Inspiration on Music Road

At July’s end, when summer’s heat can be stifling, the atmosphere was cool and peaceful at 332 Music RD. NW in Floyd.  As we parked the car, we could hear birds chirping and other sounds of nature with the breeze, bringing an interval of relief to the dog days.

We approached a barn with windows, or so it would seem, and the lady of the house gave greeting and invited us in – the Baldwins have quite a set up!  The greater portion of the barn is dry storage for wood pieces and equipment, and the couple has neatly converted the hay loft.  There is supplied just the right amount of natural lighting for the workshop, and the floors and walls are of wood cut from their own property.  The whole place is outfitted for some serious creative work.

As Tom Baldwin and his wife Moss toured us throughout their work spaces, he explained that his work as a luthier began in 1995.  It was Arthur Conner who started him on his journey; and even today, Tom endeavors to find what makes a good sounding instrument, and then craft his instruments accordingly.

His appreciation for performance and the sound of music makes it seem natural to want to produce it.  He has done so much reading and research, and is largely self-taught as far as the perfecting of his art.

Tom enters competitions, like those hosted biannually by Violin Society of America, in the hopes of getting feedback from expert judges, and in order to improve upon his work.  4 years ago, VSA hosted international competition for the making of instruments in Baltimore, Maryland.  Tom entered a violin in the blind contest, meaning that the instruments are numbered so as not to reveal who made them.  2 sets of judges analyze merit in the tone and construction of an instrument.

“I came out middle of the road”, Tom says, “I really did learn from the judges’ comments” as he compared and contrasted the intricacies of his 2006 violin with the ones he makes now.  And, when the details were pointed out, the improvements in his craftsmanship were visible even to us. In continuing toward excellence, Tom plans to enter 2 instruments in VSA’s upcoming competition, November 2010, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Tom and Moss are no strangers to the travel, exhibition, learning and sharing that is a part of a craftsman’s life.  They talked about the displays and beautiful sounds at the Crafting Appalachian Musical Instruments exhibition of Sparta Teapot Museum of Craft & Design (now closed), as well as of other collaborations.

While at home, though, Tom says “I’m really focusing on instruments suitable for classical players.  I want to make instruments that sound good and look good”.

Tom has very large and steady hands, able to do fine work without wavering.  He crafts his instruments from the finest materials – choice woods like bubinga, Spanish cedar and wenge, quality ebony, and fine strings, tuning machines, etc.  His thoughtful treatment of these raw materials results in a beautiful instrument which produces a fine sound.

He showed us the beginnings of a classic guitar –

“Amazingly, on guitars there is a lot less standardization”, he says as he shows his designs for guitar, patterns and ½ patterns, as well as for violin, viola and mandolin (some of his work is based upon model by Edward C. Campbell, master violin maker from PA).

Starting with the wood for the guitar, which Tom buys in boards and saws to proper thicknesses, he uses a pattern, he hones the curved surfaces, sets the fan bracing and fashions a rosette inlay – wood tiles are fitted into a curvature; just the central motif requires 32 tiles.  These tiles are glued in and then surrounded by a bordering motif.  Tom makes all of his own purfling for his guitar inlays and installs it using careful technique.

When we asked about the characteristics of a classic guitar, Tom explained that it is a lighter construction and the finger board is much wider for finger picking, with nylon strings.  Because there is less string tension versus a steel string acoustic guitar, a different bridge is used.  A classical guitarist will play on different parts of the strings for a different sound.

They showed some instruments just home from MerleFest, an annual tribute to the music of Doc and Merle Watson, held in Wilkesboro, North Carolina (80,000+ attendance over 4 days). The festival features heritage crafts demonstrations, where vendors like Tom may show their skill in construction, while communicating the process.
As Tom was working in his booth at the festival, he ended up talking with Peter Rowan (Grammy-award winning bluegrass singer-songwriter with a career spanning over five decades  www.peter-rowan.com ; He and his Bluegrass Band are very well known, and they tour all over the world).

“He came in, looking at my 2 guitars, and asked if he could play.  He started playing one and then the other.  It is so funny, how particularly a good musician will respond to and enjoy an instrument.  He probably played for a half-hour. He paid attention to all features of the guitar and to each string; he went up the scale and made sure the frets were properly positioned.  He played along beautifully.  I think he was surprised to see a classical guitar at MerleFest.”  When we asked if he felt really good about his work at that point, Tom said “I will always be a student”, but as Moss showed video of their interaction, we were proud for him, as his work was obviously appreciated.

Tom Baldwin also hand crafts fine violins from Appalachian spruce and maple, four- and five- string.

The Baldwins are inspired in their surroundings to create a Raku style of pottery which are functional pieces and beautiful works of art.

They rent out Baldwin Cottage 639 Music Rd. NW Floyd 24091 as a vacation place – a completely furnished quiet country house in Floyd Virginia. Non smoking, 2 bedrooms (1 queen, 1 double, 1 twin, queen pullout sofa, all linens provided), Loft, Fully equipped eat-in-kitchen (full-sized stove, microwave, coffee-maker), Gas Log Fire Place, Screened in porch w/rocking chairs, deck, Gas Grill, DSL Internet, Local phone service, DVD player, 4 acres with horseshoe pits, basketball hoop, vegetable garden.

Call for rates (540) 763-2644 or 239-4454– gift certificates available.

Luis A Garcia
Proprietor / Graphic Designer
FLOYD VIRGINIA publication
(540) 320 1045 – luis@floydmagazine.com

This story was published in Floyd Magazine Fall/Winter 2010 ~Senior Editor Dee Wallace

About Luis A Garcia

Graphic & Web Designer – Blue Ridge Mountains. Owner of the FLOYD VIRGINIA publication (Magazine). I work from home designing and sending out greeting cards. I enjoy taking pictures & creating video. I'm a Christian Missionary to Malawi Africa. fmc119!(@)