At the end of a long hallway in Erector Square on Peck Street, luthier Kevin Chapin sits in his shop, surrounded by tawny instruments in various stages of completion. There’s a comfortable couch in one corner and detailed technical drawings in lined notebooks on his desk. His friendly pugs, Frank and Fester, relax in a dog bed on the floor, awaiting the next guest.
A luthier is a person who makes stringed instruments, but Chapin doesn’t mind if you bring it down a notch and refer to him as a violin maker. That is, after all, is a prominent part of what he does at K.H. Chapin Fine Violins, where his services include building violins, violas and cellos, as well as restoring and repairing them. He both sells and rents instruments to customers.
“Part of the restoration process is bringing an instrument back to life,” said 30-year-old Chapin, who has been interested in the process — and doing this very specific kind of work — since he was much younger. As a teenager growing up in Rochester, N.Y., he routinely attempted repairs of brass and woodwind instruments, as well as the drums he played in a local fife and drum corps.
Violins represented more of a challenge. Chapin developed his craft first by attending the Chicago School of Violin Making, one of a few schools in the country that teaches it. He studied for three years followed by working and learning in established luthiers’ shops. He first opened shop on his own in Norwalk before moving to New Haven. He found the affordable rent at Erector Square, which houses a number of artists and other small businesses, attractive for his start up.
Working with violins means encounters with some historic and beautiful pieces. Among the current projects in Chapin’s shop are a 140-year old English violin that will sell for about $6,000 and a 1730s Venetian violin that was in six pieces when he received it. Sometimes he knows an instrument’s history. Other times he has to guess by looking at details like the scroll, the swirly woodwork that caps each violin above the pegbox.
Chapin also builds his own instruments, including commissioned projects. It takes about two months to make a cello and one to make a violin, plus extra time to varnish and set up the instrument — that is, positioning the bridge and strings and giving them time to settle. Sometimes the set up is all he needs to do after receiving an already completed instrument body.
“Some are connoisseurs,” Chapin said of his customers’ attitudes toward their instruments, “and to others it’s just a tool.” He balances those needs by doing a little of everything in his shop, from massive restoration projects to renting or selling smaller, sturdier and much less expensive violins to children just learning how to play. For customers of all ages, playing the instrument is key, Chapin says — they have to like the sound they produce. While they play, Chapin monitors their responses and can direct them to a specific instrument in his shop based on those reactions.
“A lot of the process is teaching them a dialogue to understand that,” Chapin said of new customers. “It’s amazing to watch someone make those connections.” Because matching players to instruments so important, he often allows customers to take instruments out “on trial” so they can get a feel for them before committing.
Chapin plays violin himself and started at a young age, but said that he “wasn’t that good.” He loved the instrument itself. He didn’t love playing it as much. His background includes a musical family. He plays in the Towpath Fife and Drum Corps out of New York, along with his dad, his brother and his brother’s wife, and he plays snare drum for the Lancraft Fife and Drum Corps out of North Haven.
Chapin loves New Haven and plans to stay put. He feels the city, with its cultural and arts scene — including a number of free concert series through Yale and other outlets — is a great place to do business, considering so many musicians otherwise travel as far as Boston or New York for instruments or restoration.
Chapin says he envisions having a store front in downtown New Haven someday, and getting out from behind the scenes a bit. For now, he’s welcoming musicians and anyone curious about the art of violin making at his busy shop down that long hallway in Erector Square; a little difficult to find, but worth a long visit once you get there.