FREMONT – Perhaps in the back hills or plains of Italy you might expect to find some of the best violin makers in the world, but West Michigan is actually home to one of them. Located in Fremont is the home and small shop of Tim Jansma.
Jansma is one of only a few hundred hand-made violin, viola, and cello-makers in the world. He’s also an accomplished violinist, having played in the Grand Rapids symphony in his younger years.
Jansma’s career began when he was 19 years old and his teacher at Michigan State suggested that he try restoration and repair of instruments. He actually hand made a chin-rest for a violin for a large, well-known company in Philadelphia and was hired on the spot. After two years there, he decided to pick up his tools and move to Cremona Italy where many of the best known builders reside. Jansma spent a little more than three years there honing his skills and learning from the best before coming back home.
After playing with the GR symphony, he decided to give up the late evening practice schedule when he got married and started a family. He turned to restoration, repair, and building violins, violas, and cellos. Watching Jansma construct his masterpiece is truly an art form in and of itself. He actually hand selected some of the finest European spruce available when he was in Italy, then had it shipped back to make instruments.
Jansma scrapes, burnishes, bends, glues, saws, plains, and stains to perfection…but never sands. He says sanding dulls the wood and prevents the deep grain appearance. It takes 65 hours alone just to cut and gouge the scroll (where the pegs and strings attach). Then, there’s still the frame, back, and front to make…a process which takes a few hundred hours.
Without question, Jansma says the most difficult part and labor intense is one of the final parts…varnishing. “The varnish makes or breaks the instrument. If you do a really good varnish job, you can do mediocre woodwork and it’s still a great instrument. If you do a mediocre varnish job, you can have the most gorgeous woodwork you want and it’s still just a mediocre instrument.”
Because of the quality and time that go in to making each instrument, Jansma only produces about six to eight per year. It’s important to note these are not student grade instruments, but professional grade played by some of the world’s finest musicians. Violins start at about $20,000, violas $25,000, and cellos $40,000.
Jansma does do restringing of instruments, repairs, and helps out students and local musicians from time to time by performing smaller (needed) work or maintenance, but the bigger picture is clearly the hand-made craft and piece he creates from scratch.
He told me a story when I interviewed him that he never mails the completed instrument to a client…many of which live on the other side of the world. He buys two plane tickets…one for himself and one for the instrument to ride on in the seat next to him. He’s actually refused to fly on rare occasions where the flight staff has asked for the seat for one last late arriving passenger and they wanted to check the instrument as luggage in the belly of the aircraft.
Tim Jansma has been married for 24 years and both his son and daughter are accomplished musicians. If you’d like to get in touch with Tim Jansma the website can be found here. More information on the city of Fremont can be found here.