Jón Maríno Jónsson’s workshop, which he shares with guitar maker Gunnar Örn Sigurðsson, is a case study in an artist at work. Violins and violas in various stages of creation lay on tables and hang from walls; a contrabass lies on its side, held together by a series of clamps; beakers and flasks of lacquers and polishes line shelves. This is where Jón, one of a handful of luthiers in Iceland, works his magic.
“I’ve always been interested in woodworking, but my interest in making instruments didn’t begin until 1995 or ’96,” he tells us. “I just found it fascinating to be able to pick up a piece of wood and change it into this form. That was the inspiration. I don’t play these instruments myself, but I do have a good sense of sound. And of course, in making instruments, you listen to what musicians are telling you about your craft.”
When Jón became more seriously interested in making instruments twenty years ago, he and his family moved to England, where he attended Newark & Sherwood College. This move was fully supported by his family, who had for a long time wanted a change of scenery. “My wife and I had been talking for some time about living abroad,” he says. “You feel sometimes that you’re wrapped in cotton living in Iceland.”
A prophet in your own country
Soon after graduating in 2000, he moved back to Keflavík, where he had been working as a carpenter and builder. But then the crash came in 2008, which influenced his decision to become a luthier full time. Getting his new trade off the ground didn’t happen right away, though. “We often say that you can’t be a prophet in your own country,” Jón says, chuckling. “You can’t just announce, ‘Here I am’ and suddenly become a household name overnight.”
Help came nonetheless, in the form of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, who were instrumental (so to speak) in getting his burgeoning workshop off the ground. “I’m really grateful for their support,” he says. “They accepted me with open arms, tried my instruments and gave me plenty of commentary. That’s how the discussion began that I was making instruments, slowly but surely. I don’t advertise myself very much, but the word of mouth has been giving me some fine returns.”
Jón finds it difficult to say what kind of crafting or repair is most challenging. At the moment we visited him, he was in the middle of repairing a badly repaired contrabass. Jón says that having to think in terms of tenths of millimetres instead of centimetres or inches, as carpentry often involves, was certainly challenging. But in many ways, the challenge is part of the fun.
Everything from scratch
For example, Jón makes his own lacquers, using linseed oil, tree resin and cochineals—the little bugs that make Campari red, and stringed instruments a red-golden colour—along with other secret ingredients. This process takes months. “You don’t have any control over what’s in a bottle of something you buy from a store,” Jón explains. “This way, I know exactly what’s going into the lacquers and polishes that I use on my instruments.”
Jón also enjoys drawing materials from unlikely sources. A large ship that wrecked near Reykjanes in 1888, the ‘Jamestown’, had lots of lumber on it. Thousands of planks from this ship were used to build houses in the area. He’s used some of this wood as the soundposts for violins and contrabasses.
“When wood gets older, it hardens, which means it conducts sound very well,” he says. “In Icelandic we call the soundpost the ‘soul’ of the instrument.”
His dream project is to have an Icelandic string quartet use his instruments to perform compositions by an Icelandic composer. But for now, just doing what he’s doing is effectively living the dream.
“As I say, my dream project is making instruments, try to get them out into the world, and for musicians to enjoy playing them,” Jón says with a smile.