Fiddle-maker shares his passion for music
The radio is where it all began for Chester, an 83-year-old fiddle-maker who resides near Sullivan. Inspired by the music he heard with his family, Chester picked up his first instrument at 14.
“I had listened to the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ every Saturday night, and I wanted to be like those hillbillies on the ‘Grand Ole Opry,’ ” says Chester Lahmann Sr., describing his childhood in the 1940s.
Though he denies ever being talented at making music, the Crawford Electric Cooperative member says he began by “beating on an old guitar for a while.”
Music became somewhat of a family occupation with the Lahmanns.
“I had a brother, Danny, who tried to learn,” Chester says. “And my brother, Donny, he is quite proficient in guitar, banjo, Dobro, and he plays in church a lot and plays on the street corner down in Arkansas.”
However, as life continued, Chester somewhat slowed down his playing as family, namely five boys and his wife, Bonnie, became his priority. He was still interested in traditional American music and instruments, particularly the fiddle. Chester loved the Irish-influenced and bluegrass music that transforms a simple violin into a wily fiddle. So at 67, he purchased a fiddle-making kit on a whim.
“I always wanted to play the fiddle,” he says. “It did something to my heart, so I ordered this kit to put together a fiddle, and I put together the kit.”
Through this simple experiment, Chester began an unusual hobby that spanned more than 15 years.
Chester recalls finishing his first fiddle. “I loved it. It was so wonderful. I just knew I needed to make another one. I decided I could make some out of different woods, so I started making part of the fiddles out of dogwood. I cut down some dogwood trees and made the sides, and they turned out good. So I ordered some more woods and couldn’t stop making fiddles.”
One of the first things Chester learned as he dove into crafting fiddles was patience. Building them requires the crafter to work slowly, carefully whittling away shavings of wood until he or she achieves a specific thickness on different parts on the violin’s body. That might sound difficult, but Chester refers to it as a step-by-step process that anyone can do as long as they have a good book on how to hand-make fiddles. But he adds with emphasis that any aspiring fiddle-maker must be willing to take the time and follow the process through carefully. As Chester learned with one of his fiddles, hurrying the crafting process can make an instrument that sounds nice but will not look aesthetically pleasing.
As for the tools, Chester says, “The only thing it takes is the want to and following the instructions. I made fiddles just with the tools I had around me. It took no special tools to do it. Really anyone can make one.”
Along with patience, practice is a key component of the process, Chester says. After all, crafting fiddles is not a quick process and is not completed or perfected overnight.
Chester explains that the shape of a fiddle requires a certain thickness and mold. Chester puts blocks of wood in the corners of the instrument, then builds the sides. Once glued in place, the whittling begins.
“You whittle out the arch and get it to the right thickness, down to within five-thousandths of an inch,” Chester says. “It takes a lot of patience and concentration.”
He adds that the next step is to glue the back and top on the sides and make the neck.
“That takes some precision to whittle out the fiddle’s scroll,” he says.
Every part of the fiddle-making process requires precision, as Chester deals with thicknesses in thousandths of an inch when shaping the instrument. The measurements vary as Chester’s whittling moves along the sides, back and front of the fiddle. The variety of such precise measurements comes together to sweeten the fiddle’s tone and form a visually aesthetic instrument.
In total, Chester has crafted 23 fiddles, all made of various woods that he has either found himself or ordered. He has even learned how to transform the scrolls into horse heads or the faces of traditional Native Americans. However, Chester doesn’t sell his instruments. Although he does occasionally ask for money to cover material costs, his fiddles usually end up in the hands of someone who would like to learn or already has a passion for making music.
“I have never charged a dime for the fiddles,” Chester says.
Many of Chester’s fiddles were crafted as heartfelt gifts for his children and 22 grandchildren. His hope is that his children will continue spreading the pleasure he takes in creating music for others. Although Chester’s own playing is facing some minor hinderances, he’s still passionate about music. He doesn’t hesitate to lift his favorite fiddle to his neck, raise his bow and play a soulful version of “Amazing Grace,” nor is he shy about giving quick instructions for playing the same song on his Dobro.
“I have played just a little bit in church, but my fingers have gotten so stiff with arthritis,” he says. “I play a little bit at home, and a little bit in jam sessions on occasion, but very limited.”
Even with his hindrances, Chester has a desire to continue crafting fiddles. After all, he has perfected his hobby to the point that he no longer needs to follow the patterns and can simply craft them from memory. However, his real passion is getting others invested in the music that has influenced his life so much.
“I would say to people, don’t be afraid to give it a try,” he says. “And buy a book of instructions!”
For more information, call Chester at 573-823-3142 or email him at email@example.com.
Jainchill is a freelance writer from Columbia.