I once made a spinning wheel for a daughter-in-law. If they want something, I make it for them."

Repair work also keeps him busy, particularly for the Lincoln school districts. "I keep their instruments going," he says. "Not long ago I repaired a string bass for the junior high school. The fingerboard came off. I had to get it in playing condition the same day."

 

 

He accepts money for repairs only if he has to buy expensive materials. Occasionally he trades a piece he has made for the work of another artist, perhaps trading a violin for a painting.

He is especially proud of one project he did back in the 1960s. "The State Capitol in Springfield was being restored. The supervisor on the restoration project was Jim Hickey, then the state librarian. He salvaged some nice pieces of walnut from the rafters they had to replace and brought them to me.

 


[Duncan Hannah displays one of two corner cabinets and a music stand he made in his basement woodworking shop.]

"[Then] Governor Otto Kerner had accumulated a lot of medals and wanted a chest to keep them in, so I made a chest out of the walnut. I also made desk sets that hold pens and paper, which went to leading state legislators. As payment I got a little pile of walnut for my own use. I made a desk set out of it for Robert Madigan when he first got elected."

Most of the several dozen musical instruments Duncan has made "from scratch" are violins, but he has also made violas and dulcimers and is working on a cello.

 


[Duncan Hannah explains how the top of a violin is carved little by little from a piece of spruce wood.]

 

Making a violin is a long and complicated process, which he doesnít try to hurry. "I could do the carpenter work in a month or six weeks, if I didnít do anything else, maybe even eat, but Iíve never done it that way," he says.

 

 

The top of the violin is carved from spruce, a straight-grained wood, and the back and sides from maple, which is hard and dense. The fingerboards and tail pieces are of ebony. These woods have been used by violin makers for centuries because they produce the best tone.

 

(To top of second column)


[Duncan Hannah displays the case for a grandfather clock he is making for his daughter.]

When carving the top or back, he measures the wood frequently with calipers to be sure the thickness is right. "When you get down so far you take off so little at a time you canít even measure it. Even a fraction of an inch will change the vibration rate. You can change the tone just by sandpapering. If you sand in the middle, it makes the tone go up. If you sand at the edges, it makes the tone go down."

 

 

The violin must vibrate at a certain frequency, and to test for that he puts the piece of wood he is carving in a vise and runs a bow over it, as if he were already playing the instrument.

"Some people say that to make a good violin you have to play one," he says. Although he doesnít play, Duncan has listened to music all his life and can tell "by ear" if the frequency is right.

 

 

After the carpenter work is done, the violin must be varnished. This can take months, depending on the weather and how well the varnish dries. Duncan puts on five or six coats of varnish, rubbing the violin between coats with different kinds of abrasives (never sandpaper) like pumice stone. "Itís just like finishing a piece of fine furniture," he explains.

He has done extensive repair work for Jim Bowers, a country fiddler who lives in Lincoln, and points out that there is no difference between a violin played in a symphony orchestra and a country fiddle.

Although Helen has played her husbandís instruments and praises them highly, her first love is a violin she has had since 1948, when she was still a music student in Chicago. Her teacher, Ludwig Becker, told her he had seen a violin in a music store that she might like. The violin, a fine instrument made in Italy many years ago, had once belonged to the concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Her father bought it for her, and she has played it ever since.

 

 

 

If Helen is not playing, she is listening to music. If Duncan is in his workshop, he is listening, too. There is always music in the air at the Hannah home.

 

[Joan Crabb]

 

 

 

 

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